Since 1946 the Model Railroad Club of Toronto has built and maintained a massive and intricate model railway in a Liberty Village basement, in what was once a wartime munitions factory and below what is now a Castlelife Furniture store. The Central Ontario Railway is an enormous, intricately detailed microcosm of the 1950s transition-era railways of Ontario, crafted over the years by the club members. “Microcosm” may give you the wrong impression about the scale, however: the railway spans a room that is 120-feet by 40-feet. (It’s an O-scale model, which means that each quarter-inch on the model equals one foot in real life.)
Soon though, the club and its model railway will be leaving 171 East Liberty Street and moving to new digs near St. Clair and O’Connor. The new site will only have two-thirds as much space as the old one, but the incoming 12-fold rent increase at the current location (which will bring the property up to market value) left the club with no choice.
The process of how they’ll go about managing it is a massive and intricate project all its own.
Dismantling and transporting the Central Ontario Railway to its new home at 11 Curity Avenue will be long and difficult. The railroad club will be able to move in as of March 1, but it’ll hardly be a one day, box-and-go operation.
There’s a whole world contained in the railway, inhabited by a whole population of tiny plastic figurines. Trees made of sponges on sticks painted green dot the landscape. Train tracks run through mountain tunnels and over bridges. Replicas of the Steamwhistle Brewery roundhouse and Summerhill Station before it became the LCBO flagship store stand among the tracks. On one side of the railway, a large portion of the surface is painted blue and a 10 foot-long shipping freighter sits close to the dock as though coming in to port. Next to that is a talc mine with trucks and mining equipment digging out a section of forest, and a miniature ground crew overseeing the operation. Preserving these details in the course of the move is the club’s main challenge—and they already know that not everything will survive intact.
Of the 22 present day club members, no one has more experience working on it than Brian Bentley: he’s been with the Model Railroad Club for 52 years. “On February 19 those of us who aren’t working will be down here removing as much of the rolling stock as we can,” Bentley explains. “February 20 is our last official night as a model railway and we’re going to have a banquet here with all our wives and families and our close friends. Then on the Thursday morning, which will be the 21st, we’ll carry on removing the structures and remaining rolling stock we haven’t got off.”
“We’ll progress around the room, so we’re going to start in one area dismantling the railway. The first thing we’ll do is take off all this skirting so we’ve got total access underneath,” he goes on, pointing to the wooden sheeting around the edge of the railway. “The first area we’re going to dismantle is just beyond the mountain and we’re going to use that big area there for rubble storage. After we’ve got all the salvageable things off the layout we’ll just go at it with [saws] removing the scenery, bagging it in heavy duty bags.”
They won’t be able to save the plaster cast rock formations and mountains—those will crumble and shatter upon removal, and have to be thrown out.
Bentley took us to the control booth overlooking the length of the room, to activate one of the trains. It too is detailed, with many switches, buttons, and toggles allowing users to send power to various tracks. Track six wasn’t cooperating, so he tried track seven instead. Little 7s popped up in the digital numerical displays next to each toggle switch and he flipped them over with a click. After a few minutes jimmying the controls, a freight train came down the track with its headlight beaming at us. It chugged down the track, across a suspension bridge, through a tunnel, along the wall, and around the room.
Rebuilding the model in its new home will take at least two years. There is one upside, however: the current railway has some wiring problems, so the club will take this opportunity to install ground wiring on all the tracks, to prevent the electrical shorts that can slow down or stop a train. Some of the bridges might also be strengthened, and the whole display could be designed with easier access for club members working on it.
Moving and rebuilding the railway is a daunting task, but the club is ready for the challenge. “It’s like a big family,” says Bentley. “We have our squabbles from time to time on little things, but we patch them up and carry on.”
The first steps of packing are already underway. While we were talking to him Bentley placed a tanker car into a wooden box and tucked a sheet of foam around it. “This is actually a wine box,” he said, “but it gets the job done.”
The Model Railroad Club of Toronto is always accepting new members with a passion for trains. Their final open houses before the move take place this upcoming weekend, Saturday February 16 through Monday February 18 (Family Day), from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. Admission is $10 for adults and $6 for children.