Where to?

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.

Photo Credit: Victor Camillo used under Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

13 thoughts on “Where to?

  1. Hi Rene,
    What a thoughtful post, I love it! When I was say, 15 years old, about forty years ago, I thought up a system whereby as a passenger train draws into a station, a system of cams actuates the doors so they open on the train and the passengers waiting, turn in the direction of the train but I didn’t have the skills or materials to make it happen.
    Later, the Austrian company, Roco came along and offered digital versions of coaches that could do similar, theirs didn’t alter the passengers though!
    It shows that technology can be harnessed to great effect though, as you say.
    Maybe I should hit that idea again. . . . .

    1. Thank-you, John.

      You’ve had 40 years of skills growth, and the world around you has had 40 years of technology growth. All told, that’s eighty years of growth! Surely it must be more possible now than when you were 15. Looking forward to seeing it in action.

  2. Good thought about reaching now so your work is still relevant later. That is a new one to me.

    One area I’m especially hoping to see sooner than later: compact rechargeable battery power sources inside our little locomotives, with the ability to charge on the track. Your banner photo of the switch immediately brought it to mind.

    Enjoyed the clinic last night, btw.

  3. Rene:

    You need to join a discussion group I’ve been involved with for a while. A steam “prototype-throttle” is not only possible but is up and running. The backhead style handheld is amazing and, while not yet affordable, it will change the way we play with trains.

  4. Rene;
    Thoroughly enjoyed your clinic last night and left me in amazement at what you’ve done and continue to do!! While I’m still back in the computer punch card era, it’s impressive to see the advances in techniques available.

    Perhaps your passengers on the station as you say, haven’t looked at their watches, because as the saying goes “Times flies”, and in your era flying had barely been achieved but was on the near horizon. Following your blog is extremely interesting and I can understand your frustrations along with your marvelous accomplishments!

    For sure, the future holds some interesting developments in technology. DCC is only 30 years or so old, yet continues to improve every year. Looks like I’ll have to throw my punch cards away and learn some CAD!!

    1. Thanks Jim.

      Flying had been invented in 1905, it was just the realm of birds, bats, Montgolfiers, and time.

      Let me know when you want to start learning 3D CAD. I have a workshop I can conduct on it.

  5. I think it’s a fascinating question to consider what technology will offer us, in opportunities as each new one is democratized and invited into our model railways. Model railroading has always lived within such a thin vein of technology and maybe only in the last ten to twenty years has that gap widened. An example, before I wander into too much rambling, is the availability of DCC control systems. In its infancy it was expensive and required much more personal investment compared to analog control. What DCC does or even how it does it hasn’t changed much since the 1970’s but now the cost is very low and most of the hardware is either factory installed or requires no real intellectual investment to use. In this way, DCC is democratized and we now have modellers choosing control systems based on their needs not coping within that thin vein of control technology because the points of entry have been made closer to equal. As we learn to express the rubric we applied to arrive at the choices we make we also widen the scope of our hobby’s language. I think we see something similar now in 3D printing. It’s so easy to do this at home but this also creates a conversation point where people are adding this to their hobby and others who aren’t – in either case a hobbiest reviewing their relationship with the hobby and learning what defines or otherwise fits their needs.

    More than a hardware expansion I wonder if what’s next is the experience of diversity. Where diversity today is still largely HO or N, CN or CP, diesel or steam; diversity could be conversations about how we leverage aspects of technology within the hobby to enrich our experience and how that enabled us to have something closer to what we hoped for. Where, twenty years ago, much of our experience was guided by a much more myopic set of ingredients.


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