Capturing a moment

Doug Kroll photo (

I recently came across an interesting photo book whilst shopping for something else and to meet the minimum order requirement added it to the basket. Sometimes taking a punt on something like this really pays off as a window, a time capsule into another world. I’m always drawn by the idea of a down at heels line just scraping by, this book, based on short lines in Pennsylvania in the 1970s, is full of that! Single F units on short freights, poor track, old locos. Linking us back to the Maritimes, funnily enough a bit like the end of the Windsor and Hantsport in the early 2000s.


The Wellsville, Addison and Galeton is one of those railroads I always hear about that makes me think I should look up more on it to get to know it better. That book of yours sure sounds interesting. 

What’s sort of neat about these older books is how these railroads are paused in time and the inevitable hasn’t yet happened. There is a rose tinted romance locked in these colour slides that warms our hearts and fuels the fires of creativity. This despite the fact that in our lifetimes we have lived through either their closure, re-purchase or consolidation as many remaining short lines have died or end up orange and black.


It took me a very long time to fully appreciate the moment these books represent. Painters paint what’s beautiful in that moment and that is “enough”. Photos like the ones you’re describing from the book are of that moment and removed from time altogether. Just as we apply selective compression to edit the footprint of design elements in our model railway we could apply it to lift our inspiration upward and out of time.

Chris that is exactly my sentiment – these photos capture a moment. We can paint that how we see fit, but it’s just that, a moment. Thinking of both my own ‘cameos’ or even larger compositions, when we tie down the inspiration to a series of photos of a set period we are in effect ‘painting a picture frozen in time’. Yes the actors can move around the stage, but the play is forever “that Indian summer of 1974” (insert to match the play you’re writing). To a casual observer our second hand (more like third hand!) switcher, tired boxcars on poorly maintained weed strewn track is a picture of dereliction and faded glories… but tell the story of how local businesses pooled their resources to buy the line from the faceless corporation and are making a go of it, full of blind faith and passion it’s a picture of hope, not hopelessness. Whether it succeeds or dies, in the moment we’ve chosen to recreate, it breathes and it’s heart beats with a hunger for survival (and we daren’t even whisper it but even growth and some money to spend on the track!).


I fall in love with the image of a lone F unit lazily grazing on its grassy track in light rails pasture. Running the right trains correctly seems like our hobby’s fundamental goal but it’s also how our data driven approach restricts creative decision making. A change in the language of this work is not succumbing to nostalgia but learning to see the divine beauty in the fading bloom without needing the context of what it looked like before or what it will become next. No longer about a story of a timeline but now a chance meeting enveloped in an attractive photo we saw once upon a time in a book.

I think the wonderful thing about our layout concept ‘Rome’ is that in some ways nothing has changed. We can run F7s and old 40ft cars mixed in with new Incentive Per Diem 50fters and pretend it’s 1974. Switch them out for an RS18 or M420W with modern long grain cars and tired 50fters and you’ve got early 2000s. The trackwork isn’t in much better condition and the artist in us can paint it as unkempt or well tended as we like. Buildings and structures have stood still. In some cases even cars and trucks!


It’s so easy to find the right photo from the right time to validate a decision we’re trying to make within the scene. Accessing these resources has become such a common part of our life in the hobby that we tap them without even thinking. Many of the common subjects are themselves now part of our language so knowing the era of a modelled scene almost becomes irrelevant because as presenters or audience members we already know “that” art of the story. Instead we can focus on the nuance of our present work. Certainly that’s one of the beautiful things about the ‘Rome’ layout. Its things plated in a personal style in the language of our own voice. Not about “before” or “later” but “present” even if that now was a brief moment in time a long time ago.

I’ve realised through these discussions, better understanding myself as an artist, that by connecting with prototypical elements we find attractive and recreating that in our own hand the result is an emotionally intelligent model. These engage both our own hearts and minds as well as those we share them with. A model railway, as art, is for me not an inch perfect recreation of the Great Western’s Paddington station in 1938 (a pure model) rather it is the imbuing of the atmosphere and portrayed time in a scene, no matter the size. Where Pendon can leave me cold in it’s physical railway modelling (as fine as the locomotives and trains are) it is the rural scenic structures and elements in the Vale scene which sing to me showing an artist’s love and passion through their hand in their form. As modellers we can learn from this in two ways, a painting is all of its creator, and so should be our models. Our hand in the trackwork, scenery, structures and stock. Secondly their passion for the subject, Roye England was an Australian obsessed with a countryside idyll that was being lost in the 1930s, driving him to passionately recreate this in miniature. If we can tap into our emotional connection with a subject then our models too can ooze that passion.

Note that both Chris and I have mentioned ‘the Rome layout’. This mythical beast is not some Italian based European cityscape, rather a New York State rural shortline that weaves our favourite scenes into a coherent whole that could be both great fun to rail fan and or operate, that in our usual style forms a blank canvas to our varied geographical and historical interests. More on that another time, we hope you’ve enjoyed today’s rambling.


This latest instalment of the Hilton and Mears ‘blog casts’ follows a series of discussions on various more emotional elements of our hobby:

Categories: hilton & mears duo

4 replies

  1. Diesel era shortlines are normally best seen in colour, even if slightly faded. I was lucky to catch the dying days of the Sydney Division of the Cape Breton Central, once the Intercolonial RR. Now modelling NE US shortlines. David

    • Good morning. I find I’m still thinking about your comment and wondering what role the timing of technology plays in our thoughts like this? The diesel era largely overlays the popularization of colour photography so while most of our steam era photos are works in black and white our diesel era photos are in varying kinds of technicolour. In both forms the photographer making the photograph serves their subject best when thinking about the image their creating so that they use colours as much as any other relationship with light in a way to best represent the story they want to share in that frame. What I find most interesting is while diesel era photography can look as good in either colour or black and white, somehow steam era photography looks almost wrong or alien when presented in colour.


  2. I keep coming back and re-reading this… obviously I read it endlessly whilst we were editing it, but now it’s in the wild I enjoy it. I reflect on Rome. I day dream about what could be, almost like when glancing at these time capsules, instead of imagining myself trackside I put myself model side. One day.

    • Funny how this post affects you because I find it’s one that’s affecting me as much too. When we talked through this our conversation considered how much relationship the model needs with its prototype? Is there a saturation point at which the model loses some of its power because it is now burdened with serving as a data driven record and less so an expression of emotional interpretation? “How it was” instead of “how I see it” but taking that further because the more “how I see it” the less me I see in it.

      I really like your “model side” comment. That coincides with my introduction that I am first a model railroader. I had model trains for some time before I ever started looking at or developed an interest in studying or learning about real trains. The more I think about our conversation and my origin for connection the more I see it as two distinct channels that aren’t made stronger when their blended into one another:

      I enjoy being “model side” and “model railfanning” as much and often even more than I do seeing the real trains. I don’t feel different emotions inside just because the trains are small models than I do watching real life trains at work. Where the experience of seeing the real thing is tempered by that sense of chance where my timing lined up with the appearance of the real train doing that thing I hoped it would be doing the way I wanted to see it doing it, the model is edited down to serve just my needs in a way that’s almost selfish.


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