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Model train buffs find camaraderie in city club

Edmonton's Model Railroad Association welcomes all to the oldest model railroad club in the Edmonton area.

Basketball legend Michael Jordan is one.

So are rock stars Neil Young, Rod Stewart and Roger Daltrey.

They are a few of the celebrities who have a deep love for model trains, often spending exorbitant amounts of time and cash to pursue the hobby.

Stewart, who has appeared more than once on the cover of Model Railroader hobbyist magazine, revealed he had spent more than two decades creating giant railway models, including one scale-size 1,500-square-ft. recreation of tracks snaking through New York’s Grand Central Station circa 1940, which he worked on during tours.

According to the Railway Traveller website, the late Frank Sinatra is said to have owned over $1-million worth of model trains he kept in a special room called 'All Aboard' at his Palm Springs mansion.

Closer to home, The Edmonton Model Railroad Association (EMRA) does not include a star-studded cast of characters or quite as lavish a collection of model trains.

But few would dispute the commitment of its members, many who joined the non-profit society decades ago and have spent years tinkering with its creations. Formed in 1946, it is the oldest club of its kind in Edmonton.

Over the years the club has built model layouts in a number of locations, including the CP Rail station in Old Strathcona, the South Edmonton Public Library and the old Edmonton Gardens, the first indoor hockey arena built in Edmonton. Since 1991, the club has been headquartered in a shed in Fort Edmonton Park, open to viewing on weekends plus at a special open house event each October.

Since moving, the club started work on a giant two-storey scale recreation of the Monashee Pacific Railway, a 135-mile mainline track surveyed and planned (but never built) in central British Columbia in 1896. The club’s version of the railroad focuses on what it would have looked like in 1959, passing through 11 towns with adjacent scenery.

At a recent meeting, members gathered to operate components of the Monashee railroad, each one carrying out various scripted duties like building coal car trains or breaking down trains at one of the model stations or yard sites between replicas of Castlegar and Vernon, B.C. The work orders, written on cards, specify timelines, types of cars and other details similar to what a real operator would deal with.

Club president and retiree Peter Ulvestad, 62, says although he had a model train set when he was a youngster, he joined the EMRA at 15 when he was looking for something to do and his mother dropped him off. He's been a member ever since. 

There are about 30 members currently; even a couple who have been with the club longer than he has. Members don’t necessarily have an interest in history, Ulvestad says, but are motivated by electronics or a fondness for building scenery.

An annual membership fee of $125 helps to pay utilities and other basics at the clubhouse, but the space is basically provided free of charge at the city-owned property at Fort Edmonton Park.

The club meets on Tuesday evenings. In addition to building and operating the Monashee railroad, members attend conventions and sometimes even take rail trips in Western Canada.

"We’re always looking for more junior members,’’ he added. ‘’The hard thing is there’s so many other activities now.’’

Kalen Yates, 24, is one of the younger members to join the club.

A commercial pilot, Yates belonged to a model train club when he lived in Yellowknife and joined when he moved to this city.  

‘’You’ve got an enthusiastic group of guys who are invested in it, spent years with it,’’ said Yates, adding he likes to build scenery displays for the model railroad. 

‘’In my line of work, we deal with so many things out of our control. It’s nice to come in here and have control over a perfect little world.’’

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