The Prairie Rail Workshop model railroad club was formed around late 1981 – early 1982 in Saskatoon. Original members included some former members of the defunct Saskatoon Model Railroad Club, along with some new members who did not belong to the old club. Prairie Rail Workshop’s original slogan was ‘An Informal Group with a Mutual Interest in Railroading’. During the early 1980s meetings were held in members’ homes, a sort of ’round robin’ format where each member would take his turn hosting a meeting. If a host member did not have an operating layout, there would be a slide presentation or discussions relating to prototype or model railroading. Membership dues were collected annually, and membership cards would entitle club members to a ten per cent discount at one of the local hobby shops.
About a year into the club’s existence, there was talk of building a layout. Some club members got bored with just talking about trains at meetings where there were no layouts, so the club decided to build a modular layout in HO scale. The proposed layout would have a mixture of prairie and mountainous scenery, and the modular sections would be roughly four feet in length with wooden frames and detachable wooden legs. The layout was completed in 1984, and it consisted of four corner modules and eight straight modules to form a double track main line. There was no yard, but there were a few side tracks to store equipment while the layout was on display. There was also no fancy wiring, so operation was limited to running one train on each loop.
After the first layout was ready for display, it went ‘on the road’. The layout was taken to craft fairs, hobby shows, the Saskatoon Prairieland Exhibition, and to various shopping malls in the city. The layout was even taken to model railroad conventions in other cities, and in 1985 the Prairie Rail Workshop would host a model railroad convention in Saskatoon. As the layout was being displayed to the model railroad community and members of the general public, the club’s mission statement was refined to ‘promote the hobby’.
In 1986 some club members suggested abandoning the ’round robin’ format and adopt a fixed meeting place. The City of Saskatoon acquired and renovated an abandoned elementary school and turned it into a community centre. For the next seventeen years the club would rent a room and hold its meetings and layout work sessions in the Albert Community Centre. At about the same time there was talk of building a new layout with more operating potential, and with a fixed meeting place and room to work, plans went ahead. The club also decided to rent one of the centre’s larger rooms for one Saturday in February and put on a public show. Other clubs and model railroaders were invited to bring layouts or set up displays, and there would also be used model railroad equipment up for silent auction. This extravaganza proved to be successful, and to this day the annual train show is a major event for Prairie Rail. Other activities throughout the 1980s included field trips, railfan trips, and group excursions to other cities.
The second layout came to fruition by the end of the 1980s. Mountainous scenery was constructed on eight foot sections while the remaining modules were four feet in length. The club also chose to go with folding table legs to support the modules, making the trains more visible to children. A city scene, passing sidings, and industrial spurs made for more interesting operation, but like the previous layout only two trains could run at any given time. The building of a new layout coincided with plans to host another convention, and in 1990, the 100th anniversary of the first railway into the Saskatoon area, Prairie Rail hosted another show. Both the 1985 and 1990 conventions included the Sixth Divison of the Pacific Northwestern Region, which in turn is part of the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA). The NMRA sets standards in the hobby and its regions and divisions sponsor annual conventions held throughout Canada and the United States.
In 1995 Prairie Rail hosted a regional model railroad convention, and model railroaders from all over western Canada and the northwestern US were invited to attend. It was Saskatoon’s biggest model railroad convention ever, and after that show Prairie Rail was again considering some changes. First, the second layout was just as if not more awkward to transport than the first layout, and the club wanted something that was quicker to set up and take down. Second, the club was in search of a sense of direction or focus. So by 1997 construction began on a new layout and with it came a new mission statement: ‘To build, operate, and maintain a portable model railroad layout.’ Finally, the club would eventually decide on a change of venue for the annual train show. It had become an event to look forward to, both for members and non-members alike, and each year there was more preparation involved for the event.
The third layout would have two mainline tracks, passing sidings, industrial spurs, an engine terminal, and two yards. With all that trackage and much greater operating potential, it would prove to be a wiring nightmare if it were to be run on DC power packs. So as the layout neared completion, the club decided to equip it with Digitrax digital command control (DCC), which in turn would make operating sessions more feasible. The first two years of DCC operation were chaotic, and there were some members who were somewhat reluctant to participate. But once the basics of the system were figured out there were trains running all over the place. As with the second layout, the third layout would have folding legs, but unlike the previous layout it would have interlocking joints for ease of assembly.
Another divisional convention was held in 2001, and it was Prairie Rail’s fourth convention as host. In the years following the annual train show made a change in venue, first to the Wheatland Building on the city’s exhibition grounds and after that the Western Development Museum. In 2003 the club relocated to some vacant store space in a shopping mall and left the layout set up for operation, public display, and work sessions. By this time the club had a large contingent of N scale modelers amongst the membership, so the decision was made to build a modular layout that would be larger (in terms of scale miles), lighter, easier to assemble, and have even more trackage than the HO layout. And unlike the HO layout, the N scale layout was built with DCC operation in mind from the beginning. Another novel concept would involve club ownership of enough modules to make a simple ‘dog bone’ loop to loop with a double track main line and yards in between, while remaining modules would be owned by individual members. This ‘variable size’ concept allows the club to set up the layout in smaller venues.
At present, Prairie Rail has just finished our fourth HO scale layout. It is lighter and easier to store and transport.
So for thirty-five years Prairie Rail Workshop has grown from a group of people with a mutual interest in railroading to a model railroad club with two layouts and operation in two different scales. And our agenda is the same as it was since we built our first layout – to promote the hobby and just have fun running trains.