The Empty Promise

by Nov 26, 2016OST Believes8 comments

Imagine how the crew of the Norfolk Southern Geep feel. They were parked on the main waiting for clearance to move when I shot that photo. My watery eyes couldn’t focus the camera well because of the bone numbing cold on that day. Even though this is a light engine move, they’re getting paid to be out in the cold, taking that locomotive to someplace it’s needed in order to move real freight for real money. It’s commerce, not a hobby.

I’ve watched crews work Richmond many times. The work might be enjoyable or it might be boring, maybe even tedious. Regardless, they’re there to do a job and want to do it efficiently, without a lot of headaches. It’s work not play. They have to focus on what they’re doing because the stakes can be high, even fatal if someone screws up. The dirty little secret of full-size railroading is it’s repetitious and often boring. True, no two runs are exactly the same but they are similar more often than not. That’s not good enough for us though.

How many of you would like to go to Smedley’s basement, grab your time card, punch in on an actual time clock (because Smedley is a stickler for authenticity) and get your work assignment? No special snowflakes here, you do the job you’re assigned like it or not. You mosey out to find your power, do the routine checks and safety procedures, then wander over to find your train. You couple up, do more safety checks, and after an actual hour or more has passed (because there was a screw up somewhere), you finally get permission to leave. You think: “At last, now we’re talking.” You run to the first siding (which is only twenty feet away around the end of the blob), and the signal is against you. So you head in and sit there for the rest of the evening. Why? Because you got the division dog run of low priority freight. You get assigned the same job for the next three months. Sound like fun?

I get it, operations are the be-all and end-all for a lot of people. So much so, that some consider building the layout an odious price they have to pay before the real fun begins. I’ve never been a huge fan of formal operations and I part company with those who want us all to “model” jobs or work. When did that become a hobby? I do enjoy switching and running a model locomotive in a realistic manner. Beyond that…I’ll pass. My satisfaction from model trains lies elsewhere.

Operational interest is the Holy Grail we’re all supposed to chase.

Operational interest (however you define it) is the Holy Grail we’re all supposed to chase. It drives every aspect of our thinking from day one and boredom, in any form, is the dreaded demon we must exorcise and conquer. God Forbid we should ever become bored!

We analyze every inch of track to determine how much operating potential it provides and to willingly eliminate any operating potential has to be the raving lunacy of a deranged madman, or so some gurus would have us believe.

I embrace a radically different view. When I designed the I&W, I included too much track because like many, I never questioned the mantra of operational interest being paramount. A few years later, I removed twenty percent or more of that track because there was just too much of it. I was far happier with less. In fact, I was seriously considering reducing the size of the layout by at least fifty percent. I realized my true interests lay elsewhere and the layout was more of a burden to my enjoyment of the craft rather than an asset. That raw honesty led me to dismantle it completely with no regrets.

Why are we bored?
Why do people spend decades of time and thousands of dollars building these things only to “operate” them for six months to a year, and then chuck it in the dumpster and start over? Because they’re bored.

In my view, we grow bored because we expect to be entertained. We not only design the game board, we make up the rules when the real world procedures aren’t any fun.

We’re like the weekend duffer on the golf course who thinks the secret to a lower score is in the brand of club he uses, instead of what he gives toward practicing better techniques. We think that the secret formula of model trains is a bigger layout, more track, more trains, more operating potential; more of everything we can think of. And when we find out it isn’t, we chuck it all and start the insanity again telling ourselves we’ll get it right this time by golly. (These clubs suck. Maybe if I switched to Calloway?)

Boredom is a disinterested state of mind. We stop caring, stop giving of ourselves to something we used to care about. We happily engage in endless rounds of analysis paralysis, worried sick we’ll make a wrong choice and be bored with the outcome. Why is that? Full-size railroads don’t alter the track in a given location just because the crew is bored from making the same moves week after week.

What if we addressed the internal root cause of our boredom instead of blaming the external objects? After all, a few days, weeks or months ago we were slobbering all over at the potential this shiny new plan offered. Where did that enthusiasm go?

What if we stopped obsessing over how much track we can stuff in a given space, or how little we can get by with to stave off boredom and asked different questions? Like what do we expect this layout/operating scheme/model to do for us? What do we think we will have and, how will we know if we have it? Instead of passively thinking this craft will keep us entertained for a lifetime, what if we sought a new challenge? What if we approached it with the active curiosity of a student seeking mastery of a subject that captures his imagination?



  1. Simon

    Thoughtful post, Mike. If we were to model “jobs” authentically then there would indeed be the chance of sitting there doing not a lot!

    It had always struck me that the key difference between other modelling disciplines/subjects is the track. It is what differentiates rail-bound transportation from other forms. That may sound obvious, but it is true. There is nothing to stop any model maker from applying the same approach, that of focusing on the trains, cars and locomotives in themselves in the same way that a builder of scale model aircraft might do: none of them feel that the model has to fly, and both radio control and static modelling are a form of aircraft modelling.

    Controlled and constrained movement are what railways are ultimately about, however, so I can see and understand the attractions of wanting to model the operations, but I am surprised that multi-user train simulations have not taken off (assuming they exist: I really don’t know, as this doesn’t interest me) as here is the ultimate way to enjoy operations without the requirements of space and money that a fully fledged “empire” requires. It would also allow for genuine distance and time between stations: say goodbye to the engine in one station and the caboose just leaving the yard at the previous one. This is one feature of operational empires which always bemuses me. For example, the NKP circa 1950 was characterised more by a 50mph freight train eating up the miles between division points than it was by the division points themselves. Surely any model of such a subject in that era requires enough plain track to allow a train to get up to that speed, and then maintain it for some time before slowing down? Without that, the essence of the prototype is lost.

    However, just because operations are the unique quality of model railways, this doesn’t have to be the only way to express an interest in the subject. Building of stock, structures, dioramas is just as valid an expression of the craft.

    Nor does it have to be an either/or situation. It is possible to combine all these into a coherent whole, a and also to work things into a satisfying scheme that aligns interests alongside available resources, and to accept the constraints of one’s personal circumstances not as something to drive a compromise, but as parameters which shape the solution.

    A simple scheme, modelled in great detail to prototypical standards (why are track and wheels, the very definition of a rail way, so glibly dismissed as something to get down quickly?) will be extremely absorbing of time, and will provide hours of satisfaction against the instant gratification from a new purchase. And carefully made, it will come to life if it moves with the ponderous inevitably of the real thing.

    Maybe I am preaching to the choir? That maybe, but maybe this and other blogs provide an outlet for the “dissenting opinion” which a free thinker may find and take reassurance, if not inspiration and encouragement, from?

    It is important that these discussions take place in public!


  2. mike

    I think one reason video game railroad simulations aren’t more popular is they would be too boring, if you’ll forgive me hammering away on that word. How long would you be willing to sit in a chair and just watch generic scenery roll by on the screen? The only interruptions would be blowing the horn for crossings and the occasional meet. You could spice it up I suppose with idiots running a grade crossing in front of you, or other situations the professionals must deal with. Or, how enjoyable would switching be from the cab, where you’re supposedly two blocks away from where the action is at the other end of the string of cars you’re spotting. I suspect that even the most die hard operator also enjoys being a railfan as the train moves along the layout.

    I agree with your other points also. This craft doesn’t have to be an either/or choice. Sadly, too many people view it in those terms.

    JD: Thanks for the kind words.

    Regards to you both,

  3. Rich Steenwyk

    Refreshing to see this discussion out here…Was actually just having a similar one with my father who has a basement-filling proto-freelance layout that requires 12 people to operate. He’s in good company in his area, as there’s a weekly round-robin group that supports these operations, but the other 29 days of the month, it’s “off”, frozen in 1959, waiting for the next crop of engineers and conductors and dispatchers and yardmasters to return and continue the action. In its current form, entertaining oneself with it between formal sessions would actually make work, like changing car cards or re-staging or, at the very least, putting everything back.

    However, when it does deliver, boy does it. To see the whole transportation system come alive and the dispatcher coordinate meets with Form 19 train orders really does bring a smile. While visitors come and enjoy, it still wasn’t built for them; the owner is on cloud nine.

    Operations are just another vector in the many spectrums of (railroad) model(ing) railroad(ing). Some enjoy the macro level, others much more up close and personal.

    My own interests have evolved over time, from dreaming of a similar basement-filling outcome and the whole interconnected system requiring 12 or more to make work, zoomed all the way down to one mile of rickety industrial track where I can spot cars whenever I please.

    I’ve narrowed that change down to a single goal word: immersive. Zooming in (and, in my case, scaling up to P:48), leaves me with a greater feeling of being immersed in railroading. With near-eye-level benchwork, you can almost put yourself there and imagine being the conductor for an hour…without the bone-chilling cold and hours-long-waits and terminals and sidings.

  4. Chris Mears

    I remember a time in my life when things weren’t stable. I remember scraping together enough spare change to buy a coffee and wander down to a place where I could go and enjoy that coffee while I watched a neat little engine going about its work of shoving long cuts of railroad cars through a loading facility. I could pretend that there was some greater story at play but there really wasn’t. Just an old diesel shoving cuts of cars, one at a time…it was a railroad at work, albeit just an industry-owned locomotive deliberately lumbering about its domain like an old farm horse walking away its life. That place was sacred for the way it offered me a refuge to wait out a moment that would pass. A moment that seemed so great and almost insurmountable at the time. In terms of my own work, I’m not attempting to discover a cure for terminal boredom but trying to provide a canvas that might provide a place of contended solace, not unlike where I remember going to find the same, with the real thing.

    If there is a thing I could say was “the hard part” it’s learning to communicate our work and that’s where this measure of boredom threatens our experience. Model railroading tends to nurture a competitive streak. Like an unwritten rule or habit we acquire with that first set of trains, we learn to measure our success and even rank the work of others by the size and complexity of the work in very simplistic terms. In doing so we translate our work from that of a personal journey to a commodity that can be traded with others in the hobby. A sort of alchemy where the unit of measure is units of boredom and we estimate it by rather superficial metrics. Unfortunately the recipe is vague and only ever seems to work once, for the guy whose holding the ball.

    I regret that what I’m working on won’t entertain most of my friends. I regret that it’s hard to express how happy it makes me feel inside and why I see my current work as my most powerful. All of this is borne of the fact that deep inside me what I’m producing connects with a memory of peace I experienced. That sense of contentment wells up from an equally deep and safe place inside me. I wish I was good enough at the hobby that I could create work that I could derive a happiness in as a function of that which I gave to others but I can’t. What I can do is at least make myself happy, keep myself entertained, and provide a place like one I remember. Somewhere where there’s a warm coffee, the exhaust beat of a very old Caterpillar diesel engine working a bit harder than it should, and time can’t find me.


  5. mike


    That is one of the most heartfelt and eloquent statements about this craft I have ever read. Thank you for sharing it on this blog and I encourage you to expand upon and share it on your own.

    You are correct. We use the most superficial metrics imaginable to measure the impact of this craft and that is part of the reason I am so critical with some of these posts. We’ve dumbed it down to the point of utter irrelevance. We’ve taken experiences such as yours and reduced them to empty banal nonsense, stripped of all meaning and depth. Thank you for mustering the vulnerability to demonstrate that it doesn’t have to be so shallow. A layout expression like that will never speak to everyone, nor should it have to carry that burden. That it speaks to you is enough.


  6. Chris Mears

    “…should it have to carry that burden.” I can hear the crack of the bat as you continue to knock these ones right out of the park, Mike. Pure gold. (And that’s about all I know about sports so therefore the end of my sports cliché work).

    In a hobby dedicated to the camaraderie that it breeds, how do we nurture something defiant of that without asking the artist to alienate himself or his colleagues? What about private work and private creation?

    I don’t need an answer but felt like proposing the question as a part of an ongoing conversation exploring the language of this craft.

    Thank you for opening the connection.


  7. mike

    Putting me and any sports reference in the same sentence is hysterical. I was the geekiest, most clueless and uncoordinated kid on the playground.