In a former RAAF administration barrack at the Ballarat aerodrome is a foreign country.
Actually there are several foreign countries – the United States, parts of Europe – indeed anywhere a person might imagine they could be. There are mountains and towns, fir trees and rivers, roads and rail.
Rail. Lots of rail. Kilometres of scale rail track running over trestle bridges, through tunnels, into sidings and sheds, past villages and stations. There are miniature churches and town halls, houses and farms, turntables and factories.
Some of it at present looks as though a cyclone has ripped through it. But more on that later.
This is the home of the Ballarat and District Model Railway Club, which has a broad membership of both men and women (although it is mostly men, admits current president Bill Powell).
The club got its start in 1980 when David Haymes and the Wendouree Apex Club organised a “Model Railway Spectacular" in the now soon-to-be-demolished Lower Civic Hall.
According to the club’s history, a paper was circulated at the exhibition seeking anyone interested in forming a model railway club. The newly-formed club first in the the Sebastopol Community Centre and eventually took possession of three rooms on the top floor of the former Sebastopol Primary School.
Now anyone who’s ever built a model railway layout knows they have a tendency to grow rapidly. One track leads to two; one bridge to series of tunnels; one station building to a city. So it was with the Ballarat club, as members’ enthusiasm for constructing new worlds led to rapid expansion. A new home was needed, and the former RAAF building was leased in 2000. It is the home of the club to this day.
Rail modelling has a long history, both in Australia and worldwide. In fact, almost as soon as the first trains followed Stephenson’s Rocket into the public eye, manufacturers were making toy versions. But model railways really came into prominence around the turn of the Twentieth Century, as mass manufacturing made clockwork sets pressed from tin more affordable.
Names such as Hornby, Marklin and Lionel soon grew to be formidable presences in the toy market, known for their accurate reproductions of actual trains. With advent of electricity, the growing popularity of scale modelling and the introduction of plastic moulding, railway modelling was soon one of the world’s most popular hobbies.
But why? Why do model trains have such a hold on the imagination, especially on those of young (and older) men?
Bill Powell says the members of the Ballarat and District Model Railway Club have any number of reasons for their fascination. Some are ex-railway employees, capable of explaining the obscure details of signalling, shunting and the differences between engines.
Others simply love the age of steam. The idea of a massive locomotive hurtling across the landscape belching smoke, steam and fire is an indelible image imprinted on the collective memory even though the iron monsters have long vanished.
For club president Powell, it’s more intellectual. He is passionate about the social history of rail. He joined the club just four years ago, and hadn’t modelled before then, despite having a lifelong interest in rail.
“I like to follow how the train lines developed, their social purpose,” he says.
“I did have a grandfather who was a driver back in the steam days, but I love thinking about the trains in their social and historical context. There are lots of people here who have worked for VLine, and you’ll come along and there’ll be four or five of them, a group of them talking real trains.”
Model trains come in various scales or sizes. Originally the larger sets were made at random, but attempts were soon made to standardise sizes and scale them to real life, in order for different models to be used on different tracks – much like the real world argument over rail gauge uniformity.
The large sets were known as ‘O gauge’. The popular smaller models, half the size of these, were known in the UK as ‘OO’ and in the US as ‘HO’. They are slightly different in scale. The other popular size for modellers is ‘N’ scale: these are approximately half the size of HO and OO and are popular because their small scale allows for larger layouts. And there are dozens of other scales, from ride-on size down to the tiny ‘Z’ and ‘ZZ’ scales.
the first one I had was a clockwork one. Mum and Dad bought that. It was an O scale, an Australian made one, Robilt. I still have it, though it’s had a bit of a rough time. It’s sitting in a box in my workshop at the moment.Paul Richie
Gary Kennedy is a fan of the N scale, although he does run HO. He explains how he came to railway modelling.
“When I was very young some cousins moved to Sydney and they had a layout - and they couldn't take it with them – heartbreaking – so I inherited it,” says Kennedy.
“It was just the typical old big baseboard with a circle of track and a Hornby train running around. Then you grow out of that; you go to school, you become a teenager, you leave it behind. I joined here about 10 years ago. A mate from work and I decided to get into it.”
While his father worked on the railways, Kennedy derives as much pleasure from building the layouts for the models. He enjoys the carpentry required to build the support trestles and tables, the wiring and lighting, and the finely detailed creation of the tracks and buildings.
“It’s a learning experience. Running the trains is great, but at the moment we’re building things. I’m about to put the ballast down for the tracks. It’s real stone, it holds the track down when we have variations in temperature in the building, just like in real life.”
While Garry Kennedy has been a member of the club for a decade, Paul Richie has been there for much longer.
“I’ve been here since day one,” he says. The Ballarat native has enjoyed model trains since his childhood, and recalls who sold them in Ballarat in the 1950s.
“Abraham’s Store (in Mair Street) and one other place had them,” he recalls.
“I bought mine piecemeal because my mother and father couldn’t afford that sort of money. I got it as I could, although the first one I had was a clockwork one. Mum and Dad bought that. It was an O scale, an Australian made one, Robilt. I still have it, though it’s had a bit of a rough time. It’s sitting in a box in my workshop at the moment.”
There has been a quantum leap in technology of course, since Richie’s parents presented him with his prized clockwork tinplate all those years ago. Electric DC power fed model railways since the 1920s, and recently digital command control (DCC) has revolutionised the hobby yet again.
DCC, put simply, allows an enthusiast to control each locomotive on the layout, rather than being forced to run them all together. The digital chip also provides the capability for sound and light – so detailed that the sounds of the specific locomotive can be recreated.
And the cyclone? Ballarat City Council has been renovating the former RAAF buildings it leases to the community. Sadly, restumping has meant some of the club’s layouts have had to be pulled apart. But that’s not a tragedy, says Gary Kennedy.
“We get to make a new world, or worlds,” he says.
“Where else could I be in the north-west United States running freight trains in one room, and then running 1930s A4 Mallard steam trains from England across the corridor?”
The Ballarat and District Model Railway Club has its annual exhibition this Queen’s Birthday Weekend at the Ballarat Specialist School, 800 Norman Street Ballarat. More information is on their Facebook page.