What happens when the hobby wins the race to the bottom?*
*(What’s that? The relentless pursuit of turning it into something any idiot can do in his sleep.)

What happens when modelers find content specific blogs, videos and podcasts more relevant than general interest legacy magazines? Presenting: The Rio Grande Southern Show (all the RSS on the RGS), The Ophir Blog: keeping you in the loop! or BNSF Knows Best?

What happens when a modeler (ahem: railroad model consumer) can purchase any freight, passenger car or other item she wants from a rapid prototyping service?

What happens when battery powered equipment renders layout wiring and proprietary control systems obsolete?

What happens when 3-D printers are in people’s homes and workshops? When you can print a layout section, a tree model or track? (Ludicrous you say? I know at least two modelers who have taken the first step toward 3D printed track components.)

What happens when the sacred cow basement-sized layout becomes a mad cow burden that’s too costly in terms of time, money and other resources? (Like the costs to get rid of it.)

What happens when train shows/expos that refuse to change with the times, don’t have enough people attending to justify their existence?

What happens when the digital revolution with all its implications is complete?

What happens if people keep pretending that everything is just fine and the status quo serves us quite well thank you very much; or when no one gives a damn anymore about doing their best?

What happens if someone would give these questions serious thought and did something with them?



  1. Simon

    There will always be a few who care, and a few more who appreciate such things.

    35 years ago or so, when I was at school, we were told how computers would revolutionise our lives and give us more free-time. Well, that could still happen, but so far it has been used to increase “productivity” and consumption – the latter to the extent that we work longer than was the case then! I am afraid that without a “command and control” economy across the whole planet to provide such direction, then our current economic models for world wide trade make this inevitable. If I could come up with a solution to that, I wouldn’t have to work for a living.

    Personally, I don’t hold this against computers, nor do I have any objections to people using 3-D printing instead of buying on-line: at least it reduces the transportation costs and impact on the environment. As with almost every form of technology, it is the way it is used which causes the problems.

    As a trite example, we are conversing via digital computing, but the basic principle of this goes back to using Morse code over telegraph wires: replace the combinations of dots and dashes with ASCII code, and the manual operators at each end with a PC, and there you are: nothing new, just better. I would also find modelling my chosen prototype more difficult, although not impossible, without the net. 3D printing is nothing more than a massive advance from laser printing, but can still be traced back to Bi Sheng in China, circa 1045 AD, which itself was a step-change from papyrus and clay tablets, etc.

    But for me, I long for the day when use of computers means I can retire comfortably, and spend more time with my trains, and making them myself.

    The digital revolution makes using my hands to make things much more rewarding, as it is such a refreshing change.

    All we need do, is switch people onto that. The only way to do that, is to show them by making models, and writing about them!


  2. mike

    It seems that no matter the category, industry or situation, new technology is feared at first, then grudgingly adopted and finally, goes mainstream. This hobby is slow to embrace most changes, unless said change solves a long-standing problem or can be used easily with existing equipment.

    I believe we are seeing the first waves of a significant change in how our hobby products are made. Yes, the new 3D tech is in a nascent stage for now but does anyone actually believe it will stay that way, or that it will be decades before widespread adoption?

    Those who decry it the loudest often have the most to lose. Yes, it is not plug and play, yet. Given the course of similar developments it won’t be long until it is. And like other digital tools, there are people who will use them to the fullest with skill and craft and those who will just muddle about. It’s seldom the tools as much as the attitude of the person.


  3. rcandamoonpie

    Did you mean for this post to have such a negative connotation?

    Your post boils down to two overarching questions:

    Q – What happens when technology makes thing easy for us?
    A – Those who strive for more will inevitably do more such that any idiot will still need more products to purchase to keep up (e.g. model locomotive interiors). Manufacturers, vendors, publishers, etc. who do not adapt to the fact that their services are no longer needed will cease to serve the industry (e.g. model decal manufacturers).

    Q – What happens if someone would give these questions some serious thought and do something with them?
    A – In most industries, people are trying to stay ahead of the curve. Those who succeed survive. In model railroading, you’re going to have manufacturers who follow the curve because their volume and margins are such that they cannot take the risk with their resources. Your cottage industry folks will be ahead of the curve, but lack of manpower and resources may prevent them from doing any significant volume and so the cost will be high. When your options are no availability or high cost, you’ve got the breeding ground for the craftsperson to find a better way.

  4. Jimbofin

    What happens is that somethings about the hobby get better and some worse, but generally I’m optimistic. In general, if you look at a magazine from twenty or thirty years ago, things largely appear to have improved.

    I find some of those ideas pretty exciting, not least because my hand eye coordination isn’t great, but I can use CAD/CAM software. Hopefully many of the developments will lead to greater individualism and realism.

    The downside is the undervaluing of real model making skills and the potential loss of many artisan suppliers. My real fear is that we will see an increase in “copycat modelling” rather than an artistically informed interpretation of the prototype gives way to the slavish copying of another modellers style.

  5. P4newstreet

    Hi mike

    Surely the new tech arguement occurs every time and yet it always ends up a tool in the arsenal of the few rather than a drastic change to the majority. It doesn’t matter if 3d printers get to injection moulding quality or better as that won’t make models better. In the uk we have had a wave of new models over the last decade or so with better chassis, working lights, etched bits sound etc but due to cock ups in the research stage few have surpassed models of 20 – 30 years ago in terms of getting the basic shape right.

    The problem is that people expect new technology to do all of the work for them but it only does a small part.

    Your comment of specifics is also a good point. I am sure you have seen people complain that a show didn’t feature the specific era that interests them. To me this has always seemed odd, why pay money to get into a show in the expectation that they will see exactly what they have at home? Why disregard other models because they are ‘different’? A good modeller will look at anything creative for ideas and techniques they can use.


  6. mike


    “Did you mean for this post to have such a negative connotation?”

    One man’s negative question may lead to another’s positive result.

    My intent for this blog is to hold the hobby up for a critical examination, so that, hopefully, people may decide for themselves which aspects are worth keeping and which are not.

    You make good points. Some products may be rendered redundant by new technology but I would say that some processes will become redundant. The need for decals hasn’t gone away, rather technology has made their mass manufacture less attractive and profitable.

    To your second point, yes it is the larger companies who struggle the most with change. What is exciting now is that the tools of production have become so readily available to anyone who wants to master them. but, it’s a valid argument that tools alone will not produce quality work. Human input and intelligence will always be a key factor regardless of the methods used.

    A note to all readers, please sign your comments as a courtesy to all.


  7. mike

    Hi James,

    “The downside is the undervaluing of real model making skills and the potential loss of many artisan suppliers. My real fear is that we will see an increase in “copycat modelling” rather than an artistically informed interpretation of the prototype gives way to the slavish copying of another modellers style.”

    Indeed. There will always be copycats in some form. In the arts copying the work of the master is encouraged as part of a student’s learning process, with the expectation that he will eventually develop his own style.

    I have to wonder again if the lack of encouragement for people to pursue higher skills in the general press isn’t going to become the final nail in the coffin over time.

    I ask that people please sign their comments as a courtesy to all.


  8. mike

    “The problem is that people expect new technology to do all of the work for them but it only does a small part.”

    You nailed it right there Jim! Spot on.


  9. Jimbofin

    I agree with Jim and Mike that the issue is “people expect (the).technology to do all of the work for them” and you could substitute either “manufactures” or “magazines” for technology.

    Accepting that many are happy being adequate or average modellers the two questions I’ve found myself asking are:

    What makes people step out of their comfort zone and unleash their talent?


    Are some of the concerns specific to railway modelling in a way they aren’t to, say, military modelling ?

    I think these are perennial questions which the use of new technologies highlight rather than cause.



  10. mike

    Those are excellent points to consider James. Just excellent.


  11. The Industrial Lead

    I think it’s more of a race to the top. I’ve only been in the hobby 7 years, and the pace of innovation seems relentless. It’s a great time. People keep starting new companies with cool new products. photo-backdrops, photo-etched parts, cameras you can put on your locomotives, radio controls, dcc controls, shuttle controls, turnout controls – Blue Points, Bullfrogs, and servo motors. Super-detailed keeps getting one-upped.

    Everyone can afford a drill press and a Dremel and high quality hand tools. Maybe the technology will soon allow us to all have cheap mini-mills, 3D printers, and laser cutters. And we can make our own parts and tools. It’s an awesome thought.

    I like the idea that somebody can buy everything ready made; fit them on a layout and start playing trains. It makes the hobby more accessible and creates a larger market.

    As far as I can tell, the bottom was a long time ago. I’m very positive about the trajectory & I think we are currently en-route to the stratosphere 🙂


  12. mike

    Hi Greg,

    Tend to agree. We’ve never had the selection of high quality products in multiple scales that we do today. (Although those in a niche like S or P48 might disagree.)

    When I refer to the race to the bottom, I’m speaking of dumbing things down to the point of irrelevance. When the challenge is gone, why bother with it?

    Like you, I think the future is bright for those willing to embrace the coming changes.


  13. P4newstreet

    Hi Greg

    I think you may have missed the point. The hobby (at least on this side of the Atlantic) is called railway modelling. What you are partially describing is just shopping. I agree that’s it’s easy for someone to get started but it’s like saying that because a person can download an image of a painting and print it at home, that makes them an artist.

    It seems the world is very different depending on your location. Here in the uk the numbers of kits and bits suppliers is slowly reducing or ranges are being brought up as the owners retire only to dissapear into a black hole, never to be seen again. Even the biggest name in the uk hobby, Hornby are producing little to nothing new with profits plummeting and nearly all of thier projected 2013 new products being pushed back to 2014. I really fear that they will have gone before too long sadly.

    All the best


  14. mike

    I just watched this clip. That is incredible, I love it.


  15. rcandamoonpie

    The hobby of model railroading is shrinking. Which of the following (or in what order) is to blame:

    1. The loss of craftsmanship.
    2. The lack of attainable first models.
    3. The lack of interesting prototypes.
    4. The increase in the average age of the modeler.
    5. The increasing lack of disposable income.
    6. The lack of mentoring in the hobby.

    Rhett Graves
    Madison, AL

  16. rcandamoonpie

    James asked, “Are some of the concerns specific to railway modelling in a way they aren’t to, say, military modelling?”

    My answer: Absolutely. Most military modelers are modeling the tank, plane, ship, etc. They are totally fascinated by the technology of the device and go to painstaking lengths to detail, paint and weather the model to reflect service in the application for which it was designed. They know the innards of the vehicle and statistics on what it can do. Their fascination is primarily focused on the equipment. If they do a diorama, it’s ancillary to the model. One can also pick up a military model at Wal-Mart for $20 and have hours of fun assembling it.

    For most model railroaders, either the scene or the operation that draws the most attention. The focus is external to the model train itself. There’s a need for accurate models so as not to ruin the scene or distract from the operation, but how you get accurate models is irrelevant*. Most model railroaders I know can’t tell you what kind of prime mover is in a locomotive, how many horsepower the thing has or how much that boxcar weighs. They’re not fascinated by the equipment itself, but rather by how the equipment moves in relationship to the other pieces or by how real it looks in the scene. The models are ancillary to the scene or track plan. A locomotive model will run you ~$70 at an online hobby store and a shake-the-box kit ~$15. A freight car kit comparable to the military model mentioned above will run $40 and can’t be found at a chain retailer.

    I think the model railroading focus has truly shifted from trains to railroads, which is a distinct difference from military modeling.

    *The exception here is the Railroad Prototype Modeler crowd.

    Rhett Graves
    Madison, AL

  17. Simon

    Interesting points, Rhett.

    Many years ago, Cyril Freezer identified that the single thing model railways offered over other modelling hobbies was movement within an appropriate setting. (I suppose RC aircraft might qualify for this, but I am thinking more about making and using models in doors.

    They’re not fascinated by the equipment itself, but rather by how the equipment moves in relationship to the other pieces or by how real it looks in the scene.

    But here is where buying something from a shop and assembling a layout simply doesn’t cut it, at least, not to me. Weighted vehicles, sprung compensation, and fine track tolerances based on the real thing reduced to scale (as near as possible) are the only way of making equipment move over track like the real thing. A delicate touch with the airbus/paintbrush/weathering powders, based on careful observation, dedicated practice and years of experience are the only way of creating a realistic scene which doesn’t look like everyone else’s.

    None of this comes out of the box. For the HO modeller, it requires at least that the wheels are replaced, turnouts and crossings be hand built (as they are not available off-the-shelf except to order, at a price) and a bit of graft whilst gaining the experience, but this is not an insurmountable mountain. Given the availability of Proto:87 components from Andy Reichert, including the only source of correctly planed point blades, and such things as his jigs and those of Fasttrack (Tim is very accommodating and would produce Proto:87 jigs, if requested, I am sure), then for the modeller, rather than the out and out operator, then only a handful of tools are required, particularly if diesels are the object of desire.

    Not long after I met the woman who was to later become my wife, we paid a visit to a local model railway exhibition. Now, her father is a railway modeller and a very fine builder of kits (he won’t do anything without instructions, bizarrely, but has built a gauge 1 live steamer by the book) and she had met some of my S scale friends over here, so knew what was possible on a doing it by yourself basis.
    She saw an N gauge layout which she rather liked. It was of a small station on a mainline in the area of Yorkshire in which she grew up. She asked me if I knew much about the layout, I said, “Beyond that it is using Peco track, I can’t comment. Why not ask the owner?”
    She asked him about the trees – she likes tress. “I can’t make trees. A friend made them for me.” And the scenery? “I did the general form of it, but a friend helped with the bushes, hedgerows and stone walls. I’m not very good at scenery.”
    What about the buildings? “Fortunately, these were available as kits, so a friend built them for me.” And the trains? “RTR.”
    Did he lay the track? Partly, a friend helped him…

    She was looking rather crestfallen by this time, and he and I were feeling rather embarrassed – in my case, on his behalf. She came to deliver the coup de grace:
    What had he built himself? “The baseboards, display, lighting etc. I’m a joiner by trade.”
    “Oh,” she said. “I wouldn’t call that railway modelling.”

    Don’t get me wrong: I am not telling anyone else how to conduct their hobby, but when someone fills his basement with hand operated points, and cardboard cut-outs for buildings, he may be having great fun replicating operations, but to my mind, that isn’t railway modelling, except possibly as an extreme example of a minimalist approach to modelling railway operations. The Indiana and Whitewater is a much better example of minimalism applied to railway modelling, as indeed is Port Rowan – which also includes a very realistic approach to operating.

    How much, or rather how little, do you need to have an accurate model of a railway?

  18. Simon

    None, all, or some. Or something else.

    I personally think that societal changes have more impact: we have become too consumerist. This is not a new claim, as it has been going on since the 1950s, I guess, but it is becoming more obvious, and also we have taken on the “just in time” concept and turned it into, “I want it now.”

    Increasing lack of disposable income? Compared to when? The 1930s? The 1940s? The 1980s? Yes, we have been living in stagflationary times (everything going up except income) but maybe disposable income has simply come back to a more reasonable level? Maybe it will lead to people buying kits and learning to build them, rather than buying RTR?

    Who knows – not I!

    (Apologies for forgetting to sign a previous comment.)

  19. Simon

    Got me thinking, too.

    Take time to learn your craft, and you will be rewarded.


  20. Jimbofin


    I think you might have articulated at least part of what I was struggling to clarify. I would have to say much military modelling does take the scenic setting very seriously, but the focus is on an essentially static scene and a concentrated viewpoint. Railway modelling has to include the static and the dynamic, and a much wider expanse of landscape, and maintaining the balance across those elements. Perhaps too often the dynamic element wins out.


    Perhaps if the operator had been a little sharper he might have replied that what he supplied was the vision for the layout. If the whole came together as a pleasing layout then perhaps he would have had a point. But to go back to one of Rhett’s point I don’t think that even if you could source every single element accurately out of the box that you could put them together to form a convincing whole.



  21. mike

    This is a fine discussion. Thank you all. We can bemoan and debate the merits and impact of the craftsman influence for a long time but there is a missing ingredient: motivation, more specifically, where does it come from?

    The video Simon linked to early on is the story of a master watchmaker and how he got his start. As an 18 year old, he approached a renowned watchmaker about an apprenticeship. The master told him to teach himself using the master’s book. (No doubt to test the kid’s seriousness.)

    The kid does as he was told and builds his first watch, which the master condemns without mercy. Here’s what strikes me about the story. At this point 99.99% of people would have given up and moved on to something simpler.

    His comment is telling. He said he was only motivated to start another watch build. He worked and reworked the next watch for FIVE years before returning to his mentor again and winning the master’s respect.

    Working for five years after being told your first effort isn’t up to speed is a fine example of internal motivation. Something no one can take away unless you give up on yourself.

    We all have this potential toward something -photography, art, music, woodcraft and on. The question becomes how to awaken it. I discuss this in my post next week.


  22. Marz

    Hi Mike,

    I addition to motivation and having a mentor, having the self discipline and ability to to be critical of your own efforts also leads to becoming a true craftsman. Not to mention a healthy dose of OCD.

    What happens when you have achieved international fame, fortune etc, in an artistic endeavour, where do you from there?…

    In line with Simons initial post, please enjoy the following read.



  23. mike

    I think that those who care about the quality of their work will always have a healthy attitude of self criticism toward it. I am my own worst critic of my work. Because I care and because I want to do better at it. If I didn’t have this internal feeling, I would just settle for whatever outcome showed up.

    As for whatever accolades others want to burden a person with, the best thing is to say thanks and move on to your work.


  24. Simon

    Thanks for that, Marz.

    I like his workbench, too.


  25. Jimbofin

    I’m not sure if you are aware of the Dunning–Kruger effect? A psychologist I know did some work on this recently and the corresponding Imposter Syndrome.

    In my days as a lecturer I often struggled to get the less competent students to understand just how incompetent they were compared to the competent ones, whilst also coping with students who were bound to get a distinction breaking down in tears in the exams because they were sure they had failed.Having a discussion with someone about the need to raise standards is inherently difficult if their mind doesn’t see the shortfalls.



  26. mike

    Given the backlash toward drawing clear distinctions now, such conversations must be difficult even under the best of circumstances.


  27. mike

    I saw the possibilities in that bench design also. Nice.