I often comment that we need to tell stories, better stories that convey the richness and depth this craft can provide, if you’re willing to invest something of yourself in it.

We agree I think, that there’s nothing wrong with the idea of having fun. But fun comes in numerous forms and definitions. Also, basing the marketing of the hobby on the concept of fun is shortsighted thinking in my view. Fun as a concept is similar to a sugary treat. It tastes good in the moment, but doesn’t satisfy for the long term. And, many of the readers of this blog, at least those who comment, know that pursuing something over the long term is where the real satisfaction is found. Acknowledging again, how individual that is.

In light of all that, I’m going to open the discussion up. How would you readers organize a better story about this hobby? What would you say? Which aspects would you focus on? There is no right or wrong answer. No one size fits all narrative. I think a good starting point is my favorite premise of why. Why should I care? Why do you as a modeler care about this craft? What does it provide that other pursuits do not? We don’t consider these ideas that often, as we’ve gotten too entangled in the technical aspects of modeling scale and era; of one prototype versus another; of going with handlaid or commercial track, none of which go to the heart of why we’re involved in this craft.

I read an excellent post this morning about how mankind has for centuries, used stories to learn our way around this world of ours. Yet, when it comes to railroad modeling, we’re lousy storytellers. The narrative matters. Words matter. Like details on a model, it matters. Who will start?



  1. Simon

    Apart from the kind that walk down the cat-walk, any model is a representation of something “real”. Not just model trains, but also mathematical, statistical and scientific models, for example. Professionally, part of my career has involved “data modelling” which is about turning measurements (data) into evidence (modelling). This has encompassed medical research, teaching, direct and database marketing and credit risk modelling. No one who has ever employed me would be happy with a model that only vaguely represented the facet of real life it was attempting to model, so the concept of making the models better is, I suppose, ingrained!

    However, no such model can ever be perfect as they deal with generalisations, and not specific individuals (most economic “models” fail as they ignore the impact of human cussedness!) This is not a bad thing, as it has ingrained in me the idea that models only work if operated within defined parameters, and that sometimes, it is more important to pass a pre-defined threshold than to strive for complete perfection. These models use computers, and could be described as “virtual”.

    My hobby, and if I am honest I have only a single hobby although I do have other likes and interests, provides me with a different outlet. A real, rather than virtual, reality: as Debbie Harry put it in a different on text, a “small remembrance of something more solid”. I also have the option to free myself of the constraints of the Pareto principle, and aim for something more than 80%, for only 20% of the effort. I want more, I want to get close to 100%, and I that means it takes five times as long, I really don’t mind – it is a way of passing my own time, so it can take as long as I needed.

    I actually have several train sets I can play with: my son has some 00 scale models, and also LGB. Sadly he is not as interested as he once was, but getting these out and playing with them can be a lot of fun. The 00 is DCC controlled (Bachmann E-Z which is very basic), and provides for a lot of play-value and realistic operations. There is only one loco for the LGB, and only two turnouts (have you seen the price of these?) but again, it is surprising how many prototypical operations can be accomplished serving the Playmobil quarry.

    But, fine as the individual models may be (truly excellent!) the track has sharp curves, and needs to be taken up and put away after a play session. This isn’t even 10% of the enjoyment for me, but it’s not a lot more than 1% of the effort, so there s a good return on the investment!

    So, my real hobby doesn’t involve paying with trains: not yet. Quite simply, following a few unproductive years, my “direction” has changed, and I find myself interested in the short line railroads of eastern Georgia that were subsidiaries of the Central of Georgia Railway. Coupled with this has been a growing appreciation of the simple fact that I cannot properly control more than one train at a time, so I don’t need more than one. (Like most railways, though, it is always handy to have a spare: just like the real thing, this comes from the “parent” company, the CofG.) If I only need one train, then I can afford the time to build it myself, and whilst about it, I can take as much time as needed whilst I do it properly. Along the way, I will acquire new skills, so will have accomplished many things.

    Ultimately, though, I want to see an engine moving along the model track, in a realistic setting, with the model moving like it really is 75 tons of steel and iron, and to be ale to take in the scene and say, “I built that. All of it.”


  2. mike

    Hi Simon,

    Enjoyed learning more about your experience. So if I were someone who knew absolutely nothing about model trains but found them interesting nonetheless, what might I take away from your story? What’s the moral (in terms of the lesson) of it for me?

    Forgive me if I’m being dense, but I want to draw out the reasons why someone should consider pursuing this craft, either starting from zero or moving to a deeper involvement. You hinted at it in the transition between playing with toy trains and your change of direction toward Georgia short lines. This is where the gold I’m prospecting for lies.


  3. Simon

    I think it can be easily stated that to learn a craft, one must put in the graft.

    Acquisitions are bought, but achievements are earned.

    In terms of the hobby, let’s posit that I can find 10 hours most weeks, say 500 hours per year. If I want a large layout with an operational bias, and I have a group of friends who will help run it, then those hours are best spent building framework, laying flex track, installing simple scenery, etc, and operating largely ready-to-run equipment.
    If I have neither the space nor desire for such a venture, then I can choose to have less of everything, and to produce as much as possible myself, to the best possible standard, taking my time to learn new skills. This provides an opportunity to work to finer tolerances, which produces better running, albeit at the “cost” of a bit more care and time in making and maintaining models, and I would say it produces more satisfaction.

    But to be honest, I think this has nothing to do with the hobby, but everything to do with the hobbyist. Are you the kind of person that measures success by wealth and acquisitions, or via value and achievement?

    I would argue that explaining why the second approach works to someone of the former persuasion is preaching to the unconvertable (model railways is unlikely to be the cause of such a change in their mind-set) and to the latter group is preaching to the converted. Both are a waste of time!

    If someone already believes in self-improvement, in raising standards rather than quantity, then maybe what they want is not philosophy, but practical examples which share and show techniques. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy the philosophy*, but if we prospect in the wrong place, we will find not gold, but iron pyrites…

    What I can say as my “story” is that by re-setting my interests onto a well-defined and narrow focus, I have found my time and money better spent, and although I shall be modelling a fictional extension to a real line, each building, each item of equipment, and the basis of operations and traffic are all taken from a prototype example: the track layout will be based on element of the CofG goup of short lines. I can buy relatively little ready-made: ignoring replacing the wheels and couplers with closer-to-scale variants, nearly every item will be a modified RTR, kit, or scratchbuilt model. It also requires a degree of research – thankfully, this is mostly “secondary research”, i.e. finding the people who have the information I seek. It would be rather expensive otherwise, as I am in the UK! The joy will come from completing an authentic model, the fun will be in the research and making of the model, and the final pleasure will be in the gradual creation of the complete scene.

    Hope that helps!

    *To me, one of the joys of this blog, and TMC, is the simple unabashed manner in which they show that “philosophy” and our hobby are not strange bed-fellows.
    That, and cracking, inspirational modelling.

  4. Jimbofin

    That is an intriguing question and a difficult one to answer. An observation and a caveat. To be successful a story has to be compelling to the reader, not just the person telling it. I say that as the victim of many a pub bore. Secondly although I use “stories” a lot in my professional life as a consultant I always remind people that they are inherently biased and only represent one version of what might, or might not, be the truth.

    Having said that a keypoint for me is that a successful layout is itself a narrative. The fictional worlds of Craigshire, the Madder Valley and the Gore & Daphetid might now appear old fashioned, and of course we don’t “play” trains but we do try and portray a world that is believable and accessible in the same way that a writer does.

    That train coming from under the bridge providing a scenic bridge has come from somewhere, that old bicycle rusting against the shed is there because now the owner has a shiny new Ford, that stain on the boiler is there because ….you get the picture.

    To tell that story we have to learn and apply some skills, not all of which come naturally to us, but because the story we want to tell is compelling we make the effort.



  5. mike

    …a story has to be compelling to the reader, not just to the person telling it.

    Exactly James and this is where hobbyists fall flat on their faces. We inundate people with technical jargon and our own bias to the point of scaring them off. No one wants to be “sold” or trapped by some zealot minded maniac.

    What I’m trying to suggest is a narrative that is more personal than full of technical jargon, a narrative that has sympathy and understanding for the listener.


  6. Jimbofin


    It is a longtime since I did Literary Criticism 101 but it always useful to keep two views in mind. One is the deconstruction of a novel into a theme,plot, subplots, structure and so on. Model railways, perhaps more than any other of the modelling hobbies, allows or demands that level of complexity. Having said that I think many military modelers produce dioramas that are the equivalent of a good short story.

    To deliver the story successfully though there has to be a lot of craft that might, or might not be visible to the reader but which is very much part of the writer’s art.

    The second is the view that a piece of art should resonate and be successful even if you don’t know the back story. It is great to know about Tom Mix, but if you saw one of his models in a row of other models would it still stand out? I suspect it would even if defining why would be difficult.

    Of course there is always lurid sensationalism, or as it is known in the UK the “Modern Image MPD layout” that in some form features at least once at all model railway shows, and appeals to a lot of the audience. More seriously we don’t all start a love of literature by reading Proust. The stories that first attract people to the hobby don’t need to be the ones that sustain their interest..

    I’m aware I’m not answering the question of what those stories should actually be. For me my interest in the hobby was re-awakened by Chris Nevard’s Catcott Burtle because it convinced me that there was a way back in for me. Revisiting Pendon after a long absence also helped.That’s different from engaging with someone new to the hobby or who is just beginning to feel dissatisfied with out of the box models.

    If I question what I want to achieve myself then it is to create a typical damp day in mid Wales when for a brief period of the day there is a flurry of excitement in a one horse town where they long ago shot the horse, as the branch train arrives, shunts and leaves.



  7. Simon


    Are you looking for the story behind the layout (the model), or the person creating it (the modeller)?


  8. Geoff

    There was a time when my modelling focused on the trains and complex track plans which served no purpose whatsoever other than to look impressive. As I grew older and hopefully wiser I realised that there was far more to railway modelling than that. What about modelling the countryside, architecture and a way of life which was fast disappearing ?

    At that point the penny dropped and I returned to my childhood recalling those happy days spent by the line side and how the railway played an important part in my life as I grew up. It taught me geography, history and both manual and social skills, I can think of no other hobby which teaches so many different subjects. If I could paint I would have tried to tell the story on canvass so instead I set about creating a series of layouts which told the story of a simple country branch line in Mid Wales, a moving painting in 3D if you like.

    As my modelling continues so does my blog, charting new techniques, ideas, failures. The idea being to create a permanent record of how things used to be and what I did in my spare time for my children and grandchildren.
    That for me is what it is all about and why I model, to create something from your own imagination using your own hands is extremely satisfying, relaxing and a welcome escape from the pressures of modern living, what more could you ask of a hobby ?

  9. Matt


    Thanks for asking the question. Like Geoff, to create, from my imagination a by-gone place that I never saw. With many varied interests in 1ft=12 inch railroads, both narrow and standard gauge, it is impossible to dedicate the space and time to one large menagerie.

    I want to travel to Pandora Colorado in the Fall of 1949 to see my favorite RGS locomotive, #455 after the wreck switch cars and take a turn around the wye. Or stand at a station in Maine during the 1920s and watch a 2 foot gauge Forney pull into the station with a collection of freight cars and a combine. Stand trackside in Appalachia in the 1950s and watch ALCOs switch hoppers. Or stand in a weed covered yard in the Pennsylvania Cement/Anthracite district in the 50s and switch cars. To work as a conductor, a brakeman, or the engineer for maybe a half hour in the evening.

    To become a craftsman and expand on a wide variety of skills.


  10. mike

    Good to hear from you. I was starting to think my American audience had left me!


  11. PKelly

    Ooops, forgot to sign the above.


  12. P4newstreet

    The phrase ‘it’s supposed to be fun’ crops up a lot these days and is usually used as an excuse for not trying. The thing is model railways are supposed to be enjoyable, fun has nothing to do with it. Things can be enjoyable for other reasons, some people enjoy being scared half to death. Others enjoy problem solving (which can be nothing more than frustration at the time)

    So how to sell the hobby? Well ultimately it improves us. We end up able to do something we couldn’t when we started. This is not the persuit of fun, ultimately it’s the persuit of pride. We wouldn’t share out exploits if we were not proud of them.


  13. Simon

    Very well put, Jim.


  14. mike

    “…So how to sell the hobby? Well ultimately it improves us. We end up able to do something we couldn’t when we started….”

    Exactly Jim. This is what has been overlooked to the point of being lost in the many discussions I see online. The emphasis has shifted from doing to consuming, which is what irks so many of us.

    That tide has shifted and won’t be undone. And frankly speaking, I care less and less about that these days. Why? Because obsessing over it (as I have done in the past) means someone else has defined the terms of the discussion for me. I don’t want to play another’s game. What I’m doing with this blog and other work is showing there are alternatives to the status quo and doing it on my terms. It won’t have a huge impact but it is having one, on an individual by individual basis.

    This is why you won’t see more commercially appealing, generic types of articles from me. (Anyone want to build a layout in an hour or less?) I just don’t want to play that game.


  15. Simon

    Trevor Marshall’s latest post is spot on for this topic.

    Incidentally, I recounted Jin’s comment to my wife (one of her hobbies is “craft stamping”) and she really liked it.