3AM Eternal

How do we design the way you should feel when you look at a model railway? How do we control that aspect, the fundamental core of the user experience? I’ve written a number of posts here and shared my thoughts on this elsewhere. I think it’s a question for layout design, one I don’t have an answer for and no experience with, but wonder about.

I like to download a pile of podcasts to listen to while at work. Among those downloads was a recent episode of Model Rail Radio in which Tom Barbalet is at Professor Klyzlr’s house in Australia. They’re talking about The Prof’s layout Brooklyn 3AM. To fill in the layout’s back story, here’s a link to the Carl Arendt website and a full page devoted to introducing the layout:

PAGE 87 – July 2009

Brooklyn 3AM is designed to showcase railroading in an urban setting, after dark. It presents a version of this popular style of railroading we seldom see in the hobby and does so in a way that really communicates its builder’s vision instantly to the audience. Even if you’ve never been to this part of Brooklyn you know this place. Going beyond track planning or layout design, its builder designed the experience for the viewer looking at the layout when it’s on display. He designed custom sound and light effects to stimulate reactions to the scene. He uses those triggers to guide your attention through the scene and immerse yourself into the scene. Listening to the interview I thought about how innovative this approach was. How he relied on effectively controlling your reaction to his work instead of just hoping that a visual queue alone would make that connection in you. He brought you into the scene and made you a participant in it. He’s doing this in less than ten square feet. This is theatre.

As I think about that interview and the layout I wondered how we could relate to our model railways. Even the most dedicated prototype model seems to attend to only those visual attributes. We have the set and the script but can we go further? As designer or builder, I know what I’m doing since it all lives in my imagination. I don’t even need the layout in front of me to know what I’m doing. How can I help you see that too? If I’m modelling the Canadian winter is a model of a snow drift or a detailed snow plow enough? How can I get you to feel that winter’s day?

Digging further into this question, I wondered about a typical operating session. We arrive and enjoy small talk at the start of the session. Eventually we find a throttle, some trains, and some orders describing the work we need to do. Those orders might describe a season in the language of traffic over the line. As we pull out onto the mainline we play with the locomotive sounds to help us feel like what it might have felt like in the cab or trigger a railfan’s view trackside. Our train itself is long with refrigerator cars that indicate we’re deep in another good potato harvest. From having lived here though I know that fall on the Island is so much more than just a long train I watch. It smells like fall. It feels like fall. I’m not proposing to spread leaves around on the floor or ratchet up the air conditioning to fall-like temperatures but I am curious about what we might do to get you to feel like you’re there in that scene instead of just looking at a three dimensional animation of it.

I don’t have an answer, just a curiousity. I’m fascinated with these sorts of ideas and luckily I have a blog to post them to. Thanks for reading this far and entertaining these moments. It means a lot to me to have this place.

You can download the Model Rail Radio podcast on iTunes:


The episode that triggered the above is titled Chez Prof



  1. Come on, Chris…if there’s one Canadian modeller likely to spread leaves on the floor to simulate fall, it must be you :) You are absolutely right, though, and 3 AM does a great job of making it seem like, well, 3 am. It seems we focus on cut levers, couplers and underbody detail waaaaay too much for my liking. I’m more interested in running trains in a recognizable prototype (perhaps only to my eye) and operations than strictly modelmaking.

    Great that there is room in this hobby for all different viewpoints, and you’re indeed lucky to have this leaf-covered podium to write about such topics,sharing them with us. Now, cue the bushel basket of leaves!!!

    1. Hi Eric

      You’re probably right. I probably would.

      It’s not that I don’t appreciate detailed model making. I think rivets matter. I think getting the right shade of CN grey matters. I think grab irons really matter.

      The metaphor here is food and the importance of plating. We need that same emphasis on the presentation of the hobby. It’s not about getting the right shade of black on the fascia or running the right schedule. How can we make you feel like you’re there in that scene, on that day?

      I really like the idea of prototype modeling as a means for placing me into a memory from my past or a place I wish I had been. I can’t separate the memory of chasing Montreal commuter trains from bad coffee and great smoked meat. I would want to provide those kinds of things to my operators if I had that model railroad so they could experience not just the look of Montreal commuter railroading but the feel of Montreal to me. That might be where I was going with my thoughts on placing us in the moment.



  2. Two thoughts.

    When we attend a movie or play, there is a routine we go through. We line up to purchase the ticket and snacks. We find the right theater in the multiplex, then find a good seat. We chat until the house lights go down, signaling the beginning of the performance. It’s a familiar routine, with multiple cues to guide us through it.

    Secondly, whether it’s a film or live performance, our attention is skillfully guided throughout via motion, light, sound, each directing us with a different emphasis in service to the story of the performance.

    The story is the heart of it all. Even a work of fiction or pure fantasy has familiar elements and relationships between individual characters and their environment, things we can understand and relate to. Here I believe, is where we fall short and have a wide open field to explore.

    Could we provide a set of familiar cues or a routine prior to an op session?
    What about the context for visitors? How are they to understand the work, what aids could we provide? What cues do non modelers use to decipher what they see before them?

    I’m thinking of the treatment of a well done museum exhibit for inspiration. A Google search for exhibit design will yield much to think about.

    Too often, we think these things are irrelevant to model building or layout design, yet the most memorable layouts you could name are memorable for just these reasons.


    1. Good afternoon Mike. Thank you for the thoughts. They’re great and, as always, have really done a better job of presenting the idea I was trying to describe. It’s that sense of conditioning the audience prior to the show that I think, perhaps more than anything, makes the event so successful.

      Fostered by your thoughts, this example of what I was reaching for in my post occurred to me: Krista and I are downtown in one of our favourite cities. We’re walking and just generally indulging in the day. We walk past a funky coffee shop. As we near the door the intoxicating aroma of fresh coffee catches our nose, we gaze in and see people who look like our people, we hear a song on their stereo that is either from our record collection or could be. It’s instinctive that each of my senses is appraising this coffee shop and questioning whether or not it finds the store’s invitation attractive. If enough of those senses say “YES!!” I’ll probably go in. I’ll probably buy a cup. The sum of the experience will so make me yearn to be a part of the fabric of that store at that moment in time that I’ll leap in.

      Where’s that at the next op’s session?

      Ever been to that train show?

      I haven’t. I believe the future of model railroading is a function of the experience we’re selling to ourselves and to others. Otherwise, I think I’m just standing here staring at tiny plastic trains on a shelf in my living room.

      Thanks again Mike


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