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Look around, what do you see? A fabulous miniature railway, that tens of thousands of people get to enjoy every year. A unique park in North Burnaby that has become a favourite destination for families, children, seniors, and visitors from around the world. Where the delight of a young child, taking a train ride for the first or tenth time, is met with a smile by a crew member, who volunteers his or her time to make it all happen.
2023 marks the 30th anniversary of The Burnaby Central Railway at Confederation Park.
Our story is incredible, because it was imagined, petitioned, financed, built, and operated by a group of volunteers from the
British Columbia Society of Model Engineers
- 210,000 volunteer hours
- 1.2 million train rides
- 6,000 birthday parties
- Countless Smiles
Today, we are one of Canada’s largest miniature railways open to the public and are comparable to the best in the world.
Model Engineering is a hobby that spans many countries and has millions of participants. However, most miniature railways are built by individuals on private land, and not always available for public enjoyment.
1973 – 1991
In 1973, The British Columbia Society of Model Engineers, formed in 1929 by a group of train enthusiasts, built their first open-to-the-public miniature railway. It started as a temporary ground level 5” and 7.5” track at Burnaby Heritage Village, and they named it The Burnaby Central Railway.
It was such a success, the BCSME was invited to build a permanent track, which opened in 1975. The railway operated for 15 years, but by 1990 they had outgrown the single loop track. The members of the day envisioned a much larger, more interesting layout, with multiple loops, bridges and tunnels, facilities to store and maintain the trains, plus a larger station. However, convincing the city to let them have their own land, finding the money and labour to build, and overcoming the many challenges that lay ahead, was a daunting idea for a relatively small group of men and women, for whom the railway was simply their hobby.
Although it was a huge gamble, they decided to go for it. The search was on for a new location. An early idea, of extending the railway to Deer Lake, had been ruled out. A proposal to relocate to Central Park was turned down. Finally, a former municipal works yard, a piece of undeveloped land on the corner of Penzance and Willingdon Ave, was discussed. It was rough land, had quite a slope, but with nearly 7 acres, it had potential.
On December 7, 1988
Adele Talbot, President of the BCSME, made a presentation to Burnaby Parks and Recreation Commission, asking to negotiate with the Commission and the City of Burnaby on relocating the BCR from Burnaby Village Museum to Confederation Park. The vote narrowly passed by 5 – 4 in favour of the move.
September 19, 1989
An historic day in the history of the BCSME: Burnaby City Council approved a Parks Commission recommendation, by a vote of 8 – 1, to allow the Burnaby Central Railway to relocate to Confederation Park, and that a budget of $154,000 be allocated to help build the new facility.
The approval came with conditions: The society had to find $170,000 before they could proceed. They only had $35,000 in the bank. Donations of labour and machinery would count in lieu of finances, but where would they find the bulk of the money?
With ingenuity, determination, teamwork and guts, the members of the BCSME got to work.
The construction plan was jointly developed by Burnaby Parks and the BCSME executive.
They used every connection they had:
- Detailed surveying work was done by students from BCIT
- Local construction firm Chrisdale Homes built the car barn and station at cost
- Colin Bowden, a member, and Civil Engineer, designed the viaduct and signed off on all the infrastructure
- Finning donated the use of heavy equipment to work the land
- Chevron and Petro Canada donated fuel
- Gravel was donated from Pacific Northern Rail Contractors
- Professional services were donated by electricians, plumbers, carpenters, civil engineers and more
- 150 maple trees were paid for by a federal grant, numerous trees by Burnaby Parks
- Individual members made significant personal donations
- Burnaby offered $154,000
- The federal government New Horizons grant gave $19,000
- BCSME had $35,000 saved from ticket sales
- Though initially turned down, the provincial government contributed $112,000 from GO BC lottery funds.
The shortfall was made up from donations in-kind by a multitude of companies and organizations, not to mention the vast majority of the labour was done by volunteers.
Following a final presentation to Parks Board in the summer of 1991 by President Bob Fishwick and Treasurer Lindsay McDonnell, the society was given the green light to apply for a building permit.
On November 4, 1991 we broke ground. It had taken ten years to get to this day! Initial construction took 18 months; it was quite the feat! There were many hurdles and challenges. We built the main depot, half the car barn, the beginnings of a ticket office, perimeter fencing, passenger platforms, pathways, access roads, sewer, water, electricity, 6,000 ft of main line track, yard and unloading facilities, ballast, ties, walkways, landscaping (the bare minimum!) and site drainage. The funding for this was $338,250, with a budget shortfall of $2,250.
One big issue that needed to be solved was the fact that the land sloped down sharply on the northeast corner of the property. In the summer of 1992, one of our members noticed a regular stream of dump trucks trundling down Willingdon towards Burrard Inlet. He stopped one and asked the driver what they were doing. The trucks were carrying fill from the Cassiar Connector project at Boundary and Hastings. A deal was made; not only did the trucks divert the fill to our site, but we were paid $7 per truck load! In the summer of ’92, much to the annoyance of neighbours, a constant line of dump trucks, 8,000 in total, delivered fill to the site.
An estimated 40,000 volunteer hours went into the building of the Burnaby Central Railway, mostly by a dedicated crew of 60 men.
At dusk on the eve of opening day, the last bit of track was hammered down. The idea of putting down 6,000 ft of track and switches, taking the first trial run at 8pm on Wednesday, then welcoming a 50-person Train Meet starting at 7am Thursday, was mad, but they pulled it off.
July 1, 1993
On a drizzling wet Canada Day, the BCSME welcomed the public, dignitaries, model engineers from the US and overseas, and a tired but jubilant membership to our opening celebration. BCSME President, Ron Treend, addressed the crowd and said, “Nobody, including the City of Burnaby, thought we could pull it off, but we did it!”
Over the next 7 years, we upgraded the ticket office, added signalling, landscaping and another 6,000 ft of mainline track. Truss bridges over the west interchange were built by BCIT students and installed by Chevron.
The Year 2000 IBLS Meet of the Millennium
In the year 2000, the BCR had grown to over 2 miles of mainline track, saw the addition of the east interchange, the viaduct and the 120 ft Rogers Bridge. With that, members prepared for their biggest event yet, the Meet of the Millennium.
The International Brotherhood of Live Steamers’ Train Meets are held every 5 years, usually in Los Angeles. The BCSME won the right to hold the Meet in 2000. This event was the crowning glory of the society’s efforts to date. A parade of 38 locomotives was a sight to be seen. Over 500 guests, 100 volunteers and 65 locomotives, taking turns on the tracks, made for a very busy and exciting park.
2001 – 2023
Over the past 22 years, the railway has continued to grow, both in size and number of visitors. A concrete overpass and tunnel were added, the car barn was finished, more signalling and landscaping completed, the traction engine shed was built, and the mainline track increased to 12,500 ft, double what we started with.
We added Birthday Parties in 1997 and estimate we have hosted approximately 6,000 of them. Many families from around Greater Vancouver have discovered the Burnaby Central Railway due to these parties.
From 2003 to 2017 we opened for a night or two at Halloween. Everyone loved it. The railway doesn’t normally operate in the dark, but with decorations and candle-lit pumpkins as far as the eye could see, it was a lot of fun. Red spotlights under the Rogers Bridge and a smoke machine blowing through the lights made it look like the bridge was on fire. Long-time member Marjorie Carroll would dress as a witch and jump out from behind a rock, everyone would shriek, then laugh. We had just as much fun as our guests! Our volunteer members dressed in costume and offered cookies and hot chocolate so guests could warm up after their spooky train ride.
The women of the BCSME have played a pivotal role. While some are there for the love of trains, and readily take part in operations, many got involved because it was a family hobby. Their contributions are pivotal to the social fabric of the club.
The Next 30 Years
Our success is due to the amazing effort of hundreds of volunteers, men, women and youth, who took pleasure in building something for others to enjoy, and who found comraderie in the community of the BCSME. Our future is in the hands of a new generation. If you’re a railway enthusiast, or you’re curious and would like to learn, or simply want to get involved with an amazing community-run attraction, we invite you to join us. From engine drivers, conductors and machinists, to gardeners, grounds crew, administrators and guest services, we need people with an array of talents to help us continue to operate and grow the Burnaby Central Railway.
Join us, it’s FUN!