As you may have suspected from the tone of the blog over the past years, I’m done with traditional model railroading as most understand it. (There; I finally said it and I feel better.) I’m moving in a direction that most people don’t understand or see the value of in terms of the traditional hobby.

Thinking as an artist, my frame of reference is different. I’m approaching this work as I would any other; by bringing the same creative process to model building that I use to create works with paper and watercolor or other art medium. I see my cameo designs more as landscape compositions with variable elements (the trains) than I do as layout forms.

The Mill Road cameo is inspired by memories and times from childhood when I could just walk up the street to a freight car spotted at the elevator and touch it or even peek in an open door to see what’s inside. Standing next to a boxcar as a child of nine or ten, it had an overwhelming presence, even a smell and hard, solid feel as I touched a grab iron or ran my hand along the side of it, as a kid will do. How can such memories not work their way into my modeling? Those days are long gone in too many ways but their influence still creates an impact because I choose to embrace it.

As a connection to the craft of modeling, these memories influence the modeling scale I chose (P48) along with the composition of the scene. I also bring a desire to capture something intangible. There is an essence in an object that makes it unique from all others. I liken it to a quote from Andrew Wyeth regarding a portrait of his son Nicholas: “If I didn’t get the shape of his nose correct, it wouldn’t be Nicky.”

Yes, on some level we all copy an object when we build a model of it, just as we’re doing with a painting or sketch. But, an artist also interprets the subject by virtue of his experience and personal way of seeing the world. There are choices of what to emphasize and how to present the subject that impact the work. As a viewer, we also bring our own perspectives and tastes to this conversation, which impacts our perception of the work. I believe it’s similar in model making. In many ways, the military and aircraft modelers understand this than far better we do.

Many of you are familiar with The Trackside Photographer website. These weekly photo essays present trains and railroading from a wide range of personal visions that have a depth and thoughtfulness that I appreciate. Railroading has many facets that are as evocative and inspiring as any majestic landscape or other subject. It inspires the heart and eye as well as the mind, in an endless array of conversations and creative expressions.

Have we said everything there is to say about trains with this craft, or are we stuck rehashing the same tired themes over and over from of a belief they represent everything that’s worth saying as far as a hobby goes?

Do we need another knock-off Appalachian coal railroad, or generic 1950s steam to diesel cliché? Are the current forms of expressing these themes the best we can do or are there other aspects beyond the surface appeal of each waiting to be explored?

Asking Different Questions
Approaching a subject, I’ve learned to ask different questions and try hard to put my assumptions aside. Such preconceived ideas and concepts of what I think I know, often get in the way of a fuller understanding. It’s that in-depth understanding and connection that I’m seeking.

The differences that separate one object from others are often subtle and elusive to the untrained eye. Two freight cars may look utterly identical and perhaps they are on the surface, yet look a little deeper, and there are distinctions to be found between them. My covered hopper project is a case in point. Beyond the obvious, what makes it a PS2CD? More specifically, what makes it an individual PS2CD? It’s these nuances that I seek out for modeling, whether the subject is a freight car, building or a landscape.

In considering the future direction for my work, the two most fundamental questions to ask are:

What matters to me, followed by, what do I want to create?

In a culture that worships ease of effort and instant gratification, I’ll leave those choices for others to make. There is room in the world for the fast and easy however, as the focus of my hobby they don’t interest for me. Many of the things we could do aren’t easy, nor do they happen overnight. As I wrote a few weeks ago, what matters to me now is spending time in the quiet of my shop creating work that’s meaningful and satisfying to me. I believe there is plenty of room around model trains for that conversation.

However you choose to enjoy this craft, I hope you’ll take a moment and reflect on what it brings to your life and the sense of renewal and restoration it can provide.


This is one of the more thoughtful blog posts I’ve read in recent days.





  1. Rene Gourley

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, and the shout-out, Mike.

    The challenge you present in your last paragraph requires that someone knows themselves deeply – what motivates them, what fuels them. For each, it is a different answer; for many they will never understand the question.

  2. mike

    You’re welcome Rene and, thank you too for the thoughtful post.


  3. Simon

    I have always thought that the “fourth dimension” (time) as applied to model railways (I.e. movement) was one of the key differentiators between us and military modellers. Yes, some of then engage in war games, but not in the same way as we can choose to replicate prototype operations.

    But now I think about what you have written, and it makes me pause for thought.

    Firstly, I think military modellers are closer to the idea of “artistic interpretation” of their subjects, despite sometimes going overboard on the shading and dry brushing. They are more focused on the individual model, and maybe it’s immediate surroundings and most importantly, what it means to them and how they see it.

    Secondly, when we do recreate the movement of our locos and trains, we rarely see a convincing replication of the effects of mass on our models, and the laws about the conservation of momentum. Granted, this is not always easy – the swing of an un-damped pendulum is governed by its length and not its mass, so if a model rocks, it needs to be carefully controlled via springing (where mass does come into things!) But I see videos, and layouts at exhibitions where the emphasis is on spectacle and not the quality of movement. This is an area where DCC and keep alive capacitors can have a big role to play – if properly programmed. Also, cleaning track.

    Last week I purchased and downloaded a video showing the operations on a small branchline attached to a large and well-known (and well executed) basement empire. I wanted to see the subtle nuances between how a UK line would be operated, and how one in North America would be operated. To this extent it delivered 100%.
    In other respects, though, I was disappointed. To be fair to the presenter, he was operating the camera as well as the layout in real-time, and did say it would be warts and all, so when couplers didn’t connect, we would see it. I have no problem with that as it was reassuring to see that I am not alone. I was mostly impressed with the programming of the decoders, but there were some sudden starts even with a loaded train, which was slightly disappointing. But, there were two occasions where the engine stalled due to dirty track. An annotation appeared on screen to say that keep-alive capacitors would have overcome this, but how about cleaning the track first?

    It strikes me that we rarely (collectively) put ourselves in a good light, and fail to think about the entirety of the picture: you can use photo-backscenes as much as you want, apply flat finishes and weathering, remove the trip pins from the couplers, allow a pause for pumping up the air, etc, but if the movement is jerky and the loco stops dead (especially noticeable with sound equipped locos!) then the illusion is shattered, and the model suddenly becomes just a toy.

    Sorry if I have gone on a bit.


  4. Matthieu Lachance

    Simon, I know what you are referencing and indeed, the same points struck me out. Maybe it was a thing of my younger days, but the day I could afford the first version of Proto 2000 famous 0-8-0 locomotive was the time I started to appreciate looking at a locomotive crawling and pulling a “long” freight manifest. Countless hours were spent looking at this locomotive running on my twice around 4′ x 4′ layout, my eye at track level, the other one closed. It was magic… pure magic. It was also at the same time I installed a Central Valley girder bridge which I weathered and added scratchbuilt telegraph crossarms to it. Simple as can be, but I put a lot of efforts to replicate something that was realistic and only was about 3 feet by 1 feet. There was no turnouts, simply this little scenes which was basically crafted out of wood, plaster and papier-mâché by a moody teenager. I seriously miss that simplicity. As Mike said, we find ourselves at a crossroad at some point, unable to fit in a mold I believe very little people fits in fact.

    Recently, it occurred to me I would have been completely happy having a continuous loop and simply plugging “diorama” of a scene I like on it and running trains. It could be about 5-6 feet long and be removeable when I want to model something else. Scenes that are composed, like a well-thought painting. That pleases my eye but also provide a manageable challenge. I see no purpose building a large focused-themed layout. I like scenes with a railray flavour, not building an empire. But that way of doing the hobby; self-contained, mostly scratchbuilt and rather mundane don’t fit the actual model. But at the same time, after two weeks in self isolation due to my failing health, looking at loss of revenue, I feel like these old model railroaders from the 1930s. You have to do what you can with what you have. Do your best, try to get better. The part is no longer available? Oh well, make it yourself. The long-awaited pre-order will be cancelled due to recession? Make something else or try yourself. I have a few projects on my workbench and yesterday I asked myself how I would complete them will a lower budget and less access to parts. Honestly, it makes the project much more interesting and captivating!

  5. mike

    You have not “gone on a bit.” I appreciate that you and others take the time to compose such thoughtful and considered responses to these posts. It makes this blog what it is.