The holidays are fast approaching, and so are the model trains.

Through the middle of January, Shore Mall is hosting a giant train display set up by organizations such as the Atlantic County 4-H Model Railroad Club, the South Jersey Garden Railway Society and the New Jersey Southern N Trak Club.

Christian Davis, of Egg Harbor Township, is a sophomore at Egg Harbor Township High School. He's been in the 4-H Club for a year, but involved with model railroads all his life. It began with his first train set, which he got for Christmas many years ago.

"Trains are as much Christmas to me as, well, the tree," he said. "It's probably just because I like trains, but everyone does seem to remember them this time of year."

Davis helped set up much of the display. On nights that the display is open, he makes sure the locomotives are operating so that people can see them. He stands, surveying the 4-H landscape.

The 4-H Club consists of about 30 members, ages 7 to 17. They each design their own section and then seam the sections together. The 4-H display is whimsical. Miniature riders of the model trains will pass by a monster truck desert, SpongeBob's underwater pineapple home and the planet Hoth from the "Star Wars" films.

"Whatever the kids are involved with, we try to allow for their individuality to put it all together," said Wayne Richter, a member of the 4-H Club. "It's kind of weird going from scene to scene, but it works because the kids bring their passion to it."

Richter, of the Bargaintown section of Egg Harbor Township, agrees with Davis that trains are deeply tied to the holidays.

"It's the time of year that people like to see trains, and it kind of reminds them of having trains around the Christmas tree," he said. "There are so many people that just have put the trains out during the holidays that it becomes this very nostalgic thing. I don't know why they don't think of trains all year round, but I guess it's because of the winter scene ... it's the snow, it's the train coming in, it's the steam."

Richter's father was an engineer and drove a trolley. But it was Richter's son, Ken, who got him involved with model trains. Ken Richter, a freshman at Richard Stockton College, was running the New Jersey Southern display across from the 4-H display. The NJ Southern display was more cohesive. Is there a theme to it?

"The simple answer is 'no,'" Ken Richter said. "The more complex answer is 'yes and no,' because there are themes within the theme of no. If you look right there, that's a seaside community. Next to it is Pennsylvania coal country, then it's Tennessee, then it's just random mountains, random mountains, random mountains, then the yard, then suburbia."

Ken designed the layout, or the map, for the NJ Southern display, and it intricately cuts in and out of green hillsides. It's the only fully digital command control equipped display, meaning that several trains can run on one track. Ken pays utmost care to his tracks, making sure that none of the trains comes to a stop.

He is a business major at Stockton.

"I want to work for a railroad in the business department," he said. "I figure that being an engineer is a lot less glamorous than I thought."

Contact David Simpson:

609-272-7204