How an Ontario man is combatting pandemic chaos with life-like model railroad

Jason Shron has been obsessed with Via Rail trains since he was five years old. He has long found building model railroads to be a more spiritual practice than mere hobby. These days, he says it offers even more: a perfect antidote to COVID-19 angst.

'There's something meditative when you actually build something,' Jason Shron says

Jason Shron has been planning to build the Montreal-Toronto model railroad since grade school. (Submitted by Jason Shron)

If 2020 had a motto, it could well be: What fresh hell is this? 

It's no wonder people have been turning to baking — and other wholesome pursuits — in an attempt to soothe their weary, worried psyches in this year of the pandemic.

Jason Shron's hobby doesn't involve sourdough starter, yeast, or all-purpose flour. Instead, the Thornhill, Ont., man has spent years creating a model train layout in his basement, which he says has been putting him in a meditative state long before 2020 started putting human beings through the wringer. 

"This model railroading, and this project, offers me solace. It offers me peace. It offers me order, especially during a time that is chaotic," Shron told Tapestry host Mary Hynes.

"It is something that can be controlled, that can be ordered. It's brought that wonderful sense of presentness to me — where I can be present; where I can experience the moment fully."

Jason Shron says building a model railroad of the Toronto-Montreal route helps him being more calm in everyday life.

1 year ago
Duration 1:43
Jason Shron says building a model railroad of the Toronto-Montreal route helps him being more calm in everyday life. 1:43

'There's something meditative when you actually build something'

Shron describes the project as a kind of spiritual discipline. It doesn't sound too far-fetched: the endeavour calls for the same qualities you might learn at the foot of a guru, rabbi, or monastic. 

He has long been learning how to pay attention, be present, and honour this very moment — free from any electronic device. 

"It's not a screen," he said emphatically. 

"There's something meditative when you actually build something — you're creating something — and then the very repetitive motion."

Shron described building a forest, planting "hundreds of trees — one at a time."

"I'm using something very physical, very material, doing this motion over and over again, to reach that spiritual level."

Shron said the benefits of that practice stay with him when he leaves the model railroad in his basement and returns to the rest of his life. 

In 2013 CBC's The National visited Jason's home to check the full size replica of VIA train car he built in the basement.

9 years ago
Duration 3:09
An Ontario man has taken his love of model trains to a whole other scale, CBC's Ron Charles reports 3:09

"By calming myself like that, by getting into that zone — and this is for any hobby, really — when you get into that zone, it's like feeding the godly soul," he explained. "Because I then have more patience to go spend time with my children. I'm less likely to lose my temper."

Full-size Via Rail car in basement

Lyn Road in Brockville today (left), and constructed on Jason Shron's model railroad (right). (Submitted by Jason Shron)

Shron's layout is a life-size replica of the Kingston Subdivision line from Toronto to Brockville, Ont. The first section he built was Lyn Road in Brockville. The full-size Via Rail car he also constructed occupies a different part of the basement.

Shron and his family are dreaming of the real-life Via Rail trips they'll take once pandemic restrictions are lifted: an overnighter to Winnipeg figures prominently in the plans.

His wife, Sidura, has been wholly supportive of the hobby, although Shron suspects she may not have known just what she was getting into when they first started dating.

"It wasn't until we bought the house and she joked with a friend: 'Yeah, he says he's building a full-sized train down there,'" Shron recalled. "And the friend said, 'I've known Jason a long time. If he says he's building a full-sized train down there, he's going to build a full-sized train down there!'"

A track section near Lyn Road in Brockville, Ontario. (Submitted by Jason Shron)

Shron says his university degrees in fine arts and art history have been unexpectedly useful in creating the model train layout, particularly a lesson in his second-year painting class on letting go of perfection. 

"The teacher said to me, 'Jason, you're too controlled… You're trying to do every detail on that apple or whatever. You have to relax. Just let the brush flow, let the paint flow and just take whatever's left on your palette and just do something in three minutes, OK? Stop trying to get the stem perfect,'" Shron recalled.

"And so I did. And the best painting I ever did in my entire life was the three minute painting at the end of that class when she told me to stop worrying about the details." 

Shron says his scale model may not be perfect in every last detail, but that's OK.

"The point is, anyone who looks at [it] says, 'That's Lyn Road!'" 

Produced by Tayo Bero and Rosie Fernandez. Written by Mary Hynes.

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