Model Railroading is Sophisticated, vol. 3

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:

"Connect with friends and fellow prototype modelers at the nation's largest Prototype Modeler's Meet. 28,000-sq.ft. of high-quality models, displays, visitng [sic] prototype layouts, hands-on workstations and more in the modern, professional Gateway Convention Center. Presentations by nationally-recognized historians and modelers. Railroad Historical Societies, scale model vendors and manufacturers will also be in attendance. Thousands of models brought by modelers on display. Home layout tours, Fellowship, Door Prizes and much, much more!"


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.

Blaine Hadfield


7 Responses

Rich Mathews
Rich Mathews

May 21, 2017

I love trains! I always have, but, I am dismayed when I come across other train lovers that believe, “there way” is the true path to enjoyment of the Hobby. That one approach to enjoyment isn’t helpful to the Hobby, while another approach is helpful. I have seen this my entire life, I just would like to say, anything that brings people together, such as PRM, is a good thing. I am not a super skilled modeler, I respect and appreciate the super skilled modelers efforts, ExactRail and Tangent and Moloco and so many others, manufacture models, that anyone can be proud to run. Cost of these models is considered high. I know what it is like to leave a hobby shop or a web site without a purchase. Entering any hobby or sport, is now expensive. Great models don’t discourage newbies, they inspire them to achieve. I look back on my first attempts at modeling and see just how much I have improved over the years. I have never been looked "down on " because my modeling wasn’t the best. New people to the Hobby should always be encouraged and achievable goals is a progression, as one’s skills improve.
Thank you, for allowing me to share my views,
Rich Mathews, retired locomotive engineer

Rick La Fever
Rick La Fever

April 24, 2017

In the dark ages of model railroading(say before 1995 more or less) one could attend a local NMRA division meets and see some real excellent modeling, have fellowship and learn new skills. Then along came the Special Interest Groups and the Railroad Prototype Meets and well, that killed many of the NMRA division meets IMHO.

To be truthful however some of the NMRA groups were a BIT nit-picky about what could be entered in the contest arena.
If the local leadership was over populated by narrow gaugers, well a modern modeler was somewhat shunned away.

There was a time when the National NMRA leadership was less than open about the SIG’s and RPM.
I think that the loss of membership in the NMRA finally woke them up.
I personally want to EMBRACE all of the hobby of model railroading! Even if I don’t add 37 rivets to a tender deck(I missed counted and added 36!) or I don’t model Colorado, I surely will find something at all the gatherings to take home!
At least I think I will-Sigh!

Remember Model Railroading Is Fun and the rules of Model Railroading

1. It’s my railroad
2. While discussion of realistic prototype modeling, rivet counting, and proper train operations are welcome, in the event of arguments, pistol duels, or swordfights to the death, please refer to Rule#1
Thank You—The Management!

Kevin Packard
Kevin Packard

April 24, 2017

The nice thing about this hobby is that there is room for everyone to do as they please. There are plenty of people who get into this hobby because of the prototype modeling aspect, just as there are plenty of people who get in to build a fantasty world. It all depends on what the person’s goals are.

For myself, and for most of those I associate with in the hobby, prototype modeling is what makes the hobby enjoyable. I like the challenge of replicating a specific prototype down to the weathering. Others feel differently. But what others enjoy has no bearing on what I enjoy.

RPM meets are a great way to learn and grow. Everyone that I’ve met at RPM meets is very helpful and very open to sharing ideas and techniques. I always come away with a few new techniques in my pocket, some great friends, new resources to draw from, and a greater desire to improve my modeling. If you haven’t been to one, I highly recommend going.

Blaine, I’m looking forward to the discussion at the PNW RPM. I’ll be there for sure, and will be bringing several ExactRail models fully detailed and weathered.


Gary Olson
Gary Olson

April 24, 2017

As a long time modeler I am always amazed that we’re still having this prototype / non-prototype argument. What makes this hobby so appealing is it’s breadth of coverage. If you want to collect and run old-time tin plate you can. If you want to specialize in “toy train” modeling, you can. If you want to run live steam outdoors and haul real people, you can, if you just want to run a train in a circle around a Christmas tree, you can.

For those of us who grew up around railroads or actually worked for a railroad the idea of modeling a part of our history can be very appealing. Also, getting it “right” brings satisfaction to the modeler and hopefully the approval of others, both modelers and spectators. We love our prototypes and we want to re-create a world in which we walked in the past.

I have no problems with people pursuing other avenues of their choice in the hobby. Also, let’s be honest. I am glad the quality and craftsmanship of today’s model railroading products is so good. This way, whether you are a rivet counter or a freelancer or just a weekend train runner; the equipment and scenery will be believable and, based on the amount of research and effort expended, accurate. If you want to pull wood sided box cars with an SD60 and it makes you happy, do so. But for those of use who take magnifying glasses to the hobby store to look at build dates on rolling stock, we too are entitled to the joy of finding just the right car or loco to take home and tweak so we can replace an existing car fill a hole in our equipment roster.

Dave North
Dave North

April 24, 2017

I’m afraid I don’t share your view, Steven. If we look to other forms of modelling we find the same if not greater attention to prototypical accuracy within those modelling communities, which sales numbers suggest, does their hobby no harm at all.

The continued emphasis on prototype modelling in our hobby serves and embraces just one very important purpose. It increasingly provides us with the ability to make informed decisions.

Whether we embrace prototype modelling or choose to freelance then becomes a decision based on knowledge, rather than ignorance.

I can’t imagine populating the flight deck of a modern scale aircraft carrier with both Grumman Wildcats and FA-18s. That would look so incongruous as to be laughable, yet I know model railroaders who run 2-8-0 Consolidations next to AC6000s – and yes, I’ve picked an extreme but nonetheless common scenario.

I’ve often wondered if that is because modellers don’t care or don’t know. Probably some of each. For me what they are doing is not modelling railroading (my personal opinion) but by the same token if they are having fun, all power to them.

The hobby involves railroad modelling and I guess for me that means modelling a railroad as it exists or existed at a time in history. Some modellers distill that down to a specific day while other pick a period of time to model. For me its the grain shipping season on the ATSF in the midwest in 1985.

My research shows me I can have from GP7s to GP 50s and SD26s to SD45-2s in ATSF livery and SD60s in GM demonstrator scheme. I don’t have to worry about creating track plans and industries for each town i model. I simply copy (with some selective compression) the track plan of the prototype and model the industries that actually existed.

So yes, I accept some self imposed restrictions on what motive power (and rolling stock) I can run in my selected time period. What I hope to end up with is a layout that most people (not just railroad modellers) will be able to look at and identify as a midwest railroad sometime in the 70s to 90s. And hopefully they will see a believable scale representation of a railroad as it was at that time and place.

So running either F units or Sd70Aces would be incongruous in my mind – and if did run them it would destroy the illusion that I am trying to create – a midwest grain road in the mid 80s.

So it really comes down to what each of us want to achieve from our chosen leisure activity. We just need to be mindful that others may and will have different goals and aspirations. Its not a matter of “you’re either with me or against me” more a care of “live and let live”.

And to that end the truly great modellers SHOULD be accoladed for their efforts AND results. They have produced something to be admired – something praiseworthy. It may not be something you or I would do, but that doesn’t diminish its worth or the efforts of the model maker who produced it.

Newbies should be encouraged to try new ideas and given honest praise for their endeavours and result, when those results merit praise. If the results don’t merit praise, acknowledge the effort they made..Be honest but tactful. They should be mentored by more experienced modellers, either in person or through the internet or hard copy magazines to learn new shills and hone those skills. For me, one of those skills is research. Through research I have become more knowledgeable about my modelling focus, which will hopefully result in better more believable modelling.

What will help to keep the hobby going is if we don’t look to factionalise the hobby. I know what I want to model and I know how much fun I’m having and will have doing that. That doesn’t mean I can look down on or demean what others do. .
Dave North

Dave Audley
Dave Audley

April 24, 2017

Before the 2004 NMRA National in Portland, I too didn’t think that “Proto Specific” modelling was something I wanted to do or be a part of. Saturday evening that week found myself and a buddy in the Proto room, admiring all the exquisit done by
number of modelers! Impressed? You bet your boots! Enough to get me involved in both my personal modelling and the setting up of the Calgary Prototype Modelers Meet! We have been running this for 5 years now. My thoughts and experience mirror Blaine’s! The meet fosters an exchange of ideas and the format is very educational. The meet also allows modelers to meet others that were only internet connections. While having vendors available is nice, that is certainly not a necessity. It is the shared experience that drives this kind of meet.

Steven Howard
Steven Howard

April 23, 2017

I cannot disagree with you more, Blaine. The continued emphasis on “prototype specific” model railroading by industry, media outlets, and the Omni-presence of a small percentage of so called experts, does nothing for the main stream hobbyist. Let the people that have to have a perfect representation of a unit or place as it was on November 5, 1972 at 0934, do that. The “fantasy” world scenery of a layout is gone. The opportunity to run F7 with SD70ACE, gone. GN with CNW gone. Prototype specific models tend to be far more expensive, less handling friendly, and once weathered and running, not that notice-able. All the time and effort is appreciated. Those are great models made by very talented people. I like looking at them for what they are, a model. The super skilled modeler shouldn’t be held up as the new standard, or pinnacle of the hobby. RPM will continue by that slice of the hobby population. The ones that should be celebrated are the newbies. Kids, and adults encouraged by very achievable goals and results are the one’s that will keep the hobby going.
Very respectfully,
Steven Howard
A Proud Luddite,
Owatonna, MN

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