Welcome to Walter Fankhauser’s magnificent mini-world: a model railroader’s post-retirement dream come true

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 6, 2010

From the convenience of his handheld remote control, Cochrane model railroad buff Walter Fankhauser can operate up to six trains at the same time in his home-based HO scale miniature world. Inset lower left clockwise from upper left: GE diesel passes through farming community on way to prairie town; coal train climbs grade on way to Continental Divide; 0-8-0 steam engine chugs past logging operation; mountain colliery fills waiting coal cars; and 4-8-4 steam engine awaits instructions on roundhouse turntable. Inset lower right: couple rests on park bench while passengers prepare to board their train. 
Photos by Warren & Mary Anna Harbeck
Click on the image for a larger version

Several mornings each week I connect with coffee companion Walter Fankhauser at our local A&W restaurant. Accompanied by a dozen or so members of the Cochrane Men’s Walking Group, which he founded, this passionate outdoorsman is just returning from another hour-long hike-for-health in the fresh air of our foothills town.

But it’s his second great passion that we most often chat about – trains.

Walter may be 77, but when it comes to model railroading, he’s just a kid at heart.

When he and his wife Heidi moved to Cochrane 11 years ago after retiring from business, one area he insisted on including in his new home in GlenEagles was an 18-by-22-foot room dedicated to his hobby.

His hobby now consists of 15 engines and 117 rail cars that run on 800 feet of HO gauge track (3/4 inch wide). That’s the 1:87 scale on which he has created his entire miniature prairie and mountain world, with its people, livestock, wildlife, trees, homes, barns, factories, vehicles, trestle bridges, lakes, park benches, and even an outdoor privy. And yes, there are mountaineers, hikers and skiers, too.

The other day, Walter invited my wife, Mary Anna, and me to have a tour of his railway wonderland. Cameras in hand, here’s some of what we experienced:

As we enter the room, we are met with a wall-to-wall train system spread out over two decks and accompanied by amazingly authentic rumbling sounds of diesel engines idling.

To our right are a mountain coal mine and a railroad repair shop with roundhouse and turntable. On the turntable sits a 4-8-4 steam engine, the classic North American workhorse of a bygone era. (The 4-8-4 refers to the wheel configuration: eight drive wheels, four leading wheels and four trailing wheels.) Walter constructed the colliery from blueprints for an actual colliery in Colorado.

Straight ahead as we enter the room, a coal train chug-chugs its way up the long grade to the Continental Divide. Because of Walter’s concern for authenticity, he has filled the cars with tiny bits of coal he acquired in the coal-mining community of Sparwood, B.C. To pull the heavy load, he uses the renowned GE AC4400CW diesel engine, the modern-day workhorse of the industry and the featured engine in Walter’s system.

Along the far left wall, the mountain theme continues, this time with a Swiss flavour. There are alpine villages, deer, mountain climbers, and a series of very intricate bridges Walter himself has built.

Dominating the centre of the room is a busy prairie town and a farm community beyond it. Adjacent to the town are the railroad marshalling yards where Walter makes up his trains before they head out on their long journeys through his magical mini-world.

And magical indeed it is. A stickler for detail, Walter has coloured his landscape with various kinds of earth typical of the regions he is interpreting: amethyst rock from a mine in northern Ontario, pebbles from a Yukon river, copper from Alaska, red rock from the Alberta Badlands, white rocks from Bali, and sand from Arizona and the Sahara Desert.

The visual impact is enhanced with smoke rising from engines and chimneys, “steam” emerging from beneath passenger cars, and animated railway crossing barriers with flashing red lights. In the roundhouse I mentioned earlier, a team of tiny workers are seen doing some welding, represented by a very small green flickering light. A layer of coal dust covers some of the mining areas, and Walter has intentionally stressed the appearance of his rolling stock.

The sounds are genuine, too. Walter has collected digitally-recorded real train sounds – engines, whistles, bells, etc. – and plays them back through devices specially implanted in his models.

Walter operates his railroad from a handheld remote control unit that he carries with him around the room. With it he can control up to six separate trains simultaneously, all on the same set of integrated tracks. To do this, he digitally programs each engine to receive only the instructions intended for that engine.

Altogether, he has created a miniature reality that is totally convincing.

When he was about to retire some years ago, his doctor warned him, “You’re a workaholic. You won’t survive retirement unless you have a hobby.”

As a child growing up in Switzerland, he always wanted a train, but couldn’t afford one because of the war. All that has changed now at his Cochrane home within earshot of the CP Rail mainline.

“I never tire of playing with trains,” he says. “I always have something to do.”

© 2010 Warren Harbeck

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