We’ve all seen forum posts from some modeler sweating over the design/redesign of his first, second, third, tenth¬†layout. When I read something like this I wonder to myself about what’s going on. Why is this person struggling so? Why is he, or she, suffering through so many dead ends and false starts with the hobby?

Could it be the modeler hasn’t clarified what is essential about railroading for him?

A quick story. In 1963, my parents bought their first house. It was less than one hundred feet from a double track PRR secondary mainline and less than forty feet from a siding that served a Thoroseal Inc. batch plant. From the front door and living room windows I could watch trains going through town. It became a family joke that every time an airhorn sounded for the crossings in town, I would bolt from a chair to the front door or window to see what was coming. Every time!

For each of us who practice and enjoy this hobby, there is something that draws us to it. Something draws us to the tracks, to the sight and sounds of a train time and again.

I dare say that it’s as individual as the person experiencing it. I’ve written at length about my fascination with the siding that ran along the side street next to the house (photos below). For me, it wasn’t just the texture of the track but also the accessibility of this siding. The sight of a loco and handful of cars slowly trundling along, rocking to and fro, with the sounds of squealing flanges, creaking rail and ties underscored by the rhythmic throb of the engine, was simple to grasp. Being there time after time, I got to know some of the regular crews and even managed to snag a cab ride up and down the siding once. Coupled with a preference for a visually oriented understanding of the world, these images and experiences left indelible impressions that have fueled my tastes in the hobby ever since.

PC SW8 in Centerville IN working the siding for Thoroseal.

The elevator track with a couple of grain cars spotted for loading

The elevator track in the 1960s-’70s with a couple of grain cars spotted for loading. You are looking in the opposite direction from the first photo. The loco and cars were crossing the street (Morton Ave.) seen running at right angles to the tracks between the two boxcars above. My siding (not seen) was to the left in this photo, on the other side of Water Street, seen here between the two tracks.

Slow, deliberate train operations form the basis for the “essential why” of the hobby for me.

I don’t have to focus exclusively on branchline themes. Images of trains in any type of slow deliberate motion have a similar impact. Consider how a deep understanding of this essential quality of railroading has impacted my choices in a layout.

Did you have a similar experience growing up, or still to this day?

What are your essential qualities for prototype railroading? Something draws you to trains. Does your layout strongly reflect this aspect? How might you change your layout if you knew and thoroughly understood what truly draws you to railroading and deliberately focused the design around that? Would this knowledge make such an impact for you or does all this sound like a bunch of hooey?

I realize I’m only speaking to a handful of people here. However, many if not most modelers seek something from this hobby, yet few it seems, ever probe deeply into what it might actually be. Is it because we’ve been conditioned to think these soft issues don’t matter, or because no one ever discusses them out loud? (Except here for one place. There are others I’m certain.) Would you take advantage of the knowledge if someone did? Would your views about the hobby and what it could become for you change?

I believe model railroading can be so much more than the passive entertainment or the accumulation of stuff as it is often presented. I believe a person’s practice of the hobby can rise to the level of true craft and even art when done with focus, skill and intention. I also believe many of us are trying to recreate something intangible with our layouts, be it a memory or something else that brings us joy and satisfaction. What if we took time to think deeply about these things before the sawdust and flextrack started flying through the air? Could you more easily build a truly satisfying layout as a result? Would you?

Tell me what you think.