The Model Railroad Collector: A family passion going full steam ahead

Deep below ground of an Etobicoke home lies trains…Lots and lots of trains.

Down in the basement of Christopher Balestri’s home is a scene from “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” – except the miniature tracks and the small scale model of old Toronto is no accident.

It’s a project that’s been 25 years in the making and still chugging along, with every little detail you can possibly think of. From signage to buildings to signals that light up – it’s the ultimate model train setup.

(Video shot and edited by Nitish Bissonauth) 

“Originally I started this because of my dad” explains Balestri.

“He started this hobby back in the early ‘80s and throughout the early ‘80s and ‘90s we started our own layout and I kind of got the train bug from him.”

Balestri says building this layout for decades is what helped him bond with his father. The pair put in countless hours of research and effort into creating this masterpiece.

A model GO Train rounds a bend on an elaborate miniature Toronto railroad track.

Balestri’s sets feature everything from railroad beds to roads, and even tiny trees. (Photo by Nitish Bissonauth) 

And while the detailing is impressive, it’s the train sets that will make any collector go loco.

“Right now actual rolling stock- so freight cars, passenger trains – we’re talking about in excess of 300-plus items.  The locomotives are kind of in the 75-80 range and they span multiple eras.”

four model GO trains sit idle in the miniature rail yard.

Several generations of GO locomotives form part of Balestri’s collection.

Over the years, the Balestris have invested approximately $20,000 on the locomotives and rolling stock and another $10,000 on tracks, wiring and other materials used to build the layout.

The trains and parts are ordered online from different manufacturers in the U.S. and Canada. They then use specialized equipment to create a series of programmable and customizable actions like activating lights, sounds and different engine functions.

Chris Balestri works on a model train with a small screwdriver.

Steady hands and patience are major keys when being a model railroad train collector. (Photo by Nitish Bissonauth) 

“It’s a neat piece of tech. One of the biggest challenges is playing with the internal piece and working on the small parts like the wiring,” says Balestri.

“It helps to have a good set of steady hands and a lot of patience.”

His layout captures glimpses of history, showcasing different eras of Toronto. From the Inglis sign that used to look over Liberty Village to the old CN Rail train station at Bathurst, his set is a blast from the past and a reminder of how much things have changed.

“It’s enlightening and educational,” he says. You get to learn a lot about history and kind of recreate it.”

Balestri has left no stone unturned when building his set – he even went out of his way to record actual GO train sounds and program them as part of the controls for the trains. Anything from whistles to bells to even the horn – the trains are exactly like the real thing.

And while it takes hours and can be painstaking, it’s worth all the time, energy and money he puts into it.

“The most rewarding things about the hobby are being able to have an escape, time to yourself, and to work on your personal projects. It’s great stress release.”

Model Railroader #4

Balestri has spent most of his life working on his elaborate miniature railway. (Photo by Nitish Bissonauth) 

As the room in his basement continues to shrink, Balestri doesn’t plan on slowing down – he’s actually looking for a bigger space to expand his miniature railroad empire.

Story by: Nitish Bissonauth, Metrolinx Bilingual Spokesperson, Media Relations and Issues Specialist