Thoughts on railroads and modelling

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So, I’ve been into railroads as a hobby for a long time. Yes, I clearly recall taking a ride in the cab of a General Motors F-series diesel locomotive with my father and great-grandfather (a retired locomotive engineer with a seniority date of December 1906) around the freight yard of the Southern Pacific Railroad at Sparks, Nevada. I was all of 3 years old at the time, but it was memorable enough to have lasted a lifetime.

While I have not taken things to the level shown above – with Diane Disney Miller sharing the interior of the caboose built for her dad’s backyard Carolwood Pacific Railroad – I have been a member of a number of model railroad clubs and railway museums. From fantasy to history and back again.

Impressive as they may be, I have less appreciation for the model railroad that fills space with track like spaghetti overflowing from a pasta bowl than I do for the railroad that is simple and functional. Giving thought to what the railroad is to represent gets a better grade from me.

Being clear, railroads were tools of transportation built to make use of the easiest route available to get from point A to point B. They moved people and freight to make money doing so. Following the lay of the land with as little effort as possible was the rule of construction. Cheaper costs meant bigger profits.

So, when you see multiple levels of track crisscrossing canyons of mountain rivers and passes in a model, fantasy is more prevalent than reality. Sure, it looks good. Especially indoors. And yes I know, indoor space may be a premium and layout designers may be trying to take advantage when they can. All very nice, but not very prototypical.

Oh, that word! “Prototypical“.

But what is the hobby again? Model Railroading. Not fantasy railroading. Not playing with toy trains. Save that for Gomez Addams. And yes, I have strong feelings on the subject. Especially when manufacturers of scale railway models produce something decidedly out of scale or not prototypical. Call those toys or fantasy items if you must, but they are not scale models.

One of the best examples of a true scale model railroad is that built by Jack Burgess. He very convincingly modeled the Yosemite Valley Railroad, between Merced and El Portal, CA as it operated in August of 1939. While he does not recreate every inch of the railroad from end to end, he has modeled scenes en route that give visitors the enough of a sense of realism. When you follow a train in operation from Merced to El Portal, you don’t see that spaghetti bowl of track, with trains criss-crossing one another along the way.

A tool used by some in design of their model railroads is that of selective compression. Instead of modelling a full sized structure or facility, the choice is to give the flavor or enough of an appearance to suggest the full item. As an example, I have always thought that I would someday like to model the Virginia & Truckee Railroad’s Carson City Engine House. Following the lines of thinking of Jack Burgess, I would set my modelling efforts between 1946 and 1950. Now at that time, the full engine house may have existed, but the railroad did not use all of it. In fact, they limited the active use for locomotives to a few tracks on the south end of the building. So, perhaps I need only model that particular corner of the the structure. Considering that the full engine house took up the better part of two blocks in Carson City, I would need a big space to fully model the entire structure, to say nothing of the trackage that accompanied it. As you can guess, this is a “someday” project. I have some pieces that may eventually find homes in a scene or two when that model is done.

To me, the suggestion of something can be greater than recreation of an entire item or scene. Take any postcard image of the famed Golden Gate Bridge. Do you need to build it in every detail in miniature, down to the last rivet in International Safety Orange? Or would a smaller model that suggests the scene to the eyes of the viewer be as effective in evoking the greater structure? Yes, debates about the success of Disney Imagineers work for the original California Adventure theme park recreation not withstanding, guests did know what bridge it was supposed to be.

Gone now, but I gave the Disney team that designed the California Zephyr recreation for DCA high marks. It gave enough of the flavor of the real thing to suggest the whole train to guests, without taking up all the space that a real locomotive and passenger cars would have.

Part of the entertainment of this particular hobby can be the recall of things long gone. Travel aboard trains of the past or putting yourself in the role of someone at work, going from point A to point B. Not bad as it goes, especially if you can’t go one better and take on the role at a museum, bringing the past to life.


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