I'm Not a Model Railroader

It's taken me half a century to reach this conclusion. Yes, I love trains. Yes, I love modeling. But putting the two together doesn't always necessarily result in a "model railroader," at least by contemporary conventions as far as I can tell. A model railroader's focus is on the trains, obviously, and as such runs the gamut from "model railfan" to hardcore operator. While I might be characterized as the former, I've come to the realization even this may not be the best fit for me.

Living on the "model railfan" end of the spectrum has its drawbacks, since it's just a polite way of saying "roundy-rounder," which some modelers utter with raised noses. But I don't care. I don't make fun of those who don their engineer's hat (even if it's just figuratively), crack the throttle and toot the horn, or meticulously plot out elaborate freight car movements like a Sudoku puzzle. I say, whatever floats your boat.

A while back I followed the story of a modeler who went to great lengths to build an electronic control device to reproduce the behavior of a specific searchlight signal, right down to the precise wavelength of the filters and even simulating how the filter wheel would "bounce" briefly after changing colors. Although I might not be tempted to go that far, it was more to my liking than, say, recreating elaborate CTC systems complete with intercom headsets and radio gear. The former represents something I might see as a railfan; the latter strikes me as more of a setting for some esoteric role-playing game.

You see, I've never had a secret desire to be an engineer—really! Understand: when you're in the cab of a locomotive (which in real life is usually noisy, filthy and uncomfortable), you don't get to see the train, and the job for the most part is godawful tedious. Likewise, stuck at the railroad's CTC board, all you stare at is panels with lines and lights. I'm not about to build a layout only to hide at a desk.

To be sure, operating sessions have zero appeal for me—indeed, more than just a little boring, they can be somewhat unpleasant. I've attended a number of them (always as an innocent bystander), and they remind me too much of a work environment, whereas I'm actively looking for anything but work. Occasionally these sessions devolve into red-faced shouting matches, which makes me want to cry, "Stop! Is this your idea of a good time?"

While I do enjoy a little switching action on occasion, I confess it's for the sole purpose of watching it happen; I'm just as happy if someone else did the switching, and I'd simply observe. So, I suppose you can say I'm easily amused. That said, I'm not so easily amused that I'd enjoy seeing the same train doing laps around the layout all afternoon; thus, mine will feature an automated staging yard so that a variety of trains will roam the layout in a plausible sequence. But that's as far as I'll take things; I'm otherwise perfectly content to sit trackside and watch the trains go by.

For sure, I wouldn't be a modeler were it not for trains. But trains are sort of like the connective tissue in my modeling, threading one scene into the next, and not necessarily the main focus. When I'm driving around, I'm almost always looking for things that might be interesting to model, and it's often perfectly ordinary things that have nothing to do with railroads—old gas stations, highway bridges, cracked and broken sidewalks... if I'd maintained an inventory of all the things I've mentally tagged as potential modeling subjects, the list would be virtually endless.

Indeed, at times I feel as if I want to model everything. The remains of canal locks, long-abandoned factories, rugged cliff faces, small waterfalls, incandescent streetlights, seedy liquor stores, suburban driveways, construction equipment... I would never run out of things to model. Naturally there would be trains, too. Always and forever. But not necessarily always active trains: abandoned lines and artifacts have as much, if not more, appeal to me.

So, where does that leave me in the hobby dictionary? I suppose I'm best described simply as a modeler, full stop. One who happens to model trains, granted, but not necessarily a card-carrying member of the model railroader club. It doesn't bother me; labels don't influence my passions, my work, or my self-image.

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