This sort of thing.

Desirée Gallant is one of the most fascinating creative people I know and likely ever will. The first couple of times I typed that sentence it sounded like “most gifted artist” and I still mean that but her gift runs deeper inside. She has a way of coaxing life from the work. To encourage it to stand proudly from the page. It’s a gift that extends beyond her paintings. That gift extends to subjects to which she has turned a camera, not so much to record but the way that those subjects were or to somehow involve them in her story but to help them find a voice that speaks through her lens. Her work touches me and it is with great pleasure that I have a photograph of hers to use here, to open this post. Thank you!

CN Freight Train

Amherst, NS, March 22, 2010

I’m drawn to a very localized style of railroading that easily translates into a smaller footprint and, more importantly, I prefer small model railways. I’m fascinated with the way they showcase their builder’s profound understanding of their inspiration and how hard it is to hide that relationship when it’s not there – I guess it’s the honesty that they convey whether we like it or not. It’s easy for me to advocate for things like this because I’m just making myself feel good inside by providing advice that might be little more than expressing a moment of self-validation. In these very small footprints I can imagine individual stories rich enough to invite me in and to live inside their moments. Of course, were more room available it could easily be incorporated. Not to welcome other stories or model railway sub-plots but for the way that more room could compliment and extend the initial vision. Like a second great kiss, somehow as good as the first.

But I know that’s just me. It’s with that sense of awareness I wrote my initial comment on Mike’s blog post and then reflected on in my own post last night. I didn’t then and don’t now want any of this to sound like criticism or negativity aimed at those who have pursued the basement empire. The direction I’m hoping to take this set of posts in, is to discuss the idea of modelling railroading where the context in which the railroading occurs demands a stage larger than we can sustain, either because we lack the resources to invest or the space to house this grand vision.

The big prototype

Desirée’s photograph is of the lead engine of a massive Canadian National freight train. It depicts a train that is hard to fit into the space of the four square foot micro layout no matter how small the scale. Standing trackside with my family as this train hammered past it’s hard not to be affected by sound, the vibration, the rush of wind; all the various parts of watching mainline railroading. No model train will ever match that feeling but we can create a miniature that provides queues to trigger memories of these moments and our rich imaginations can easily fill in the missing parts. That is, if we have the room for that large a train.


Where in Desirée’s photograph we’re provided with a train that just doesn’t fit, what happens when the train fits perfectly fine with our design criteria but the place where it is found does not? I’ve always felt that the hardest part of modelling Canadian railroading was not just finding models of the trains but communicating the distance that the trains covered in their daily operations. Sure, we can model the train at its destination but if our inspiration is finding the train out on the line we have a challenge: All that nothing takes up a lot of room.

On Prince Edward Island we have a railroad that provides the examples of the required short trains and even the small venues – to suit the smaller space. What I find so fascinating about Island railroading is the way that it prepared for and supported the potato harvest. With limited track and a finite number of cars to move the harvest the successful Island model is realised during the operating session in how we represent the almost perpetual re-staging of cars to respond to the needs of the farmers using the various public sidings. Space here is required not to represent the long trains. Neither, to represent the “nothing” but to count the number of local sidings and move the fleet around without feeling like one is just shuffling cars from one yard track to another. (I’ve picked the home team for this example but I’ll wager the local prairie branchline or coal hauling line in the Appalachians was playing the same game too.)

The big model

Elsewhere I’ve been proposing the hypothesis that model railroading itself has matured to the state where it no longer requires a direct connection to real railroading to survive – that we have so many examples of great model railways that we can draw inspiration from that we never need to learn about real trains at all.

Building on that idea, I believe an attraction to the hobby exists in the promise of camaraderie it offers. I enjoy participating in operating sessions on large model railways and consider myself so lucky to be able to have been offered these opportunities. To feed these, we need the layouts themselves. Ever the gregarious host, what if our desire is to host these bigger parties? Where? How?

Now what?

I’ve wanted to have this conversation for a while now. I think it’s an interesting one and I’ll take advantage of the blog to at least voice my questions and to think out loud, albeit over the keyboard, on the subject. As I bring my second post on this particular subject to a close I think I have a better sense of the question. I do expect to refine the question further as I attempt to reconcile what I’m thinking to what I’m writing. So, with two blog posts now completed on this subject the initial question becomes two:

  1. We don’t lack ideas for how to use the space we have. We don’t lack the interest of those passionate about providing examples of what we could use the space we have for. How do we learn to understand our relationship with our inspiration so that we know how to best represent it in miniature?
  2. We have evolved so far in the hobby in terms of the quality and accessibility of the models yet our exhibition of them remains still largely fixated on the rule of private and permanent installation. Where that paradigm can’t be negotiated we must find a compromise. How?

I’m only considering this as a design challenge and a conversation to that end. I’m not trying to find an answer for my own situation, it’s just something that I’ve been thinking about and a conversation I’d like to be a part of.



  1. “…the hypothesis that model railroading itself has matured to the state where it no longer requires a direct connection to real railroading to survive – that we have so many examples of great model railways that we can draw inspiration from that we never need to learn about real trains at all.”

    I think there’s some truth to this. One concrete example is the preservation of authentic Time Table and Train Order operations…By one estimate from a small slice of serious railroad modelers there’s maybe only 1000 people in America keeping that part of history alive in basements across the land.

    I’m a firm believer that better operations sessions come directly from better knowledge on the part of the participants. Recreating the prototypical movements of the equipment in miniature requires knowledge of how they actually operate(d) and when you know the difference, the lack of fidelity is glaring.. It’s entirely possible that association with a group of knowledgeable enthusiasts can further that knowledge and sustain the interest across generations.

    Though, true observation of the prototype is probably best — even if the modern equivalent is watching drone videos on YouTube.

    1. Good morning,

      I think there will always be room for observations of the prototype and we’re simply surrounded by too much work of too high a caliber to ignore the potential of prototype modeling.

      However, we have developed so many classic model railroads that themselves have become prototypes for the work of others. Ready examples that come to mind would include the Virginia and Ohio or the Carrabassett and Dead River. Both these railways were completely fictional yet have inspired so many to follow in their paths – that they themselves become prototypes as real as any actual railroad could be. Perhaps even more, thanks to the many media outlets that allowed us close access to these lines so we could become even more closely involved in them.

      I think there’s potential in your TT&TO example to further explore this. Modellers are discovering it and learning about it from other modellers. We adopt versions of it to suit our basement empires and it provides purpose. Just as real railroading inspired the V&O, and in turn the V&O alone would inspire modellers, “real” TT&TO follows.

      This is a theory I’d like to explore more, talk about more, and believe in. Thanks for the comment.


  2. “In these very small footprints I can imagine individual stories rich enough to invite me in and to live inside their moments”

    This is what has been driving my current project — — the pursuit of a recreation of the prototype in miniature. By selecting a small enough prototype, this seems achievable and one can focus on the micro details that set the scene and provide for a greater immersion.

    Contributing to that is my choice of Proto:48 for scale in order to amp up the mass of the equipment. Couple that with a high base elevation and I’ll hopefully be able to feel like I’m trackside.

    1. Good morning,

      I’m having a lot of fun reading through your blog. Thanks for the link.

      For my own instance, small is not only in physical size but I’m also discovering small in terms of what we’re representing. Evidence of this is in these single industry, live unloading, scenarios like the grain elevators or small campus, coal-fired, power plants. It should allow more time to focus on the role of each within the bigger scheme and draw me still closer into the scene. This, in the same way as you propose with the greater presence of 1/48 scale models presented a more intimate height.



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