Model Railroading is Sophisticated, vol. 2

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.

 

 Blaine Hadfield


8 Responses

Jim Fitch
Jim Fitch

April 19, 2017

Re: The majority of “model railroaders” neither have railroads nor do they model.

I’m not sure if the above statement should be a discouragement for manufacturers or detrimental to the hobby. Here is why. Those who don’t have a layout or didn’t complete a project in the last year frequently still working on their dream and “building roster” or rolling stock while they plan for and await conditions which they can build a layout and actively bring the dream to fruition. Untkil then, they are keeping hope alive, and while they are doing that, they are buying models from ExactRail and other manufacturers too!

That was certainly myself for some 15 years while I was experiencing events in my life that prevented me from buying a basement with a home on top! I’ll bet a GSC 53’ flat car that the majority of these “modelers” are people like that, hobbyists who, due to life’s circumstances are in that waiting mode but still actively planning. They are doing research, buying models, building a roster, and yes, some of them building kits or painting or doodling track plans too.

I definitely agree that model railroading is a confluence of many skills which include being a railroad historian, a carpenter, an electrician, an artist, a painter, a model civil engineer, and a visionary. Of course we need the right conditions to thrive, which for some of us may be elusive for a period, but includes a stable home with space for that layout, support from family or spouse, finances (duh!), lots of time, and dexterity.

Above all, as the old moniker goes: “Model Railroading is Fun!”

Cheers, Jim Fitch
northern Virginia

Steven
Steven

April 18, 2017

Wow, you covered a lot of ground with this Blog. One of the most interesting I have read, that concisely took us to the article’s points. This is surely ‘Food for Thought’ for a lot of us involved in the hobby of Model Railroading. There is of course many ways of being involved, and I would hope that we can be inclusive of all those different aspects of involvement in our social and modeling interactions. Most of us have been in the various stages of becoming an ‘active modeler’ (Physical modeling). There are often many stages of planning, conceptualizing, and dreaming before we get to the physical building. Its’ all Good!

The Manufacturers: Well, you were being gentle, and, I feel, so very accurate in your assessments. It is nice to know a new product will be out in 6 months, however is there any advantage to know a Project/product is planned for 1+ years in the future delivery. Makes me think that manufacturers are ‘staking out’ their future Projects to discourage others from considering the same Project, or maybe to show their ’participation, maybe?
Few Blogs hold my attention, but his one provokes some thoughtful analysis and Soul Searching about how I, we, think and react within our Hobby prism. Good Job.

David Paul Harrison
David Paul Harrison

April 17, 2017

Dear Blaine, I am involved in the hobby almost everyday which includes being a career railroader. Being active includes, daily thought and planning of projects, internet research,reading,and prototype study. These activities happen before I even sit at my workbench.Where I feel I fall short in being active in the hobby is not having an operating layout and sharing my talents with others in the hobby. I at least make it to one prototype meet a year to display models. Preparing for the prototype meet will take a full year to complete the models I display, which is almost 10 hours a week. I consider this a full-time effort which includes 10 or 15 of my own projects and 10 to 15 projects for fellow modelers. And yes all of this collects in plastic totes waiting for that said space to arrive at retirement age…

Bob Gross
Bob Gross

April 17, 2017

I believe that many “modelers” are still thinking about their layout because we’ve made the hobby too sophisticated. The level that is set today as the norm exceeds their current ability. Most of us startedwithtrains around the tree and snap together plastic vile. Today, if someone begins to look into starting a layout the options are overwhelming. Look at the video you included in your first blog. Bring Ina new modeler to a club and they see the work of others and think I can’t do that and don’t. What we need in the hobby is less sophistication and more encouragement.

joe
joe

April 16, 2017

I agree Iam a real model railroader that has many great model that I have built myself but I have friends that do not know how to use glue or airbrush that want to compare models and call them self model railroaders when they are only model collectors

CE Hunt
CE Hunt

April 16, 2017

Thanks Blaine for exploring this poorly understood concept. We have much to learn why we model and how manufacturers can best serve the modeling communities.

Walt Huston
Walt Huston

April 16, 2017

I am an active modeler in that I am making progress on my layout a few hours a week, I edit N-Scale Magazine, I change all of the couplers on my locomotives and rolling stock to body mounted (thanks, Blaine & Co. for saving me a ton of time by having body mounts on your products), and I weather almost everything that appears on/in my layout. A majority of my time is spent editing ~60 hours a week; the layout gets ~10. In any case I consider myself a very active modeler. I know a very large number of model railroaders who consider themselves active, but have no layout. Some work on other people’s layouts so I credit them as active modelers. Others talk a lot but get nothing done. They are not active in my opinion.

Josh H
Josh H

April 16, 2017

Very thought provoking article Blaine. I love how you touched on the current practices of manufacturers and how detrimental they can be. I’ve been waiting for a few pieces of equipment I have ordered for almost 4 years and I highly doubt I will ever see them given the apparent lack of demand.

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.

Please select a wishlist category