The Sociology of Model Railroading

In the January-February 2006 (Train 14 Track 4) Issue of the Canadian Railway Modeller there was a website review of a controversial article by this title to be found under .

(CRM review p. 8: "Model railroaders like to build things and run trains - most of us don't spend a lot of time philosophizing about the hobby. But John Bruce does. He has written a very long critique of things like train shows; prototype modellers' meets; model railroad clubs; the NMRA; model railroad magazines; and technical and historical societies. You may disagree with his opinions, but you will be entertained by his forthright comments.")

Ed. Note: The author of the article in question has evidently continued to update his commentary beyond the date of CRM's review in 2006.

As the review summarized it, it is a critique of model railway shows, prototype modellers' meets, model railroad clubs, hobby-related organizations and publications. They are the author's observations, and they are conditioned by his own experience with the hobby where he has encountered it, and geographically that appears to be entirely in the U.S.A.

The purpose of this opinion piece is not to debate points of the author's article, but to discuss the three related hobby issues that are the focus of his article:

  • hobby image
  • hobby standards
  • hobby politics

Hobby image

Very definitely this has to be framed into time and place. When I came to Canada in the late 1950s, I came with memories of huge Märklin or Hornby Gauge 0 or Gauge 1 layouts of the toy train era, when toy trains fired the imaginations of generations of pre-WWII adults and children alike. As the hobby migrated further and further to "scale" after WWII to hold and expand the adult interest in trains (a process that had begun in the 1930s), model railroading in Europe solidified its quite open standing as a respectable adult hobby pastime that could be readily distinguished from toy trains for children as in "playing with trains" of the early decades of the 20th century.

I discovered very quickly that societal acceptance of this transition had not yet taken place in Canada in 1957 - and if you were a model railway hobbyist, it was best for career and friends if one was discreet about letting on to this particular interest, since it seemed to be almost capable of raising questions about one's maturity or even one's masculinity. Of course model railroad clubs existed here then too, but they kept to themselves except for some advertised open houses annually (it's always been OK to go see model trains, especially if going as a family, because after all, one was taking the children).

Despite these early club "open houses" (which were of course much-needed sources of funds and new members), model railway shows as we know them today did not emerge, in this part of Canada at least, until the mid-1970s. It was around then that it seemed to become alright for males to admit to a hobby interest other than sports. However model railroading, unlike other hobbies such as photography, ham radio, stamp collecting, postcards and so forth, had to struggle with the toy train image and the unspoken question as to why we had not managed "to put away childish things". So, in order to win full acceptance as a legitimate adult pastime, it has had to aspire to very high standards to dispel the image of a bunch of old-timers playing with trains. It's an unfair burden, because the children audience has no problem with toy trains of the earlier era, or with a bunch of guys wearing engineer's hats or vests laden with railroad badges. But the adults - we're still not suuuure - but I think it's fair to say that there is now public acceptance  ...

Hobby standards

All endeavours strive for perfection, or least, to improvement. In that regard, the model railway hobby is no different from any other. Since for most hobbyists, model railroading is a craft rather than a collection-oriented endeavour, it has to aim for high standards of scale modelling. (See my website article "The Credible Model".) The reproduction of the real thing to scale proportions calls for many skills that are made up of the scientific and the artistic, and the modeller who can recreate a real scene in miniature is a gifted person indeed. Most modellers start by concentrating on the immediate railway scene and should aim to reproduce exquisite replicas of locomotives, rolling stock, track, and railway structures; and then progress to include the surrounding urban and rural scapes. 

Everyone has to start somewhere, and growth of one's skills can be a lifetime process of trial and error, and some may never aspire to the hobby pinnacle of total realism in miniature.  In the privacy of one's home or one's club one can experiment and grow in private; or in the solace,  encouragement and example of your fellow modellers - but, there is absolutely no question, if one goes public - for the sake of the hobby, whether the public pays to see the displays or not, they have to be the very very best in order to continue to promote and advertise the hobby as a legitimate adult pastime. The Brits have understood this for years - and their standards are some of the highest in the hobby anywhere.

Hobby politics

Well, when any two people get together for anything, you have politics. So if there is a club or an assocation, there are going to be politics, for the simple reason that different people want different things, and will jockey for position to get it. No rocket science there.  So some modellers who may have to deal with a lot of politics in the other parts of their lives, need a hobby where they can free themselves from the stresses that the politics bring, and therefore prefer to work at their hobby as "lone wolves", getting advice as they need it from model railway magazines, hobby store proprietors, the Internet, and model railway show participants.

However, if there are benefits to belonging to a club or an association, the inevitable politics have to be dealt with. One can try to ignore them by not running for any kind of office, but to remain in good standing with one's fellow members, one has to contribute something, so some politics are going to be inevitable at some point, even if it's just a very basic debate about what kind of track to use, or how to do the background scenery. The best approach here is to seek compromise, and to appreciate and recognize the diversity of skills that go to make up the group. The catch is that when it comes to standards, compromise becomes more difficult and this is where the disagreements and the politics can become divisive. Moreover, compromise may not produce a higher standard, but is more likely to entrench mediocrity. But, very definitely, that is the perennial challenge of being in the hobby as part of a group. What was that saying about the heat in the kitchen?  


To come back to the article that provoked this one, the whole point of a hobby is for it to be relaxing, fun and challenging - to be an enjoyment of one's leisure time. The author of the cited article is right to be concerned about the hobby's image, and it's his privilege to see some things as negatives - and the organized hobby, as does any other congregation of human beings, will always have its problems.

By all means speak out about anything that ought to promote the best interests of the hobby, and having done so, determine to enjoy and contribute to the hobby in your own way, be it as a "lone wolf" or as part of a group. In the final analysis, the interests of the hobby will be best served if everyone strives to be the best modeller one can be, whether on one's own layout, or as a contribution to the efforts of the group.

That is, as long as there is enjoyment - without that, it's no longer a hobby - just another source of stress.

The good news is that the model railroading hobby is so diversified that there is a place - somewhere - for everyone. 

1 comment

  • Harvey Henkelmann
    Harvey Henkelmann USA
    John Bruce's article 'The Sociology of Model Railroading' really hit the nail on the head. I used to post a link to his article on various rail-related internet discussion forums, and nine times out of ten it would draw derisive comments from forum participants. When the truth hits close to home, it can hurt worse than any lie or fabrication.

    John Bruce's article 'The Sociology of Model Railroading' really hit the nail on the head. I used to post a link to his article on various rail-related internet discussion forums, and nine times out of ten it would draw derisive comments from forum participants. When the truth hits close to home, it can hurt worse than any lie or fabrication.

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