Can railroad modeling truly embody the power of a place?

West Richmond Siding. Richmond IN

In our pursuit of this craft, we are drawn to certain places. I need only mention locations like Altoona, Essex Junction, Grand Central Terminal, Wiscasset, Leadville or Soldier Summit, to evoke a powerful image.

What about places we’ve never experienced firsthand, how do we connect with a location we’ve never been to? I will never experience Altoona at the height of steam operations, except through vintage photos or by reading firsthand accounts of those who lived in that time and place. As a modeler, my understanding is many times removed from their reality.

The Power Of Place
What draws us to the subjects and places we model? For our purposes, it’s usually the railroad activity each represents. But in our modeling, we focus solely on the trains and their movement against a static background. On a layout the train clears the crossing. The lights stop flashing and the gates rise but those autos sitting there aren’t going to cross the tracks. The family on the nearby front porch will never go in the house, nor play in the yard. The landscape won’t change with the seasons. The power of a living landscape is missing.

LM_texture_005We accept that our models are poor and lifeless facsimiles of reality but how much of our experience of full-size railroading is influenced by the intangible qualities of time, season and weather? We can model fallen leaves but do falling leaves or the damp chill of fog-laden air add to our memories of a scene? Does the absence of these elements alter the experiences we seek to recreate in model form?

Power of Place_00

There’s More Than Trains
On his blog Chris Mears posted a video of a Claremont and Concord switch job going about its business. Beyond the train, here’s a portion of what I saw and heard:

  • Foreground weeds and saplings blown by the wind.
  • A dump truck preparing to drop his load.
  • Reflections of the train in a water puddle.
  • Reflections of trees in the cab window as the engine moved to and fro.
  • The brakeman throwing a switch then walking out of the scene.
  • Highway traffic on an overpass in the background.
  • The same dump truck leaving the plant.
  • The sound of wind gusts picked up by the camera mic.
  • People speaking off camera.
  • The way the diesel exhaust is blown by the wind.

And these are only what caught my eye. I probably missed twice that number of events because my field of vision was dictated by the camera. We take such activity for granted. It sits in the background of our attention and since we are hard pressed to convincingly reproduce it in miniature, we ignore these aspects in favor of the trains. I ask though, what does this audio landscape and movement add to your experience of that time and place?

Motion Can Be Implied
You don’t need to see the source of a sound to understand the action. I live within earshot of the Norfolk Southern line that runs through town. I can’t see the trains but I can understand what’s happening from the sound.

Onboard sound is a given for many people now and the quality has improved greatly with modern technology but, locomotive sound is the easy part. The landscape of ambient sound that lives in the background of our attention is much harder to duplicate. It requires a thorough understanding of the nuances of sound in the real world. Something most of us are totally ignorant of. In most cases, no sound is better than poorly executed noise.

Yet, when it’s done with care and understanding ambient sounds can transport us to a place with an uncanny degree of realism. If modelers can identify differences in the rivet pattern between two boxcars, we can educate ourselves about ambient sound patterns. The question is, how many will do so? But this is not a post about sound. Sound is just one aspect of the landscape. There is also light, which is a topic in itself.

Can we model the intangible?
We can, if we learn to think holistically.

In modeling, we give scant notice to how the railroad and community grew together. We only give a cursory acknowledgement of how the railroad fits the landscape and in turn, is shaped by it. Last year I realized much of the frustration I felt toward my layout was because it was overcrowded with track. In quarter-inch scale, overcrowding is an easy trap to fall into. I removed two turnouts and two tracks on one end and a difficult to reach track on the other, giving both scenes much needed breathing room. The intangible benefit from the open space far outweighed the loss of track that wasn’t serving a critical role. Near the mill, I left the empty, weed choked ties of the mill track in place. I also left visual clues of a swath of right of way for a track that used to be there but now isn’t. Both scenes now provide a stronger image of the railroad in the landscape rather than dominating it as before. The context of Sycamore as a lonely junction that has seen better days is greatly strengthened.

Saplings will grow anywhere.

Saplings will grow anywhere.

It All Comes Back To Storytelling
Understanding the power of place and how to model it adds a layer of depth to our layout story. As Allen McClelland envisioned the V&O as a link in the national railroad system, that concept became the through line he applied to every aspect of his layout. Each time I visited the V&O, locations like Clintwood took on more of the character of an actual place as Allen refined and strengthened his vision.

In this series of posts, I’ve encouraged you to become students of the landscape. The principles from the fine arts I’ve shared are all based on learning to observe more carefully. Storytelling is the art of conveying an experience beyond the dry facts of a report. Understanding the craft of storytelling enables us to share our experience with power and depth. I understand these are foreign, even strange ideas for many conditioned to the old school ways. We struggle with them because we believe the only stories worth telling revolve around the trains. But the hobby has always grown when people expand their concept of what it can be. What story do you want to tell?

Video, Chris Mears’ Blog, Seven Minutes Fifty Three Seconds
Trevor Marshall’s Blog, Bird Song: (aka Effective Audio)   Layout Sound