It’s a hot Friday afternoon and Peter Beyer walks into his house from outside and heads for his play room.
Inside, he turns on some switches, presses buttons on a controller and his dormant model train lights up, spouts steam from its stack and chugs along the track, its wheels clacking as they inch along the track.
Beyer didn’t just get home from school though. Instead, the 74-year old former marine parts salesman is an avid model train collector, one of several in the Valley.
Beyer along with fellow enthusiasts Carl Johnson and Bert Ward have as much fun with model trains now as when they were children. But as the years passed their hobby has become something of an art form.
An only child, Beyer distinctly remembers his first train in 1954. “It was a Lionel model. I got it for Christmas with a track layout and everything,” he said. “My friend Gerry Hickey and I used to play with it almost every day.”
Beyer continued to collect trains into his teen years. He added three locomotives: one for passenger and two for freight, and he built an elaborate track setup in the basement of his dad’s house.
“Gerry and I used to go down to the gully behind Third Avenue and collect moss to use for scenery around the tracks,” Beyer said.
Beyer had other interests after he turned age 16 so he sold his trains and bought a 1950 Austin 40. After high school he worked at BC Airlines, with the RCMP and then Western Marine. And in 1962 he married his wife.
He never lost his passion for model trains though and he started collecting them again, this time the H-O model which refers to the scale of the train.
Beyer moved to Port Alberni with his wife and bought a house near the former Klitsa School where they still live. He sold his trains again in 2007 and bought seven O-Gauge trains significantly upping his train game.
“They’re totally electronic and they even have sounds like bells, whistles and screeching brakes,” he said.
Even the train passenger cars are intricately detailed. “The cars have to be exact right down to the bolts and screws. Not any cars will do; you have to have the right ones,” he said.
Inside the passenger cars, the seats, tables, washrooms and even the people are intricately detailed. “They look like real people sitting in the windows. You can buy conductors, men, women and children figures too,” Beyer said.
He has 22 locomotives today but won’t venture to guess how much he has invested over the years. His train layout includes buildings and scenery that looks like a real town. There is a gas station, diner, post office, police car and other vehicles.
Beyer’s favourite train is a 1940 steam engine he bought three years ago from a Second World War veteran. “It was hard to find cars for it but I found them: four from Seattle and six from New York,” he said.
There is a difference between real train enthusiasts and model train enthusiasts, Beyer said. “I’ve ridden on the No. 7 and the Two Spot here in town but those are different guys and that’s a separate club,” he said. “Model trains are pretty close in scale though to the real ones.”
Carl Johnson, 68, has been fascinated with model trains since getting a wind-up engine as a four-year old in 1950.
Beyer and Johnson share a passion for trains and are good friends. The two have coffee and chat every day and spend time running trains at each others homes which are just blocks from one another.
“I like the tracks, the motion and the noise. I like the realism of it,” Johnson said.
Johnson runs his trains once per week and works on it two to three times per week, he said. When he’s not working on his trains he’s visiting Beyer and helping him with his.
Johnson owns approximately 20 train engines which are powered electrically through the train tracks. “It works like a light dimmer: turn it up and the trains go faster. Turn it down and they go slower.”
Train collecting is also an art, Johnson said. He enjoys building the buildings that line the tracks in his basement. “I build them from scratch out of scrap wood. I’ve built a post office building for Peter and Bert (Ward) too.”
Johnson and Beyer belong to a loose-knit association of model train collectors that meet in Nanaimo every three months.
They used to belong to a larger association in Vancouver – the Canadian Association of Railway Modellers – that meets every month.
Travel got too expensive to keep attending though so more than 30 enthusiasts from the Island formed a splinter group and now meet in Nanaimo.
Beyers, Johnson and Ward also used to buy their train equipment from Vancouver but don’t anymore. Instead, they now purchase their equipment from Eastside Trains in Kirkland, Wash.
Ward,76, got into collecting trains as a way of coping through difficulty. “I used to love collecting trains when I was a kid so I started doing it again and I loved it,” he said.
Every inch of the 700 square-foot basement in his home is covered in train tracks, trains and scenery. It all started with a Lionel steam engine he was given for Christmas as a 10-year old.
“My father and brother-in-law took it out and played with it for a half hour and I had to sit their and watch,” he said. “I still have that engine. I call it my treasure.”
Ward runs 0-27 Gauge trains which he says shouldn’t be confused with O-Gauge. “O and O-27 have he same width track but the O-Gauge has a higher track than the O-27,” Ward said. “The average person couldn’t tell but if you know then you can see the difference.”
Ward, Beyer and Johnson are fast friends. The three chat, laugh and trade barbs in Wards basement. “Those two are just kids,” Ward said motioning to his friends. When Johnson was asked for the correct spelling of his last name Ward said “It’s spelled D-u-m-m-y.” Beyer shook his head. “You should hear us some nights. It gets better.”
Ward has grandchildren who don’t understand his passion for trains. “They play with their phones and don’t like the sound of the trains and tracks,” he said. “I think they’re missing out on something.”