THE RAILWAY JUNKIES MODELING CLUB
The most secretive club in Paris.
“Guys, may I help you?”. Wandering passersby belong to weekends. And we don’t look like we belong to here neither. “Yes please, we’re looking for the AFAC club, we have an appointment with Rafael.” Usually, the train modeling club hosted beneath the Paris East Train Station is open to the public only on Wednesdays and Saturdays. “Ah yes. 1st Basement, door #9 then, you follow the stairs.”
Going down the staircase: there it is. Next to the door #9, in the dim light, there’s an intercom. It reads AFAC. There we go. Driiiiing. No answer. Few seconds pass. Driiiiing again. The white heavy door finally opens while squeaking. At the end of the stairs, an old drowsy man is sitting behind the welcome desk. “We’re here for Rafael. ” “Mmmmm. Yes, wait a minute, I’ll go get him.”
The French Association of Railway Aficionados (AFAC) has settled underneath the Paris East Train Station in 1938. Shortly occupied by the nazis during the second World War, the secret basement was revived once France had been freed by the Allies. Over the course of 9 years, from 1946 to 1955, five gigantic models were built in the basement. Since then, virtually nothing has changed.
Few minutes later, Rafael pops his head from the end of a corridor. “Hey, Hi! Not too difficult to find? Come on, I’ll give you a tour!”. Rafael is one of the youngest members in the club. “I used to come see the trains at the Train Station above us with my mother as a kid. It’s actually a train driver who told us about some train modeling association and showed us the way to this room. 3 days later I was down here and I’ve never really left since then” shares our thirty-something guide who officially joined the club in 1991.
He goes through the swinging doors. “So here, it’s the 1:86,5 room that I operate. Over there, these are two other models: they’re 1:30 and 1:43,5.” In a corner of the room, people are lurking in the railway networks. They’re much older than him. Old control panels and vintage posters are sprawling on the aged walls of the room. This room is a happy mess.
Tonight, it’s Thierry, with his sleeveless jacket and Rayban Aviator whom is going to operate the biggest of all the networks. Chewing a gum, he’s weaving in and out of the models with agility . Switching from the control panels to the railways in a glance. “When you’re driving trains. Whether it’s at scale or 1/43,5, you need to be rigorous, you can’t do whatever.” Thierry is up to the challenge. Former train driver, he spends his free time here “since he was 8”. “When I was a kid, I couldn’t even fathom that I’d take care of this network one day” says the retired train driver. “I’m not saying that it’s a dream come true… Well actually it’s very close to that.”
His train is crossing the cardboard miniature St-Aubin Train Station. On the platform, there’s a little plastic woman holding her little plastic daughter by her little plastic hand. Thierry’s real big hand stops the train in front of them. “Sorry, I gotta go. My wife’s waiting for me.”
“So, you guys want to see my room?” offers Rafael. He’s been looking at the scene from the other side of the room. Smaller, but more detailed, his network is protected by a plastic window. “Red signal, closing. Stopped”. Glong glong, an orange locomotive is leaving “from Paris”. Brrrrrrrrrrr. It’s now going at full speed amid the paper trees and fake high-voltage lines. “This locomotive is worth more than €200! It’s my favorite!”
Organic food shop owner by the day, he becomes models train driver at night. “Train modeling is usually seen negatively by people” acknowledges Rafael. “But it shouldn’t be broken down to train modeling for what it is. It’s obviously a game and a past-time, but beyond, it’s also a gate to the world.”
He explains that regularly, young people come to the local to learn and take care of the railway networks. “Before, I wanted to get a maximum of trains. I was looking at all the new issues. Now, I’m more looking for sharing and transmitting my hobby.” Ding Ding. The train has arrived in the “fake Paris East Station” made of cardboard. “Oh, wait! I’m going to show you what it looks like by night.” He pushes the switch next to the door. Tadaaaam. The tiny streetlights placed next to the rails light up.