Tonight I delivered a new clinic, “21st Century techniques to model a 19th Century locomotive” to a small audience after the local NMRA division’s annual general meeting. The intent was to attract more attendance to a business meeting with some diverting content. They would have called someone else, but I guess the entertaining people were all busy, so they got me. I’ll be delivering an updated version to the St Laurence Division on January 23rd for those who didn’t escape the first time.
The talk reflects on the techniques and tools that I’ve deployed to build 622 (so far) – things like 3D CAD, die cutting and 3D printing. It makes me wonder what is coming next, and how it will change our hobby.
For someone starting out today, that’s an important question. For most of us, our layouts are decadal projects; our modelling subjects often last our lifetimes. When we get near the end, we will invariably compare what is possible with the techniques, tools and materials available at that time with our first products, and they will look quaint and tired in comparison.
In part, that is why I choose to model in Proto:87. When I started modelling the Canada Atlantic in the early ’90s, Proto:87 hadn’t been invented yet. Yet, I could already see the trend to ever-greater prototype fidelity. I knew that if I wanted to still feel relevant when the project was complete, I had to reach as far out as I could. Otherwise, my layout in 2040 would look as dated as black and white photos. You can not get any further than the prototype, and so, that’s where I reached then and where I continue to reach now.
Instinctively, I knew that technology and knowledge would fill in the gaps. I didn’t predict then that the World Wide Web would come along and revolutionize the historical research that underlies everything I do. I had no inkling that 3D printing was already conceived in the lab and that it would make faithfully modelling a unique prototype like the Canada Atlantic feasible. That the 3D CAD tools to drive our modern modelling techniques would one day fit on a device that fits in my pocket was beyond science fiction. Even so, I knew the problems would be solved.
But here’s the exciting part: I may still have another thirty years to go!
What should we, as a modelling community, be reaching for next? What will seem quaint or tired when we see it in 2050? How should we be preparing to take advantage of those changes now?
My mind immediately jumps to animation. Most of our miniature worlds, apart from the trains themselves, are static. The little people that were waiting for the train last year are still patiently waiting there this year and they’ve not even looked at their watches once! The vehicles that meet our boxcars at the team track sit there for decades, apparently loading and unloading every car that is presented to them.
Some modellers are already working on the vehicle problem, although they start late in the history of wheeled transportation, completely neglecting horse-drawn vehicles. Yet, given advances in micro-robotics, animated horses and yes, perhaps even people could be in our futures. Maybe we should affix figures to the station platform with removable glue; certainly we should allow a prototypical space around our team tracks to allow a truck or wagon to turn.
My primary problem with animated vehicles is interest. Without the passing and meeting constraints and switching opportunities, I imagine that driving trucks around our landscapes would quickly get repetitive. Fortunately, legions of researchers are working on the problem of self-driving cars, and that technology will surely be applicable to our smaller vehicles in due course.
The more important near-term animation problem for railway modellers is coupling. For most of us, the best remote couplers we have require the train to stop at prescribed locations. DCC-controlled couplers are already available, however and will only get better with time. It remains to be seen if link and pin couplers will be automated before we have miniature working brakemen.
In any case, I’ve not bothered to install uncoupling magnets on Pembroke. The Hand of God will reach in with a pick or a magnet until the remote control version is viable.
When it comes to remote control of our trains, the Protothrottle illustrates the path forward. However, for steam modellers, it might be interesting to provide space for two-person crews, even if we don’t plan to use them today. Driving a steam locomotive takes teamwork between a fireman, who produces the steam, and the engineer who uses that steam to move the train. How much more fun could we have if we adopted this aspect into our operating sessions?
So where to? In all cases, the prototype is my guide. As long as this hobby is about celebrating and recreating the history of railroading, I won’t do any better than recreating the real thing.