I have this theory that toys we loved as kids have a way of imprinting themselves on some of us, certainly on those of us who’ve never grown up. So you end up with adults who collect expensive toy soldiers, track down that comic book where Superman makes his first appearance, buy trading cards they couldn’t find when they were eight years old, or build elaborate dolls’ houses and fill them with authentic, tiny pieces of Victorian furniture.

Or maybe they buy a real Jaguar, which they’ll treasure almost as much as the Corgi Jag they had when they were young.

Linwood Barclay’s train set
Linwood Barclay’s train set © Linwood Barclay/Spencer Barclay

When I was around five years old, my father set up a very basic train layout for me. (I think it was as much for him, honestly.) He bought a 4ft-by-8ft sheet of plywood, covered it with a mat that resembled grass, then nailed down a large oval of HO track, which, with two switches, had a smaller oval within it. (He also added slot cars, with an actual level railway crossing, so you could try to race your car past before the train got there. Many people were killed.)

I loved that layout. We added model houses and industries and trees and shrubbery and bought more passenger coaches and freight cars. At some point, we got a second sheet of plywood and doubled its size. Now we had an empire.

And then, some time in my early teens, it all got taken down when we moved and there was no place to set it up again.

A train line at Miniatur Wunderland Hamburg – the largest model railway of its kind in the world
A train line at Miniatur Wunderland Hamburg – the largest model railway of its kind in the world

Fast-forward several years. My wife Neetha and I were looking for our first house. When you are a model-train nut, you couldn’t care less about the kitchen or the number of bathrooms. Is there a decent room in the basement for a model-railway layout? Since building my first two layouts in that starter house, I’ve constructed nine or 10 more over the years. When we moved from the Toronto suburbs to downtown four years ago, I had to tear down a layout that filled a room about 15ft sq. The new basement is slightly larger, and construction on the current layout began in May 2019 with plenty of help from our grown son, Spencer. He had the bug imprinted on him when he was not a year old, and I had him perched atop the layout I was building in a baby seat. Anything that looks really amazing on my layout is invariably his contribution. (Spencer is now a miniaturist and modeller by profession, having built parts of the Little Canada exhibit in Toronto, which sets out to replicate this country in miniature. You can find him on Instagram as @miniaturespencer.)

The current layout is my best, although it still pales in comparison to other hobbyists’ efforts. Unlike many of them, which aim to recreate, with strict attention to detail, a specific place and time, I’ll put a new HO-scale Audi A4 next to a 1959 Ford. I’ll run engines that are from different railway companies that never worked together. Modellers who want everything prototypical – we call them the “rivet counters” – would find fault. I don’t care. My layout is not for them. It’s for me. I’m just having fun, with a dash of whimsy tossed in. Visitors are invited to find the alien peering down from the skyscraper, the Bat-Signal on top of it, the hungry bears sneaking up on the oblivious campers, the biker fight, or the enormous frog in the harbour big enough to swallow you whole.

Barclay with his model railway
Barclay with his model railway © Linwood Barclay/Spencer Barclay

I have a difficult time explaining to others the appeal of this hobby because I’m not sure I know myself. Some visitors to our home would have an easier time getting their heads around my having a huge porn collection in the basement. “OK, yeah,” they’d say. “We get that.” (Someone asked me the other day, incredulously, “What have you spent on this?” My reply: “A lot less than many people spend on golf.”)

How to build it

Atlas Model Railroad Co USA atlasrr.com

Faller Germany, faller.de

Fleischmann Germany, fleischmann.de

Kato Precision Railroad Models Japan, 


Walthers USA, walthers.com

Woodland Scenics USA,


I think, at least for me, it may come down to this: when you’re a writer, and you spend your day imagining a world in your head, it’s nice to take a break and create one with your hands. Laying and ballasting track, sculpting mountains, planting trees, making roads, assembling intricate structures. And then there’s the actual running of the trains. Standing in the middle of the layout as a triple-headed freight or a VIA passenger train circles around me, the digital diesel sounds echoing throughout the room, affords a kind of Zen-like experience. I am transported from the stressful world we live in to this one, where anything and everything that happens is in my control. (The running joke around here, in Canada, is that at least my VIA trains are on time.)

“I’m just having fun, with a dash of whimsy tossed in”
“I’m just having fun, with a dash of whimsy tossed in” © Linwood Barclay/Spencer Barclay

We yearn for acceptance, and while I understand the sentiment, it drives me crazy when someone sees the layout and says, “My six-year-old would love this!” We feel validated whenever some celebrity is revealed to be a model-railway enthusiast. Every time there’s an article about rocker Rod Stewart’s spectacular model railway, people email me the link and ask, “Did you see this?” Well, of course I’ve seen it. We’re all part of a cult.

Today, I will aim to write about 2,000 words on my next book, and when I stop I’ll be wondering where the tale will pick up tomorrow. So I’ll head to the basement, run a train or make a building, and in all likelihood, it will come to me.

Maybe these trains should be a business expense. 

Look Both Ways by Linwood Barclay is published by HQ at £20

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