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Giant train set becoming major German tourist draw

Written by editor

HAMBURG — It’s billed as the world’s largest model train set — a miniature world that snakes along eight miles (12 kilometers) of track, amid fields, cities, even the snowcapped Swiss Alps.

HAMBURG — It’s billed as the world’s largest model train set — a miniature world that snakes along eight miles (12 kilometers) of track, amid fields, cities, even the snowcapped Swiss Alps.

And it’s quickly becoming one of Germany’s biggest tourist attractions.

Twin brothers Frederick and Gerrit Braun, 41, have turned their boyhood passion for model railroads into a lucrative private museum called Miniatur Wunderland that has kept adding track since its 2001 opening and drew 1 million visitors last year.

“It’s a dream,” said Gerrit Braun, who only reluctantly joined his insistent brother in the project, fearing it could be a money loser. “We still can’t believe how successful it’s been. Every year gets better than the year before.”

Set on three floors in an old warehouse along the Elbe River, Miniatur Wunderland features realistic replicas of parts of Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and the U.S. Figurines about a half-inch (just over one-centimeter) high represent people in all walks of life.

About 20 percent of the trains were produced by iconic German model railway maker Maerklin Holding GmbH, which filed for bankruptcy protection last month after it was unable secure new credit amid the global credit crunch.

Last month, Miniatur Wunderland ordered 150,000 euros ($200,000) worth of new products from the company as an expression of faith in it.

“We believe in the brand,” said Sebastian Drechsler, half brother to the Braun twins and one of the 180 museum employees. “We think it’s impossible that the brand will die.”

In one section, police surround a crime scene in central Germany where a bloody ax lies on a river bank while the victim floats in a river. In another, a shark chases a scuba diver beneath the water in the Florida Keys. Elsewhere, a sumptuous palace in Bavaria burns, spewing real smoke, and prompting miniature fire trucks with flashing lights and sirens to rush to the rescue.

On Thursday, a swarm of people crowded around that scene. Children could be heard crying out “cool!” and pushing their parents to take photos.

But the fascination crossed all generational lines.

“The fire truck has just left!” exclaimed 75-year-old Ingeborg Gehrmann as a bright red truck left its miniature fire department. She and her husband traveled two hours by bus from their home in Hannover to see the train set — and were not disappointed.

“There’s still a bit of child in me,” Gerhmann said, her eyes sparkling.

As the visitors walk through the rooms, workers at a control center monitor about 45 computer screens that show the movement of trains. About 30 accidents occur every day, often involving trains derailing or colliding, said Drechsler. When that happens, someone is dispatched to fix the problem.

For Drechsler, the key to the museum’s success is “its mixture of technology and fairy tale atmosphere.”

One things is certain: the brothers want an even bigger miniature world to control, and plan over the next years to create scenes from Italy or France, and later parts of Africa or India.

“We want to keep on building for ever,” Gerrit Braun said.