For all my positive spin about storytelling, there’s a dark side.

We tell ourselves stories about this craft and how it’s done, picking up themes from each other and from the magazines. Occasionally the story we concoct for ourselves goes off the rails in a big way.

Today I read a post that brought this home to me and wanted to share it. A gentleman posted on a popular forum that he’s almost ready to quit the hobby because he’s bogged down in the construction of a monster layout. This triple deck behemoth consists of 450 feet of mainline and its sole purpose is for timetable and train order operation. According to the author, TT&TO is non-negotiable, anything less won’t do. He’s adopted an all or nothing mindset and is beating himself up in public about his dislike of the boring nature the volume of work his out-sized expectations and design requires. The real kicker? He all but categorically states he doesn’t enjoy any of the building aspects involved with any size layout.

Lots of people are responding and offering the usual productivity solutions but no, none of that will do. He has a fixed vision of this layout: it has to be “just so.” Reading through the thread, he’s clearly painted himself into a blind corner with no way out. He’s set a new deadline for completing his mainline but is self-aware enough to know that he won’t adhere to it and the text of his post drips with the frustration he’s feeling.

We’ve all drunk the Kool-aide of this hobby.

The magazines overflow with big glossy photos of highly detailed monster-size layouts and the accompanying text reads like everything just fell into place without anyone breaking a sweat. It doesn’t work that way. The intensity of this person’s self-inflicted dilemma struck me as profoundly sad and, it truly is self-inflicted. Consider: he wants TT&TO ops and needs a large layout- that he doesn’t want to build. Room and layout aesthetics are important to him, but putting them in place is boring. He could receive help but, they won’t be able to do things “just so.” His rigid parameters and unwillingness to embrace the actual work involved is ultimately going to destroy any interest in this hobby for him. If Dante created a version of model railroad hell, I think this guy’s found it.

There is no such thing as a perfect layout. There are parts of the I&W I don’t like and haven’t from day one. Trevor has expressed similar views about his and so have others about their own efforts. This is a simple truth most people learn to deal with and move on from. To expect this hobby to bring long-lasting satisfaction based on a rigid set of conflicting desires is a recipe for massive disappointment. I’ve stated many times that this is a hobby of personal choice but, I have to wonder aloud why anyone would subject himself to such an unpleasant ordeal?



  1. Trevor

    Hi Mike:
    I too read that thread and I too wonder why the guy is still in the hobby. He’s set a very high bar for his hobby and he’s obviously not enjoying the process of getting there. And yet, as you note, he’s not willing to rethink.
    This goes beyond not wanting to rethink his layout ambitions. He needs to rethink what he wants out of the hobby. The huge layout dream that he’s chained himself to is obviously making him miserable.
    I think it’s great that others on the forum are trying to be helpful. But sadly, I don’t think it’ll do any good: I think this guy’s layout space is destined to collect dust and be used for household storage. A layout that isn’t enjoyable to work on doesn’t get worked on.
    – Trevor (Port Rowan in 1:64)

  2. ironmule2004

    Hello, The people like this particular fellow that are fascinated and dead set on using Time Tables, Train Orders, and Rule Books kind of puzzle me. I just don’t get it. Personally I feel that this aspect of railroading is far removed from the mechanical aspect of railroading that I appreciate. Wheels squeeling and ties creaking under rails as an enormous amount of weight is being moved over them. I thought that modeling was to bring to life something similar to this on a smaller scale. Seems to me like these guys are more interested in the paperwork, procedures, and rules that were used to operate the railroad they are interested in instead of just the railroad itself. I understand that railroads have rules and regulations, but I deal with that kind of “junk” on a daily basis. The last thing I would want to engage in during my spare time would be more rules and regulations. I wouldn’t even think these guys would need a layout to satisfy their interests. Maybe a nice desk with piles of railroad paperwork would do the trick.


  3. Simon

    I have often heard modellers ask if one is a “builder” or an “operator”, but have never before seen such an extreme example. In fact, until I read the above I had refused to believe that there was such a dichotomous state, more a question of personal preferences, to see where one’s focus and inclinations lie: in building a layout where operation of trains is the main focus, for example, or towards something simpler in scope but deeper in detail.

    But to want both, without being prepared to put in the effort required, strikes me as being unrealistic at best, and a recipe for depression at worst.

    Not sure that this would be Dante’s vision of hell: it sounds more like Sartre to me – the desire for one thing but the aversion to the commitment required to achieve it.

    Probably getting into waters that are too deep here, in what is the best of all possible worlds!


  4. mike

    Hi Jason,
    Welcome to the blog and thanks for commenting.

    There are lots of ways to look at this. TT&TO isn’t my cup of tea either but, the mantra of a multi-level layout with miles of mainline to support this form of operation has been promoted heavily for a decade or more now. For those willing to do the work and the upkeep involved with this style of layout, well more power to them if that’s what they enjoy. I also don’t see this as an either/or argument between operators and model builders. There are plenty of folks who truly enjoy both. Again, more power to them.

    I shared this because for me, it so clearly illustrates the pitfalls of falling in love with somebody else’s idea. This gentleman may truly enjoy TT&TO ops, but he clearly doesn’t want to take the steps required to realize that objective and he’s apparently unwilling to accept the help of others for reasons of his own choosing. Given all that, I wonder why he’s even in the hobby at all or continues to lug this mental baggage around when it’s obviously making him miserable? I also wonder if TT&TO ops are really his idea or if he’s just in love with an ideal that’s been promoted over the years? I have no way of knowing, so this is all speculation. Maybe the guy just needed to blow off some steam. We all do now and then.

    The larger point for me is this: Think for yourself. Make your own choices and do so with your eyes wide open about the consequences of them. Nothing in this hobby or life in general comes without effort on our part. Maybe this guy has done exactly that but, I wonder.


  5. mike

    Hi Simon,

    At times I wonder about how strange this little hobby has become.


  6. Chris Mears

    These stories just make me sad. To be fair, these stories also frustrate me. Given a few minutes to think about them I usually find the reasons why I felt both ways are one and the same. It would be easy to blame the magazines as we so often do: “For crying out loud! If Model Railroader didn’t make everyone think the only layout they could ever build and be proud of was a monster…how could they be so reckless with the hobby?!” Like somehow the magazine had lied or otherwise misled the readership and mispresented the hobby. Layout size is not a deciding factor in success or happiness any more than blaming the prototype. I like Canadian National. At one point CN was the largest railroad in the world. Just because a favourite railroad was the biggest, I didn’t adopt a need to build a larger layout (though I’d be lying if I even thought about pretending I’ve never flirted with the idea). My choice of prototype didn’t influence my layout size any more than being a dedicated fan of David Barrow’s Cat Mountain and Santa Fe layout. My layouts have been small and I’ve been lucky enough to start and even finish enough of them that I can appreciate the effort required to get one to any stage of completion. After a lifetime in the hobby I’m getting pretty comfortable with understanding what I can do compared to what I might think I want to do.

    I’ll wager we’ve all met someone, new to the hobby, who admires handlaid track or scratchbuilt models but then shrugs: “I’d never have the talent to try that. Where do you find the patience?” and then describe the massive empire they’ve started in their basements. Building a model railway of any size or complexity demands a certain mindset from its builder and a willingness to attempt the work, a willingness to fail, and an optimistic reassurance that you will learn from everything and the second time you try XYZ you’ll be better at it. I believe these to be truths and that there is no chance of avoiding the work. Sooner or later a turnout will break and you’ll need to fix it. Sooner or later you’ll need to figure out how to program a DCC locomotive. Sooner or later… I don’t understand the disconnect between not thinking you could learn to do something and then committing to something that will eventually force you to.

    I worry we don’t describe the effort required to get a first layout running for fear that folks might get scared off and, if we believe the press, model railroading is already dying off too fast. I’ve long maintained that we need to make investments in helping these first layouts get up and off the ground. Perhaps a part of that stewardship is helping the new modeller to gauge the right size of project for their time, for their experience, and for their budget. It could be a tangible investment in success and that’s building the hobby. The hard part will be communicating this in a way that doesn’t sound too critical or patronizing. I can’t tell what you can or can’t do or will or won’t learn but I might be able to help you understand what’s involved.

    The son of a model railroader, I grew up in this hobby. I can’t tell what it’s like to arrive at it from anywhere else. It makes me sad when someone can’t find joy in a place that has provided so much joy and even sanctuary for me. It makes me want to help out.



  7. Jimbofin


    You’ve made some excellent points. I certainly recognize the mixed feelings about the role of magazines.

    In the UK, with a few notable exceptions, the large layout is largely the preserve of model railway clubs, if only because few of us have the space at home. That has many advantages of course, because it means the builders can work as a team and work in the areas that hold an interest for them.

    But even the small branchline layout calls on a range of skills, and arguably with more pressure to get it right first time because everything is in view. On a large layout you can get on with something else and come back to whatever is troublesome or boring at a later date.

    What I think you highlight that many magazine, blog and forum readers don’t understand is the need to be multi skilled and to learn by doing. and failing. I suspect as well many think that buying a RTR loco and stock means the hard part has been done for them, when that is only part of the story.

    There is another kind of bad story, the one where the story is part of a self deception.


  8. mike

    As he often does and as James observed, Chris has made a number of cogent points in his comment. In fact you all have.

    It’s easy to set up straw men to rail against, whether they be a magazine that doesn’t publish the type of content I enjoy, or a manufacturer who doesn’t produce the product I want, or another modeler with a different view than mine. I’m as guilty as anyone of casting blame in all these directions and will try to erase such simplistic notions from my thinking.

    Such narrow minded thinking misses the real problem the hobby is suffering from and I think Chris has nailed it: the fact that in this hobby, we’ve separated two concepts that are intimately linked together. Those being that reward comes from effort and, perhaps more importantly, that no one is responsible for my enjoyment of the craft but me.

    The minute I allow someone else to dictate my thinking or my taste, I’ve given up part of my autonomy to another source. We’ve all done this to varying degrees and my writing is geared to breaking that mindset for myself.

    I’ve spent a couple of decades traveling the very path and reaching the very same place the guy in the MRH post is at. I’ve shared that story in Pieces of The Puzzle, Volumes 1-2 of TMC and many times on the blog. I can’t give you a secret formula for waking up out of the fog because there isn’t one. I just got sick and tired of doing things over and over that weren’t working for me. I reached the point of ENOUGH of what everyone says I should be doing, there has to be something different that will work for me.

    Maybe it’s a rebellious streak, or maybe it’s simply growing up and choosing for myself. Chris is spot on when he says we’ve done a lousy (my word) job of communicating the true nature of the work any layout entails. But ultimately, regardless of how we present it, a person has to embrace the work themselves and make an internal commitment to it. If you’ll forgive me a product plug, I touch on this theme of internal commitment in TMC 11.

    Do I have any answers? Nope, at least not for anyone else. My only encouragement is to think long and hard about what you want and why you think you want it.


  9. Simon

    I’m going to disagree with you, Mike.

    You do have answers. But your answers are not easy ones, and they are recursive. Actually, they are variations on the same theme: your answer is always an encouragement to question one’s own motivation, to ask the simple (but not easy!) question, “What do I want?” I suppose there is s subsidiary question to this, “Am I prepared to put in the effort required to achieve that?” (Effort can equate to many things, including putting in extra at work, to earn enough to pay someone else to build it.) is the answer to the latter question is “No,” then the answer to, “What do I want?” was obviously wrong…

    Your answers are more questions, but they all lead back to finding out what one wants to achieve, what is required to achieve it, and whether in light of the latter, it is still what one wants.

    I regularly return to “Pieces of the Puzzle” – it lives in my bedside cabinet – and TMC 1&2. Not because you answer any of my questions. Not really because of your own answers. But because of the questions you asked of yourself, and how you came to your answers.

    You cannot answer my questions, but you can help me ask myself the right questions. (And no, I have still not come up with the answer – yet!)

    Keep provoking, without being provocative.


  10. Matt


    I talk to friends, new and old on my visits to the local model train shop. Since most of these people model in HO, I hear some of their similar stories of plans not fitting well into available space, or only getting 6 yards tracks in instead of 8, etc etc. they certainly get more accomplished than my meandering modeling approach, but I certainly do not have the frustration level that they seem to live with, for a hobby no less.

    Recently purchased a book, “Bodie Bonanza”, to learn more about the story about the gold rush that occurred there. In part to develop my future endeavor “Copper City” in Sn3. Now in reading about miners one discovers these folks travel from one strike to the next. Never happy with where they are or what they have gained. Putting down the book, I read this post and could not escape from the similarity of those seeking “the Eldorado” of gold/silver or model railroading.

    My wish is that people new to the hobby could be presented with efforts completed by modelers who are rookies, to more experienced, to advanced work. Within those articles, a short bio of the modeler, and how many years they have been modeling. Perhaps the projects would even include how many hours it took to complete and give a listing of how many new and old skills we used and learned.

    My general feeling is folks think a box is opened and out pops a model railroad. I can tell you that just in layout construction alone, my C modules have taken now about 8 months and still not one module has been built quite the same and to be honest, I have not liked the end result of any attempt, but that has been part of the process. Build, use it, find what works what doesn’t and move on again.

    Enough of my wand earrings, I am going back to Bodie and learning about hard rock mining!


  11. mike

    Hi Matt,

    Not being satisfied with what we have is human nature isn’t? I wonder how many of those miners were mere feet or inches away from a major payoff in finding a vein of ore before they moved?

    I like your thoughts about sharing the time and skills involved in a project. It would eliminate a lot of the delusion about what’s actually involved in a work. So many good ideas coming out in these comments, I need to make a dedicated list of them for my own reference. Well done everybody.

    Thanks for sharing Matt.


  12. renegourley

    “Building a model railway of any size or complexity demands a certain mindset from its builder and a willingness to attempt the work, a willingness to fail, and an optimistic reassurance that you will learn from everything and the second time you try XYZ you’ll be better at it.”

    That is a superbly accurate and succinct summing up, Chris.

  13. Jimbofin

    It seems a ;lot of our thinking here revolves around the learning curve of those moving on to the next stage of the hobby. I’m not going to define “the next stage” because I think it is different for all of us, and some of us will have gone through many “next stages”. For some that might be weathering their first RTR loco, for others it might be moving their great project forward towards becoming operational, and for others it might be moving on from the discovery that everything they’ve built upon now has failed to meet their own self imposed standard.

    It is easy to respond to that, and I’m sure I have, by thinking that the hobby community, including the commercial side of it, is failing because there is a gap somewhere between advice for the complete beginner and the kind of advice that casually mentions they produced the boiler fittings in a lathe, as usual.

    There might be some truth in that. I’ve argued that myself. Interestingly in the UK we’ve had magazines that have tried to fill that gap, like the much missed MORILL and the recently launched Finescale Railway Modelling Review.

    Many many years ago I was a lecturer at a management school. One of the key lessons I learned there was that the successful transfer of knowledge depended on understanding the students. A model I found very useful was the Four Stages of Competence . For a more up to date view on unconscious incompetence it is worth reading about the Dunning Kruger effect.

    The relevance of this is twofold. First of all when someone is in one of those four states of competence, but particularly the two unconscious states, it is very hard to get them to realise the other states exist or how those in the other states think or behave. The other is the amount of emotional effort that can be involved in moving between the states.

    Often the information and advice we need is out there but what is missing is context or an emotional trigger. A quick personal example. A ten minute chat to Norman Solomon at a point building demo got me building my first hand built switch that evening, having prevaricated for years. I don’t think I used much of the advice he gave me there and then, but what I took away from the dmeo was confidence


  14. Simon

    MORILL (Modelling Railways Illustrated) is indeed much lamented, but the same story is evident in why it failed as in why many modellers “fail”: lack of enduring commitment. Indeed, I might paraphrase Chris:

    Pulishing a model railway magazine aimed at any particular segment of the hobby demands a certain mindset from its publisher and a willingness to attempt the work, a willingness to fail, and an optimistic reassurance that they will learn from everything and the second time you try, you’ll be better at it.”

    A similar story applies to “Modeller’s Backtrack”, which to be honest I knew would fail from its first editorial, which clearly stated that it had no editorial agenda, but was looking to be led by its readership. Nobody knew what it was trying to accomplish, least of all, those behind it: a vague idea of “somewhere in between X and Y” isn’t enough.

    Same lesson: know what you want to do, and what you need to do to achieve it, otherwise you won’t.


  15. gene48

    He who dies with the most toys wins.


  16. mike

    With respect Gene, I’m sick of that trite expression. Just what, exactly, does one win?


  17. Ctown

    I feel the same way. After spending eight years in the railroad industry as a engineer for a class 1, I realized that I wanted a hobby not my job. This lead me from freelance modeling with no purpose to modeling a specific location, and date. But I still don’t want to operate and replicate the tons of paperwork that goes along with railroading. I wonder how many of these people that have huge layouts eve think about the practical “time” that real railroaders spend wasting every day. Sure TT& TO operations might replicate the “good old days” of railroading but I’m sure not every operating crew was on the hotshot freight, or even cared if they made it over the road. Can you imagine a model railroader replicating sitting in a siding for 3-4 hours, even with a fast clock? Or better yet operating the layout in the middle of the night? It seems like some modelers want to model the glory jobs but forget about the day to day realities of being a rail.
    At one point I time I wanted to model a whole subdivision that I ran over, but quickly realized that it was to only impractical, but also out of way reach. Instead I’m modeling a branch line that had a total of four locals over a 24 hour period. Since I can’t model the whole branch, I decided that I would rather model a few locations without selective compression, than minimize everything out of proportion. Oh and I’m doing this in Proto 29 which is seen by those i the large scale community as crazy…

  18. mike

    Welcome to the blog Craig. I’m always gratified when professionals find something worth commenting on.


  19. Jeff


    Strange is right. Sad might be a better word. It’s times like these that I’m so thankful I found blogs like yours (and Trevor’s and Lance’s and etc.) and realized that I needed to see things differently. You (all) provide a nice haven from the mainstream magazines and brain-sucking forums.

    I’ve been as miserable as this poor fellow many times in my pursuit of model railroad creation. It’s not fun. Reaching a breakthrough in thought and seeing that there’s another way, a different way…a better way to approach this whole thing – that feeling of relief is almost worth the pain. Almost.


  20. mike

    Thanks Jeff. Sometimes I wonder who people are modeling for, themselves or the herd?

    Years ago a well known model railroader paid a visit to my layout at my invitation. I went nuts prior to the big day making preparations. Well, he came and went, was polite in his comments of my feeble efforts and I acted like some star-struck teenager.

    We and our wives then went to dinner and the conversation was dominated by trains, as he deflected every attempt to discuss other things. I walked away from the experience with eyes opened. That was twenty years ago and I think that was the beginning of my disillusionment with the mainstream.


  21. Ctown

    Well former railroader, now I’m a secondary education teacher. Railroading is for single people when you work for class 1. Not to get to deep in the weeds, but Greg Amer and I hired out together, and went to engineer school together as well. But the things I saw everyday made me into a more determined modeler, which gets back to the point about why are we modeling. Is because we like operations, or is it because we like trains, building models? If it is TT & TO operations why?
    My other concern is that these huge layouts when finished require an operating crew of 15-20 people, and they only operate once or twice a month if lucky. The large scale layout that’s used to operate on has a regular crew of 10-15, and they operate twice a month. Even then, because of the style of operations, some of the operators stand around in the shed, and never once run a train. I’d rather have a small layout that can be operated with one or two people in a more frequent basis.

  22. gene48

    To me, the saying describes the obsessive behavior many exhibit in this hobby and life. Monster layouts or huge collections of kits doesn’t make one a winner in my book.
    I used to do patterns for a kit maker or two. They sold lots of kits but few were built by their original owners. People got to have it. I envisioned closets full of unbuilt kits stacked neatly along side boxes of brass locomotives and cars.

    I suppose that it is their hobby and who are we to criticize.


  23. rcandamoonpie

    Some folks are enamored with the “thinking game” that TT&TO allows. To them, it’s a linear version of Monopoly where you get through the path as quickly as possible, but there may be a few “Chance” cards along the way. They’d be just as happy moving blocks of wood along a line with a watch. But when they show up to a model railroad, they need miles of track to pull off the trick.

    For me, TT&TO was the way trains on my prototype were run. I want to simulate TT&TO because it’s just another facet of modeling the prototype railroad. Other facets include waybill handling, freight car modeling, scenery, structures, rolling stock, vehicles, etc. I haven’t read the blog post that started this thread, but Mike indicates that this facet is dictating all others for this guy. I don’t think it has to be that way, but I also haven’t figured out yet how to incorporate TT&TO into a small layout (although Trevor Marshall’s efforts are awfully instructive!).

  24. mike

    I chose not to include a direct link to the post because I didn’t want to deal with the drama and knee-jerk reactions from certain members of this forum. Many of the comments here would be taken out of context and generated a flame war. No thanks.

    The original post is on the MRH forum titled I really am starting to consider myself not a model railroader. It’s been bumped back to page three. You’re all welcome to read it if you choose.

    To be very clear, I have nothing against TT&TO ops or any of the other forms that are popular now. My comments are focused on what this guy is putting himself through. He wants TT&TO ops but doesn’t want to do any of the work involved in building the layout he thinks he needs/wants. Taking his comments at face value, he’s making himself miserable. My question is why?


  25. CVSNE


    I find stories like these sad as well. Though I’m not surprised by this particular case. you may have noticed Joe Fugate’s somewhat frustrated commentary to the thread originator – What you might not realize is this layout that he’s tearing himself apart about is something he envisioned as the “small” chainsaw layout – since his real desire was to build a huge building and fill it with an even bigger monster! But he could never get the “big” layout design completed to the point where they could start construction on the building to house it.
    As you might or might not know, I had a large multi-level basement filling layout built to the operating stage – and I hated it. So I tore off the top level and basically rebuilt the entire thing.
    The only reason I mention this is the author of the MRH thread happened to be over here for a visit – he was the one person who was absolutely shocked I would have taken off the second deck (I run TT&TO sessions since that’s what my prototype did) – eliminating half my mainline “for no reason” was something he couldn’t get his head around. Of course, he also didn’t get why I left one portion of the basement free of layout – operators call it the “crew lounge” – I call it a nice place to sit and visit with friends….
    My layout is big, but it’s remarkably simple – point-to-point, hand thrown turnouts, and the like.
    Even so, about six months ago I struggled with the thought that it was still too much layout – I expressed my frustration to several friends. The one person who told me the layout wasn’t too large was believe it or not, Lance.
    I truly hope Ken finds his way out of this mess – but as you said it seems like all the great advice he’s been getting is falling on deaf ears.
    A model railroader with a large, open dry basement and the lack of “vision” and drive to actually complete the thing is frequently a recipe for disaster. I’ve had the privilege to visit some truly remarkable large model railroads – some of them are amazing but they’re rare. There’s a lot of lumberyards sitting in model railroader basements out there.
    Not telling you anything you don’t know!

  26. mike

    Hi Marty,

    I have followed your New England journey over the years as that’s a favorite part of the county for me. I also catch flack about the utter simplicity of my own layout.

    One person in particular just can’t fathom what I’m doing and is always telling me what I should be doing. I just say “thanks” and go about my business.