Model engineers endure for 85 years

The B.C. Society of Model Engineers is celebrating its 85th anniversary with a special Summer Steam-Up and train festival this weekend at the Burnaby Central Railway in Confederation Park.

Whether the group will still be around to mark its 170th birthday is the big question.

The society’s 125 members come from as far away as Northern California, England and Denmark. They’re dedicated builders, tinkerers and operators of 1/8 and 1/12 scale-sized locomotives and rail cars.

The trains actually carry passengers along a two-mile loop of tracks that skirt two mountains and two hills, cross three bridges and a viaduct and briefly disappear into two tunnels.

The railway has been operating in Confederation Park since 1993, after moving from the meadow at Burnaby Village Museum.

It’s an old man’s hobby, says Joe Holman, the society’s director as well as the guy who’s often driving the locomotives on Sundays.

At 61 years old, Holman’s one of the society’s younger members. And getting new blood into the fold can be a challenge.

Building a locomotive requires a lot of dedication, perseverance and patience, said Holman.

Paul Ohannesian works on The Phoenix, his scale model replica of a mogul locomotive from the 1890s, that will be making its debut at the BC Society of Model Engineers' Summer Steam-Up and train festival at Confederation Park this weekend. MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER

Some projects can take a decade or more until they’re ready to roll on the rails.

“That’s a long time to do anything,” said Holman. “It’s like a grand obsession.”

One that still holds magic for all ages.

After toiling in their basement workshops or in the society’s machine shop crafting parts for their locomotives, many of which are based on historical full-size trains, the payoff for the hobbyists comes from the smiles of passengers riding the rails, perched in the miniature cars.

“That’s all gold,” said Holman.

Older visitors are transported back to the simpler time of their youth. Younger ones are captivated by the majesty of the working trains, some of which blow horns and belch steam just like their full-sized ancestors.

But converting that excitement into a newly minted hobbyist rarely happens anymore, Holman said. There are too many other distractions that offer instant gratification.

“You try to get people enthused, but some people have moved into the digital era of virtual reality.”

The society’s members often take a selection of their trains on the road, setting up a small demonstration track at model railway shows around Metro Vancouver and up the Fraser Valley. The questions and comments are never-ending, said Holman.

“If I can snag out of that one membership application, I figure I’ve done pretty well,” he said.

Still, Holman remains undeterred.

After all, the real railways have survived challenges to their dominance in moving freight across the landscape.

“Without the railways we would still be in the horse-and-buggy era taking a year to cross the country.”

The Summer Steam-Up and train festival is open to the public on Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Burnaby Central Railway is located at 120 N. Willingdon. For more information go to


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