Neil YoungVisit model railroad enthusiast Clyde Coil’s website and you’ll enter an obsessive parallel universe dominated by the design and technology of Lionel toy trains. There’s a wealth of tech tips, surveys on new model rail car designs, and even a folksy hobby news blog of sorts, often written by Clyde himself and frequently punctuated with his trademark personal epithet, “Dang!” His level of interest is hardly surprising: Coil holds a 20 percent stake in the Lionel company itself. But what’s oddly missing in his otherwise exhaustive web pages is any meaningful biographical information about Clyde himself—nary a hint that he’s actually the alter ego of veteran rock legend Neil Young.

Young’s fascination with model railroading arguably predates his love of music, rooted in warm childhood memories of the first train set he was given the Christmas of his fifth year. “My dad built an L-shaped layout for me with a Marx Santa Fe diesel set,” Neil recalled in a 1993 interview with Classic Toy Trains. “I dug that train like you wouldn’t believe. We couldn’t afford Lionel—I think I was 12 or 13 when I finally got my first Lionel locomotive, a No. 2035. Until then, it was those hook-and-loop couplers all the way.” Young’s father wasn’t as interested in the trains as his son, and Neil found himself pursuing the hobby mostly alone, eventually moving his steadily expanding layout onto the floor of the family basement. The musician has vivid memories of his boyhood underground railroad being frequently flooded when it rained—and the electrical shocks he received as he rolled his trains regardless.

But as Young matured into one of the most gifted—if notoriously mercurial and inscrutable—musical artists of his generation, his love of toy trains never waned. Indeed, as Neil followed his muse from Buffalo Springfield into collaborations with Crosby, Stills and Nash and diverse, often challenging solo efforts like Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Harvest, and Tonight’s the Night, the financial success that followed allowed him to reinvigorate his interest in O gauge Lionel trains, building an impressive collection that dates back to the company’s pre-war era and some of its rarest designs.

The hobby took an unexpected turn with the birth of Neil’s son Ben, who has cerebral palsy. It seems to be the event that spurred Young to move his hobby to another level; he built a massive layout—eventually comprising some 700 feet of track—in the 2,800 square foot barn of his sprawling Broken Arrow ranch in the hills south of San Francisco, but with few of the prefab amenities that typify most model railroad layouts. Instead of using plaster and polyurethane to mold his layout’s topography, the musician brought a more organic approach to its design. Redwood stumps gathered from his property became its mountains and ravines, with natural conifer cones in place of the usual plastic model trees, and lush, live ferns and moss—tended by an intricate misting system—providing its greenery. Young, along with his wife and daughter, populated their idiosyncratic miniature rail world with vintage lead figures, toy cars, and buildings. An ancient vacuum cleaner was transformed into the landscape’s ominous Filtex industrial plant. The layout is featured prominently in a more recent marketing video posted at the Coil Couplers site, with Young himself apparently giving voice to the enthusiastic Clyde Coil—or at least the antique diecast toy reverend standing in for him.

But the hobby had more serious undercurrents: A way for father and CP-challenged son to share and interact. To facilitate train control for Ben, who had difficulty using traditional model railway controls, Young developed a paddle system that allowed his son to add or reduce power by simply leaning into it. Neil’s tireless tinkering was eventually wed with digital technology, yielding the wireless TrainMaster Command Control system whose latest incarnation can control 99 trains simultaneously.

“It was developed with an eye for doing a lot of things with my son,” Young once explained. “Using a controller that was accessible to a physically challenged individual who had different ways of accessing switches … And it just turns out that through the development of it, it’s made it possible for a lot of other things to happen for everybody who plays with trains. That really couldn’t happen before.”

In 1994, Young partnered with Detroit businessman Richard Kughn, owner of Lionel, to form Liontech Inc., marketing the revolutionary TrainMaster Command Control system via Lionel’s own model train empire. A year later Young put together an investment group and bought Lionel outright. His control technology was also augmented by RailSoundsII, a miniaturized audio system that gave Lionel’s toy engines the sound of their real life counterparts, as recorded and sampled by a team working under Young’s direction. Another co-venture, Classic Trains Company, continued his technological research and development, yielding a module that could control a layout’s lighting to simulate different times of day.

Though many of Young’s fans are unaware of his hobby, his toy train obsession and rich music career have hardly been compartmentalized. Attendees of 1997’s H.O.R.D.E festival tour were treated to a tent with a customized train layout, complete with engines carrying mini cameras and stereo microphones. And in the era before Young’s investment group took control of Lionel, he would visit and party with Mike Wolf, founder of rival train maker MTH. One night he wrote the title track for Harvest Moon at Wolf’s home. Ironically, the two toy train moguls are presently locked in a bitter legal dispute that’s severed their friendship and threatened the fortunes of Young’s beloved Lionel.

Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon recalls a surreal scene on Young’s bus during her band’s tour with him in the ’90s. As Gordon prepared a meal, Neil sat nearby tinkering with his trains.

“Part of the train set was a model cow that made moo-ing noises,” Gordon recalled with a chuckle. “And Neil wasn’t happy with the cow sound. He didn’t think it was realistic enough. So he kept fiddling with the electronics. He’d get the cow to moo, and he’d ask us what we thought. ‘Was it realistic enough? Did it need some more work? What was wrong?’ He was at it for an hour or so. It was amazing how a toy cow could maintain his interest for so long.”

When Young discusses his work with toy trains, he may as well be talking about his approach to music. “I know that if I stick with it, I can get to a certain place I need to get to,” he says. “I can generally feel good about it. I have a way of knowing when I’m just obsessing and not progressing. My idea of what’s far enough and other people’s ideas of far enough might be different, though.”

Special thanks to the great Neil Young site thrasherswheat.org. All you Neil fans, be sure to check it out!