Compared to other modelmaking hobbies, we like that ours exists in a vein between static models and animation. So much of our storytelling centres around the craft aspects of the hobby. We’ll measure progress by the things we made and how well they represent crafts we learned and new applications for those skills we brought with us. Our great work isn’t so much a legacy model we invest our life into but the cumulative practice of crafts employed as translation skills needed to communicate the beautiful inspiration we see to those we share our creations with. Indeed, this hobby is our way we relate to people by the medium of model railways. Contrasting two approaches to “people” by reflecting on the way we see ourselves: our path into this hobby connected other people marked by model trains or, instead, divinity’s lightning bolt gifting us a solitary path. Either way, we became who we are.

It’s unlikely divinity selects any of us but, also, it remains that we are gifted a character that attracts us to models of trains. Like the chicken and the egg, I argue the model railroader precedes and exists independently beyond their collection of models and predates their exposure to our media. The hobby of making models of trains and railways predates both our media and the mass market model railroad industry we measure the hobby against, good or bad, for most of the last century.

Even as safe as the Ottawa of my preshool era was, it took most of the best of those deception skills me and my best friends could band together to safely sneak across Jeanne d’Arc Boulevard to buy some candy and play Donkey Kong at the Becker’s store. OC Transpo stopped right at the end of my street, barely a block from my front yard, but it was as unlikely that I’d board a bus to revisit the scale model steam engines in the lobby of the Ottawa train station as, well, let you imagination run wild. I had a model railroad and a couple copies of Model Railroader magazine and that was the boundary of my model railroading community. Community inherits a definition from the relationship I built with the contents of magazine pages: Imaginary model railroads just like the one in the magazine, conversations I pretended to have with the people recorded into those pages, and models I’d dream of owning advertised by hobbyshops in places the bus would never know.

Decades, popular music, and the clothes that make us feel attractive always change but, for a long time, our first dates with model railroading involved a whole lot of F units. Until the dawn of this century we could practice model railroading alone on an Alpine slope, or with your contemporaries at Keen House, but the limitations of communication muted our stimuli. It has become popular to deride fads in the hobby and discount the work being produced because it’s another copy of a GWR branchline or another Appalachian coal hauler. We spoke those judgements because the evidence was all around. I question the accusation of originality; just like the Who’s Christmas our connection to the hobby came without boxes or bags, ribbons or tags … and it came just the same. It’s broadly unimportant what we model because what matters is how we explore why we feel compelled to. Our choice to move long strings of coal or work the pick-up goods is really just an inheritance we picked up when our hearts grew so big we simply couldn’t sit still any longer and needed to busy our hands, to get dirty, and try the dance in person. We learned to dance the dances our friends danced to be part of something we’d like to not be excluded from.

The hobby era I grew up in:

  • The train set is from the department store in the town we grew up in
  • We met model railroaders in that same town
  • We all modelled the same kind of railroading in the same scale

Today’s model railroader lives in a time of instant connection to most anywhere. At any time we can grab the world and pour ourselves a glass of new ideas. The box we’ve escaped, and can’t return to, is that one of guarded experience and community who inherited its vernacular from next door. We are always a product of the circumstances of our time and will always be this way. We are now people who like model trains but how we act has advanced beyond a series of steps we’ll tape to the train room of what we’ll do. Never ones to ignore a swing at self-deprecation we adopt identities like “rubber gauger” or “freelancer” in a somewhat apologetic tone. If only we could practice our faith completely. We assume that this hobby is a child of “real” trains; our relationship is subservient of that fact. Considering that our interest is borne deeper into us and how many, people like me, that had only very vague exposure to trains in the formative years of our special interest suggests that our guide is not real trains at all.

Where glossy photos in our monthly magazines were once our chance to practice our private narrative, attendance at model train shows became our chance to explore public displays of model train acts. Our perception that the hobby is an unflattering pursuit might discourage us from practising social interactions wherein we could explore how we are alike. Anxiety welling up inside ourselves makes it only easier to see how we are different. I’m grateful to see various specialist model railway meetups that are tailored to the person and the vernacular of their hobby experience. Our broad sense of community invites us into “social media” platforms and we can explore our options to compare the fit of our identity to people who might be more like us. What feels fascinating is how we seldom identify as model railroaders but, instead, by community. We are N scalers, CP fans, or proto-freelancers. Twenty years ago the magazines encouraged us to look beyond our scale (modelling in HO but the techniques are applicable to N scale) as much as they encouraged us to look beyond the realm of our whole hobby to other modelmaking hobbies (learn weathering from military modellers). I can appreciate a debate on the merits of what we had, decades ago, that forced us to grow by adaptation to a less readily comfortable environment to this very personalized sense of community.

As this year’s bloom begins to open my reading list is already loading up. I remain dedicated to a constant of wildly diverse titles. Likely the thing each of those books will have in common isn’t their subject matter but the way they defend a quiet space, unplugged from the world, in which contemplation happens. A place where change is a byproduct of having dedicated time to thought and peace and not because something else was consumed. Print publishers complain they’ve lost market share because internet content is free. Initially my rebuttal was that their product was a curated view of a subject. Just as the model railroader invests their life into making better modellers the publisher’s work is making better books and magazines. I suspect the current magazines are boring not because of the conversion of the hobby into a largely a collector’s market focussed on consumption and not a made experience but because our expectations from them have changed radically. The loss of sales a sacrifice made by insisting their way was the only way to connect to the hobby. The rate we consume media at and the ease with which we can connect directly to any corner of the model railway hobby whenever we want to has unbridled us from the control a monthly publication exerted over those who needed the magazine fix, not as a technical guide for how to do something, but as a social vehicle to connect them to their community. We have “never had it so good” nor have we ever been more invested in this work. In a hobby that is largely about interaction our invitation remains extended for traditional media to join us at the big table.

What remains is a interest we have in a hobby that always feels right. The strength of this instinct will never be more than it is right now. The action of exploring model trains, of creating a model railway and making models, is our expression of hope that if we expose this to others they’ll recognize a familiar cadence. The skills can be taught and the beautiful models can and should be bought. What exists outside is the human and this feeling. We have exhausted all the language about how to do what we are doing which clears a fascinating space to attempt the larger work we are now ready for.

It’s October and this rain has been my copilot and guide, likely we’ll travel all the way together. I think our relationship with the hobby is one we’re uneducated in and haven’t explored the boundaries of. Also, despite thinking about lone wolves, since the Grand Falls Tim’s, I’ve never seen one. If I could, anywhere, it’s here.

Categories: How I think

5 replies

  1. Oh

    Whilst I share photos of my ‘art’ with you on Messenger, you knock it out of the park with art like this – beautifully crafted and through poking articles. I look forward to whatever follows, knowing that I will both enjoy and learn from the time taken to absorb the words… Now if only someone would choreograph and collect these together into some sort of written printed artefact…

    Thank you again my friend.
    This was ten minutes well spent.

    • ‘thought’ and ‘provoking’ – sorry I can’t edit the original comment!
      I blame a tired and raging ‘butterfly’ keyboard on this wonderful old MacBook 12″

      • Haha! I know a feeling like that. Rereading the predecessor to this post I see I often typed “identifies” when I intended to write “identities”. In my case I blame that I need to practice my editing skills more.


    • Thank you for the kind words. These posts were ones I thought about while on a very long, alone, road trip. I was grateful to have that time as it created a place for contemplation set against the real need to drive, anyway, and it feels like a remedy I wasn’t in need of until I was cured.



  1. com·pete – Prince Street

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