The Toronto Star is Canada's largest daily newspaper with a paid circulation of 1,200,000. This article appeared in the Sunday November 25, 2001 issue on page A8.

Nov. 25, 2001

"These guys have one-track minds"

Bill Taylor
Staff Reporter

Heckuva way to run a railroad! Less than five hours before the first passengers arrived, and the tracks weren't even laid.

Jeffrey MacHan couldn't have been more serene. The little kingdom on wheels that he calls Val Ease fits into three suitcases, "East, Central and West. Val Ease ... valise ... suitcase. Get it?" Yeah, Jeff. He didn't even have to unpack. Just open the lids and his gem-like model railway, at 1/220th the size of the real thing with locomotives the length of a finger joint, was almost ready to roll.

MacHan had one of the easiest tasks at the Toronto Christmas Train Show, which opened yesterday and continues today at the International Centre on Airport Rd., Mississauga.

The doors opened to the public at 11 a.m. but exhibitors couldn't get in until 6 to set up 35 operating layouts, from the teeny-tiniest like MacHan's to the hefty stuff that some people like to run around their gardens.

The Golden Horseshoe Live Steamers from Hamilton even brought a static display of steam engines big enough to ride on.

"You couldn't operate them indoors," said member Barry Graham. "You'd fill the place with smoke. They're fuelled with coal, crushed to scale. Look inside the cab of this one. See the burns on the floor? Just like the real thing."

The hall was taking on the look of a living room after Santa's been and the kids have unwrapped their new train set ... and been pushed aside by Dad and all the uncles crawling around on the floor with pieces of track. Except your average living room doesn't have vans and station wagons cruising through or a man several metres off the ground steering a cherry picker around making sure everyone had a power hookup from points on the ceiling.

Most clubs transport their layouts in pre-built sections ready to snap together. Members of the Pickering Model Railway Club were boasting of being together for a quarter of a century "with no elected officers, no clubhouse, no dues and no rules. It works perfectly that way," said Simon Black.

Monday to Friday, Black is president of a systems consulting firm. Yesterday he was "junior track layer," wriggling under the layout tables to check the wiring.

"We're in it for fun," said Black. "We don't much care about super-realism. We're not rivet counters."

Not far away were the Hamilton-based Ontario and Eastern Railway Modellers - rivet counters and proud of it. Everything on their layout is based on something that existed and fine detail is everything. Jim Ellis was using tweezers to put bug-sized bags on a luggage cart.

"We get people sometimes and they recognize stuff," he said. "There was one loco we had and these two old buffers came along and one said, `Hey, George, that's the engine you used to fire!' The very one."

Then there's the innocuous-looking place on the wrong side of the tracks. Ellis picked up the building shell to reveal a fully detailed interior. There can't be too many model railways that boast a house of ill repute ... "We don't show it to too many people," he said. "And we don't allow photographs!"

No one had time for the spectacular pink and blue dawn outside. The garden railway guys were spreading cedar mulch around their tracks. Marg Graham and her husband Peter, of Cambridge, were making sure their spectacular collection of pre-World War II Lionel classics - "It's more my thing than his," said Marg - was running properly.

MacHan crouched over his suitcases, fine-tuning the sound effects: engine noises and mooing from the Lilliputian cattle grazing by the tracks. He's the Quebec government's economic director in Ontario, but he said "that seems sometimes more like my hobby."

Off in a corner, a soccer game in full swing waited to be slotted into place on a layout. There were fairground midways, circuses, an airfield with a plane taking off and a glider stuck in a tree. Kids flying kites and cats chasing mice.

In about the time it takes a full-size VIA train to go from Toronto to Montreal, a whole world appeared. A world where everything clicks together, the railways run on time and the sun - on the painted backdrops, anyway - is always shining.

If only it really were that easy.