Arts: The Art of Model Railroading

You know those guys who have the model railroad empires in their basements – tracks all over the place, mountainous scenery, switching yards, dozens of locomotives, hundreds of cars, a jungle of wires under the layout?

Often we say that they are “men playing with their trains”. And indeed many of them are amateurs. But a select few of these gentlemen are true professionals who are operating on a level like a world-class athlete or singer or artist.

The real stuff is called “model railroading” and its bible is Model Railroader magazine where the best modelers are featured. Most of the great layouts are HO scale, which is 1:87 proportion. The locomotives are usually maximum one foot long and just a few inches tall. HO is the scale with the very detailed equipment available and has the modelers most dedicated to prototypical modeling and operations.

Rod Stewart, the rock singer, is a famous model railroader. And he once said that, “I’d rather be on the cover of Model Railroader than on the cover of Rolling Stone” (the rock music magazine). Go pick up a copy of Model Railroader if you would like to see the latest offerings in this fascinating hobby. It is worth the price.

Over the last 50 years, the equipment available in HO – in all scales really – has blossomed. Models that once were crude Lionel-like renderings of their real-world brethren now sport amazing detail as computers have aided in production. Small motors have improved in quality and offer life-like operations. Sound systems with tiny speakers built into the locomotives now mimic the sounds of real locomotives. And the dedication of the modelers to prototype operation and modeling has reached the level of high art.

Now computer control has made possible even more realistic operations. Big layouts require dispatchers to give the orders on how to run the trains, just like on the real thing. Crews of 3 or 5 or 8 men, in an “operating session” that lasts several hours, move trains and their box cars, tank cars, grain cars and everything else including passenger trains in a life-like fashion around the “layout” from one city or yard to the next to the next, to branch lines, to rural sidings. Computerized signaling systems work like real signals do, automatically flipping from green to red as the train passes. Amazing…

Some model railroaders concentrate more on “operations” while others focus on detailed scenery, cars, locomotives, buildings and complex trackwork. Some do it all. Some even model delicate overheard catenary wires that are modeled with remarkable accuracy (see first picture below).

Here are a few pictures from Model Railroader magazine of these professionals at work. Enjoy these photos -  all products of “men playing with trains”:

Modeler Rick Abramson has built a small HO layout of the New Haven Railroad passenger trains in the 1950s between New Haven, Connecticut and New York City. Look at that electric locomotive. Beautiful. And Abramson built the towers and the catenary lines himself from scratch. They are accurate renderings of the real wires and towers. This is not kid’s stuff. This is the product of a very refined mind and hand.

Here is a re-creation of one of the most famous sites in American freight railroading, Keddie Wye in the Feather River Canyon of California, where two lines merge high over the river. This is on an HO layout by Jim Pendley. Look at that bridgework! It is amazingly accurate. These railroads take years to build and refine. And they can be very temperamental, what with their complex wiring and electronics and small, finicky motors, tracks and wheels.

Here is an advertisement for a mid-priced Challenger HO locomotive from the commercial house Athearn. This would cost about $400 today. Some HO locomotives can run into the thousands of dollars.

This is a scene from a layout by a man named John Elwood. Look at that bridge. It is probably built from historical drawings and photographs. And you can just imagine how smoothly the trains run. Every detail is fussed over.

These are larger O gauge (1:48)  models by MTH. These locomotives are only about 5 inches tall!

This is an urban scene from the 1950s by a modeler named Bob Smaus. Not a detail out of place. These guys are operating on a very high level. Most of us could never, ever do this. But they make it look easy by their huge talents. This is where the real artists are today.

If you want to see an amazing model railroad in action, see this video here

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