Shovels, hammers and hardhats were nowhere in sight. Instead, participants in a public outreach workshop used hair curlers, buttons and paper clips to construct model train stations for California’s proposed high-speed-rail route.

California has been awarded $2.25 billion in federal economic stimulus funds to develop a high-speed-rail line, scheduled to start construction in 2012. The project, currently in the process of finalizing track alignments, will feature trains running up to 220 mph. Transportation experts repeatedly have cited the importance of public involvement to the success of the $45-billion, multiregional project.

Held in downtown Los Angeles on July 17, the “groundbreaking” exercise was one such effort to engage the public. The event was hosted by railLA, an organization that comprises the Los Angeles chapters of the American Institute of Architects and the American Planning Association.

“We are doing these workshops to get ideas from the public about what they want to see when high-speed rail comes to their neighborhood,” explains James Rojas, an urban planner as well as an artist with railLA. “Do they want a Starbucks coffee shop, a park, an open space or housing?”

Participants sat at tables stacked with piles of shiny bric-a-brac, including Popsickle sticks, buttons, toy cars, plastic tubes, necklaces, hair curlers and more. Next, they were given 20 minutes to build their ideal high-speed-rail station.

“The creation of small models helps participants of any age to articulate their desires publicly,” says Rojas. “Since there are no right or wrong answers, all social barriers are broken down, thereby creating a friendly exchange of ideas.”

Participants created stations with fountains, coffee shops, parks, movie theaters, bars and restaurants. “My model is a tribute to Los Angeles,” says attendee Philip Jones, a self-described “big supporter of high-speed rail” who took the subway to the event. “My station has a dome, an entrance with a lot of grass, a fountain and a couple of stars, because it’s L.A. I wanted to blend in with the neighborhood and still be dramatic.”