Train lovers stoked and ready to go

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Railway Enthusiast - Chris JohnstonWhen I arrived at the Victorian headquarters of the Australian Model Railway Association, Gary Danson was busying about with cleaning duties while fellow club member Geoff Tate was leafing slowly through old railway magazines in the club’s library. It was a midweek afternoon. We were the only ones in the old RSL building.


Danson is one of life’s whirlwinds, darting here and there, his strides hitched low and an old beanie flopping around on his head. His strength is organising. He takes care of the logistics of the club’s model-railway exhibitions in halls around Victoria.


Tate’s strength is artwork. He paints the scenery that offsets the many miles of train tracks in the club’s main 'layout,' as the elaborate set-up of tracks in the basement is known. At the time of my visit, Tate was painting a miniature bridge for the layout.


While the men bring varied strengths to their duties as club members, both came to their love of trains at the same age. Both claimed that they were three years old—four at the most, said Danson. He was on a train trip from Melbourne to visit family in the Riverina, in New South Wales. It was not only the trains that fascinated him; it was the comings and goings at the station at Cootamundra, where trains diverged to different regions of NSW.


Steam LocomotiveTate was three when he went with his family to Melbourne’s Spencer Street Station to see off his father, who was resuming army duties at a camp near Albury during World War II. A giant pair of hands hoisted young Geoffrey on to the footplate of the engine. The boy stood fascinated as the railway workers set about shovelling coal, checking gauges, preparing the Spirit of Progress to lurch into life.


Now, at 69, Tate says visions of a steam engine lurching to life form part of the soul of every train-lover. The engine’s hissing and panting suggests that it’s living and breathing. The visible workings of the engine lend further opportunity to imbue it with a sense of life. Danson likens the steam engine to a dragon.


The diesel engine, by contrast, is considered anonymous. 'It’s a box', says Danson. 'You don’t see the workings'.

During Tate’s working life, he had a series of jobs, including several years as a signwriter. 'When I worked in the city, I spent every spare minute looking at the yard.'


Danson grew up the oldest of five in a small house opposite the train line in Bentleigh, in Melbourne’s south-east. He didn’t mind being forced to sleep on a couch at the front of the house because it meant he had a view of the trains. 'I could watch them all night', he says.


Australian Model Railway AssociationDuring the recent Queen’s Birthday long weekend, Danson, who is 58, and three other members of the model-railway club drove to South Australia. 'Chasing trains,' explains Danson.


After going to a model-railway exhibition in Adelaide, they headed to Port Augusta, which, as the junction for trains heading north towards Darwin and west towards Perth, has a big and busy railway station. Danson and his friends spent several hours on the Saturday night watching trains shunt in and out of the Port Augusta yards.


One of the highlights was seeing freight trains bound for Darwin that were two kilometres in length. Another highlight was seeing the steam engine that chugs along the Pichi Richi line between the Spencer Gulf and Quorn, on the fringe of the Flinders Ranges.


Back at the model-railway clubhouse in Glen Iris, Danson says model railways are just another way of enjoying trains. The maintenance of the clubhouse and the layouts becomes worthwhile when club members sit down to drive the trains.


A bench seat is elevated high enough for drivers to look over the main layout, which is about 20 metres by 15 metres. The controls are on a panel. Clocks are speeded up by a factor of six, lending the chance to have the trains run as if on a real-life timetable. On the Friday night after my visit, it had been decreed that the timetable to be used would be from the United States in the 1980s.


Thomas and FriendsDanson is a retired teacher, having taught politics, economics and geography in schools around Melbourne’s southern and eastern suburbs. One of his many roles at the club is to oversee its 20 junior members, who range in age from 10 to 16 years. 'Their eyes just light up when they see this layout', he says.


The model-railway club is putting on an exhibition at the Glen Iris clubhouse over the last weekend in August. Before then, one of Danson’s many tasks is to make sure that the club’s Thomas the Tank Engine layout is in good running order.


My son, at almost two, is mad on Thomas the Tank Engine. I look forward to seeing his face when Thomas comes to life.



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A scene, that we would all like to see and experience. The romance of our young years!
Theo Dopheide | 02 September 2006


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