Like many little boys who grew up in the 50s and 60s, one of the earliest toys I can remember playing with was an electric train. Unlike many others, I never outgrew the fascination.
Other kids might have received a train by Lionel or American Flyer; in my case, it was made by Marx. I don’t remember much about the actual train, other than playing with it until it absolutely fell apart. Marx Toys was the same company who would later make the “Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots” and the “Big Wheel” tricycles, but to me, they will always be a maker of trains.
When I wasn’t playing with trains, I was reading about playing with trains. My favorite book as a kid was Tim and His Train. It told the story of a boy who loved trains (I could relate!), and whose dad took him to visit a rail yard. When Tim’s birthday came around, he found a complete train set waiting for him.
I thought he was just about the luckiest boy in the world.
Like many hobbies, model trains have their own jargon. One of the first things you learn is about scale – how large or how small are the models? The classic Lionel trains are known as “O” scale – pronounced, “oh scale.” O scale operates on the ratio of 1 to 48; that is, one inch on a model equals 48 inches in real life. A man 6 ft. tall in the real world would be a model an inch and a half tall. O scale models are big and impressive to watch as they go by, but they can also be expensive, and they can take up a LOT of room for a layout.
The most popular size are known as HO models – you pronounce the letters separately, as in “aitch – oh” scale. The name came from the fact that it is roughly half of the size of O scale models, or H-O. These models have a proportion of 1:87 – one foot of track equals 87 feet in real life. You can build a decent layout on a 4′ x 8′ sheet of plywood, which is how a lot of hobbyists start out.
There are many other scales, each with their own devotees and specialties – Z (1:220), N (1:160), HO (1:87), S (1:64), O (1:48), and G (1:29). Each has different advantages – you can built a nice Z scale layout in a suitcase, whereas G scale is often the choice for running outdoors on garden railroads. It all depends on what you like. I’ve played around with different scales over the years, but I’ve recently come back to modeling in HO scale. Here’s my model of the 1950s vintage “Texas Eagle” as it pulls past the Abilene station.
One reason that model railroading is such a popular hobby is that it incorporates many different hobbies in one. The hobby can involve carpentry, architecture, engineering, electrical skills, computer programming, history, research, and many other sub-interests. You can express your artistic self with scenery for any and all types of terrain and landscapes; you can recreate a memory from the past, or come up with an original expression of things the way you think they ought to be. You can create something out of pure whimsey – the Hogwarts Express visiting a train station on Vulcan – or produce museum-quality reproductions that are accurate right down to the number of rivets.
Some guys enjoy operating their model as a real railroad, complete with timetables and switching lists, making up trains, moving them over the road, picking up and dropping off cars along the way, and doing it all on time. Other guys just enjoy watching their train tick off the miles as it goes by, enjoying the smooth running operation of the engines and cars. Some enjoy reproducing modern railroading, with its double-stack container trains and high-horsepower modern diesels, while others prefer the “old timey” tea kettle steam engines and short trains. It just depends on what you like.
One of the most revolutionary developments has been something called “Digital Command Control,” or DCC. In the old days, when you turned on the power to a particular stretch of track, every engine on it moved at the same time. This led to elaborate wiring schemes and dividing the track up into numerous “blocks,” each insulated from the others, so that you could turn on power to one little section of track at a time. Obviously, not a realistic approach to running trains!
DCC has changed all that. Now, it’s possible to install a little computer circuit on the engine, and give each engine a unique code number. With DCC on board, your controller sends out a coded signal that is read and understood ONLY by your engine. This allows you to run multiple trains on the same stretch of train, each independent of the others. You can even install miniature speakers on the trains, enabling engines to operate with realistic sound effects. All this allows for a level of realism previously unimaginable.
One thing people always want to know: isn’t it expensive? Well, it can be (especially when you’re just getting started), but it doesn’t have to be. In my case, I don’t have the space – or the budget – to have a big layout, but I’m a member of the Abilene Society of Model Railroaders. The ASMR has a nice layout that the members are continuing to build. As a member, I can run my trains on the club layout, AND even better, I can tap into the knowledge and experience of guys who are much better modelers than I.
In recent years, several manufacturers of model trains and other interested businesses have formed a trade group devoted to promoting the industry. It’s called “The World’s Greatest Hobby.” That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but then again, maybe not.
After all, what other hobby allows you to build and operate your own rail empire, create cities to suit your taste, travel over vast distances, and even go back in time?