Monday, June 13, 2011

Canada's biggest model railway, a masterpiece built over decades, will be dismantled

The Canadian Press: Canada's biggest model railway, a masterpiece built over decades, will be dismantled
MONTREAL — In a warehouse in Montreal's historic Griffintown neighbourhood, model train enthusiasts have spent 38 years engaging in a labour of love.

Inch by inch, they've constructed what is believed to be Canada's largest fully operational model railway.

More than 300 people have participated over the years, devoting thousands of hours to building life-like models across an eye-popping, detail-laden, 1,493-metre masterpiece.

And it's about to be detroyed.

The reason for the imminent dismantling is not without irony: the make-believe trains are about to be forced away by a real train company, dealing with real-life issues like rising property costs.

Canadian National owns the 9,000-square-foot warehouse space and wants to lease it out at a higher rent, starting next year. It warned the model-train association five years ago that its time was up.

As a result, opportunities for members of the general public to see the project are about to run out. Twice a year, visitors have been allowed in to see the display as it's grown with time.

One final open house is expected to be held this October, at which point the last train will pull into the station.

"When people come here, it's like a wonderland," said Pierre Lalanne, president of the Montreal Railroad Modellers Association.

"This is the largest fully operational layout in Canada — one of the few I'd say, even in North America, that's fully operational."

The periodic rumbling of real trains can be heard just above the model railway, which is a scaled-down representation of 4,400 kilometres of track across several Canadian sites.

Some of the numbers are staggering. The project includes: 6,000 square feet of space, six train yards, 527 switches, 18 bridges, 17 tunnels, 12 major industrial areas and 68 medium-sized industries represented.

It takes up to 40 minutes for a train to loop through the entire track.

And the builders didn't skimp on the details: there are tiny people in the tiny houses inhabiting the tiny towns.

Along the way are odes to real-life Canadian towns, with depictions of places as diverse as Georgian Bay, Mont-Joli, Grande Prairie, Stoney Creek Ridge and Montreal's stately Windsor Station.

What can be salvaged, will be — some of the buildings, trees and bridges might be carried off elsewhere.

But about 70 per cent of the layout — the mountains, the roadbed and the rest — will be have to be trashed.

"Three-quarters of the layout is made of plaster and you can't move plaster," Lalanne lamented. "Even if it was movable, we'd have to find a place exactly like here to be able to move the thing."

After 38 years, CN said it had little choice.

"CN had a long-standing relationship with them, it was a good relationship. But basically we had to re-evaluate the lease and come to a decision," said Julie Senecal, a spokeswoman for CN.

"It is a business decision."

The group hasn't been able to find a new home.

"Trying to find another area as big or as large as what we have with the price of real estate today — nobody can pay $4,000 a month to be a member. It's impossible," Lalanne said.

When the project began, decades ago, the Griffintown district just west of Old Montreal was gritty and industrial and home to the railroad.

Today, it's filled increasingly with high-end lofts and condos.

"It's sad because it is a masterpiece of many years, with hours and hours of work. But it's ending — and that's how it is," said Robert O'Shaughnessy, an association member and former president.

"We would have liked to stay but you see the development around this neighbourhood and it gives you a good idea of what's happening."

Space wasn't an issue when they started. Five men toiled away in the sprawling basement of an apartment complex in 1950. One of the members was the concierge and he lent out the space.

In 1973, the group moved to its current locale and elected to build big.

There are about 40 active members left, ranging in age from 23 to 83. Most never had anything to do with the railroad — the group includes lawyers, administrators, police officers and firefighters.

Their common passion was trains.

Everyone had a different interest, whether it was designing towns, tracks or creating the increasingly complex, electronic model trains, said Denis Guerin, a long-time member.

"It's a hobby that's pretty sophisticated but it's still accessible to everyone. Some people say it's probably the most diverse hobby there is," Guerin said.

If and when they find a new home, the next step will be to rebuild. All current members expect to take part.

"That's part of the hobby," said Bernard Carez.

"The trains won't roll right away, it'll take a minimum of two years, depending on the size of the space and how many people are willing to help."

As for what's being lost — thousands of square feet of handiwork, dreamed of and crafted over thousands of hours — O'Shaughnessy is somewhat philosophical.

He said the group can always take pride in what it achieved, over a span of just under four decades.

"It is disappointing because lots of hours have been put into the layout," said O'Shaughnessy.

"But nothing is eternal, so it has to end sometime. It's sad that it's going, but it's like everything in life: it doesn't last forever."

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