The Credible Model

Note: This subject was presented at:
  • a National Model Railroad Association convention clinic (Toronto, Canada) in 2003,
  • the first Canadian Association of Railway Modellers (CARM) convention ( St. Catharine's, Ontario) in 2004,
  • the Platelayers' Society Symposium (Brampton, Ontario), in 2015. For the notes of that presentation, please click here.

Purpose of the clinic

The purpose of this clinic is to offer some tips on how to make your model railway a more realistic miniature of the prototype.

Purpose of a model railway layout

The purpose of any model railway is to be an enjoyable hobby in creating in miniature a railway scene that gives pleasure.
Think for a moment about what attracts you to a particular model railway layout at a hobby show:
Chances are:
  • it will be "finished", i.e., fully "scenicked"
  • you will be intrigued by some detail that brings the scene close to real life
  • you will be impressed by one or more aspects of the scene before you: the colouring of the "countryside", the meticulous creation of a particular model, the professional appearance of the trackwork - and so on and so forth
  • you will like the panorama of the overall scene,
  • but likely most of all because the layout evokes memories of railroading that are familiar and that you enjoy.
This view of the north end of the Ferguson Avenue, Hamilton, Ontario freight shed, featured on page 46 of my award-winning Hamilton's Other Railway, illustrates the design of the freight office and the nearby Barton Street crossing tower. The Sirman Collection.

This view of the north end of the Ferguson Avenue, Hamilton, Ontario freight shed, featured on page 46 of my award-winning Hamilton's Other Railway, illustrates the design of the freight office and the nearby Barton Street crossing tower. The Sirman Collection.

The south end of the Ferguson Avenue, Hamilton freight shed as modelled by Rich Chrysler on his prototypical HO scale layout of the former CNR Hagersville Subdivision. (This layout was featured as part of the layout tour during the 2003 NMRA Toronto [Maple Leaf] Convention). Rich Chrysler photo.

The south end of the Ferguson Avenue, Hamilton freight shed as modelled by Rich Chrysler on his prototypical HO scale layout of the former CNR Hagersville Subdivision. (This layout was featured as part of the layout tour during the 2003 NMRA Toronto [Maple Leaf] Convention). Rich Chrysler photo.

Visual Perception

We all know that a model is a model - it's not the real thing, and we accept the fact that any model is a compromise in every way. With that as "a given", the eye then scans the scene and runs a comparison with what the memory has stored about the real thing. During this process, some allowances will be made by most of us for the knowledge that what the eye sees is not the real thing, but a representation of the real thing. The degree of this allowance will admittedly depend on the critical threshold of the beholder. Chances are that to a six-year old, a train running round and round without any scenery at all, will be completely real because the child's very active imagination is supplying everything that the average adult eye demands to see. On the other hand, for a seasoned modeller who has built his hundredth item of rolling stock from scratch, every rivet may count. Most of us are somewhere in-between, but chances are that our evaluation will pinpoint some aspects of a layout that "grate" - somehow not real. This could be an absence of familiar features that ought to be there, or it could be an incongruous dimension or a texture, and so forth.

Also, our perception is inclined to evaluate the model in terms of what we know about the prototype, the builder of the model and the kind of model. For instance, our appreciation and interpretation of a toy train set-up will be quite different from that for a "modern" model railway. The eye will make allowances for considerations such as size, scale and space: - as a random example: If telegraph poles are not present on the model, they may be missed, but it is likely not necessary to have a complete network of telegraph poles throughout the layout, or for that matter, to have telegraph wires. (Admittedly though, the absence of telegraph wires in a larger-scale or in a static diorama is much more likely to be noticed than in a large modular layout in a smaller scale.)
Acceptance Threshold

So why do some model layouts look real, and why are we dissatisfied with others?

While our visual perception is prepared to make some allowances, it balks when it is asked to push its acceptance factor beyond a certain point. A good model has to "look right". So how much of the prototype has to be embedded in the model before it is accepted as looking like the real thing? The answer for most of us is probably "as much as possible".
How to get the model to look like the real thing

By observing the real thing. 

Direct observation: 

It is unsafe (and illegal) to walk along the tracks of our main line railways, but it is still possible to observe a lot at stations, overpasses and grade crossings and from highways, without trespassing onto high-speed railway property. Take photographs from all angles to fortify your memory. Former branchlines now operated as shortlines and heritage railways provide the opportunity for more leisurely examination, but remember that you will want to supplement what you observe from other sources.

What are these other sources?:

Your main sources of information about yesterday's railways come from
  • photographs
  • building plans
  • track diagrams
These are readily available from 

1. archives and museums,

2. the Internet, such as on Page 1 (History and Research) of my Links

3. railway periodicals, especially monthly (model) magazines and "how-to" publications, available from your local hobby store or direct from the publisher

4. railway books, available from your local hobby store or direct from the publisher

5. hobby shows, clubs and meets that usually offer quality model railway layouts for observation, instructional ("how-to") clinics and railway photographs and old publications for sale at reasonable prices

Of particular value are the railway publications, because these interpret the railway scene and place it in its correct historical context as to time, place and function. The authors of these works have often gone to considerable trouble to source the information presented from archives, museums, former railway archives and engineering departments, retired railroaders, and long-standing photograph collections.

By designing the overall model layout appropriately.
 
Effective representation of the prototype is governed by two essential properties of the model layout: its type, and the space available to it in relation to its scale.

Type of layout

From a representation standpoint, a layout is either prototypical (i.e., it represents an actual railway scene, past or present - see also my articlePrototype Modelling), or it is freelance (i.e., it represents an imaginary railway scene, although many freelance layouts have started to incorporate recognizeable prototypical features). It should be noted however that whatever the representation, for a realistic model layout general railway prototypical appearance ought to be observed and followed to the best of the modeller's ability:

"A realistic railroad starts with a thorough understanding of the prototype being modelled."
- Patrick Lawson, featured modeller, Model Railroad Planning 2002.

From a design standpoint, all layouts are one of four basic types, and with the exception of dioramas, afford the more usual and ever-popular continuous circuits, or the less common end-to-end (point-to-point) operation, or a combination of both:
  • diorama - analogous to a stage set: a portable scene in any scale. There is usually a central feature, such as a station or an engine house or a coaling tower. It is self-contained with very defined scenic boundaries, and is always finely detailed. It is static (i.e., non-operating), but is usually capable of being integrated into an operating layout.
  • self-contained portable - an operating layout in one (portable or semi-portable) unit. In 0 or S scale, this would be with very limited, usually end-to-end (point-to-point) running.
  • modular - a layout built in sections that can be moved/dismantled intact. This includes all of the layouts at a hobby show other than the above, and is also highly recommended for any home layout. Most modular layouts at hobby shows are designed for continuous running. Since the various sections may be owned by different members, these layouts usually conform to an agreed-to standard for their connection. 
    In HO scale, the Free-mo design system affords a very flexible, potentially prototypical and versatile method of connecting modules for a modeller who wishes to create different combinations of modules for the purpose of varying a layout, or for a group of modellers who wish to combine their own sections for the purpose of creating and varying a layout, whether at a club or for exhibition. While there is a universal Free-mo HO scale standard, an individual or a group may modify it as long as there is no proposed interchange with other Free-mo modellers who conform to the universal standard. And incidentally, while designed for HO scale, the Free-mo principle can be adapted by an individual modeller or group of modellers to any scale. 
    In N scale, the North American-wide N-TRAK standard is popular in permitting interconnection of modules from different clubs. While the N-TRAK system affords the same opportunity for varying modules, the design standard is less flexible as each module end requires a three-track connection, and is therefore better suited to larger layouts at clubs or exhibitions. 
  • permanent - a larger layout in a home or at a club that would have to be torn down to be moved.
This view, featured on page 332 of my award-winning "Hamilton's Other Railway", shows CNR Mogul-type #88 in charge of southbound M233 train across the Grand River, Caledonia, Ontario bridge sometime between 1951 and 1952. Paterson/George / Dave Shaw Collection

This view, featured on page 332 of my award-winning "Hamilton's Other Railway", shows CNR Mogul-type #88 in charge of southbound M233 train across the Grand River, Caledonia, Ontario bridge sometime between 1951 and 1952. Paterson/George / Dave Shaw Collection

CNR Mogul-type class E10a #915 heads a local freight southbound across the Grand River bridge on Rich Chrysler's prototypical HO scale layout of the former CNR Hagersville Subdivision. The view would be from the west side of the north bank of the river. (This layout was featured as part of the layout tour during the 2003 NMRA Toronto [Maple Leaf] Convention). Rich Chrysler photo.

CNR Mogul-type class E10a #915 heads a local freight southbound across the Grand River bridge on Rich Chrysler's prototypical HO scale layout of the former CNR Hagersville Subdivision. The view would be from the west side of the north bank of the river. (This layout was featured as part of the layout tour during the 2003 NMRA Toronto [Maple Leaf] Convention). Rich Chrysler photo.

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