The Weekender: Rail buffs are on the right track

Steve Benjamin of Thistle Modelmakers checks his layouts. Picture: Ellen Relander
Steve Benjamin of Thistle Modelmakers checks his layouts. Picture: Ellen Relander
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IT is an engineering project that could come to be known as Edinburgh’s Second Folly, given the cost and controversy that has dogged it from the very off.

The Capital’s tram project is still almost two years from completion – assuming everything goes to plan – and given the history of the £776 million project the road ahead is likely to be anything but smooth.

But all is not lost for those eager to catch a glimpse of trams – this weekend the city will be home to dozens of them, all whizzing about taking passengers to and from their destination.

It’s little surprise that the posters advertising “the only chance to see a working tram in Edinburgh” have caused quite a stir wherever they have appeared, what’s more remarkable that one of the machines will be a replica of the Capital’s original urban transit vehicles.

The lovingly created model, complete with passengers – something the latest tram workers can only dream about – is likely to be one of the star exhibits at this weekend’s Model Railway Show in Portobello Town Hall.

Organised by the Thistle Modelmakers Society, it is the first time there has been such a show in the Capital for at least five years, and fittingly it has returned to the venue which first hosted the show.

Among the many exhibits on show, it is the small maroon double-decker tram that immediately draws the eye.

The model was created by local modelmaker Ron Stevenson, 79, at his home in Craiglockhart, one of dozens of old-fashioned tram replicas he will be taking along to the show.

He has been fascinated by the machines ever since he was a boy growing up in Dundee. A trip to Aberdeen as a youngster only fire his imagination further.

“I was amazed to see that their trams were very different to our own, and at the time all of the various regions ran their own trams, so they were keen to make them all individual,” he says.

“When I first saw the Edinburgh tram, I think I was ten, I couldn’t work out why it had this great pole at the front of it, as it was a pulley- system, which was very different to the Dundee trams.”

Ron reckons he spent about three months creating the Capital tram model, which he has shown at exhibitions around the country, and he said he was delighted to get a chance to exhibit it in the Capital again after a break of about 14 years.

“It does have passengers, though only on the top deck, as the engine is quite large,” he says. “It is something special, and ego-wise I would be delighted if it was the most popular one.

“There is a lot of interest in them, especially with all the problems the current development has had, and there’s been a lot of excitement wherever I’ve taken the posters, as I’ve been putting wee stickers on letting people know that this is the only place they’ll see a working tram in Edinburgh this weekend. That’s brought a few smiles from people, so I hope they come along.

“These shows used to happen here all the time, so it’s great that the Thistle Modelmakers have brought it back as it’s a hobby people are really passionate about.”

Given the popularity of modelmaking, it is certainly surprising that Edinburgh has gone so long without a show. Similar events are held up and down the country every year, and events in Europe can take over some of the continent’s biggest venues and attract crowds keen to see everything from vast model railway systems to working scale-model helicopters and everything in between.

While they might have been on a smaller scale, such shows used to be a regular event in the Capital but around five years ago they ended, after the parent club ELREC disbanded. Part of the problem was losing its base, when Scottish Power withdrew the use of its premises.

Former member John Hewitt, one of the organisers of this weekend’s event, admits the show had also grown a little beyond its means.

“We had gotten a little too big, as we had growing crowds so we moved to the Brunton Hall in Musselburgh and we had loads of displays, which obviously cost quite a bit, but in the end we just didn’t get enough people through the door,” he says.

“It’s great that we’re able to bring this back, though, and I think there is quite a demand for it.”

As well as the trams, it will be the lovingly created model railway systems that take pride of place, with those from the local club joined by layouts from Scarborough, Cleveland and Greenock.

And it’s not just railways – there will be displays from other modelling clubs around the country and model boats, dolls’ houses, kit building and demonstration stands, as well as trade support, and even a buffet.

While it might seem like a strange hobby in today’s computer-obsessed age, John explains there is something to engage just about anyone.

“It involves a bit of everything really, particularly model railways and the layouts of them,” he says. “You’ve got woodwork and metalwork for the base and the trains, a lot of electronic stuff and wiring – that’s all getting much more complex these days as a lot of the models have microchips and the whole layout can be controlled from a laptop – and then there’s scenery and houses which are made from scratch. It’s really diverse.”

The club has around 18 regular members, and is hoping to encourage a few more to join on the back of the show.

“I went to a show in Germany recently and it was absolutely massive, with huge railways taking up whole rooms,” John says. “There are lots of people interested in this, so hopefully people will come along and support the show.”

• Edinburgh’s Model Railway Show, Portobello Town Hall, Portobello High Street, open today 10am-6pm, and tomorrow 10am-5pm. Adults £4, child £2, and family £10.