We’ve all seen forum posts from some modeler sweating over the design/redesign of his first, second, third, tenth¬†layout. When I read something like this I wonder to myself about what’s going on. Why is this person struggling so? Why is he, or she, suffering through so many dead ends and false starts with the hobby?

Could it be the modeler hasn’t clarified what is essential about railroading for him?

A quick story. In 1963, my parents bought their first house. It was less than one hundred feet from a double track PRR secondary mainline and less than forty feet from a siding that served a Thoroseal Inc. batch plant. From the front door and living room windows I could watch trains going through town. It became a family joke that every time an airhorn sounded for the crossings in town, I would bolt from a chair to the front door or window to see what was coming. Every time!

For each of us who practice and enjoy this hobby, there is something that draws us to it. Something draws us to the tracks, to the sight and sounds of a train time and again.

I dare say that it’s as individual as the person experiencing it. I’ve written at length about my fascination with the siding that ran along the side street next to the house (photos below). For me, it wasn’t just the texture of the track but also the accessibility of this siding. The sight of a loco and handful of cars slowly trundling along, rocking to and fro, with the sounds of squealing flanges, creaking rail and ties underscored by the rhythmic throb of the engine, was simple to grasp. Being there time after time, I got to know some of the regular crews and even managed to snag a cab ride up and down the siding once. Coupled with a preference for a visually oriented understanding of the world, these images and experiences left indelible impressions that have fueled my tastes in the hobby ever since.

PC SW8 in Centerville IN working the siding for Thoroseal.

The elevator track with a couple of grain cars spotted for loading

The elevator track in the 1960s-’70s with a couple of grain cars spotted for loading. You are looking in the opposite direction from the first photo. The loco and cars were crossing the street (Morton Ave.) seen running at right angles to the tracks between the two boxcars above. My siding (not seen) was to the left in this photo, on the other side of Water Street, seen here between the two tracks.

Slow, deliberate train operations form the basis for the “essential why” of the hobby for me.

I don’t have to focus exclusively on branchline themes. Images of trains in any type of slow deliberate motion have a similar impact. Consider how a deep understanding of this essential quality of railroading has impacted my choices in a layout.

Did you have a similar experience growing up, or still to this day?

What are your essential qualities for prototype railroading? Something draws you to trains. Does your layout strongly reflect this aspect? How might you change your layout if you knew and thoroughly understood what truly draws you to railroading and deliberately focused the design around that? Would this knowledge make such an impact for you or does all this sound like a bunch of hooey?

I realize I’m only speaking to a handful of people here. However, many if not most modelers seek something from this hobby, yet few it seems, ever probe deeply into what it might actually be. Is it because we’ve been conditioned to think these soft issues don’t matter, or because no one ever discusses them out loud? (Except here for one place. There are others I’m certain.) Would you take advantage of the knowledge if someone did? Would your views about the hobby and what it could become for you change?

I believe model railroading can be so much more than the passive entertainment or the accumulation of stuff as it is often presented. I believe a person’s practice of the hobby can rise to the level of true craft and even art when done with focus, skill and intention. I also believe many of us are trying to recreate something intangible with our layouts, be it a memory or something else that brings us joy and satisfaction. What if we took time to think deeply about these things before the sawdust and flextrack started flying through the air? Could you more easily build a truly satisfying layout as a result? Would you?

Tell me what you think.



  1. willbacker45


    Great post, as always very thought provoking and helpful. I am going to try and answer, or rather discuss the points you brought up seeing as there is no true answer for such topics.

    I often wonder to myself why railroads? why trains? what is it about them that just completely and utterly captures my interest and imagination and brings me joy more than many other things can (tangible things of course, not family, friends, etcetera). People often ask me these same types of questions; why do you build model trains? why do you go and sit by the tracks hoping that a train will pass? And honestly, I often cannot think of a reason to give them, or at least not a reason that I could express in words that would make sense to anyone, especially a non-foamer! To me it is just a feeling inside. A feeling that, I have no way of expressing, no way of explaining, and it didn’t even make sense to me.

    Recently, I began exploring this feeling. I began to think deeper about why seeing a train makes me happy. This exploration lead me down a new path in life; I changed my Major and career focus from Medicine to Civil Engineering, because I finally saw the connection in life between happiness and career, the one connection that all happy and successful people seek where you make what you truly enjoy into your career. From this I have finally been able to answer or attempt to arrive at a conclusion to the ever open ended question of why?

    The answer is simple and being in Engineering opened my mind to see that the answer was and always had been right in front of me. Fortunately, for me, the answer to my question is in itself a question. The answer is: HOW? All this time I have been enthralled in figuring out how all of this works. The whole thing; the rails, ties, ballast, yards, sidings, industries, locomotives, cars, wheels, signals, tunnels, bridges. How do these things work together to form what we all consider and know to be a Railroad. Notice how I said that fortunately the answer is a question? This is fortunate because it is a never ending journey! There will always be how type questions to answer, which means there will always be research that I have to do. Research is learning, learning that is enjoyable, learning that is (finally) fun.

    Once I realized this I was able to incorporate it into my hobby. It all comes down to PROTOTYPE modeling. Since this realization I have destroyed and sold off two large layouts, one in HO and one in 3 Rail O Scale. All this to build what I consider the ultimate prototype modelers scale 1/48. I was lucky to be given a clean slate, a new house, a house of my own with a basement that I only have to share with what little my girlfriend wants down there and the washer and dryer. I have taken what I have learned not only in studying the prototype but also from what I have learned from my education and internships in Rail Engineering and I will incorporate this into my new layout. A layout that is not necessarily based on a specific location, but one that is plausible in that location that I will design using practices that are seen in the real world. I will operate it using the knowledge that I have gained studying real world operations. I will signal it to be the most realistic that I can and use speed limits and movements that are accurate to the specific location. All of this is done in the design. As you may guess, I LOVE design! I love the design stage, but nothing is better, or more rewarding than seeing what I have dreamed and created in my head come to life. Learning from and changing what went wrong, adjusting calculations on the fly to make the building feasible. Then running it as if it was the real thing…finally answering: HOW! How will be answered in model form right in front of my eyes. I will have the opportunity to see what it’s really like to be; an engineer, conductor, dispatcher, maintainer, industry, yard master, and most importantly a Design Engineer.

    This is where I am at with my hobby and I must say I have never been more excited about it. I cannot wait to get started. Unfortunately, the only thing holding me back is the cost. The cost of the hobby has slowed and at this point stopped progress on my Columbus & Wheeling Railroad. Really, before it has even gotten the chance to pass the paper design stage. I realize the features of what is available today may legitimize the cost and I am not here to debate that fact, but all the same it is difficult to make train purchases, especially on a college student’s budget. I will continue to build as I can and I am hoping to get a large amount of scrap wood soon so that I can get a portion of the benchwork up! Until, then I will keep on researching and learning, luckily, there is still some free knowledge out there to be found. Some people, like yourself, are nice enough to post free information in blogs and websites. And for that, I thank you!!!

  2. mike


    What a heartfelt and great response! I love it. It seems you’ve tapped into the core of what I’ve been trying to say in all these posts. Exploring the interconnected relationships between all the aspects you mentioned is your “why” for pursuing the hobby.

    You also understand how this knowledge guides the choices and design issues for you. Having such an understanding puts you miles ahead of the typical modeler, who just goes with some of this, a little of that, and a dose of those for good measure, and wonders why it isn’t that satisfying for the long term.

    It was very gratifying to read. Thanks for sharing with all of us. C’mon gang, what about the rest of you?


  3. Matt


    Great post one that along with Volume I of “THe Missing Conversation”, challenges everyone to think. Most of my early exposure to the real world of railroading was through my Dad’s scrap business that took up abandoned railroads. Most of it redundant mainlines or branchlines, seemed like all of it was in rural areas or small towns. Within the stat of Maryland, the B&O Hagerstown branch with its huge trestle over the Antietam creek and the very rural (not as much today) NCR/PRR/PC Baltimore to MD-PA line of the original Nothern Central RR dating back to the Civil War time period. My early exposure to steam was the EBT’s Winter Spectacular and rides on the Strasburg RR. I think those rides are what sold me on steam engines. Visiting the EBT and walking through the shops/ roundhouse area was what focused my attention on the industrial revolution. Taking trips to EBT’s Robertsdale station (A company mining town) exposed me to the idea of the company town and coal mining. That said, all of this exposed me to rural railroading, mostly in hilly and some mountainous terrain in the eastern US and to a love of narrow gauge.

    I do have certain standard gauge railroads I like, which in taking a step back have my likes of rural small town village “feel”; the Ma&PA, NYO&W, St Johnsbury and Lake Champlain, Virginian, the original Norfolk Southern (I like their AS 416s), and the Rutland.

    My exposure to western railroading was first through the library and getting Mal Ferrell’s Rio Grande Southern book out when I was a little boy (soon after I got my first library card). I remember flipping through the stock run section numerous times thinking how interesting it was that railroads moved cows and sheep! I remeber wanting to build one of the RGS short cabooses as well. I think that is why the RGS has always been a favorite of mine.

    Visiting Black Hawk and Central City exposed me along with Harry Brunk’s “Up Clear Creek” series to the C&Sng. I liked Harry’s approach of using an existing railroad and making a freelance name.

    Last but certainly not least was a later in life (20s) exposure to the Maine two footers. Like Vance Junction, Orbisonia, Cadosia or Bel Air, seems like Strong, Maine would have been a neat place to watch trains or Bridgton on the B&SR, or Wiscasset on the WW&F. The water and trains together! Once again though, a common theme of small towns and rural scenery and the slower pace of steam and narrow gauge.

    Question of building a more satisfying layout is a tough one with so wide a range of narrow gauge and standard interests. However a common theme of narrow gauge, rural scenes and small towns makes for the perfect use of a larger scale, more detail, and a slow pace of switching.


  4. harmsway

    I only have about 20 cars and 2 engines. However now I’m wondering why. Twenty cars is more then I need for my small O scale railroad and one engine is all i ever use. You have me thinking though I started collecting cars before I knew why. This hit me when recently I purchased four beautiful airslides hoppers but had no industry on my railroad to recieve them. Now I’m making changes to fit my purchase.

    Its ridiculous to think a prototype railroad would make such purchases. Learning from actual railroads is not only about design its about having that mindset. Who would spend dollars on prototype equipment without knowing why.

    Gene Harm

  5. mike

    Hi Matt,

    I’ve had a wide range of influences too, from the PRR to the eastern coal roads (I have a love of the mountains). I’ve also visited the EBT and have a strong affinity for the Maine two-footers. I’ve recently thought that a combination of Farmington and Strong on the SR&RL would make an interesting freelanced layout in On2.

    Numerous branches once laced my part of Indiana adding a distinct rural flavor of their own. Ultimately, it boils down to a choice of what moves you the most. Not a bad dilemma to have is it?


  6. mike

    Hi Gene,

    Welcome to the blog. I Don’t think that twenty cars is too many. It gives you a pool to rotate cars in and out of. A spare loco is also very prototypical. The Airslides may not have a home with a modeled industry but maybe they’re on their way elsewhere.


  7. harmsway

    A little research showed me that airslides can be unloaded into trucks from a team track.

    I devised an operating system that uses all my cars. They get delivered to one siding or the other over a three week period. Provided I operate most days, which I don’t. Exchanging cars on the two sidings takes me around 20 to 30 minutes. My card file system doesn’t follow any of the rules. It works for me though, giving each car a time and destination.

    I pasted my train orders to a spiral bound index card book. Each time I want to operate I just flip to the next train order. It’s easy and fun.


  8. mike

    Hi Gene,

    Sounds like you’ve found what works for you.


  9. tom sullivan

    Mike…..enjoying catching up on the blogs.

    So…..it’s THE ESSENTIALS……so here’s my story…..

    I grew up in NJ and railfanned the EL, the Valley, the CNJ and the Pennsy. I did a lot of this railfanning during the 70’s. Imagine….railfanning the lower rust belt during the rip roarin’ 70’s! Man did I see some slow speed switching, with dips and drops along the roadbed and way “out of gauge” trackage on industrial spurs.

    So, I have always seen in my mind’s eye the geeps of the rr’s I watched slowly moving down spur trackage, dipping and bobbing along the bad trackage as they switched out cars. I loved it!

    This is how I operate my railroad and modules…..slow and deliberate moves. Allowing time for the brakeman to move up and hand throw turnouts and set brakes on cars as they were spotted.

    Sure, it was fun to watch the Pennsy’s “clockers” roar through Metuchen, NJ, but it was watching a CNJ RS3 flat switch the yard at E-Port that really meant operating “essentials” to me.

    I really like where you guys are going with this blog……to me, give me a smoooooth running engine (any scale, any gauge), give me a short cut of cars to spot at at couple of industrial doors. I’ll throw the turnouts when I need them and I’ll watch out for the broken boards and pepsi bottles that littered the ROW in my section of Jersey.

    This discussion has me thinking of breaking out my collection of slides and reminding myself of what the “atmospherics” were like….who knows, maybe this is my new direction in modeling…..

    Glad to be riding along with the crew………tom

  10. mike

    Hi Tom,
    I did the bulk of my railfanning during the ’70s too. Penn Central and later Conrail in my area. The facilities in town were downgraded continually until the line was abandoned in the early ’80s in favor of consolidating traffic to fewer routes. Your descriptions really resonate.

    The Norfolk and Western took over the former Pennsy Cincinnati to Chicago line and rebuilt it completely over the years. This is the line featured in many of my photos.

    So glad you guys are enjoying the blog. I appreciate the comments and depth of feedback coming from all of you.


  11. noogrub

    It’s great to find these pictures. I lived in Centerville from 1978 through about 1983, graduated CHS in 1981.

    I worked at Thoro Systems summer of 1983 before returning to Purdue to study physics. Those trains brought us cement, sand, and some liquid ingredients for our waterproofing cements.

    Great site, look forward to reading more.


  12. mike

    Hi John,
    That’s incredible! I grew up and lived on the corner of Sprue and Water streets, right next to the siding that served the plant. What a small world.