I don't know why I like trains
I really don't know. It is just an interest that wells up from within.
And, I don't think that it is necessary to know why we participate in the hobby. This blog isn't a call to circle the wagons and investigate inward, except that I have an observation:
I have noticed that my activity in model railroading looks similar to what friends articulate as their activity for participating in their hobbies--except that, their hobbies are not trains. They describe their interests in terms that apply to me ever so much as it applies to them--except for me its trains and for them its cars, or quilts, photography, or building furniture, or any number of other pastimes.
It is as though the methods by which we express our interests are superficial (sanding, gluing, painting), but that thing to which our hobbies connect us to is something deep within us--an expression of our id. (Can I get a whoot, whoot from the Sigmund Freud fans out there!)
My point is not to try to make a serious connection with Freud, but rather to admit that it never felt like I chose my interest in trains. As though a part of my id, trains have always been there. (As an aside, isn't Forbidden Planet, the 1956 sci-fi classic, a great movie!?) And, I don't know why trains are a part of this when there are dozens of other subjects that draw on similar sets of talents and skills, and they seem as though they could be a substitute for how some of those talents and skill are expressed. In other words, if it were about sanding, gluing and painting, then my father would have been more successful in his years long attempt to convert me to RC planes. But he wasn't, and I think that there is something interesting in this.
I recently started a book called The Knowledge Illusion. The authors, Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, are cognitive scientists. They write about how cognitive science reveals that thought is not an exclusively an internal process in the way that we traditionally conceptualize it. We tend to think of thought as the machinations of our own mental labor, and that the ideas that result are exclusively our own. But, Sloman and Fernbach argue that cognitive science reveals that our minds are hardwired to mine for information outside of our own heads. We assess and evaluate in real time far more than we retain. And, our minds do this so efficiently that we are weak to understand (or attribute) the extent to which our thoughts and ideas are communal. The knowledge and ideas that we think reside within us are an extension of the information that buzzes about us. And, this has an upshot, they write,"Once we start appreciating that knowledge isn't all in the head, that it's shared within a community, our heroes change. Instead of focusing on the individual, we begin to focus on the larger group."
And this is the impetus of this blog series. I am interested to explore what community influences are in the air when new paradigms come about--either on the individual level or with the broader collective.
A word of caution for this blog, already there are words, like ontology, psychoanalysis, and cognition, that have never, or very likely never, been associated with model railroading conversation in times past. But as of this writing, its Thursday. And around here, Thursdays are for exploring deep shit. This might continue.
I participate with a group in a movie club. The other night, we watched Spike Jonze's Her. In a well composed scene, Joaquin Phoenix's character, Theodore, is walking among the trees and knee-deep snow. In the distant background (and not really intended for the viewer), one could make out structures on the far ridge line.
Snowsheds... My mind ticks over.
Intractably, "That's Donner," I wail. A moment later, I turn to my brother and say, "in a theater full of people, only a railfan would place the snowsheds in the background."
To which my brother replies, "Yeah, only the railfans and the cannibals."
The etymology of the word 'hack/hacker' (as in, "Russia hacked my email!") can be traced through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) model railroad club. The Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) was organized in the 1946-1947 school year, and according to the groups website, it is one of the oldest clubs at MIT.
In a March 6, 2014 article in The New Yorker, the origins of the word 'hack' are first documented in the April 1955 TMRC meeting minutes. It says, "anyone working or hacking on the electrical system turn the power off to avoid fuse blowing." According to the president of the American Dialect Society, Jesse Sheidlower, the term held the more benign meaning of simply working on a tech problem. The club was composed of several sub-groups, and according to Ben Zimmer, a language columnist at The Wall Street Journal, the term took on more modern connotations as individuals from one group pranked the system-based telephone relays to mess with railroad operators. When this kind of ritualistic hazing occurred, members would have to "hack" the system in an attempt to solve the problem. In time, the term became how it is known today.
In early 1928, Charles Mintz, a film distributer associated with Universal Studios, demanded that a young Walt Disney take a budget cut for the production of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Mintz positioned this conversation by informing Disney that most of his current staff were now on contract with him. Disney refused, and he walked away from the cartoon character that was a success in its time. This event catalyzed the creation of Disney studios. Following his meeting with Mintz, Disney boarded the train in California to return home. On this ride, Mickey Mouse was conceptualized.
In 1947, Disney built a model train in his Disney Studio's office--noteworthy because Disney was committed to his business in such a way that this seemed to surprise some people. By 1948, Disney was working long hours, seven days a week. The staff nurse insisted that he take break for the sake of his health. According to Ward Kimball, an associate in the Disney Studio, this gave rise to the first vacation Disney ever took. It was to the Chicago Railroad Fair. Thereafter, he set up a machine shop at the Disney studio for the explicit purpose of building a locomotive, where Disney himself would often work on the project. This locomotive became the well-known Lilly Belle. From there, it was the Carolwood Pacific, Disneyland Railroad, and then a mass-media empire.
So, here is the question: What do cannibals, neo-computer hackers and great creative geniuses have in common?
Answer: one thing: railroads and model railroaders. (Mic drop!) And with that, I rest my case: model railroading is sophisticated.
Model railroading is sophisticated, and an increased appreciation for the breadth of the hobby helps us relate to those within it. These interests go beyond modeling in the literal sense, as evidenced by the fact that most people aren't "modeling" in the ways that are traditional to the term. This fact speaks to the numerous motivations that people actually have to participate. RPM meets have been a successful development in the hobby in the last decade, and in my last blog, I attribute their success to the fact that RPM meets are learning communities. I have attended RPM clinics that have the potential to speak to an array of our interests: photographic essays of railroads through a particular time, history of a particular town, overview of an organization (that is only loosely associated with the railroad), etc. RPM meets are clinic rich, and my point is that clinics cast a very broad net when getting at these other motivations. They help us integrate systems of interests. They are a departure from the kind of project-based thinking that characterizes much of the hobby.
For vol.1 to vol.3 of this blog series, this is the thought-stream that brings us to the present. Now, lets take it a step further:
The sophistication of the hobby may never be more evident then when an unaffiliated person is exposed to your interests for the first time. As one explains the how and the why of a layout, one realizes anew that a credible, coherent model railroad is a data rich and artistically complex medium... that operates. And if one asks why for every step in this process, the answers unfurl decades of accumulated knowledge.
"I bought an RC car in the morning, and I was driving it by that afternoon" never applies to model railroading.
Because the state of affairs for model railroading is more sophisticated than the average hobby, I posit that RPM meets and the clinics of traditional train shows should be viewed as the kinds of events that people should be born into--as opposed to the kinds of events that people graduate to. And in saying this, this is a call for consideration from the organizers of both types of meets, because 1) the clinics of traditional train meets are underneath the main space of commerce to such a degree that a person almost has to have a higher level of awareness to recognize and attend them. (See my previous blog.) And 2) RPM meets bear a reputation for being an association of "graduate level" hobbyists. This perception may intimidate other participants.
I am writing this blog as I return from the Pacific Northwest RPM meet in Seattle. This year's clinics were on the Yellowstone Railway, Gunderson Wood Chip gondolas, Simpson logging operations, and Great Northern boxcars. Even though my personal layout is some distance from these specific topics, the way these clinics spoke to my other interests isn't. No doubt, I was enriched for having attended.
My compliments to the event organizers who assembled a very fine meet.
A success in recent decades is the growth of railroad prototype modeling (RPM) meets. These are events where people display projects and promote better, more accurate modeling. In terms of being a project-rich environment, RPM events are Zion. And so, one may be inclined to view these meets as an outflow of the project-based thinking described in my last blog. But, against the observations of that blog, it may surprise you that I attribute the rise of these events to how they do the opposite. The success of these events is in relation to how they go beyond project-minded thinking and speak to our broader sensibilities as participants in the hobby.
The RPM meet to see the most growth in recent years is the St. Louis RPM meet. Consider with me the introduction copy from the organization's homepage. It is:
The meet provides numerous touch points for connecting people vis-a'-vis relevant, content-driven interactions. The concept of RPM meets is that they are learning communities. Where one may characterize the floor space of traditional venues as lanes of traffic through rows of vendors, RPM meets are couches, break-out rooms, and the dinner thereafter. This difference is more than a facade (as if couches make that much of a difference). In a fundamental way, RPM meets are the product of different paradigms.
To finesse this distinction, please consider the following thought experiment:
Imagine: how would an event would change if all vendors were removed from the venue? But, everything else about the event (venue, total floor space, floor plan, etc.) remains unchanged.
For traditional train shows under this experiment, I have thoughts of modular layouts separated by vast convention space. The majority of exhibitors at traditional shows are dealers of one kind or another. The largest model trains show by space is the Amherst Railway Society Railroad Hobby Show in Springfield, MA; it has 8.5 acres (375,000 sq.ft.) of floor space! There are over 450 exhibitors, most of whom sell something. (Even if you would have to travel to do so, please attend this show! And when you do, go with money in hand, because you can find it at Amherst.)
For RPM meets, far less would change. For some events, there would no ostensible difference. In fact, I have had to get directions to find I find the vendor room with many RPM meets, but all the while, I can stumble into a clinic room at will. The different outcomes from the thought experiment underscore a difference in mindset between these types of shows.
And this is the point. At the threshold of a traditional show, a person is met with the prospect of commerce. The clinician rooms generally need to be sought out from there. At the threshold of RPM meet, the learning community surrounds you, and you have to go in search of commerce.
I would argue that both have great value in this industry. Where the largest traditional train shows may draw attendance close to 25,000 people, the larger RPM meets may draw close to 500. But, they are growing. The purpose of this blog is to suggest that RPM meets are growing because they appeal to a different set of our motivations. I have attended clinics of photographic essays of railroads through a particular time, history of a particular town, overview of an organization (that is only loosely associated with the railroad), etc. If RPM meets are well organized, they have tremendous value to get at other motivations for our participation in his hobby.
I will be speaking at the Pacific Northwest RPM meet in Seattle, WA on April 29., and the St. Louis RPM Meet in June. I will also be giving clinics at the National Train Show in August, and the Missouri Pacific Historical Society Convention in October. If you have the opportunity to attend any of these events, please do. It would be great to meet you there.
In June of 2014, ExactRail "previewed" our all-new Southern Pacific G-100-22 gondola at the Bay Area Prototype Modelers meet! But lets not kid ourselves, a preview is effectively an announcement for an upcoming announcement.
Now, we are pleased to announce that the previous announcement for an upcoming announcement will soon be announced!
In May, ExactRail will announce the HO Scale Southern Pacific G-100-22 Gondola!
In 1974, the Southern Pacific received 100-ton, 65' mill gondolas from Thrall Car Manufacturing. The railroad classified these cars as the G-100-22. They were among the first 100-ton, 65' gondolas acquired by the railroad. The G-100-22 is a distinctive car. Like all modern gondolas, the stature of this car gives it presence. Yet, the modern "facade" is betrayed by terminating dreadnaught ends and trucks that are well inset. This car is distinctive--for sure, and that is why we love it.
The Southern Pacific G-100-22 will be offered in the "1974 As Delivered" paint scheme in 9 road numbers. The model is a Platinum Series replica and features:
The breadth of interests expressed through model railroading is vast, and they often go beyond modeling in the literal sense. If you think that model railroading is just about modeling, then please consider the answer to the following question:
Of people who self-identify as current or "active" participants in the hobby, how many presently have a layout? How many have engaged in a specific modeling project within the last year?
If my experience can stand as a litmus test, I would suggest that a number of people who self-identify as "active" participants and who have a layout or who have engaged in a specific modeling project within the last year is less than 50%. Granted, this is an estimate, and it is given in broad terms. But, it does accord with the opinions of others in the industry. Regardless of what the actual number is precisely, all accounts indicate that it is sufficiently low so to enable an observation:
The majority of "model railroaders" neither have railroads nor do they model.
Take a moment and let that sink in...
At this juncture, it may be worth noting that the estimate above is descriptive. It is a metric for how people are actually participating in the hobby. It is not a suggestion for how people should participate in the hobby. If it needs to be said, I think that hobbies are the kinds of things where people work out for themselves how they want to participate. In fact, the whole point of this blog series is to draw attention to model railroading as a hobby rich with options, and this is another reason for why model railroading is great.
That said, the observation is a little provocative; is it not?
I have framed the observation in this way because, I believe, it exposes a particular conceptual framework at play in our industry. And, I am going to argue that an upshot of this framework is also at play in the minds of manufacturers, and this can be detrimental to the hobby.
Let me explain:
If we are looking for an answer to why it may seem awkward that many "active" model railroaders may not be modeling and may not have railroads, I am stricken with the thought that it only feels odd because of culture.
To illustrate the point, consider the following: imagine you are introduced to another model railroader for the first time. The thrust to ask the following question is almost compulsive, "What do you model?" And more likely than not, you ask in precisely those words. From here, this person goes on to describe in great detail how he "models" [name a railroad, region and era]. Then, as the conversation rolls forward, you are made to know that the railroad, region and era is not actually a model railroad, but the concept around which his specific interests rally. The equipment he collects is in the closet; the layout is sketches, and the basement will be converted to a railroad room when the children move, but only in time, and so on.
In other words, we bill our activity in the hobby in project-based terms. And this isn't unusual. We are cultured to think in project-based terms. We frame our progress by what is done on the workbench, and we talk about our interests by way of what we model--even though we are not using that term in quite so literal a sense. And as a group, we do so to such an extent that, when our actual practices met the more literal use of the term, "modeling", there is a mismatch that feels provocative. When someone asks me "what do you I model", I tell them about the Union Pacific's Caliente Subdivision--even when there is no layout in my basement. And I don't feel like less of a participant in the hobby for doing so. I am working on it--believe me, and because the steps that I am taking are a part of process in the largest possible sense (acquiring a place to build the layout, finding the income to prepare the space, creating an operational schema to drive layout design, acquiring the equipment, etc.), it is easy to conceptualize them in project-based terms--or "modeling."
So, there is a mismatch between the colloquial use of the term "modeling" and the literal use (this blog is riffing on that difference). However, this difference isn't just philosophical word play. I think that this is relevant because, as these words get conflated, we get confused about what is at the heart of our participation in the hobby. In my opinion, it is a problem that manufacturers provide input into the industry in a way that is more in line with the literal use of the word--in other words, we can be too "project-minded". But, enthusiasts are engaged in the hobby in a way more in line with the colloquial use. And, I think that the quality of our hobby will improve when manufacturers do a better job of dealing with this difference.
Let me explain:
There is a sense in which any manufacturer is project-minded. The model train business is not complex in that the relationship between the revenues and projects is relatively straight-forward. As a result, there is (and always will be) an impetus to announce and create. However, when I use the term "project-minded" for manufacturers for this blog, I intend a slightly different use. Project-minded manufacturers are ones where the race to announce and create supersedes other elements of good business practice. What does this look like in our industry?
It is making announcements with only line-art or prototype photos.
It is making a pre-order announcements on products that won't deliver for a six months or more.
It is doing these things, and then bringing the product to market with quantities so close to the actual pre-order amount that chance of acquiring the car without a pre-order is scant.
It is having websites that don't allow for the proper exploration of product so that a customer can make an informed decision.
(It is many other things to, but this blog is not intended to be a diatribe.)
This style of business is project-minded because manufacturers are operating is such a way to neglect aspects of the business that are important from the consumer's point of view. The only thing that "really" matters is getting the project out there. Manufacturers are solely focused on what the manufacturer needs to create another turn of the wheel. This is an extraordinary disservice to the industry in that it deprives the customer from value that enriches the buying experience. And ultimately, I would argue, it has an attenuating effect on the industry.
There is a development in the last decades that is seeing rising success, precisely because, at the conceptual level, it understands what I am to speaking to. Railroad prototype modelers (RPM) meets are events where people display projects and promote better, more accurate modeling. In terms of being a project-rich environment, RPM events are Zion. And so against this, it may surprise you that I attribute the success of these events to their ability to offer something more than just projects alone.
Please look for this in my next blog.
Model railroading is among the most sophisticated of hobbies, and if you find this to be an odd statement, then by all means, please read on.
So that we are all operating with the same sense of the word, 'sophisticated' means, "having a refined knowledge of the ways of the world cultivated especially through wide experience" (Merriam-Webster)
To help explicate what I mean, answer to the following question; what does it take to execute a model railroad at a high level?
I have embedded a Model Railroad Hobbyist video of Mike Confalone's Allagash railroad. The Allagash is a premier layout. It breaks from the familiar to model Maine in late winter, and it does so spectacularly.
What does it take to execute at this level?
Whatever the answers are, they relate to knowledge and talent in a very diverse set of domains. This includes knowledge of history, railroad prototypes, rail operations, model train operations (because they are different), and talent in construction (as it differs from modeling), and modeling (as it differs from construction), electronics, painting and astute conceptions of layout, space and color, and the list is far from complete. So incomplete, but an attempt to compile an exhaustive list becomes tedious.
The point is this: in what other hobbies is the confluence of such a diverse set of talents required? Model railroading is unique in that it ranks among an exclusive set of pastimes in this regard. In fact, in this moment, I am at a loss to think of any that cast a net quite as broad as model railroading.
As I write, the voices of past professors ring in my head. "Blaine," they say. "You are making a facile argument; you are preaching to the choir." Besides, it is flattering to be told that our hobby is sophisticated. There will be no voice of dissent here.
But, the purpose of my blog is not to entitle us for the favor of those outside of our community, but rather, to speak to those within it. Renewed appreciation for the breadth of our hobby helps us relate to those within it. This is where the blog is going.
But for now, let us rest on 'model railroading is spectacular.'
A confession: when I began the series entitled Ode to Utah Coal, it was not my intention to entrench the series with nostalgia and the ways in which the Utah Railway is unique as a western operator. But, that is what the blog has become--and as a topic, I don't believe that it is parochial. When the Utah Railway operated its last coal train over Soldier Summit this year, it ended a 105 year service record. That is remarkable, and it seems relevant to bookmark this change with a few notes here.
But now, let's turn things on their head.
Rather than look at what is unique about the Utah Railway, this blog explores something that was unique to the Utah Railway. If this statement were posed as a question, as in 'to the Utah Railway, what was unique?', the first thought to come to my mind is the depot.
As in, yes, they had... one.
The Utah Railway was organized in 1912 to move Utah coal--not people, and in 1912, moving people was a normal part of railroad operations. However, in 1917, the railroad did acquire the former Southern Utah Railway "Kingmine" depot in Hiawatha, UT. It was the Utah Railway's only depot.
The depot was located between two mine loaders. The photo below shows the east coal washer/loading building in 1982. According to UtahRails.net, this operated until 1991. There was a second tipple west of the depot at approximately the same distance. The way that the depot is awkwardly positioned between two mine structures is metaphor of its place for the railroad, id est, completely secondary.
The railroad moved coal, and there was a depot only insofar as station-bound individuals contributed to the activity of moving coal. Records indicate that the Utah Railway operated its last mixed, passenger in 1926. Oddly, after 90 years, the depot--that thing which was of the least operational importance to the railroad--managed to be the only railroad-related thing to survive in Hiawatha.
How time is not without a sense of irony.
The east coal washer/loaders was dismantled in October 1992, and I presume the other loader was razed in the same period. The rail was pulled up about five years ago.
Photo credit: UtahRails.net
If you would like to read more about the Utah Railway's operations in this area, please visit Utahrails.net.
In my first 'Ode to Utah Coal' blog, I wrote about those rare moments when, as if by transcendence, we are aware of change as it happens in the now. My last blog discusses Utah Railway's cachet as an operator of unique locomotives. At the time these were written, I did not foresee how well these topics would intersect for events that would transpire this week.
In 1952, the Utah Railway acquired six RSD-4s. In 1974/1975, they acquired an additional six RSD-12 and 15s. These ran in heavy, drag service until 1982--which made them rare birds for a western operator. However, Utah Railway's cachet goes beyond its Alco fleet. In 1985, the Utah Railway rostered four ex-BN F45s--an odd grab that, I assume, saved these locomotives from the torch. These operated until 2001 when the Utah Railway acquired Australian-built SD50s, and these are completely unique.
Also in 2001, Utah Railway performed a coup d'etat on Motive Power Industries (MPI); it acquired all six MK5000Cs. MPI designs, manufacturers and re-manufactures locomotives. The MK5000C is the product of an ambitious push in the manufacturing segment of MPI's business. In 2003, the Caterpillar prime movers of the MK5000Cs were replaced, and they were redesignated 'MK50-3'. Utah Railway 5004 MK50-3 awaits assignment in Martin, UT in the James Belmont photo above.
Beautiful, isn't it?
These MK units are resplendent with the Utah Railway paint scheme on their flanks. This week, four MK50-3 units were removed from the property, and the future of the others seems uncertain.
As we all know, change happens--it is an endless plight for the romantics among us. But today, it feels again as though the absence is something that will truly be missed--Utah Railway MK units over Soldier Summit.
Here is to the memories.
**Update: In the original blog posted on March 19th, I wrote that all of the MK units in Utah Railway paint schemes were removed from the property. However, when I drove through the Utah Railway yard on March 20th, Utah Railway #5003 (one of the MK units in Utah Railway paint) was among other locomotives in the service facility. Evidently, some of my information was wrong about which of the four MK units stayed and which units left. I have updated my blog post accordingly.
In a blog that I posted a few months back I talked about the time when my interest in trains started. Not long after, I bought my first copy of Model Railroader. It was the September 1994 issue and it, more than any other issue inspired and molded me into the modeler that I am today.
On the cover was a photo of Michael Tylick's O scale Pioneer Valley. A layout that I love so much, but this blog is about another. Further in was an article by Bruce Chubb on his Sunset Valley railroad that shook the infant foundations of my model railroading interest. I spent many hours re-reading the article and studying every detail in the photos. The scene that hooked me more than any other was his passenger station that was built over the tracks. So much of what I saw still influences my modeling today.
18 years later at the 2012 National Train Show in Grand Rapids Michigan, I was invited to a layout tour of the Sunset Valley. It was amazing to see in-person the layout that inspired me so much. Then something special happened... I somehow ended up with a throttle in my hand. I was given the opportunity to run a passenger train across the layout and make a station stop at the location that inspired me so much. Fortunately a friend of mine took a photo of this moment.
This month, Model Railroader releases their 1000th issue. Congratulations on this milestone and thank you for the inspiration you gave me starting with this issue and from so many others after.