For a number of years, perhaps five or ten, the hobby has slowly drifted to a state of hazy stagnation.  There is no air of excitement or buzz.   Fewer are charging to their basements on the weekends and nobody on the outside is clamoring to get in.  They aren’t clamoring to get in because there is no compelling reason to do so.   Even if there were a reason, those on the outside, (or those in the hobby but drifting), see no obviously apparent, clear roadmap, platform, or vehicle to enter and pursue the hobby in a satisfying and attainable way.

Through a combination of societal events, and the natural cycle of things, we’ve reached the point where we need a new entry level platform.  That platform is the small to moderate size, modern era, switching layout.  It’s certainly not a new concept, but a case where the time for this platform has arrived.  People are motivated not only by seeing inspirational layouts but inspirational layouts that they can build.

I’ve felt for many years that there is a vast pool of model railroaders circling the fringes of the hobby waiting for a way to get in, waiting for a reason and means to join.  I can’t entirely put my finger on it, but there seems to be a tinge of sadness at being on the sidelines as well as a lack of self-confidence, a misguided feeling that, because they may not yet possess a vast array of  modeling skills, that they aren’t worthy of joining the hobby full force and without apology.

The common characteristics of these ‘sideliners’ are that they are smart, much more knowledgeable than they realize, personable,  large in number and a group the hobby desperately needs in the game.  Mobilizing this group of ‘sideliners’ and getting them building layouts will add new energy, new ideas, and a breath of fresh air that model railroading needs, and needs badly.  Such mobilizing improves the quality of life for the sideliner.  To a larger extent it improves the quality of life for those already actively in the hobby.   As the sideliners get up and going, their modeling works will ultimately provide inspiration and a jump start all of us.  Magazine circulation will strengthen, industry purchasing will increase, and the slow plodding ship that is the momentum of the hobby will gradually start steaming forward again.

To an extent we have failed the sideliners through a lack of leadership, direction, and support.  We haven’t given them a roadmap.  Although they may not yet have attained a vast arsenal of construction skills, they have no interest in mindless starter layouts on the level of a Brio set.  They don’t want the frivolous Disneyland express.  They don’t want something that looks like a first grade craft project when they are done (nor does their family).  What they do WANT is something that:

  • Is easy to build the first time out given basic construction skills
  • Offers sophisticated operational and visual interest
  • Looks clean and halfway realistic
  • Can be brought to a reasonable state of completion quickly and look tidy during construction
  • Doesn’t take up  a lot of space
  • Doesn’t require a  huge  time commitment

They want something simple and sophisticated.   Yes, the two CAN go together.   There is no reason that the beginner should resign themselves to something one step above a Tyco train set.    A well thought out switching layout provides that energizing combination of visual and intellectual captivation and attainability.  This platform is ready for its time in the sun.  I’m not talking about dopey switching puzzles.  I’m talking about small, simple, intellectually stimulating MODELS of a small piece of an actual railroad.  Switching layouts are:

  • Simple to build
  • Intellectually stimulating and sophisticated
  • Fit any space and lifestyle
  • Inexpensive
  • Can be made operational in a short time span
  • Pack a lot of operational interest in a small space
  • Are easy to dress up the appearance in a manner that makes the rest of the family happy
  • Can be moved or disposed of when you move
  • Are a training ground and spring board for larger layouts
  • A good fit for those with ample resources but scarce time and energy

Switching layouts can be set in any time period but I suggest the modern era for several reasons.   First and foremost, being able to experience railroading’s full mass and power  rolling by in front of us provides constant positive re-enforcement.  If the visceral experience of watching, hearing, and feeling a sixteen cylinder machine the size of a house push a freight car also as big as a house down a grassy patch of track doesn’t get your juices flowing, nothing will.

Rumors of the death of the ‘golden age’ of railroading are greatly exaggerated.   In an industrial setting, modern railroading unfolds with the same power and flavor as in previous ages.  In addition, information needed to model the modern era is readily available whether it be operational practices or infrastructure.

Any reasonably secure, grounded adult understands that there is no relationship between the size of an object and its quality.  Leonardo Da Vinci’s horse sketches are just as worthy as Albert Bierstadt’s full wall murals.  Following that same line of reasoning the modeler should never have the sense of ‘settling’ when they build a small switching layout.

There is no shame in being a beginner or building small layout.  The reality is that exceptionally handsome layouts that don’t insult your intelligence CAN be built on a first attempt.  Those sitting on the sidelines do belong in the hobby.  Those adrift in the hobby do have a catalyst to jump start their interest.  In both cases, the small, modern era switching layout, is a platform whose time has come.