Rick Cartwright has been fascinated with trains ever since he saw his first Lionel set at his grandfather’s house as a child.
Now he’s making a name for himself creating intricate miniature railroad villages in the backyards of train enthusiasts across the country.
“I get paid to build 'empires’ and play with other people’s toys,” said Cartwright, 53, of Phoenix, who turned his passion for trains into a full-time career when he started Empire Builder Railroad Designs a dozen years ago.
Cartwright’s creations, which cost roughly $15,000 per 100 feet of track, or on average $40,000 per project, transform life-size railroads — both real and imagined — into model-sized versions. His outdoor works, known as “garden railroads” are intricately detailed, often featuring scale-sized villages, handcrafted tracks and train trestles.
“It never dawned on me that I could make a living at this,” said Cartwright, whose professional choices always revolved around his love of trains.
Cartwright worked several years as a photo lab technician and commercial lab manager so he could print photos of his beloved trains. He also took jobs in woodworking and cabinetry so he could acquire the skills to build miniature railroads.
Even his social life revolved around trains.
His wife, Lori, said their first date was watching trains go by in Arizona.
Nevertheless, Cartwright never applied to be a train engineer.
On his first train ride when he was 8 years old, Cartwright said an engineer warned him that if he liked trains, he should never work for a railroad or he would lose his love for them.
Nor does he fill his own Phoenix backyard with railroad designs.
He doesn’t have enough space, he laments, choosing to keep his Lionel and American Flyer train sets on display in his office.
Cartwright’s first professional gig as a model railroad maker was in 1995, when Jim and Pat Warren of north Scottsdale commissioned him for nine months to create a garden railroad on one-third of an acre of their Pinnacle Peak property.
The couple hired Cartwright again five years ago to create an elaborate train set-up on two acres at their new home off of Rio Verde Drive. Cartwright said if the Warrens’ model scaled railroad operation was life-size, it would be 3 1/2 miles wide and more than a mile long.
“It’s hard to stop once you get started,” admitted Jim Warren, who recognized Cartwright’s talent and encouraged him to start his model railroad business.
On Saturday, Cartwright is looking to make history using the Warrens’ track as he and his crew of about 20 volunteers will make their third attempt to get into Guinness World Records for running the world’s longest model train.
It’s a goal the custom model railroad designer said he would like to accomplish, not for just for himself, but for all model train enthusiasts.
“This is something I am doing for model railroading — it’s for the hobby,” said Cartwright, whose two previous days of attempts at beating the current record-holder by nearly one scale mile last weekend were plagued with train derailments and power issues.
Jon DeKeles, editor of Large Scale Online (www.lsol.com) — which covers garden railroads — said Cartwright and his crew faced many obstacles last Saturday in getting more than $85,000 worth locomotives and 540 pieces of rolling stock moving smoothly along 1,250 linear feet of the curving miniature train tracks.
“It’s a logistical nightmare — the wind, buttons getting pushed at the same time and keeping it all connected as one big train,” said DeKeles.
Cartwright said he’s not stressed about trying again. After many practice runs this week, he said he feels confident he’s worked out all the kinks.
“Everyone who has ever had a train set thinks about seeing it run, no matter how big or small. I believe it in my heart (it can be done).”