Russ Barry got his first model train when he was five.

From that moment on he was hooked, a model train "tragic" who now, in his retirement, fusses over an imposing layout in a purpose-built shed on his Westmere property.

"I was five years old when dad bought me my first train. It was an electric NZ Triang and ran on a nine-volt battery. The battery only lasted a few hours before it would be flat."

But that all changed when his father found a transformer and control system in a Whanganui shop which meant he could get power directly from a wall socket.


Now the 65-year-old former auto mechanic has a fleet of trains - 30 locomotives of varying types - rolling stock to be hauled and a model layout that is mesmerising both in its size and especially its detail.

The layout now includes four transformers to run the trains and another two transformers to take care of powering up the accessories such as miniature lights around the track, inside buildings and the myriad of points directing the trains from track to track.
It's all made possible by at least 400m of electric cabling he's installed to bring it all to life.

The rolling stock is German-made Marklin and the scenery is "freelance" which means much of it he and his wife Linda have created.

His ideas come when he's out riding his bike and driving. One hillside features a topdressing truck, again something he saw working on local farmland and inspiration sprang from it.
"I've done all the painting and landscaping myself. Some of it's 35 years old and some of it was built in the last eight years."
The latest acquisition - and as a model train enthusiast there's always something new - is a drop scene imported from Germany. It's a vista of green fields bounded by rolling hills and mountains in the distance.

Russ said it was soon after he and Linda married that his hobby got serious.
"In 1970 you could be Triang, a little bit of American product or Marklin and Marklin was the best you could buy. At that stage I had two locos, a transformer, 12 curves and two straights and away I went."

From there the layout has grown into hundreds of curves and straights and 37 different sets of points. And that's before you even start to count up the trains and their rolling stock. There are two turntables - one in the "country" and other automatic one at the main marshalling yards with its train shed which, of course, is illuminated.

There is so much happening on this particular railway that Russ needs to have his wits about him. Points are all numbered so he knows which ones to activate or not but it calls for concentration.

"I'm currently numbering everything because if I've got the grandkids here they've got no idea what goes where and when."

He can run three trains at any one time, either on his own or with others helping him. There are freight trains and passenger trains which run through towns and villages, over bridges and through tunnels.
With the ceiling lights switched off and curtains drawn the whole system is lit by the hundreds of miniature lights he's put in place.

In a lifetime growing his hobby, Russ acknowledges he has "spent plenty". He hasn't put a precise figure on it nor was he that keen to hazard a guess. But if you consider he's got 30 trains - and some of those cost about $700 each - then the total starts to head upwards. And that's before you account for the rolling stock, the electrical gear running the whole shebang, the miniature "people" populating the layout and the thousands of hours he spent creating this Lilliputian wonderland.

Linda said her contribution "isn't very much" but her husband's quick to point out "she's the one who pays for the trains".

They visited Germany four years ago on their way to the UK and went to the Marklin factory at Göppingen, just out of Stuttgart.
"After visiting the museum you go through this other door and it's just like going to Pak 'n Save. They had trolleys lined up and you just went shopping as you do at the supermarket, walking down the aisles and adding to your trolley whatever you wanted."
Linda said their itinerary could have been better planned on that trip.

"We went to Germany before we went to England and because we were going there for three months we weren't too sure how much we were going to spend. If we'd come back to other way who knows what would have happened when we reached the Marklin store," she said.

The layout in its current form is probably as big as will get.
But there is another big step to be made.

"We're going digital, which means one of the steam locos will be wired for sound. So you'll hear the noises from shovelling the coal, the noise of the train moving off. You'll hear the whole thing," he said.

A digital chip put into the train lets it all happen, and he expects that to be running in a few weeks.

Among the more unusual trains in his collection is one called the "rail zeppelin," a replica of a working train built in Germany in the 1930s. Its unique feature was the aeroplane engine hooked to a large propeller which was the power source.

"It was probably the start of the high-speed train era and I think it could reach speeds of up to 140mph (225kp/h)."
Again Russ's model is an exact miniature of that train, complete with spinning propeller.
That it takes hours to build the kitsets that make up the life-like backdrops doesn't bother Russ. It's what he loves doing.

Everything in this miniature world is so true to life it's uncanny. Everyday scenes are captured, like the couple camping in a tent, a wedding party and some boys playing basketball. There's even a gang of workmen laying fibre optic cable.

There's a sawmill with the working saw, a windmill and a working crane on one of the many sidings in the layout. Russ built that for children who visit so they can operate the model.
"To me this is all about your imagination and what you see out in the real world, you set up in miniature form."

He's had the odd major "incident" when trains have inadvertently collided; he said everyone setting up a layout would experience that.

Rarely does a day go by when Russ is not running the trains or working on the layout. He retired in April last year and has spent a lot of time with his hobby "because I didn't want to end up lying on the couch".

"I used to come out day after day because it was winter and the weather was lousy. I just kept building and building.
"It's about the fun you have building it but more importantly seeing the expressions on other people's faces when they see it, especially young kids.

"You never know it might inspire some of them to take it up as a hobby."