Most hobbies require a certain amount of specialized equipment in order to participate in them, ours being no exception. In fact, model railroading seems to be an example of the extreme amount of stuff you supposedly need to enjoy yourself. To the uninitiated, it must appear that’s all we’re about.

Why should anyone get involved in this work? What does it offer to generations who have never been exposed to trains on a daily basis? What does it offer if you’re not into operations or filling a basement with wood and styrofoam? Do you feel hard pressed to answer that one? This is the problem we face.

We’re locked to the idea that’s it all about the trains. For many of us it is but the 1950s and ‘60s Leave it to Beaver era of the craft is gone. It’s time to move on because that view just isn’t relevant today and free time is a luxury that people won’t squander on things that aren’t relevant to them.

If I were in my thirties or forties and looking at this hobby for the first time, I’d be so intimidated that I would look elsewhere in a hurry. Picking up a magazine and reading stories about using pre-stressed concrete beams for the floor of my garage or building a dedicated outbuilding the size of a barn just so I can have more layout would place a major hurdle in my path. I know these are extreme examples from out on the fringe but are you serious? What happened to common sense?

At the opposite end, we don’t make it easy to begin in this craft. The literature treats people like they’re bumbling idiots, which is condescending in my view. The first thing they’re told to do is drag a slab of plywood into their space and set up a train set circle of track because that’s supposedly the only concept they can grasp as beginners. Couldn’t we agree there are better ways to begin, even if we disagree on the specifics? I want to bring my intelligence and life experience to something that’s challenging and will hold my interest, not be treated like a child with constant reminders of all the fun I’m going to have. I’m quite capable of deciding for myself what is and isn’t enjoyable.

Building a layout can certainly be overwhelming and that’s assuming the person is even motivated enough to navigate the complexity beginners face. Are we doing people a disservice by throwing the layout design process at them from day one?

The answers won’t be found in comparing one scale to another or debating the virtues of big layouts versus small, ready-to-run versus scratchbuilt or all the other ideologies we line up behind. It’s about learning to understand why a person might enjoy this work on their terms, not ours. Please understand that I’m not anti-stuff or anti-layout, I have a layout and my share of stuff. However, our relentless focus on layouts and buying all the trappings will never sustain every interest. How much simpler would our task be if we just listened instead of launching into the sales pitch?

We’ve done an incredible job of explaining how you go about things and we’ve done a lousy job of sharing why you’d want to be involved.

This truly is, in my experience, a wonderful craft to be involved with. We’ve done an incredible job of explaining how to do things and we’ve done a lousy job of sharing why you’d want to be involved. Don’t just try to sell me a bunch of stuff. Teach me. Help me understand why this craft is relevant to the things I’m interested in. Help me understand what kind of experience I could have that’s worth my time and effort.

How many times have you heard or read the following: “I never thought I had any artistic talent until I learned to paint my own backdrop. I couldn’t find a suitable commercial one, so I just dove in and tried my hand.”

“I didn’t think working with my hands was something I’d be any good at but I really wanted to try my hand at model building. I made plenty of mistakes but I enjoyed the process and want to learn how to do it better.”

“I thought history class in school was boring but I wanted to learn about what the railroad was like in this area back in the 1960s. Once I dug into the research, it wasn’t boring at all.” In these and in similar circumstances, the craft provided the motivation to develop skills the individual wouldn’t have considered in a different context. Instead of harping on about why you need more layout and bigger curves, why aren’t we emphasizing what this craft will enable you to do and be?

What path looks interesting? What would you like to explore and learn? What need is this work going to fill?

Got an artistic or design itch you’d like to scratch? We can help with that. Seriously into digital photography and Photoshop? Let me show you how I use Photoshop as a design tool. Interested in coding and user experience design? How would you design and code a different throttle interface? Want to make things? Let me show you some examples I’ve done. Maybe you can help me solve a problem that’s baffled me for months.

It really isn’t about converting new people into hobbyists. It’s about sharing our interests in an intelligent manner. If we can do that, the other problems will resolve more easily. We are so blinded by the idea that’s it’s all about the trains, that we can’t even envision anything else. Yet, that’s exactly what we must do to take the craft forward. I wonder what would happen if we separated the craft from the focus on trains to the exclusion of everything else? The trains and layouts are just a means to an end, a way to creatively express yourself. I wonder if it’s time we put that idea back front and center.

For all the discussion and debate about the future of this craft, what would you like to do and what truly matters about that might be the two best questions to start with.