Tucked away between Minogue Park and the Frankton Railway Line is a miniature marvel.

Every week a jolly bunch of train and engineering enthusiasts tinker away, building everything from model trains and carriages to gas-powered cranes.

Hamilton Model Engineers club president Dave Simpson said he had heard the miniature railway was Hamilton's best kept secret.

The Hamilton Model Engineers was founded in 1931 and incorporated in 1936.

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The club's first home was on Beerescourt Rd and consisted of little more than a raised oval track.

Later the club moved to Seddon Park and then again to Hall St. Ironically, they had to vacate this last site because a road to the modern Frankton Railway overbridge cut right through the site.

Geoph Howarth, who joined the club in 1977, said it was the oldest model engineering society in New Zealand.

"It was originally called the Waikato Model and Experimental Engineers Inc," he said.

For Howarth, building and driving the trains is all part of fulfilling a childhood dream.

"When I was going to school I wanted to be a train driver, but by the time I ended, diesel had come in and they didn't appeal at all. They had no atmosphere."

This comment is enough to start a disagreement that has been ongoing for many years - which is better: steam powered, diesel or electric? The only thing the group can agree on is they have no time for the Chinese locomotives that trundle by on the Frankton line.

Simpson worked on diesel trains for five decades, and disagrees with Howarth that they had no atmosphere. But as club member Peter Coop said "They still run you over the same way".

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Coop talks from experience, having spent 13 weeks in hospital after being hit by a train on his motorbike. The motorbike had just had its gearbox replaced from a bike on which another man had died.

"The man asked me 'are you superstitious' and I said 'no'. It was out of the shed to the railway and that was that," Coop said. When the club was told to shift again in 1983 they found a site off Tui Ave in Minogue Park which was part rubbish dump, part horse stable. These days the club operates more than 1.6km of track which divide to run over six bridges, through three tunnels, all surrounded by native bush.

The club runs its three existing locomotives every Sunday for children to ride and Simpson said they would have 500-800 people riding the trains every week.

Club member John Hannah, now in his 80s, still builds scale models of old steam-powered locomotives and personally owns six trains. These trains are no toys; every engine requires a safety check every three years to ensure the boiler is working properly.

The Kiwi Rail train the club currently operates cost them $35,000. They purchased it from Dave Giles who makes model trains for movies, and sometimes works with Weta Workshops.

Constructing a train usually means buying the basic components and then machining the wheels and cylinders. The body work is constructed from sheet steel and boilers have to be manufactured from copper plate and tubing. John said you could easily spend 3-4 years building a train. Coal for the engines has to be imported from the UK.

The age range of club members spans from 15-90 and Simpson said the club was always eager to greet new members.

"It's like an apprenticeship," he said. "It's a dying art because the younger generation are not into it."

Dave said the club was slowly putting away money to restore the 100-year-old signal box which used to sit at the Frankton Railyards. The work is expected to cost $80,000 - no small order for a club that charges its members only $10 a year.

The signal box is exactly how it would have been when it was fully operational, with a whole wall lined with heavy levers to signal lane changes, a route board which still lights up and even a conductor's telephone gathering dust. As well as turning the building into a museum Dave said the semaphore signals dotted about the miniature railway line will also be restored to operate, albeit for far smaller trains.