Ideas change the world.

Mill Street Mood_2

Our craft suffers from a scarcity of ideas. Ideas that change our image of what the hobby could be.

When Frank Ellison suggested that a model railroad’s operations is comparable to a theatrical production, where the trains are actors and the layout is a stage, he expressed the idea that model trains could do more than go round and round without purpose. This idea altered the concept of what model railroading could be. Miniature trains could be more than toys, they could have a larger purpose. Today, we’re still exploring and benefitting from his fundamental thinking.

A few decades later, Allen McClelland proposed that a layout could represent something bigger still: a portion of a national transportation system that funneled traffic from outside its boundaries. In an era when the majority saw their layouts as a closed, self-contained entity bound by the size of the room, that concept blew those artificial barriers away. The V&O was a testament to the power of an idea and one man’s vision. Allen spent decades exploring and refining that core idea. Was he inspired by Ellison? Perhaps. Did he carry Ellison’s idea forward? Definitely.

Conceptual ideas like Ellison’s and McClelland’s have been few in number but, when you consider the impact both have had, I wonder if we’d all still be watching toy trains mindlessly chasing their tales without them.

I speak so often of this theme because I believe our old definitions and concepts have grown shallow and lack the power to carry this craft into maturity. They’re quickly becoming a straitjacket, rather than a foundation to build on.

There Are Stages In A Creative Life
It’s a fundamental premise in the arts that great works are born of an idea rather than subject matter, medium or techniques. Yosemite didn’t make Ansel Adams a great photographer. Adams’ vision of what a landscape photo could be made him a great photographer.

Beginners are obsessed with questions of how-to. How do you do this? What tool do I need for that? What color blue should I paint my sky? What should I model? This is understandable because in any skill based endeavor the initial learning curve is steep until the fundamentals have been mastered. However, when one reaches intermediate or even advanced levels of understanding and skills, for many, their focus is still on questions of how. More sophisticated in content perhaps, but still confined to thoughts of craft, as if craft is all there is to it. Mastery of craft is important, however, mature artists will move beyond craft into the deeper and richer realms where ideas live.

An artist intent on serious work will begin to form a vision for her work. She’ll certainly be a master of craft but will ask questions centered on what she wants to say about the world or her subject matter. Questions about the subject; about form and the nature of the thing. Why does this speak to me? What do I want to say in response? How do I express that in my work? These are questions every serious artist strives to answer. They’re the fruit of a growth process toward artistic maturity.

What Is Maturity?
Consider a child’s crayon drawing and a Picasso portrait. Picasso is credited as saying that it took him a lifetime to learn how to draw with the freedom of a child. Yet Picasso’s work is not childish, it has a profound maturity of expression compared to the child’s crayon drawing.

The difference is in what each brings to the work. A child’s drawing no matter how innocent and precious is an immature work. We don’t expect it to be otherwise, unless of course it was drawn by your child. A work by Picasso while simple in form represents years of study, practice and keen observation. Picasso gave himself to the work as a life-long student and this discipline yielded mastery and a mature creative vision in return. Picasso didn’t follow art traditions, he invented them.

What Shapes Your View Of The Craft?
Reflecting on this topic of ideas, I wonder where our current thinking is taking us? Do we have a vision for a mature hobby that would sustain a serious creative vision like other art forms? I suspect the knee-jerk response to this will be: “Are you nuts, of course it’s mature.”

But is it? Have we uncovered all the depths it has to offer? Did Allen McClelland really codify everything there is to understand about the hobby in the V&O series? Or have we barely scratched the surface?

Earlier, I suggested our definitions and concepts have grown shallow and constricting, holding us to a past that has lost relevance for many in this age. Rather than do the deep work of examining our traditions, we’ve pinned our future on the trivia of more bells and whistles (literally), on the consumption of ever more toys that tickle the eye but leave the heart and mind unmoved. If the hobby is loosing relevance, is it because we no longer think of it in relevant ways? If other forms of entertainment capture the imagination, is it because they truly engage or simply tell a more compelling story?

A Mature Vision Of The Craft
I hesitate to go here because there are no definitive answers that people can cling to for security. But after months and years of thinking and writing about this, I will suggest a direction to consider: stop obsessing over the trains. Like a paintbrush, a camera, a musical instrument, they are creative tools, a means of expressing a vision. The depth of that vision comes from us and if we are shallow and superficial in our approach, the outcomes of the work will be the same.

I suggest the idea that railroad modeling is large enough to embrace the best practices from many arts. To pigeonhole it as merely playing with trains robs it of the power to fully engage the individual. My emphasis on the discipline of craft, on the power of story and the principles of art are all ways of expanding my view of this craft and perhaps, yours as well.

What does railroad modeling offer me in the twenty-first century? As a creative person, it offers me a medium to explore ideas and to grow in ways to numerous to count. It offers an outlet for work that engages my mind and hands as well as my heart. It gives me a connection to the past and present. It shows me who I am and who I can become. Would you ask more than that?

All these themes are a way to examine what we bring to this work as modelers. If all we bring is an ability to reproduce objects in miniature form, we’ll go right on the same path and arrive at the same ends we have now. But if we can expand our vision of it, there is no limit to where we can go. I have said countless times this craft amply rewards what you bring of yourself to it. If it does die of irrelevance, it will be our failure to each other and to ourselves that killed it.



  1. Chris Mears

    Great post. Really great post.

    I fear we’re losing sight of the story-telling aspect. I worry we’re getting too caught up in the details and losing sight of the bigger picture. I worry that too often we’re worrying “is code 83 the right track because code 100 is too big” or similar smaller details and allowing them to have a greater effect on the railroad than the railroad itself. From the theatre analogy: who cares about the set if the story is so terrible? It’s not that we shouldn’t think about those details, they’re very important and hidden among them are some of my favourite elements and subjects. What I’m worried about is: why does any of this matter if there’s no “why” in the first place?

    The two examples you provided are excellent ones that many of us relate to and might even cite as inspiration for our involvement in this hobby. I have always thought that what they discovered in their work was a list of things the layout required. Things like hidden staging to represent a connection to the outside world were a part of the layout not because “it was just what you did” but because if we were pretending that the V&O was part of a much bigger railroad it needed to be able to exist like it was. Trains needed to go somewhere and come back from there.

    If I could be so bold as to suggest a third example: Eric Brooman and his Utah Belt. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed following the development of his layout. Never once was I left forgetting his vision for the railroad and his commitment to maintaining that story. As the railroad matured and modernized, rolling stock was changed. The railroad itself changed to follow new operating patterns experienced in neighbouring railroads. Several times in articles, I could have sworn that in his words he was asking if the railroad was still the one he thought he was creating. It left me feeling like we do when our prototype no longer looked like the one we loved. Do I love CN the same way I did now that all the MLW diesels are gone? It’s powerful stuff and a terrific example of engaging the story and giving it the credit it deserves when it creates a model that we have a relationship with as strong as real railroads themselves.

    I’m trying to get better at understanding what exactly I’m trying to create where the “what” itself is the story and not just a literal catalogue of how I’m doing it. I hope that in stepping back from how I’ll get a better sense of my story and from that story, what parts I need to capture the bit I am most fascinated by.


  2. Simon

    Who cares about the set if the story is so terrible?

    But if story is brilliant, then the set needs to be executed brilliantly. How detailed it is, is a different question.

    Consider a live steam train running in the garden. It may be at ground level, it may be elevated. Chances are that it is not running through a highly detailed scene to scale with the model. But this is not a problem: if the engine (and train) look right and run well, then that is enough. Similarly, a good play does not need a complicated set, but does require good actors. I have seen many which could only be described as austere to the point of minimalist. The (good) plays succeeded when they had good actors, well directed.

    But such things need to be experienced live: in my opinion, they don’t transfer well to recorded media, be they stills or moving. (I suppose radio might qualify as acceptable – the BBC did a memorable radio adaptation of “Candide” in the early/mid 1980s, for example.)

    Perhaps a closer parallel for model railways is with film, television and on-line digital recordings? Here the background tends to be more realistic, and rounds out the story. And as with many models, anachronisms and insubstantial sets (the old “Doctor Who” with cardboard sets swaying in the breeze comes to mind) stand out and detract from the believability. But the story, the characters, the actors and the direction all need to work and to be of a similar standard, to be “of a piece”. In this context, one outstanding actor within a journeyman cast is as distracting to believability as one poor actor amongst an outstanding ensemble.

    In many ways, we could say that Allen MacClelland was creating a soap opera with a continuing story, rather than the defined purpose of a play or film, and as such did not want, nor could afford, a cast of Oscar winners: this is what he meant by “good enough”. On the V&O, the real star was the story.

    Where does that leave the detail-focused finescale modeller? I think it places us outside of the mainstream, producing smaller scale shows, maybe along the lines of single plays, rather than a series?

    So, who is the Mike Leigh of our hobby? Who is sitting back, watching the interplay between various aspects of railway modelling, creating an idea out of what does along? I must admit that I can think of a few contenders, but naming them is not my aim here. Mike Leigh might be an extreme comparison, but the way he has successfully deconstructed the sory-creation for plays and films (sometimes creating nothing more than a vignette, capturing a small part of life) provides food for thought.


  3. mike

    I really have nothing to add here.


  4. Jimbofin

    Mike, another excellent post followed up by insightful comments. From a UK perspective I’m not sure what our equivalent journey has been. Perhaps it has had more twist and turns in it, but a narrative imperative always seems to have been there in the best layouts. Possibly it has changed from creating a fictional world, such as Craig, to something more interpretive of the real world, Is the reason why layouts set in the present day can be less engaging, because modern railways are no longer part such an integral part of our own stories?

    I think the layouts I enjoy the most are those which I can “read” but which don’t over do it to the point where I see the artifice. A layout that has obvious cameos doesn’t work for me, a layout that lets me discover an interesting and possibly unconventional viewpoint does. Perhaps it is even more akin to a detective novel. We want to deduce form the scene how it fits into the real world and to feel good about ourselves for working it out.


  5. mike

    Hi James,

    I don’t know what accounts for the different paths between the US and UK. I suspect that the UK focus on single scene layouts that are driven by your space constraints is but one factor.

    That strikes me as simplistic though, as I’m certain there is far more to consider. I would speculate that yours, being an older culture, the allure of place is far stronger than in the US. Here we tend to treat scenery as background filler. But, that too may be overly simplistic. It strikes me that we’ve all been conditioned to the idea that the only stories worth telling in this craft are those focused on the trains, whether they be in context with the greater surroundings or not. Thoughts on that anyone?


  6. Chris Mears

    Good morning

    (I wonder if this builds on Mike’s question and Jim’s excellent comment? Here goes anyway.)

    I was watching a video in which Pete Waterman was discussing his amazing Leamington Spa layout. In the video he spoke very fondly about his memories of watching trains from that station. I know the story Mr. Waterman told is one I’ve read or heard from a number of his fellow UK modellers. The story always seems to start on a particular railroad platform and watching the trains through that location. He’s passionate. He’s in love. It’s beautiful.

    By contrast, I feel like in America we fall for a railroad. Where in the UK the location is the primary interest and the railway the secondary focus we play the opposite game. We’re not so concerned where we see Amtrak so long as we’re watching an Amtrak train. We’re in love too. Heck, it’s Amtrak. We’re thinking: “I could listen to Amtrak read the phone book…” It’s good too.

    I wonder if this is further compounded by the ready access to real trains? It’s not just that the UK modeller always watches trains from Euston station but that he can get there pretty easily and regularly. Since he can get there so often and so much more easily than we can this just concentrates his focus on that connection and very focussed railroading.

    By contrast, our relationship grows in our efforts to chase a Amtrak trains but we’re doing so anywhere on the Amtrak system as time and funds allow. As such and without even realising, we concentrate our relationship on the railroad and without realising it less so on a particular location from which we have a connection to. It’s not a matter of our favourite time watching Amtrak at Springfield as it’s Amtrak anywhere and everywhere.

    The idea here being is the way this relationship with real railroading comes home to our model railways. The UK modeller has that (and I just can’t find the words to use to describe my personal confession to how envious I am of this) direct connection with a particular location and when he thinks of building a model railway he thinks in terms of “his” station. Even if he doesn’t model that particular location, it’s the sense of scale he relates to. I opened with Mr. Waterman as an example but he just provides such a perfect example of loving the location first and the trains second. In his model, he wants to create a model that stimulates a memory of time spent there on that platform. As a boy he just watched trains, all the trains, any of the trains. They were all great. His layout will bring him back there.

    How many American modellers are attached to a particular location instead of being a Amtrak, Santa Fe, or Vermont Rail Systems fan? Without that direct connection to the location we build one on the railroad and in turn foster need to build a model railway that focusses on the railroad as a system. Our relationship with the railroad is the “whole railroad” and not a part so when we think of the model railway we think of the same whole railroad.

    It wasn’t until I read the above comments that I started to realise this potential relationship. Maybe finding this perfect layout is a function of knowing where you need to go. What memory are you trying to return to? Where do you want to go?

    What do you think? I’m just thinking out loud here, albeit over the keys.


  7. Chris Mears

    (And here I am replying to my own comment. Sorry.)

    Throughout the day today I’ve been thinking about my proposed relationship contrasting the perspective of the UK modeller compared to the American one and thought that, if my thoughts had merit, another example of where we could see evidence of this is in the roles elements from our railroads play. Let’s talk about staging yards or fiddle yards.

    In America we insist on a hidden staging yard to represent the rest of the world. It provides a connection for our railroad and a place for our trains to go. It represents every other town beyond those that we modelled. It needs to be long enough to hold every carload we shipped out and to respresent all those places that could load inbound cars for our railroad. If at home we’re modelling a quiet Canadian branchline, it represents the rest of Canadian Pacific and in doing so provides context for our railroad since it explains how all of Canadian Pacfic relates to the section we’ve modelled. Our subdivisions has several towns and while some cars simply stay on the layout moving in a closed loop between industries we’ve modelled, others come and go off-stage.

    By contrast, the hypothetical UK modeller in my example has that direct relationship to a particular station. He remembers time on platform number two. Trains arrived into the station and departed. He imagined where they were going or coming from. He thought about the train’s passengers. Staging for this layout needs only to provide a true “off stage” place to place our trains when they are off set. Again, the relationship here is almost on a more human level reprsenting the modeller and his environment – life on platform two right where he stood.

    Perhaps, if anything, my interpretation of the UK scene works even better with our beloved “model railroad as theatre” metaphor than it does in America. The station on the layout is that stage. Our UK trains really are the actors, arriving on stage to deliver their roles and play to the audience, then return to back stage just as quickly.


  8. Simon

    A big layout is cinematic, made on location, maybe, with great panoramic vistas.
    A small layout is more constrained, limited to one or maybe two or three small places, with everything behind the scenes serving to make the constrained stage come alive, and for entrances and exits to be carefully managed to make things believable?

    Maybe we have model railways as theatre, and model railroads as cinema?


  9. mike

    Excellent thoughts everyone.

    I’ve reached the same conclusion as Chris, that North American modelers tend to focus on a railroad as opposed to a specific place. The impact this has had on the way we think about our subjects and what we choose to model and interpret is quite evident.

    It also further clarifies for me why I’m drawn to the aspects of railroading that I am. My clearest memories are of being in one spot and watching the action pass by me, rather than chasing trains from location to location along the line. The design and operations of the I&W reflect this bias.

    I also see a similar bias in the UK practice of naming layouts (especially exhibition layouts) for a place rather than the railroad company as we do here. St Merryn is but one example that comes readily to mind.

    If I referred to the I&W as Sycamore, people here would be clueless.


  10. Simon


    Out of curiosity, how many places called Sycamore are there in the USA?

    As for renaming your layout after the place it is anchored, why not? Trevor Marshall has no problems as a consequence of naming his layout “Port Rowan” – tags, subtitles, etc, can be added to provide a little more information.

    Sycamore: The Indiana and Whitewater in the Modern Day, in P:48

    (Other timeframes are available to suit!)

    Just a random, oblique, thought – but it is unlike you to be fettered by what anyone else thinks. Also, since what you are modelling is firmly rooted in place, naming your layout after that place might help with the motivation, as you will be constantly reminded of this fact each time you think of it.


  11. Simon

    PS Cracking photo. Not many people would use #10 turnouts at all, let alone on a branchline. That picture shows what they are missing out on.


  12. mike

    I was merely making an observation about the cultural differences.


  13. Jimbofin


    I think for the bulk of the current generation of serious British modelers what you say holds good. It might not have been so true in the past, when people very much thought of themselves as modelers of one of the “Big 4” and it might change in the future as the trainspotting generation gets thinner on the ground. Most of us model a location, and the trains are often subservient to that. “I would love a Dukedog but it would never have run on this line because of the axle loading” Layout names almost always reflect the location.

    Many influential modelers, and Iain Rice springs to mind as a name familiar on both sides of the Atlantic, have made the connection to theatrical presentation.

    There might well be something in what you say about the attitude towards fiddle yards . I think in the UK we do often think of them almost as a necessary evil, somewhere for the trains to go off stage, and not, in any meaningful sense, as the rest of the railway network.

    I will probably think of a hundred exceptions once I press Post Comment but generally even the large British exhibition layouts tend to focus on just one location.



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