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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Model Railroading: A Multi-Dimensional Hobby - Part 1

Model Railroading

A Multi-Dimensional Hobby - Part 1

This is the first in a series of articles exploring the changing face of model railroading and how it continues to evolve into a contemporary, varied, fulfilling and exhilarating hobby.

Model railroading.  What does it conjure up in your mind? Maybe you know of a family member that was into model railroading.  Perhaps it was a grandfather or dad who had an attic empire that somehow ended up in boxes.  Perhaps it was a family tradition to set up a train around the Christmas tree.  

Or perhaps you were given a train set as a gift, you set it up, ran it and then it was put away and forgotten.  Does that mean model railroading is a hobby that was appropriate for an earlier generation and in light of today’s electronics and video games has lost its luster and faded away?  

Not on your life! Model railroading is alive and well.



The years and miles are evident on a hard working F7 as it passes workers taking care of unstable track. The weathering on the locomotive reflects the look of a machine with decades of service. The track workers pose suggests the hard work necessary to maintain a railroad. In the background ordinary telephone poles, cyclone fencing and some buildings add authenticity. Modeling the things we see every day along the tracks delivers realism and brings your layout to life.

There are more hobbyists in model railroading today than at any other time in history.  The hobby is enjoying renewed popularity around the globe with an estimated 400,000 adherents, and approximately 250,000 in the US alone.  What keeps it interesting is its multi-dimensional aspect. What keeps it current is the huge and growing selection of models, fresh equipment and advancing technology.    Some of the facets of model railroading include wood working, electronics, sculpting and model building, electronics, even history and research.

Trains can still be run on DC power packs, but many hobbyists are enjoying digital command control (DCC) where power is fed to the rails all the time, and a superimposed carrier signal sends command to the locomotives of interest.  With DCC, gone are the toggle switches, endless hours of sorting out control wiring, and the cry of “who’s got my train!”  Instead the trains are run via digital control.  Handheld cabs send data to a central controller, which in turn broadcasts the control data across the layout.  Each locomotive has a decoder that responds only to the commands directed to that specific locomotive.  As a result, you are free to run your trains anywhere on the layout.  You become the engineer, looking down the track for the correct signal indication or clearance, or work a particular industry or branch line.  With DCC, you really can just run your train.

Entry level models are being produced that have details and operability that was only dreamed of in top-of-the-line models a couple decades ago.  Today, mid-priced and top end models accurately depict equipment tailored to specific prototypes, even down to variations within a model series.  Hobby shops carry locomotive models that are either basic engines or equipped with sound systems that generate 16 bit sampled sounds recorded trackside from the specific prototype engine.

Scenery too has come a long way from the days of painted plywood and zip texturing.  Sure, that still works fine and many like the simplicity.  But today there are enormous amounts of scale landscaping available with unbelievably accurate scenic details.  For instance, MRC-JTT offers a host of tree species as well as well as “ready-to-plant” specific flowers and grasses of all types.  You’ll find vegetables of every variety as well as fruits and fruit trees. If nature has it, you’ll find it on the market.  Dyed sawdust has come a long way as well, with offerings of ground foam in a spectrum of colors and textures as well as sheets of “fields” pre-textured and ready to lay down in that vacant lot.  Super realistic scenery does not need to be the result of hours of painstaking work and professional talent.


An SP locomotive just outside the yard creeps through the tenements. As the cities grew, the areas "by the track" often became dilapidated and run down as industry and residents built new facilities further out. This presents a creative opportunity to model the grittier side of life. Run down apartments, dead-end roads and unused tracks suggest an area that has seen seen better days. Weathered track and buildings, a few people, and compressed spacing of elements convey the feeling of an aging town center.

So what about this hobby?  Is it worth a second look?  Will it keep you interested?  The answer is a resounding yes!  Unlike a lot of other activities, model railroading is a unique, multi-dimensional hobby that draws on a huge variety of skills.  Chances are one or more of the needed skills will pique your interest to get into the hobby, and developing skills in the other areas will keep you in.  For instance, the setup requires some kind of supporting framework.

This can be a simple sheet of plywood on sawhorse stands, or an elaborate system that is built into a spare room, basement, attic or garage.  Developing the benchwork, as it is called, involves planning, design/drafting, and some carpentry.  After that, track needs to be laid, requiring skills in translating plans to reality and skills in measuring and assembling components.  Once the track is down, the power needs to be connected, pulling in some work in electronics and wiring.

Scenery follows, with the addition of buildings, hills and valleys, rocks and plants.  This is a very creative part of the hobby.  Scenery can range from developing a narrow gauge railroad set in the high mountain peaks to an industrial setting in a gritty urban environment.  Buildings, ground cover, plants, grasses and miscellaneous details create the setting while backdrops add depth. 

Besides the layout, the rolling stock can be a hobby in itself.  Build up a unit coal train.  Assemble a premier passenger train.  Like switching cars?  Pull together a lonely local freight working some sidings. 

Once assembled, bringing the layout to life can deliver as much challenge as you want.The train does not just have to go around the loop, but can be “operated” in a prototypical fashion with timetables and destinations.  This aspect can be shared with friends to create a model of a real operating transportation system.  Some folks take this to the next level and research specific prototypes in specific places and dates in history, recreating a certain scene or region in exacting detail.  In essence, it’s the creation of a miniature world... designed and built to your specifications!

The different facets of the hobby also keep it fresh.  Bored with laying track?  Go back to a place where the track is complete and create a park scene where some kids are flying their kites.  Tired of scenery?   Return to customizing a piece of rolling stock.  Even after a layout is “done,” there are plenty of opportunities to go back and rework or enhance different scenes.  Adding lights to buildings and streets; adding signals to the routes; put in a vegetable garden next to that house; populating everything from doorsteps to the train cars adds life to an otherwise sterile scene.  It’s totally engaging and can ignite your imagination and creativity, without the risk of becoming a stale, repetitive hobby.

So what if I don’t know how to do some of this?  If you’re concerned with the time involved or the skills needed, don’t worry.  Most any aspect of model railroading can be provided in a pre-assembled or kit form.  For instance, benchwork and wood working can be taken care of in a few hours by using kits and pre-fabricated modules.  These are typically even shipped right to your home.  They go together more easily than prefabricated furniture, and nothing is required other than setting them up in your spare space.  Many of these have finished surfaces to look every bit as good as the other furniture in your home. 

Electronics not your bag?  Control systems, such as MRC’s Prodigy Advance DCC train controls are designed to be simple plug-and-play systems, which require a minimum of work and essentially no knowledge of electricity, and yet provide a truly sophisticated and powerful command control system.  They can provide years of service with capabilities to grow with the needs of the layout, without being difficult to set up. 

Scenery too has the flexibility of being worked with as little or as much as desired.  Many craftsmen enjoy spending hours, perhaps detailing the interior of a scale garage with workbenches, shelves, tools, even oil cans.  But there is also a wide variety of models of structures, ready to be set down, pre-loaded with details and atmosphere.  Besides structures themselves, people, vehicles and miscellaneous details can be assembled from dozens of sources to create a believable scene with very little investment in time.  In fact, one of the enjoyable aspects of the hobby is each layout and even each scene in a layout is truly a unique vignette, reflecting the creativity of the modeler.

Model railroading is truly unique in its ability to encompass a significant number of crafts.  It is flexible to match your skills, budget and vision.  Each aspect can be developed in easy to assemble kits, or can be hand crafted, taken as far as you like.  Model railroading provides continual challenges for the seasoned veteran or can be simple enough to be embraced by a young child.  In the following chapters we will look into each of these aspects of model railroading. 

Model railroading is unique and remarkably multifaceted.  Rediscover this classic hobby.

Author: Detlef Kurpanek

1 comment:

  1. Has always been the stronghold of Multi-media kits and now benefits of miniature chips and LED illumination, Old Mantua models are still much beloved

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