If you want to see some transit built, then there's a better way.
A fleet of 1:48-scale model trains chugs along 4,000 winding feet of miniature rail on Saturday in the basement of 11 Curity Avenue, a nondescript building in an industrial pocket of Toronto’s east end.
Crossing bells ring, but the roughly two hundred who trek here for the Model Railroad Club of Toronto’s public show on this hazy afternoon can ignore the warning: a replica arching steel bridge carries freight and tiny plastic passengers safely overhead.
This is the first time the club, which dates back to 1938, has opened its doors like this since it moved here from Liberty Village three years ago, Brian Bentley, a member since 1961, tells Torontoist. “This is very much an under-construction show,” he adds, standing near a 50s-era check-in booth salvaged from Union Station and now used to collect admissions.
Following the move in summer 2013, Bentley and crew have been working away on their new diorama every Wednesday and Saturday evening from around 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. It’s a sprawling setup that takes up much of the 3,800-square-foot space.
A jagged mountain-scape, the work of the late Borden Lilley—one of the club’s co-founders—made the move here. So has his meticulously detailed rail yard. Lilley’s daughter Merla McMurray was on hand and remembers these well. “This was his relaxation,” she says.
Much of today’s setup, dubbed the Central Ontario Railway, is brand new—just not in appearance. These hobbyists settled on a specific point in time: 1958 to 1964, an era when gleaming black steam engines shared the rails with modern hard-lined diesel models, leading to seemingly anachronistic, but historically accurate, scenes.
It still leaves something to be desired for Bentley. “The disappointment for me for this layout is the other railway, everything was 100 per cent hand laid,” he recalls. For efficiency, builders rigged this setup with out-of-the-box tracks instead. “If we’d built it like the other one…we wouldn’t be having this show for another five or six years,” he ballparks. How long will it take to finish? “It’s never done. A model railway’s never done,” Bentley answers without pause.
This doesn’t come cheap. Sandy Drysdale, the non-profit club’s treasurer, gives Torontoist an estimate of how much money has gone into the railroad so far. “At least $50,000,” he says. “Probably more.” Model railroading, as it’s known, can be an expensive pastime. Typically, members pay a nominal monthly fee of $150, though some like Bentley pitch in more, and others receive discounts when their applications are reviewed.
It’s also a time-consuming pursuit, and creating the blueprint for the new layout is no exception, as member Dave MacLean makes clear. “The initial concept was maybe half an hour, but months of fine tuning, fine tuning, fine tuning,” says MacLean, who drafted the layout using 3rd PlanIt software.
Asked what drew him to model railroading, Rick Sargent, who first became a member in 1980, spoke to its broad appeal. “There’s so many facets to the hobby,” he says, mentioning elements including wiring, woodworking and painting. “Whatever you like to do, you can do.”
He’s controlling a procession of two engines with 12 Central Railway passenger cars in tow. Part of a limited release of just 200 sets, the engines go for $700 each, while the highly realistic cars—there’s even a suited figurine reclining and reading a paper on the top deck—cost $250 apiece. A $4,400 toy has just rolled past. “Everything you do costs money,” says Sargent, having lost count of the model trains he’s bought over the years. “If you keep track of it, it’s depressing,” admits MacLean.
Elsewhere along the line, Toronto Star reporter Mark Zwolinski, who came aboard about three years ago, is one of two dispatchers posted at a rail yard near a replica of the Summerhill LCBO, once the North Toronto Railway Station.
“Everybody’s depending on me and my friend John here to clear the tracks, get trains ready and go out,” he explains, clutching a tablet that’s been set up to control rail switches and trains. “Everything comes together at once,“ says Zwolinski. “It’s like writing on deadline.”
Video of the Toronto Railroad Club taken at their previous location in Liberty Village.