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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

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Train ‘nut’ builds life-sized VIA Rail coach

Tags: Heebonics
Jason Shron in his train [Cara Stern photo]

Jason Shron’s passion for trains is infectious. Sitting next to him on VIA Rail seats, listening to the recorded sounds of the train chugging along on the tracks, it’s almost too easy to forget that the coach we’ve boarded isn’t actually moving; it’s in his basement.

After more than four years of work, the 38-year-old self-described train-obsessed nutcase has a slice of a train from around 1980 in his basement, built using parts he’s acquired over the years from actual VIA Rail trains.

“If I’m obsessed with something, I want to surround myself with it,” he said. Even that seems like an understatement coming from this father of three, who spends his days in his favourite seat – a second-row aisle seat – working as Canada’s largest manufacturer of model trains.

Shron has been in love with trains his whole life – his earliest memory is being on board at two years old, which was his age when his family was moving to Toronto from Montreal. Throughout his life, he would take the train between the cities, visiting relatives. By the time he was four, he was irrevocably obsessed with trains.

He was just 12 when he became set on building the life-size installation in his home, and even wrote to VIA Rail to ask what it would take to acquire original seats (and VIA Rail responded apologizing that they could not sell any to him). He struck it lucky when, in 1998, he got his first seats from the junk pile at VIA’s maintenance centre, and later he purchased more.

The hardest part was finding the pieces that aren’t typically sold off, such as the garbage bin. In order to get these parts, Shron decided to buy an actual coach. Surprisingly, he said it didn’t cost him very much. Once he removed the parts he didn’t need, such as the tires, he made double what he paid for it. Apart from the actual coach, the whole project cost him around $10,000.

People who aren’t train enthusiasts might wonder why he’s so in love with trains that he’s willing to devote his career and his basement to them.

“It’s a snapshot of Canada,” he said. “You take the train across Canada and sit on the coach, and people get on in the middle of nowhere and they have such different lives than a Thornhill Jew. You’re sharing that life together for the few hours you’re on the train.”

But he didn’t always know he’d spend his life designing model trains. He devoted years to studying art history, and was working toward a PhD in that subject in England when he decided he was unhappy with his career path.

“Because of the way academia works… if there’s no money to expand the department, you have to wait for someone to retire,” he said. “But I remember thinking, if I’ve got the ability to do something really well, I want to succeed or fail based on my ability or hard work.”

He decided to take his chances forming his own business, and in this case, the gamble paid off, but it was due to a lot of hard work, he said. With a team, he designs the model trains, and then has two factories in China make the products.

It’s not a cheap hobby – a train car would cost around $80, a locomotive would be around $350 and a complete train might be $1,500, he said, adding that those are retail prices, so as the manufacturer, he doesn’t see all of that money.

However, sales passed the $1-million mark a few years ago, and although his American sales dropped during the recession, his Canadian sales remained steady.

Although his wife, published author Sidura Ludwig, is very supportive of his passion and appreciates that he loves trains, she isn’t a train nut herself, which Shron said is a good thing.

“If she was obsessed with trains, we’d be off the rails,” he joked. “She balances my absurdity and my nuttiness.”

Now that he’s conquered the train in his basement, he’s continuing work on another lifelong dream – to recreate the journeys of youth. This huge project will feature a model of Toronto’s Union Station with a route that goes as far as Brockville, Ont. That’s as much of the route to Montreal that he can fit in what’s left of his basement.

For the next 30 years, he’ll be chugging away on that project. It’s not moveable, so he intends to live in that Thornhill, Ont., house for the rest of his life.

“I’ll move out of here when I’m drooling in a bib, and I won’t care they’re tearing apart my trains,” he said.

For now, he’ll sit in his favourite seat and ponder the stories these chairs hold about the people they carried throughout their 40-year history in service.

For more information, including a video tour of the train in the basement, visit kingstonsub.com.

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