A common language

I’m fascinated with the idea of creating models that reflect an emotional connection to the prototypes that fire our imagination. I think this goes beyond a literal representation created by simply selecting models, locations, and periods. What triggers could we or should we include to prompt an emotional response in those that view the finished scene and cause them to relate to what we’ve created?

The above video is another favourite of mine. It just “speaks” to me. I could watch it on my laptop with the machine’s speakers turned off. I just like watching model trains just being model trains. Alternately, I can port it out to our home theatre, turn up the volume, and enjoy the rumble of these sound equipped models lope their way through this beautifully composed scene. In the latter I can’t help but smile. I don’t have an emotional connection to this scene but everything about it reminds me of railroading I do know.

The above two photos are ones I took here on the Island at Colville. When I watch those HO scale Lamoille Valley RS3’s crawling through the scene I think of the time I did spend trackside here on the Island, watching our RSC14’s doing that same work: just being trains and doing train stuff.

Reflecting on my photos and the Youtube video I think I can start to see how the model railway in the video illustrates the potential available. It does go beyond just buying the right model trains and having a great track plan.

Slow down. Yup, look at how great the models look slowly moving through the scene. Operating the model slowly doesn’t just mean it takes longer to move between towns. Real trains are heavy and moving them is an art. I think that in running the model more slowly it speaks to the effort to control the train itself. It gives all of us, including the guy at the throttle, more time to enjoy watching the model. Finally, with more time to appreciate the model we give ourselves more time to build a relationship with the model. When was the last time you watched the trains you were running and just enjoyed that? Give yourself the time and then something good to watch.

The models in the video don’t just have sound, but the sound is crisp and the exhaust beat perfectly timed. At this speed the classic Alco bark is nowhere to be heard but there is enough rumble to know that it’s still in there, waiting. It’s obvious that the modeller here has invested a lot of time learning about how the sound decoders work and how to really use them to his advantage. This investment of time, in perfecting the sound profile, is as important to the finished models as any amount of detailing, finescale track or wheels, or paint effects could ever be. It occurred to me that things like sound decoders aren’t just attributes that make a model better but additional tools we can leverage to craft a stronger bond between ourselves and the models.

Finally, I really like the open space in the model. It’s easy to build more detail into a scene but very hard to model “nothing” and restrain from filling it with another structure, more track, more visual clutter. It’s not that the open space is devoid of detail. We replace the clutter with rich visual textures. The train is the star here and in the video, as even in my photos, the surrounding scene acts as the backdrop to showcase this great thing. If we’re to rely on the theatre analogy, let’s give the star some room to shine.

In moving forward with my own six square feet these are the things I’m thinking about. I’m starting to gain an understanding that it’s not a direct need to recreate a particular time or place in N scale here in my living room but to provide myself with a scene that I can relate to. I’ve got this feeling that the track will work itself out.



  1. Hi Chris,

    I’m reminded of Dave Letterman’s repeated entreaty when introducing a comedy piece. To Paul Shaffer, “Paul, if the audience buys the premise, they’ll buy the bit.”. Paul: “That’s right, Dave.” In this case, I’m thinking that if you or I, as modellers, buy the ‘look’ and ‘feel’ of a layout’s operations, others will too. We are the author, they are the readers. *(But authors are the primary reader, of course!)

    I also subscribe to the complete rightness and appropriateness of the Confalone/Mindheim modelling approach. I especially notice the rolling stock in this covered bridge video. A couple of these cars, three of those cars, weathered to match the scene. As much as I like technicolor paint schemes, garish scenes and gimmicky (I’m NOT going to use the word ‘cute’) scenes, a scene and operations scheme that’s been well thought-out is certainly much more rewarding to modeller and viewer alike.

    I also liked the Yosemite cardboard modelling idea. We’re often so wrapped up in ‘doing’ that we forget about the ‘thinking-out’ part that has to come about initially.

    Wow, this has been a long comment, and I’ve used a lot of quotation marks, both ‘single’ and “double”. People say I do that a lot. What do they mean by “a lot”?

    Thanks for sharing this,

    1. Wow Eric. Terrific comment. I’d love to post your comment as a blog post instead of hoping folks see it down here in the Comments.

      That homogeny in a train’s consist is such a Canadian thing eh? It’s something I look for too. With only two major railroads here in Canada that uniformity can be taken one step further not only in terms of colour but even solid strings of cars belong to just that one carrier until just recently. Just as it can be such a challenge to plan to model open area, it can perhaps be just as challenging to resist another colourful freight car and release another rainbow freight train onto the model mainline.

      I love the timing of the YVRR article. There I was feeling so proud of myself for pursuing some full scale planning when that post came along and proved you could go further. I love how by following his suggestions you could be doing something while still in the planning stages. (A way to pacify that need to make something without compromsing that all important planning stage).

      Thanks again Eric


  2. You hit it perfectly, Chris, with your thoughts on modeling space, open space. The typical compression we see on too many layouts has an engine in one town and caboose in the previous town on a five car train. Modeling enough space is a challenge, and I’m thrilled to see someone else who enjoys the space between the towns.


    1. Thanks Jeremy

      Space for a model railway is in very short supply here at home. When I pine away for more room for the layout it’s with room for this kind of empty space I think of. The style of railroading in the video and what I know from the Island is defined by painfully slow speeds and the space between towns. Wouldn’t it be great to have the extra space to facilitate this very movement?

      It drives me nuts when I’m faced with the style of plan you described with the train in many towns at one time.

      Great to hear from you. Thanks.


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