Chris Mears made some wonderful observations in a comment and follow-up post to my post, Where to. You should go read Chris’s writing, because it is dense enough that you will almost certainly take something different from it than I do.
Let me precis my primary takeaway from Chris’s post and comment: the adoption of technology in the hobby has served not just to move the hobby forward, but to expand the scope of choice within the hobby. That expansion enables many more voices and narratives to join the conversation, which enriches us all; at the same time, the hobby changes in a way that not all of us want.
Unless you were a tremendously wealthy model railroader 80 years ago, the club was your only option; there you would take the locomotive you had scratchbuilt out of flattened tin cans, a Mel Thornburgh article and a pint of blood to haul your friends’ similarly birthed freight cars. Four decades later, injection molding, miniature motors and flex track meant that even modellers of relatively modest means could bring a club experience into their homes – provided they wanted to model the Pennsy. Over the next twenty years, those with an aversion to Belpaire boilers introduced us to cast resin and etched brass, and applying Thornburgh-like skill and dedication, they could model most any prototype.
Meanwhile the RTR manufacturers made friends in China and lowered even that bar to entry, pushing the craftsman into an ever-narrower corner of the hobby. Why would you spend weeks cutting the ends off boxcars and replacing them with corrected cast resin parts when you could pay 25% more and get a superior model?
Now with Laser cutting and 3D printing, even that corner is rapidly dwindling to nothing. These technologies enable the replication of any prototype for which information can be found or invented. The stories we can tell with our model railroads are limited only by our imaginations.
Despite friends like Andrew Hutchinson and Mike Cougill, who doggedly value the craftsmanship that defines the hobby’s past, I hadn’t considered how some might see the technological changes as loss. After all, they still sell food in tin cans, and Mel Thornburgh’s articles are still available. As Chris points out, despite the easy accessibility of DCC, you can still control your trains with an analogue controller. Technological change has not cut any avenues off, but simply widened the options available to the average modeller.
But that’s not quite true, is it, and I think Mike’s (hopefully temporary) break from the hobby underscores this well. As Chris points out, each new technology asks us to decide if we will incorporate it into our hobby or not.
My grandfather decried all plastic, and I’m sure his contemporaries included those who turned their backs on the first injection-molded model trains. They were soon left in the dust by the mainstream, and the few exquisite examples of their cardboard models that survive1 seem quaint today. The prototype modellers, emboldened and empowered by the resin revolution, chased all but the most intrepid freelancers and their relettered Pennsy steam into closets. The incredible prototype-themed basement monsters facilitated by the golden age of cheap manufacturing overseas chasten the rest of us with inadequacy.
Today, it seems that if you’re not filling a football stadium with Rapido’s, PWRS’s and ExactRail’s latest wonders from China and hosting monthly operating sessions with a football team-sized crew, you’re not doing the hobby right. That is today’s mainstream, and the rest of us – the small layout-owners, the freelancers, the old fashioned craftsmen – see a hobby that has largely moved away from the one we love. Yes, we can still flatten tin cans on our kitchen tables while the soldering irons heat up on the hob, but we’re a lonely bunch if we do.
So I understand Chris when he says, “I no longer hear the music.” There was once a CDS-rubbing party every Thursday in most sizeable towns across the country. Those parties are no more; the band has packed up, never to return.
I am delighted that Chris ends his post on an optimistic note. His observation that the diversity in the hobby afforded by all these choices – plastic or card, flex or handlaid, RTR or resin, Pennsy or freelance, analogue or DCC, 3D printing or not – invites a much broader range of people into the hobby. I am so heartened and inspired by the sparse hobbyists beavering away on continents where there are no beavers – South America and Asia. People are good for the hobby, but more importantly, people are good for each other, and the hobby is good for them.
However, if the only narrative that is available when they come is the basement monster, we will lose all those without such resources or inclination. It is imperative that alternative voices continue to speak, both online and in the press, so we are not drowned out by those admittedly impressive achievements. We should celebrate the crafts-people among us, laude the tiny but perfect layouts, and support the tinkerers pushing the boundaries of the hobby.
Tin squashers of the world unite!
1 At least I hope the ones I’m thinking of passed from Denny Anspach’s collection to a safe new home when he passed away.
Image is the Vale scene at Pendon. While certainly, a monster, it is the very antithesis of the RTR-fuelled mainstream basement monster.