Steamed up about model trains

In the driveway, a vehicle license plate — TRAK1 — offered the first clue. Then Jack Bell’s home provided overwhelming evidence that here lived a train fan extraordinaire.The house number sits in the shape of a speeding locomotive. His prized possession — the bell from Locomotive 2609, a Canadian Pacific steamer out of Sherbrooke, Quebec, circa 1920 — announced  a passion for railroad-related paraphernalia.

But the train references don’t stop at the front door. Framed prints of steam trains hang from the walls of each room in the house. His video storage cabinet overflows with every movie that’s ever featured a train. Von Ryan’s Express is a particular favourite, naturally. And his phone is a replica of the classic 1925 locomotive, the Crescent.  

Little wonder, then, that Bell, 66, is model show manager of the Toronto and York Division of the Canadian Railway Historical Association, a job that brings with it the responsibility of organizing one of Canada’s largest model railway shows.

Model railroaders
Bell is just one of an ever growing movement of mature, born-again model railroaders hell-bent on relivg the glory days of rail… in miniature.

“There are a lot of older model train enthusiasts out there, for sure. As they get older, they have the time and the money to indulge themselves in the hobbies they had as kids. And model trains probably bring back more fond memories than any other hobby. It’s a real nostalgia thing,” says Bell.

Visit any of the dozens of model train shows that have sprung up across the country and you’ll see just what Bell means. Richard King, of Toronto, is just one of hundreds of enthusiasts who show up.     King says he rediscovered his love of model trains a few years before retiring from his job as a building inspector.

“I was going to have a lot of time on my hands, but didn’t really know what to do with it,” says King, now 68. “Funny enough, it was my wife who got me thinking about trains. She remembered me telling her I used to have a train set as a kid, and though it would be nice to do something that involved the grandkids. 

She was right. From humble beginnings — he started with a $50 set purchased from his local grocery store one Christmas — King says he now has more rolling stock than he knows what to do with. “But it sure makes things easy for my family when my birthday comes around — ‘let’s buy Gramps some train stuff!'”

Women fans 
Perhaps surprisingly, women are often as big fans of all things rail as the guys. Again, it was Jack Bell’s wife, Margaret, who rekindled his love of trains.

“I encouraged him, that’s for sure,” she says. “When we were young and dating we’d always end up at a station or a railroad crossing. I got the message. We even bought his first set together.”

“It’s definitely an activity a couple can do together,” adds Bell. “In fact, some of the best modellers are women. They have the patience needed to paint train kits, and I know many couples where the wife helps out with building the scenery.”

Health benefits         
For Bell the hobby has an additional bonus other than the tacit approval of his wife. Afflicted with arthritis for 20 years, he can do his hobby sitting down.

“It’s a beautiful hobby for those with arthritis or other disabilities who can’t get around so easily,” he says. “And it’s not hard designing your layout, big or small, so everything’s within reach. In fact, planning your layout to overcome such problems is half the fun.”

There are other benefits, too, says Bell.

“With most hobbies, you’ve got to be good at something, or have a skill. With model railroads, you get a chance to do some woodwork, modelling, electronics. It’s so varied.”

Start-up costs   
And getting started needn’t cost the earth. According to Bell, an initial investment of $100 would get everything needed to set up a basic 4 foot x 8 foot layout, including:
· Track
· Transformer
· Engine
· Rolling stock.

“Of course, once you’re hooked… you’re only limited by your budget!” he says.

Childhood memories
Like so many of those now rediscovering their love of trains, Bell has fond memories of watching the big engines at work as a lad. Each summer, his parents would ship him off from Toronto to Woodstock, New Brunswick, to visit his grandparents.

Needless to say, he travelled by train. “I was never home for lunch, always out watching the trains coming and going,” he says. Eventually, his dad gave him a Lionel train set of his own, and the seeds of his future hobby were sown.

Now, more than a half century later, Bell’s love of all things train-related shows no sign of letting up.  He’s a former president of his local branch of the Canadian Railway Historical Society and manages the annual Toronto Model Railway Show each March. The show attracts thousands of train fans from across the province. And guess what?

“Most of them are older than me!” says Bell.