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.