The Importance of Model Railroading

You might be surprised to learn how much energy I put into model railroading.  Between my own models, friends’ layouts, ops sessions and the Railway Modellers’ Meet, I estimate that I expend over 10 hours a week on the hobby.  Sometimes it troubles me that I spend so much of my energy on something so parochial.  Maybe I should be applying my talents to some of the hard problems that face the world, instead of thinking about how to open roundhouse doors.

In my other spare time, which – face it – is limited, I’m reading Thomas Friedman’s new book, Thank you for Being Late.  Like his other book that I read, The World is Flat, it’s having quite an influence on the way I see the world.  It would be a tall order to summarize the book in a sentence, but my take is that he has observed that we face a world of accelerating challenges with a world of accelerating tools that can be used for good or ill.

With these ideas swirling away in the back of my head, I hitched a ride with my friend Mark Dance last night (Thanks again Mark!).  Mark has been suggesting the idea of promoting the hobby through the Maker community for a couple of years now.  Perhaps he’s also read Friedman’s book, because he pointed out that if we are going to solve the world’s hard problems, the world needs more makers, and model railroaders are the original makers.

Friedman further points out that today’s technologies enable super-empowered individuals, but without the moral and ethical framework that comes from strong community, some of those super-empowered individuals will turn their power to destruction.  Okay, now we’re at the point that I’ve read to in the book, but he seems to have lost momentum when thinking about community, restricting it to physical communities.

Unfortunately, today’s communities are increasingly online.  I belong to two communities where I feel “protected, respected and connected.”  One is here in North Vancouver, and the other is here on this blog (and a couple of other forums I participate in).  Many online communities are divisive – political or religious.  If we are going to create super-empowered individuals, it is much better if they are members of a strong online community that encourages the use of their powers for construction rather than destruction.

Most hobby communities are inclusive; model railroaders for the most part don’t care who you are as long as you play nice.   So, these are the ideal communities to nurture and grow online.   The world needs more Makers empowered and safe within positive online communities.  So, maybe this hobby is parochial, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important.

Photo: Gary Hinshaw’s first operating session. Left to Right: Mark Dance, me, Andrew Hutchinson, John Green, Gary, Bill Dixon.  Photo by Scott Calvert.

5 thoughts on “The Importance of Model Railroading

  1. Parochial

    My new word of the day. Perhaps another question is whether model rail construction is an less minute in the world of increasing focus on less. How is stamp, rock, or shell collecting any different?

    Astronomy, for example, seems to border religous enthusiasm to understand the world and it’s origin. It is a need to satisfy one’s own curiosity.

    Railroads are my peek into the past and glimpse into our future. They were, and we are, innovators, daredevils, and yes makers, both good and evil.

    Interesting thoughts.

    1. You’re right: from a community perspective, stamp, rock and shell collecting are also fertile ground for inclusion and healthy, nurturing relationships. We should encourage their growth too.

      The big difference with model railroading is the skills development, and the transferability of those skills. I think astronomy is closer as, like model railroading and short wave radio, it invites tinkering.

  2. Ahhhh…thanks for reflecting our conversation.

    Nope: I haven’t read Friedman. Well *that* Friedman 🙂

    My observations come from a bit closer to home recognizing that senior leadership and founders of innovative Vancouver-based tech companies I am familiar with were model railroaders and HAM radio aficionados in their formative years. Companies which are trying to change the world in huge ways and save the world, as opposed to just allowing us to add different smiley faces to our social media personas.

    And further recognizing that many early Silicon Valley companies were founded by engineers who could trace their roots to the MIT Model Railroad Society which in turn gave us many of the terms and philosophies of the “hacker culture” foundational to today’s Maker Movement. If Makers will save the world then we need more Makers and MR’ing teaches valuable Maker skills.

    So I would differentiate MR’ing from collector hobbies in that we generally imagine a solution to a need, develop broad skills to achieve the solution, and then execute . The execution also requires being able to trouble shoot and iterate – both incredibly important skills which require perseverance and learning. And the execution increasingly requires collaboration with network of suppliers, standard setters, researchers, etc.

    There is something different about MR’ing that teaches important skills that the world needs. Today we might group these skills generically under the “Maker movement” whereas in the 50’s and 60’s it was “tinkerer, model maker, handyman…”. I may have the timeframes wrong and am not being inclusive enough in the terms used but the concept still holds I think.

    There are further outcomes of this school of thought as it applies to promoting MR’ing, but I’ll save those for another day and cut off my rambling…


    1. Absolutely agreed, Mark. The world needs more model railroaders, and in particular, it needs more people to be model railroaders in their youth.

      When we were talking about the skills that we obtain as model railroaders, I was thinking more about the hard skills – soldering, carpentry, painting, machining, measuring, and the list goes on. However, I love that you’ve pointed out the importance of the attributes that make craftspeople and model railroaders: perseverence, problem-solving, collaboration and risk-taking.

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