Big Questions on a Small Scale

You may think it odd, even a bit obsessive, but Caddie Brain speaks with a group of men don’t give a rat’s arse what you think because right now they’re too busy making the trains run on time

Full 'Deep South' Set Japanese Model Epping Club Treasurer Set Parts for Sale Magazines Exhibition Room Shot 'Deep South' Train Second-hand Parts Japanese Set Upclose Anton's Tools

It seems fitting to me that the Epping model train exhibition should be held in the hall of a boys’ high school. That in the lead-up to what is the biggest weekend of their year, up to a dozen middle-aged men should sit in the school car park on a Friday afternoon, waiting for three o’clock to tick over, for school to finish and the students to scatter out.

After the students disappear, the men rush in, and quickly mark the hall out into sections where the teams from various modelling clubs will lay metres of tracks through intricate miniature landscapes, each meticulously prepared for the show. They will work into the night erecting and testing each scene, rush home to catch a precious few hours of sleep, before returning, robed in matching t-shirts ready to unveil their “layouts” to early morning crowds.

I guess this is how I pictured the model train community, or near enough. But as I wander through the school grounds, past the miniature Thomas the Tank engine ride and up towards the mock ticket booth, the bit that’s puzzling me - the bit I still don’t get about all this - is “Why?”

Why, for example, do they seem to care so much about this show that there’s a crowd already waiting to get in at 8.30am, two hours before the doors are due to open? Why are they so keen to be among the first to the stalls, excited about picking up that rare second-hand modelling part?

I go in search of a man who might be able to help me understand why 5000 people will come through here in the next two days, and why so many of them devote so much time, money and apparently love to what are mostly just bits of plastic with wheels.

The Organiser

Trevor Moore has been through today 27 times before. The first time was back in 1982 as one of ten men who spent two years building a model train layout together and displayed it together, becoming the Epping Model Train Association.

It’s not easy to break into Trevor’s society. You really have to want to. The club has grown steadily to 26 members, all men and all in attendance today. Trevor explains that this solid performance is perhaps due to their unusually rigorous initiation process.

“We’re a bit different from other clubs who you just come along to, express an interest, hand over your money and join,” he explains. Potential new members of their club are welcome to attend all meetings and workdays but must do so solidly for six months before formally being invited to join the club. The benefits of this system are obvious to Trevor. “Where in other clubs, you hear ‘oh, we only get a third of members come along to workdays,’ we get 100 per cent along,” he says, with a hint of pride.

And according to Trevor this is largely the point. “Being involved in the club is half about doing the modelling and half about doing it with other people and creating lifelong friendships with those people. That’s the really good bit. Doing stuff by yourself… yes it’s good… but doing things with other people is fantastic.”

Recently, the club gained the use of some council-run facilities and storage, but for many years their regular Friday night meetings were held in either Trevor’s garage or a rented garage.

The dioramic image of Trevor’s garage that forms in my mind is a rather unusual scene. It crams at least a dozen grown men, some balder, rounder, louder or blinder than others, in amongst hundreds of tools, half constructed layout parts and piles of back issues of Australian Model Railway Magazine, with one other thing in common – a profound love of trains.

But Trevor quickly corrects me. “It’s equally about building the model railway as it is about the trains. It’s building the landscape and everything else that goes with it. It’s about creating a scene. People go and take photography of the real railways and then come to know about it to reproduce it as models.” he continues. “We just like to model what’s out there in the real world.”

Looking about the school hall today, it’s immediately obvious that modellers aren’t an altogether unified bunch. There appears to be more to it than simply modelling reality. There are variances in model scales, use of remote control systems, historical interests, and the emphasis on scenery in some layouts seems almost at the expense of the trains themselves.

“Sure, some build futuristic sets, there are fantasy sets, and there’s a lot of nostalgic sets as well.” Trevor explains. “But it’s always based around trying to recreate a scene.”

Since he’s such a train lover, I ask Trevor what he thinks of Sydney’s train system. “I shouldn’t say too much,” he replies. “I work for one of the railway organisations as an electrical engineer.” After a moment’s hesitation he continues, sounding suddenly like a politician. “There are interesting challenges and there are different ways that the railways are meeting those, and there are different areas they could improve upon what they’re delivering. But it’s up to the community to use it, and for governments to provide funding for it rather than providing funding for roads. It’s the only way you can really deliver mass movement of people into cities or goods between major cities and locations, environmentally and in terms of economic efficiency.”

But in terms of modelling for me,” says Trevor more warmly, “it’s that you get do something different, you’re adding your creative touch, which I don’t get to use in my normal work life. It gives my life an extra dimension.”

I quietly wonder what his wife thinks of this extra dimension, and whether that’s really all it is. I get up the courage to ask.

“I think it’s my hobby, she thinks it’s an obsession,” he replies.

I push him a little further. “What if she said ‘It’s me or the trains’?” I ask.

“She won’t,” he says.

The Competitor and Train-spotter

I start a conversation with a man near the “Deep South” model of an overgrown Louisiana rail stop. He introduces himself as Peter Grace. He is probably in his fifties, with a salt-and-pepper beard and glasses with double temples that actually look like railway tracks. I suspect that is no coincidence. His eyebrows ride high on his face, giving you the impression that despite having viewed each layout in the room at least twice, he is still seeing everything for the first time.

Asking a model train lover what brings them to a model train exhibition may seem like a dumb question. Peter certainly seems to think so. “I’m here to look at the trains,” he responds rather flatly.

He tells me how he has loved trains nearly all of his life. As a young boy, his father gave him a box full of model tin trains. “There was even a little one with live steam,” he recalls. “You put hot water in it, and lit a little fire underneath it.” But by the time he was eight years old, the fire went out for Peter who decided that his tin trains were “old and crappy” and belonged at the tip. I asked him whether he regretted it. He manages just a single word. “Greatly,” he whispers.

But Peter has come to Epping as more than just a spectator. He has entered quite a few models in today’s competition, and he’s looking fairly pleased. “The fact that you finished them means you’ve won anyway,” he says earnestly.

One of his entries features a locomotive that was given to him as a box full of pieces with no instructions. He searched the internet for the name of the train’s manufacturer and tracked down the master drawings to a museum in Manchester. He travelled there and pieced together the many parts based on the original designs.

“That’s the thing about all this,” he tells me. “It gives you a reason to go on amazing adventures. It’s about crawling underneath the train on the tracks and photographing the underneath, if that’s what it takes. And not just building the trains, but also putting the right dirt on them.

“Trains go to all the really interesting places of the world - England, America, France, Japan, the Himalayas, Africa, parts of Russia, the Rocky Mountains or the deserts of America. Indian trains run quite well because of the British legacy of how they organise them. But European trains are just fantastic. You can set your watch by the trains in Europe.”

This is what I’m here for. Peter has no end of stories that show how the model train obsession colours his take on history, travel, personal relationships, everything, and each story segues into the next. It is as though he is walking me through a photo album, page by page.

“…I left on a little plane from Darjeeling, that landed me five hours from where I wanted to go. I hitchhiked through the night on this old bus through the mountain territory. We were even stopped by the army. But I finally got there and jumped on the little engine. And you wouldn’t believe it, but next thing I know the chief engineer sits down beside me.”

The engineer invited Peter to see the locomotives in the workshop. He was presented to a chorus of engines all steamed up and puffing away. “I assumed that the engines must be about to run. But the engineer said ‘Oh no, I had the boys fire them up for your visit this morning, so that you could see them going up and down the track a bit.’ Unbelievable.” I picture him standing there, ecstatic amid frenzied vapours of a power that once made anything seem possible.

I ask him if it’s chasing an adventure of the past that really constitutes his love for trains and modelling. His answer comes as if from a five-year-old boy holding a painted box full of tin trains.

“I don’t know. I don’t know.” He pauses and looks about the room. “I just love watching them go round and round.”

The Local Manufacturer

On the far side of the hall I see a neat exhibition stand, over which hangs a sign proudly announcing “Anton’s Trains - 25 Years of Meeting the Modeller’s Needs”.

Underneath it stands John. As he explains it, his professional arrangement with Anton is really quite simple. “I do the manufacturing. Anton does the marketing.” And today they are selling handmade kits scale model parts and just as they have for 25 years.

The stand is made up of three sides in a U shape. To our left, are delicately lit glass cabinets, displaying miniature stop signs, street lights, garbage bins, signaling boxes, relay huts, platform seats, indicator boards, crossing gates and luggage carts. These items are described on the Anton’s Trains website, as “the more practical modern-day items found trackside.” Directly in front of us is a wall of tools, saws, hammers, soldering irons, wire, screwdrivers and glues. It also features the artificial dirt section, available in a dozen colours, ready for use on any landscape. And to our right are the newest items or what appear to be the premium kit items. Amongst the many on display are the Anzac memorial kits, the “Aussie Loo” (a classic), the Blacksmith’s workshop, featuring miniature horseshoes just a few millimetres in length, the 1950s PMG Telephone Box and the coal loading stage (with miniature shovel included).

“It’s a lot of work,” John explains. “Six months to a year to get one product on the market.” He lifts the coal stage, gently, flat on his palm, like waiter carrying a special dish. “This one took two years. Very complex, very complicated.”

Sometimes, John travels regionally in search of new items to build, but more often than not modellers will approach him with particular requests, bringing photos of things they’d like to build but don’t have the skills to do it. I may know nothing about building trains, but in the short time I’ve been talking to the modellers at this expo I’ve already got a sense of the great respect they have for the work that this tiny two-person company turns out.

“I get the drawings or the actual photographs of the thing that’s on the railway,” John explains, “I take the dimensions of it, go home and work out the masters using three or four materials.” Moulds are made and then they are reproduced as kits.

“They sell on the market for a cheap and affordable price,” he explains, in such a way that makes me think it is not just Anton who does the marketing. “But to get my time and effort back, I’ve got to sell hundred and hundreds.”

For John, it all began he was 12. He attended an exhibition and got hooked on military modelling and “a bit of war gaming – model soldiers and the like”. Eventually, earning a crust became more of a necessity, so John applied his skills to the jewellery trade, before joining forces with Anton.

“Each finished product is a great achievement,” he explains. “You take them to shows and people admire them. Brilliant. I could have never believed that this would happen the way it did, 20 years ago when I started. No way. But 127 different pieces later, I just can’t believe it.”

John pauses there. I assume that he is still reflecting on his career as 127 distinct phases, but he’s preoccupied with a different thought. “Just look around the hall at any exhibition, most of these blokes are 50 or 60. There’s not a lot of young people coming through,” he says eventually.

“Kids just don’t seem to be finding out what they can do with their hands,” he continues. “They probably won’t know what they’re missing.” He looks down at the coal stage still in hand. “I’d be lost without it,” he says.

The two of us stand in silence for a bit, part of an older crowd swarming beneath a handwritten sign that I now noticed appears to be a little browned with age.

The Psychologist

Paediatricians say nasty things about model railway exhibitions, according to a sparkly-eyed middle-aged man standing in front of the “Nicholls Siding” layout.

“They say if you want to see autistic spectrum-like behaviour, come to a model railway exhibition,” he explains. “You have to admit you do see some interesting behaviour, and repetitive behaviours too. Guys being what guys are, they need a metaphor to interact, and this is part of that, I suppose.”

I wonder what kind of lenses this man has in those glasses of his, moulded deep into the bridge of his nose. He seems to be seeing the activities of the school hall in a very different way. He’d brought up the issue of what’s going on in modellers’ minds himself, not me. Was my distance from all this that obvious?

“It’s strange…” he continues, “…some people will just stand in front of a layout and they will not interact. If you interact with them they’ll bolt. I’m not suggesting that from any sort of inappropriate psychological point of view - they want to watch the trains. Other people want to interact, want to have a chat. Some people are, ‘I’m out here, you’re in there, leave me alone!’”

“Well from what psychological point of view are you suggesting this?” I ask him.

“John Wilson,” he says, introducing himself. “Child psychologist.”

It doesn’t seem at all unusual that model train enthusiasts commonly work a day job on the railways or in architectural model building. But John works in a field whose core pursuit is attempting to understand and modify what are considered unusual or “disordered” psychological behaviours in children. Yet he pursues a hobby that is renowned for showcasing many of these same behaviours in adulthood. It seems contradictory.

“From a mental health perspective it’s just a very healthy thing to do,” he explains. “I mean, Sigmund Freud says true happiness is sought through the fulfilment of childhood desire, and you talk to a lot of these people and ask them how they got into it and they'll talk about being in Hobbyco in the days when it was down the bottom of town, and they'll tell you about being with their Dads chasing trains and that sort of thing.

“The Dali Lama says, ‘Things won't give you enlightenment, but if they feel good that's ok!’ And I mean half of these people are spending thousands of dollars just on a train. Serious disposable income.”

Historically, people have shown a desire to build models in one form or another for thousands of years. I can’t help but wonder at what level of intensity healthy behaviour of this type starts to morph into something else - something considered to be problematic or disordered.

“I have my moments with this too,” says John, “when I go: ’this is probably not right, this is badly skewed, this is bad values on a number of levels.’ But it’s really the metaphor that allows me to connect with a whole pile of diverse individuals in my organisation and do lots of stuff with them, which at some level is more than you see your own relatives. You have a chat, you occasionally ask the wrong question - how’s things with your partner? Oops shouldn’t have asked that one!”

I instead wonder if modelling is evidence that divisions between childhood and adulthood, and the behaviours we expect to go with them, are a bit simplistic. I met plenty of modellers who didn’t seem deficient or developmentally challenged, despite the stereotype. Perhaps the adult world simply offers modellers nothing better than model trains. Or perhaps there simply isn’t anything better. To Trevor, Peter, and John there certainly doesn’t seem to be.

I think of Peter, the trainspotter who said that he just loves “watching them go round and round”, and realise that I’ve now been here almost the whole day, and it’s gone dark outside. A story that was supposed to take an hour has taken about seven. A lot of that time I have stood in various places around this school hall just watching, my mouth a little bit open perhaps, staring at these scenes, lost in beautiful and pure kind of wonder, even glee.

I am distracted from these thoughts as I notice a part of the “Nicholls Siding” layout next to John’s which apparently shows a Woolworths semi-trailer in the act of reducing a kangaroo to bloody road-kill. From the roadside, two other roos look across at their friend’s gory corpse. It is, of course, all meticulously done to scale.

“Mercifully nobody’s brought along anything from the range of figures of people in delicate positions this year,” John remarks, noticing my fascination.

“‘Delicate’ positions?” I ask him.

“Oh there’s naughty figures - a whole range of disrobing,” he explains, laughing.

There it is. Case closed. Modelling is for adults. It has to be. It simply isn’t appropriate for children.