As a teen in the 1960s, Michael Marmoreo could walk over to the West Toronto rail yard and ride around on the switch engine with the engineer.
“In those days, you just stood there and he’d wave you up,” says Marmoreo.
“I acted like the fireman – I’d sit in the fireman’s seat and the brakeman would give me signals.”
As they switched out freight cars, Marmoreo chatted with the Canadian Pacific Railway engineer, Percy Hill, about his early career.
Hill told him how, back in the 1930s, he got to drive one of the high-speed Hudson steam engines on the passenger route between Toronto and Montreal.
Today, Marmoreo has his own Hudson steam engine — he got it five years ago, on eBay.
It may be 1/87 the size of the one that Hill drove, but Marmoreo’s model Hudson still has power.
Getting a chance to run that train is why Marmoreo, who lives in Birch Cliff, decided to join the Scarborough Model Railroaders.
Started by a group of Scarborough teens back when Marmoreo was hopping on real trains in 1962, the club now has two dozen members and, unusually, a permanent building just north of the CN tracks at Danforth and Birchmount.
“We’re very lucky,” said Marmoreo, whose work includes the all-too-real task of getting a new roof for the building since he became club president two years ago.
Recently, he said, three model train clubs in Toronto and Montreal have had to dismantle their layouts, which take years to build, and leave rented spaces their landlords wanted back.
Owning the building at 17 Jeavons Avenue has allowed the Scarborough Model Railroaders to build huge, highly detailed layouts on two floors.
Downstairs is a Hamilton-Scarborough-Montreal layout set in 1958. It has hills, tunnels, a huge wooden trestle bridge, and switching yards where “yardmasters” like Marmoreo can actually follow computer-generated manifests that say what freight cars to link up and where they need to go.
Upstairs is a contemporary layout in the Appalachians done in a much finer 1/160 scale.
Joe Baker, a 30-year club member, said there is so much track upstairs that it takes a full hour for a train travelling at a scaled 55 miles per hour to finish one loop on the mainline.
While they agree on track layouts as a group, Baker said everyone in the club has a niche.
Some guys like to build track. Others wire electronics — besides switches and signal lights, the tracks themselves carry digital signals that can control lights, sounds, even smoke on the model engines.
Baker’s niche is scenery building, which often involves sculpting cliffs, hills and river beds from sheets of blue Styrofoam.
“The hardest part is the painting, because with each module you have to get the colour to match,” Baker said.
It took two years to finish one of the Appalachian towns, but the effect is impressive. While the club rarely runs trains in the dark, Baker fitted tiny lights that glow in all the town windows and in the headlights of cars.
For his part, Marmoreo likes to tinker with older model engines to get them running again.
Ever the history buff, right now he is working to restore an old model Selkirk.
The real things were steam engines with some 88,000 lbs of torque, built for the high grades and spiral tunnels on the Calgary to Revelstoke route through the Rocky Mountains.
Today’s diesel engines have about twice that torque, Marmoreo said, but far fewer people — where most steam trains had a fireman, two brakemen and a conductor, some contemporary diesel trains carry 150 cars with one engineer and maybe a brakeman on board.
Last summer, Marmoreo and his wife rode a restored 1912 steam engine on what is left of the Kettle Valley railway, which connected B.C.’s fruit-growing Okanagan region to ports on the coast.
A few years ago, he bumped into a Canadian Pacific engineer who had just parked his train to buy groceries in Nipigon, Ontario.
Marmoreo told him about the trains he used to ride in the West Toronto yard, and one trip on a freight train from Nipigon to Schreiber.
“Today, I can’t even take my kids,” said the engineer.
As he restores old model engines, installing new motors or putting wheels back in gauge, Marmoreo can be thankful that without ever doing that work at full scale, he got the chance to ride the real thing.