The engine disappears inside the tunnel, dragging with it wagons of coal, and emerges from the other end. Just as it continues its journey across a long bridge, a large hand emerges from the horizon and lifts it off the tracks. The coal wagons are replaced with wagons carrying cars. No, this isn’t the hand of the Almighty. These replicas of hills, tunnels, bridges and lakes have been meticulously handcrafted by Abhimanyu Shaunik, a rail modeler who is otherwise in the business of touch screen monitors. Not only does Shaunik collect models of miniature trains, but he also creates a landscape replete with stations, bridges and tunnels. Once that is done, the trains begin their fascinating journeys.
Shaunik is not the only one working tirelessly to recreate railway kingdoms. P J Singh, an engineer who has retired from Delhi’s Imperial Hotel, has built a model of the picturesque Barog railway station on the Kalka-Shimla route. Ranjeev Dubey, who runs a law firm, has constructed perfect replicas of the Barog and Solan stations. And while Sanjiv Narayan refuses to cave into modelling layouts, he is the proud creator of a 110-feet-long railway track. “You can just sit down and run the trains, switch tracks, do some shunting and spend hours that way,” he explains.
What is it about miniature trains and layouts that make it such a maddening passion? Narayan, who got his first train set when he went to study abroad after graduating from IIT Delhi, was thrilled to bits with his acquisition. Shaunik and Singh too got their ‘first’ models when they went abroad. And have remained hooked ever since.
Rail modellers spend years working with their miniatures. For Dubey, it all began when he picked up a five-rupee book on train models from a pavement stall. Today he spends about an hour every day and more on weekends to pursue his miniature-modelling passion. “It takes years to build a model,” says Dubey.
It is indeed a painstaking exercise. So Shaunik works “in bits and pieces”.“There are phases of intense work and then I leave the exercise for several months before coming back to it,” says Shaunik. “That’s the beauty. You can take it up at your own convenience.”
For Shaunik, the real fun lies in thinking of new ways to improve the layout. The ‘pastor’ outside the church near his railway station is Father Bill Clinton as the tiny board near the door of the church door proclaims. There is also a Hercules Rum factory near his station with a tiny signboard that reads: ‘No Trespassing. Violators will be shot. Survivors will be shot again.’
The real effort lies in adding minute details to the landscape. Most modelers are obsessed with getting as close to the real thing as possible. “All ground cover is made of natural material — crushed rock, soil, sand and grit — stolen from friendly neighbourhood houses under construction. The track is covered with crushed granite sieved to the right diameter held down by diluted white glue. The undergrowth and trees are made from synthetic hand-me-down blankets and finely ground foam from old foam pillows coloured with fabric paints after being pulped in the kitchen liquidiser,” explains Dubey. Since they are constantly on the look out for bits and pieces for their models, even an inhaler’s cap is a find. Singh cuts it into two semi-circular orbs to use as lampshades for the stationmaster’s house.
A hobby it might be, but it is not cheap. An engine of a train model could cost as much as $200 and scenery kits could cost anything from a few hundreds to several thousand dollars. Most rail modelers own boxes of trains, kits and figures that they source from abroad and spend years assembling kits, creating detailed landscapes and train settings. Still dare to think these are just boys who never grew up?