By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
When I was very young, my parents gave me an American Flyer model trainset for Christmas, inititiating for me a lifelong process of reading model railroad magazines, if not actually building model railroads, at least as an adult. (My childhood layouts were known as “The Trains,” and lived in a basement or in their own room. My father and I worked on them regularly for many years, and it was splendid to run the cast-iron, chuffing American Flyer steam locomotives in the dark, with the white headlight glaring, and red and green signal lights glowing, and the traincars rattling over the tracks, with the occasional flash of an electrical spark).
So it may be that you received, or more likely gave, a trainset this Christmas. (If you didn’t, I’m going to ask you to try to transform “the trains,” as a social artifact, into some other social artifact, like model boats or airplanes, or dolls houses, or knitting, or possibly even a computer game like Sim Cities, and then comment on your comparison.)
What struck me, as I read the Model Railroader of November 2015 (henceforth, in references, “MR”) , was how the “hobby” of model railroading embodied the social changes that the country, and the world, have undergone since I was young; further, the practice of model railroading as it was evolved over the last two generations has interesting implications for social relations. I’ll start with the model railroad itself, as a material artifact, and gradually zoom out to thoughts about work and play. And of course there’s a bit of class warfare, because isn’t there always?
Model Railroads as Material Artfifacts
Model railroaders, when building model railroads, contruct not only models of locomotives and cars (and signals and track) but model the entire milieu in which trains move, including buildings and landscape. (Some “layouts” historical; others are imagined, but in all cases the model selectively compresses reality, the real raiload, because a real railroad built to scale wouldn’t fit in anybody’s house or even on their land, unless they owned a large estate.) So here’s how one hobbyist contructed the benchwork for his layout. (Layouts aren’t assembled on the floor round the Christmas tree, but displayed on benched, sometimes at eye-height.) “Showing off Colorado Narrow Gauge,” MR, p 34:
The layout consists of three 2×5 modules, the heaviest of which weighs only 30 pounds. This is largely due to the use of foam rather than wood for the layout’s benchwork. “Everything was done with hot glue and a knife,” adds Bob [Smoczynski].
This astonished me; in my day, benchwork was built from wood: 2x4s, or L-beams. The picture of Smoczynski, Martha Stewart-like, assembling his benchwork with a glue gun boggles my mind. But this change in material is normal, now: Hills and cliffs and mountains used to be created with (among other techniques) paper soaked in plaster. Now we carve more sytrofoam and paint it with acrylics. The transition reminds me of the transition for stick-built houses that culminated in stucco-covered Styrofoam pediments in the housing built in the run-up to the foreclosure crisis and collapse.
In my day, people who understood how to work metal stood at the pinnacle of the hobby; the only way to get a really “prototypical” engine, for example, was to fabricate it from metal; there was a strong tool-and-die-making-in-miniature component to the hobby, and some of the tiny locomotives resembled Swiss watches not only in detail, but in the hours of labor invested. Now all that is gone, along with — as Tim Cook tells us — tool and die working, and workers. From “Repairing older N scale handrails,” MR, p. 24:
Most N-scale diesel locomotives had oversized handrails. In fact, they were so outlandishly oversized we called them stovepipes. … What we really wanted were better-looking handrails, and in the 90s we started getting them, thanks mostly to Kato and extremely flexible plastics that could be molded into thin cross-section pieces that would bend, but not break.
So, we can make a “ready-to-run” loco today, using sophisticated molding techniques and materials that didn’t exist back in the day, and get a work product as detailed as almost any Swiss watch-style loco. Do I regret the change? Not in the model railroad context, and even if the plastic handrails are made from plastic, that’s surely a better use of oil than many others I can think of. From the thirty-thousand-foot view, I’d regard a society that can’t make anything except deals as not long for this world (for some definition of “long”: there’s a lot of ruin in a nation).
Model Railroads in the Global Supply Chain
I mentioned how detailed — “detail” is a value for model railroaders, associated with being an accurate representation of a “prototype” — current models are. Let’s zoom in on that a little. From “Athearn adds flare to its HO scale SD70M,” MR, p 70 (and they don’t mean “flare” as in Office Space, but as in a flared radiator):
All the grab irons, lift rings, windshield wipers, cab sunshades, abd the like are factory-installed. These etched-metal and wire details look great. …. Our sample, a replica of Norfolk Southern no. 2621 [!!], bore railroad-specific details like roof-mounted antennas that matched NS protoype photos in the January 2003 issue of Diesel Era.–
Hmm. “Factory-installed.” And where might that factory be? Somewhere in Asia, surely. And of course the SD70M is one of the ginormous new (OK, new in the last twenty years) locos that haul huge container trains from the ports of the West Coast to the rest of the country; the irony being that MR is celebrating the very technology of transport that allowed us to hollow out our industrial base. (Of course, somebody in this country — I imagine — wrote an excellent spec, down to the detail of a single engine, unheard of in my day. But from the thirty-thousand-foot view, I’d regard a society that couldn’t do anything but write the spec as not long for this world).
Model Railroads as a Locus for (White) Male Friendship
From the material basis of the models and their manufacture, let’s move to social relations (here, friendship, leaving aside the father-son aspect). From “Showing off Colorado Narrow Gauge,” MR, p 34:
Jim invited Bob over to his house to look at his 0n30 layout. That visit lasted five hours. After seeing what could be accomplished in O scale, Bob decided to sell all his HO equipment and change his modeling focus to On30. The two men have been friends ever since. In 2009, they began to build their own Colorado Narrow Guage Railroad.
If I had time to go through my entire stack of MRs, I could give hundreds of other similar examples, and in a way the stories are rather touching, especially given what seems to be our society’s prohibition of expressions of male intimacy outside the sporting context; the owner of a very influential layout moved to a “retirement community” (ugh), and his friends made sure to build him a spur on one of their own layouts, so he could come, er, “work” on it.)
However, if you read all the articles, and especially if you look at the pictures, you’ll see these friendships are formed among men of a certain age, often retired, who own houses with large spare rooms, basements, or garages, into which they can fit their layouts, and who have the means to purchase rather expensive equipment. And yes, this is the class warfare part. One doesn’t see many black faces in the pages of MR, and I’m guessing one reason for that is housing policies (starting, sadly, with FDR), which have simply denied many, many blacks enough space for an American-style layout. One might also think of identifying these “white, male,” often working class model railroaders with Trump voters, but I’m not sure how significant the overlap would be; I read one driver of Trump voting as increased mortality among Trump voters — the experience of it, and the fear of it — and most of the bios of model railroaders show long life.
Model Railroads and Control of the Means of Production
There’s model railroading, and there’s model railroading. This distinction, and the transition from one to the other, is perhaps the greatest change in the hobby since my day; my father and I were, after all, content to run “the trains” around and around in a circle, but real trains don’t work like that. Model railroading is put under the heading of “Operations,” and the idea is to run the model railroad using a more or less realistic workface, with workers doing jobs in social relations that more or less closely model the protoype. For example, “Track plan for an industrial corridor,” MR, p 37, describes a small layout:
Because [the Southside Spur] is so short, I was able to capture much of it in N scale exactly 160 times smaller and the prototype. The plan is a true model of a railroad, as opposed to a model railroad. [It] requires only two locomotives and about thirty pieces of stock. The narrow focus will allow for super-detailed scenes. If the layout is operated prototypically, the five industries can take an hour or more to switch, perfect for a one or two person crew
OK, a small switching crew. Sounds fun! But a switching “crew” it is; there is real “work” being performed on that spur, by real “workers,” making switching moves that approximate the prototype (as they must, since the geometry of the track is the same). Here’s a larger layout at the Rensselaer Polytechnic. “Legacy of the Berkshire Lines,” MR, pp 50-51:
In addition to road crews, a dispatcher, three yardmasters, and three yard hostlers keep the road running. … A typical operating session involves getting 23 freight trains, 17 passenger trains, and 3 milk trains over the road. Freight traffic includes coal and iron trains, as well as way freights. The total train movements involve 318 freight cars, 114 passenger cars, and 34 cabooses.
Road crews, dispatchers, yardmasters, hostlers; again, “real” work being performed by real works. Indeed, there’s an entire genre of “Operations” that seeks to run model trains according to the rulebooks and printed forms relevant to the railroads and the historical period. “The Operators,” Andy Sperandeo, MR, November 2015 p 90:
How do we know its empty? This should be obvious when it comes to open-top cars of various types. For house cars, tanks, and covered hoppers we can rely on our car routing systems. …. [Tony Koester] describes working with the common car-and-waybill system. …. Those interested in more prototypical forms can see “Upgrade your car routing with realistic waybills,” by Ted Pamperin. However, paperwork can be a problem if a waybvill says an open-top car is loaded when it looks empty to us.
Filling out forms just like you were back in the yard office or your locomotive cab! Well, apparently people find that fun. And why not? And why not the technology, as well as the forms: “Building a model railroad telephone system,” MR, p 58:
On my Stockton & Copperopolis RR, set in the 1890s, a dispatcher sits at a desk in the family room/crew lounge, which is separate from the model railroad. In the layout room, I have an operator’s desk for a separate operator who copies orders and delivers them to the train crews. The people need to communicate with each other…. I’ve collected a lot of period railroad telephone hardware and wanted to use it on my layout….
And so he built his own 1890s telephone system, and operated the railroad using it….
What fascinates me here is that the closer “operations” get to prototype practice, the closer the model gets to controlling the means of production in model form, except through play, not work. Economists — and I’m semi-serious here — use “models” all the time. And as we’ve seen, if we measure elite models by their ostensible purposes, as opposed to their operational truths (“All power to the 1%!”) they’re terrible models; they’re like models with rivets the size of melons, or wheel flanges that look like pizza cutters. Is there a reason to think that playful models, devised by autodidactic experts motivated by friendship, would be less effective at — to strike a blow at random — running the economy than the models used by economists? Just a thought.
I’ll close on a somber note. “Finding pieces of the puzzle,” Tony Koester, MR, p 75:
A key source of information is rapidly disappearing for transition-era [steam to diesel] modelers: railroaders and townpeople, most retired, who worked for the railroads and industries and who performed the jobs we wish to simulate. I would imagine that many of the sources of this information have already passed on or reside in retirement homes
Note the class-based assumption that retirees end up in retirement homes. Note also that when Koester says “performed the jobs we wish to simulate” he’s saying what I said, in different words: Controlling the means of production in model form.
More centrally, Koester warning reminds me of the position that old codgers like me are in: I’d very much like to be able to pass on, for example, some concept of how constitutional government used to function, or when fraud wasn’t the first think you thought of when you heard the word “bank,” or when Democrats did things like pass Social Security, or Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, or the Voting Rights Act. Or how to run a meeting, or recognize and master rhetorical forms. The “tool and die” work of democracy, you might say. And the blueprints, and how to read them. Of course, the past is past, but it would be nice to capture the best of it and pass it along to the future. After all, there aren’t any steam engines on the mainline any more, but people still come to together around model railroads that include them.
 Just like the now-retired editor: Jim Hediger, “43 Years of Having Fun,” MR, p 8:
“My interest in model railroading began as a youth with an American Flyer tinplate layout…. My dad and I built our first 4×8-foot HO layout by following the article “Layout in a Fortnight” published in the December 1951 Model Railroader.
 Anecdotally, I believe there’s a strong correlation between childhood model railroading and adult computer programming, and then of course there’s the famous model railroad club at MIT, which spawned many hackers.
 British model railroaders seem to be comfortable with layouts whose scope is smaller; a single station, for example, as opposed to an entire mountain range including the mines and a dock for the ore-laden ships, like an American would build before they really got going.
 Of course, if you’re well-off enough — not squillionare-level, but executive-level — you can actually hire a firm to build your “museum quality” “dream layout” for you. This too was unheard of in my day. I recall vividly a British layout built to recall a boyhood Manchester in the days of steam, which was then shipped to Dubai. Engineering issues involved heat, moisture, the stress of shipping, etc. Imagine being able to purchase a dream! It was a very beautiful, atmospheric layout, though…
 But, you say, with no owners, at least as part of the simulation. And your point?
 Cf. “the glooper” in Terry Pratchett’s Making Money.