The miniature landscapes at the 35th annual Vancouver Train Expo were so meticulously created, it gave one the feeling of being a giant.
Cows the size of a fingernail grazed in farmers’ fields while tiny clusters of families, suitcases in hand, were frozen in time on a station platform with trains zooming past.
There were tiny towns — all with heavy traffic on the roads likely because the sheer variety of model cars on display are almost as fun as trains to look at. The creator of one city made clever blinking vintage billboards that he jammed around brick buildings — one of which included a strip club — that recalled the anonymity of a blue-collar American town in the 1970s.
While the settings for the model trains were compellingly nostalgic, the technology behind them was not. Most of the trains looping around the tracks at the PNE Forum this past weekend had miniscule circuit boards hiding in the engines. They were controlled by computer, with their operators plugging into points on the track to run several trains at once — much like real-world track operation.
The technology is one of the myriad reasons Tom Lundgren became a train modeller.
“People might think trains in general are old-fashioned and model trains as being old-fashioned — but they’re really missing the point,” said Lundgren who holds the title of “leader” of the train expo committee. “There’s some really high-tech stuff here and, for a young person, it can send them on a career in electronics.”
Like many kids who grew up in East Vancouver of old, Lundgren didn’t come from a family with money. He and his brother Jim loved model trains so much they built their own, crafting train cars out of oil cans. He learned about electronics and went on to a career in forestry, always marvelling at the railway systems in place that were built in a time before aerial photography and other technological advances.
Train modelling is also a great way to learn about Canadian history, Lundgren added. After all, the railway not only played a big part in the industrial age and how cities were designed, but it was a catalyst in the Canadian Confederation as provinces were promised a trans-Canada railway link if they joined. The models — no matter the scale — are perfect replicas of both past and present engines and cars. There are even books of photographs of trains so hobbyists can get their detailed paint schemes just right.
Even though the Vancouver Train Expo has grown over the past three decades — it was held at Burnaby’s Cameron Recreational Complex up until three years ago when it moved to the much larger PNE Forum to accommodate exhibitors — the number of modellers is declining, Lundgren said.
“It has been traditionally a male activity, although there are ladies involved and they’re very good,” he said. “It was very active in the years after the Second World War around which point I think model trains were the high-tech toy of the day.”
These days, though, most toys are high tech and, in Vancouver especially, housing demographics have changed with many families either living in smaller spaces or in homes where the rec room basement has given way to the mortgage-helping rental suite. Although, Lundgren pointed out, the matchbox-sized Z scale can be set up on a small table.
While technology is part of model railroading, there were still older trains on display at the expo, including the live steam G scale engines from the Greater Vancouver Garden Railway Club, which use butane as fuel.
No matter the scale, it’s the artistry that drives enthusiasts.
“For me, it’s three-dimensional art that has movement,” said Lundgren. “It’s not a painting, but it’s pretty high-quality stuff.”