Thursday, February 7, 2019

Thoughtful Thursday: The Futility of Prototype Model Railroading

As I dive deeper and deeper into modeling Wethersfield, CT, and learn more about it, the harder it is to model it convincingly, especially since I don’t have a gymnasium at my disposal - not to mention the time & money needed to model the prototype to actual scale, even if I had enough space. 

Model Railroading is certainly an art, and not just in the traditional sense that we're using paint and plaster, and wood to depict something in three-dimensions, like sculpture. In many ways it is the art of compromise. And the best artists/modelers are able to convey a prototype scene effectively within the constraints of time, money, and especially space. 

Of course, such compromises can’t possibly hold up under the scrutiny of those who know what the prototype actually looks/looked like, or what was actually there, or how far apart those locations were, etc. And the more you research your prototype, the more you know, and the more you realize that you can't really model it. At least not accurately.

That’s the rub - and the challenge. My “Wethersfield” section of the layout is about 18 feet long. That’s only 1,567 feet in HO scale - and yet it's being asked to represent a little over 3 miles in the real world. That’s admittedly a huge compromise.

Say hello to "selective compression" - the necessary evil of most model railroading, and especially of prototype modeling. The key to using this tool effectively is in making "good" decisions about what to select to compress. And "good" is primarily defined by what you're trying to accomplish.

My goal with this layout wasn’t to model the prototype to scale (likely impossible - who has 180 linear feet available for that?), or to create a museum diorama (though I do aspire to that as far as practicable), but to replicate each rail move described by John Wallace in his “Typical Day on the Valley Local” in the NHRHTA's Shoreliner magazine - while (hopefully) capturing the “look & feel” of the locale. That goal drove the trackplan (which is perfectly prototypical, if severely compressed in length), the choice of industries (which are also modeled as accurately as practicable, thanks to my friend DaveM, especially given the dearth of photographs), as well as what non-railroad-related stuff I decided to include (enough to convey the overall scene, without crowding out the stuff necessary to achieving my goal). One of the exceptions to this will be my including a model of John's house, since he inspired this project (and even then, it's only close to accurately located, given the space constraints).

At best, this layout can only be an impressionist painting, not a photograph. It's not - nor can it ever be - a perfect depiction of the prototype. And, given my goal with the layout, I think I’m ok with that.
Prototype modeling - at least when it comes to the layout itself (we'll leave a discussion of modeling locomotives & rolling stock for another time) - is an exercise in frustration, if not futility.  So maybe I'll just admit, if only to myself, that I’m not able to model the Valley Line of the New Haven Railroad, at least not prototypically. I can only ever hope - or claim - to build a model railroad that at best captures the “feel” of the Valley Line. At least that way I can actually hope to accomplish SOMEthing rather than focus - as I did for far too many years - on what I can’t do, or include, or model. 

Building a model railroad based on a New Haven branchline in the late 1940s.


  1. Hi Chris -
    Boy, does all of this sound familiar! At a certain point in prototype modeling you just have to give yourself a break an accept the inevitable compromises and compressions. Easy to say, but that is something I struggle with all the time on my L&NE Catasauqua Branch layout, too. When you're really into the place you are re-creating, it can be painfully tough to let go. I've come to terms with the idea that my layout's protoype fidelity is on a sort of continuum -- some central scenes pretty closely match a slice of the prototype. Others, especially as you get farther out toward staging at each end, are more compressed. That's just how it goes - even when modeling a just few miles of a seven-mile-long branch! Like you, I figure I'm just paying tribute to my chosen prototype and the people who lived and worked it everyday. It's an homage, not an exact replica. FWIW, I think your tribute is coming along great and I enjoy following along on the blog. Keep it up!

    Todd Hermann
    LNE Catty Branch on Flickr:

    1. Thanks very much for the kind words Todd - and especially for taking the time to post such a thoughtful reply! I especially like how you put our efforts: "I figure I'm just paying tribute to my chosen prototype and the people who lived and worked it everyday. It's an homage, not an exact replica." - You nailed it! That's exactly what I'm trying to accomplish and a little bit of inevitable, unavoidable compromise here and there certainly doesn't diminish that. Thanks for the reminder - and thanks again for taking the time to post a comment!

  2. It’s not futile.
    The more you know, the better will be the choices you make. You will realise that X is essential, but Y can be left out without detraction from the authenticity of the scene. This is important, as you probably don’t have the space (let alone the time and money to fill it) for an exact scale model of the prototype location. I have posted on MRH about striving for authentic representation, at least as far as the layout goes.

    Far from constraining you, increased knowledge Is liberating!

    1. Well, it CAN be liberating - provided you've developed (or at least are developing) a sense of what you can really afford to compromise on and what you really should keep. But the research is much of the fun - so I certainly won't be giving that up any time soon, even if it does create some difficulty for my modeling! :^) Thanks very much for taking the time to post a comment - hope you're enjoying the blog!