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Model railroading as fan fiction

Dan Bowman sent me this a couple of weeks ago, and I found myself agreeing with it: Model railroading is a form of fan fiction.

It seems like a good way to look at it. Every model railroad is a compromise. By my rough estimations, it’s 4.1 miles from Dupo, Illinois to Cahokia, but even if you model in Z scale, you’ll need 97 linear feet to model that line. I would think it would be very difficult to build a Z scale layout of that size–it would take a huge basement–and only put two towns on it. So, at the very least, people put their towns closer together and use a fast clock to make up for the compression. Some people compromise a lot more than that.

Evoking time and place

This is my train layout as it appeared in November 2017, using tin buildings and toy cars. It evokes time and place but with no effort whatsoever to look realistic. This makes me either a genius or an idiot, without much middle ground. And that’s OK.

A lot of layouts are what could have been, or what never quite was. A happy place. An awful lot of people, myself included, don’t really try to recreate anything specific in history. I tried to make my layout look like the late 1940s, mostly because I could run either prewar or postwar trains on it without making any changes and nothing would look out of place. I also tried to evoke the feeling of a part of south St. Louis that I always liked, but just about any midwestern American city would have looked a lot like it in the 1940s too. Some people care nothing about the time and place at all, and would say I’m too uptight. Still others would say I’m wasting my time by creating something that never existed–to which I might reply that sounds too uptight.

I did it with tin buildings and mostly cheap Marx trains too, which makes me a genius in some minds, and the biggest idiot who ever lived in others. To some, it’s not model railroading at all. Which is fine.

Having fun

The ultimate putdown, of course, is, “You’re not having fun.” That’s an interesting accusation to make. Just because it’s not fun for you doesn’t mean the other guy isn’t having fun.

My boss, who once owned a hobby shop, said he knew train people who would run their model railroads just like a real railroad. The car doesn’t go until there’s a load for it, and then it goes somewhere specific, and it’s all tracked. “That’s not a hobby,” he snorted. “It’s a job. Nobody does my infosec job as a hobby.”

For some people, that’s fun. For my dad, watching a Lionel train going around in circles around a generic plastic 1950s suburb on the basement floor was fun. It was just as much fun for him at 50 as it was at 5. That’s one thing about fun. No one else can decide what’s fun for anyone but themselves. That was even the subject of a popular book.

I’ve seen a lot of people come and go in my time in the hobby. Many of those who left decided their approach was the right way for the majority, and were disappointed when they got the sense the majority didn’t approach things the way they did. Model railroading is a very individual pursuit. We all have different skills, abilities, and budgets.

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