Community of Trains, Vol. 2

This series got rolling with comments in my previous blog from two cognitive scientists, Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach. In The Knowledge Illusion, they wrote that our minds are configured to assess and analyze information from our environment far more than they are configured to retain information. The result is that we are often unaware of the extent to which our environment influences our thought. I have the tendency to think of my participation in the hobby (personally, not professionally) as the kind of thing where I go down into the basement, and I work on a project, and the whole affair is disconnected from anything but me and that moment. Even though the instinct to like trains seems spontaneous and organic, are there specific trends about what and how we model that are influenced by environmental inputs more than what we give credit to?

Insofar as this may be the case, how? and in what ways?

In the nascent period of the hobby, models weren't readily available. The emphasis of one's modeling activity was focused on creation of the equipment itself, and the layout was about having the rail to see that equipment in action. Conceptions of scale were fluid and inchoate. Far more than otherwise, layouts weren't adorned in scenery. There wasn't the inclination to scenic layouts because hobbyists were operating by a different set of values and objectives. The principle of action was the mechanical challenge of creating dynamic models that resembled the prototype. This was model railroading. 

As the hobby grew, the will to establish systems of conformity grew. The National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) was organized in 1935, it served the valuable role of making a set of recommended practices explicit. This is an extraordinary step forward for the hobby because these standards are the framework which set into play the conditions for the possibility of robust commercial enterprise. It also allowed people to collaborate on more than shared interest alone.

In 2017, the NMRA is an institution. It is comprised of a president, officers, and a board of directors. There are hundreds of volunteers that organize at a local level. As of January 2017, NMRA membership approached 18,000 people. Among other things, it hosts and organizes and provides insurance for the National Train Show and many regional meets. It makes significant contributions to the railroad libraries and other media. And, it established a national standard for modular layouts whereby people can collaborate in large, multi-person or group layouts.

In some sense, NMRA modular layouts are the material realization of the NMRA ideology. That is to say, by way of organization and through shared standards, communities of model railroaders result. These communities have the potential to be learning centers, engage in outreach, serve as community sites, and provide fellowship of other railroaders. And, this happens insofar as people buy into these shared standards. For many, this kind of organization serves their interests very well.

However, the NMRA is not without critics. There are some who would say that the impetus for inclusion is too strong and the recommended practices are too constrained to allow the kinds of expression that they are looking for in the hobby. In recent decades, the emergence of Free-mo and RPM meets are an alternative (and for some people and in some sense, a rejection) of what they may describe as bureaucracy.

The Free-mo organization is minimalist in its mentality.  Where NMRA modular layouts are highly constrained so to construct a loop of track, Free-mo operates on the premise that constraining module endplates is sufficient to allow for modular operations.  Free-mo layouts can take on irregular shapes, and they don't need to regulate the number and type of modules so to close a loop. Where the NMRA has governing body of officers, Free-mo is an affiliation of participants without the offices of a governing body whatsoever. The idea is that people come together out of a shared philosophy, and the outcomes are mediated democratically vis-a'-vis a flat organization.

RPM meets are similarly minimalistic. They grew out of round-table, show-and-tell dinners where modelers would meet and talk about recent projects. I have heard participants describe RPM meets as events framed specifically with the content to help modelers be better modelers. Although it should be recognized that NMRA events also have clinics and seminars, in my blog entitled 'Model Railroading is Sophisticated, Vol. 3', I wrote about how these meets represent different paradigms. I will only add to those comments with an additional thought: In my opinion and in some sense, RPM meets look like a return to the kind of modeling from where this story began, i.e., the emphasis of one's modeling activity is focused on creation of the equipment itself. Where the earliest layouts didn't have scenery, RPM meets often don't have display layouts or displays with scenery at all. In many cases, they consist only of display tables for equipment and break-out rooms for clinics.

This dialectic (i.e. the hobby being an affiliate of unorganized modelers, the hobby adopts robust standards through the NMRA and the NMRA institutes a system of governance, the emergence of new associations of people who want to operate outside of that system) is the interplay of ideas and environments such that ideas spring from the environment in which we reside. If you were involved in model railroading in 1930, the thought may not have been more than "Hey, you are working on some great stuff.  I am working on some great stuff. It takes a long time to build this, and I would like to see a real train come together. You know what, it would be cool if..."  Or, for those who attended the first RPM round table dinners, the thought may not have been more than "Hey, you are working on some great stuff.  I am working on some great stuff. For whatever reason, we don't feel like the de facto organization is a good home for what we are trying to do. You know what, it would be cool if..."  And the point is, if one views these developments in the context of their time, the environmental influences become more perspicuous. [insert saying here 'necessity is the mother of invention' or something like that.]

As cognitive scientists, I am confident that Sloman and Fernbach mean things that are more specific in a neurological/scientific sense than what this blog describes. But in terms of our question, how and in what ways is our modeling influenced by environmental inputs, these are my first thoughts.

For my next blog, I am going to apply a more forward-looking concept of the dialectic to current states of affairs, and I will share my thoughts on how, I think, these trends could be important to going forward. I hope it is a good ride.

Blaine Hadfield

2 Responses

William Neale, MMR
William Neale, MMR

May 30, 2017

Great blog! I enjoyed the fresh take on the hobby and how/why it attracts us. I don’t think I have every spent too much time thinking about our common affliction, so the ideas were new. Now that you stirred the pot, I’d like to add a couple more points to the thinking.
First, regarding the NMRA… Behind every RPM meet, every Narrow Gauge meet, every NMRA meet, there is a cadre of volunteers that make it happen. They set up the hotel. They arrange for clinics. They contact local layout owners for tours. Don’t kid yourself and think these meets happen without organization and structure. Some happen under the umbrella of the NMRA and some not. The work is roughly equivalent. When the NMRA is not involved, individuals must take on the financial commitments and risk. Something not everyone is willing to do. Those hotel contracts represent a significant amount of expense, which the NMRA can help abridge. Here in the Midwest, many of our local RPM meets are now being done under the NMRA umbrella and through the local division or regional NMRA organizations. This happy juncture seems to solve many problems in one stroke. The NMRA has a broad distribution of local modelers, and the financial structure to absorb some of the risk.
Also, your focus was primarily on NMRA modular standards, which I have always thought of as a minor aside for the NMRA. I don’t build modules, so I don’t have much background, and as a consequence, my thinking reflects that prejudice. However, I think the standards (any standards) need to be constantly reviewed for relevance. I think this was an important part of your perspective in the blog. I think the NMRA is aware that their standards need review and is taking action to do so.
I think modular layouts provide a great way for beginning modelers to build something, and then use it to interact with others in a positive, train-running way. I agree with your observation that the Free-Mo approach provides for much more creativity. Free-Mo does have standards too, but they impact the form and function of the module much less that the NMRA standards. For those that simply enjoy the running of long trains on continuous tracks, the NMRA type module works well (although I hate the track spacing). For those who want to switch, or who want more creative freedom, we have the Free-Mo set up. I see them as easily coexisting in the modeling world, each providing their consumers with appropriate structure.

In any case, keep up the blog. We need original thinking and ideas with energy in this hobby.


John Huey
John Huey

May 29, 2017

Way back when, and I mean when electricity was still novel, the NMRA gave us standards that are still in use today. They even got manufacturers on the same page regarding everything from track gauge, coupler types, coupler heights, car weight and lately DCC plugs, with few exceptions. All of this is invaluable whether one uses these standards or not. That said, and I just joined the NMRA again for a test ride to see if things had changed much since the last time I was member (back when Whit Towers was the president and guru ameritas). Well, the first thing I noted was an editorial lamenting that while they get tons of members to try them on for six months, very few renew and become full time members when the trial period is over. Well, I can see why. I wanted to buy a few things from the website, but my membership number was not recognised by their system for the promised discount when I signed up. I wrote in via their websites instructions and have yet to see a reply after two months of waiting. Guess I’m not the Lone Ranger in being less than thrilled with their attention to new members judging by the editorial I read on that first visit.

The word bureaucracy was mentioned in the main blog post above, and that is the feeling I come away with, the same one that caused me to leave several decades ago. It seems only the names have changed, and mine is not on the inner circle clique list I guess. That’s okay, $72 to join for a year to get a magazine that is mostly useless for modeling info is not something that my frugal nature will let me do, and the $44 no magazine membership begs the question; what do I need this for, no matter how noble their ideals are? I will continue to support the local RPM meets and other such events that are within my driving range, because those give a fair return on investment for both time and money spent. I’ll even attend local NMRA functions and just pay the nonmember freight and consider that a bargain. Please don’t get me wrong. the NMRA is a great thing, just not for me at this time, but this hobby would not be where it is today without their ideology and oversight over the years. I like where the hobby is, and enjoy interacting within the mores of my limited social network, then again, we all speak the same lingo as regards what we enjoy, and this makes everything more enjoyable. Peace.

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