Why do we build model railroads?  Psychologically, what is at play that compels us to create something that, if viewed at face value, could be mistakenly taken for a detailed toy?

Like many people, both in and out of the hobby, I’ve made the mistake of trivializing model railroading.  Over the past several years I’ve become keenly aware of how deeply important the hobby (or any hobby) is to others.  It has nothing to do with toy trains.  It has to do with basic human needs and who we are.  Addressing those needs makes for a more vibrant, fulfilling life.  In short, the reason model railroad is so important is exactly the same reason that  creating a painting, composing a musical score, or restoring an automobile is.   In our case model railroading addresses three primary needs.

  • Creative Expression:  The need to artistically create is a basic human need that almost becomes a compulsion for many of us.  It’s an inner drive.  To not address it, detracts from the quality of life.
  • Satisfaction of assembly.  There is a certain level of satisfaction derived from taking several base components and combining them into something that is greater than the sum of the parts.  It is satisfying to take lumber, a can of stain, and create a bookshelf.  There is satisfaction in taking a collection of people and forging them into an athletic team or company.
  • Creating a copy of a portion of the world we enjoy looking at.  This gene doesn’t exist in everybody.  It does in us and our hobby brothers in other modeling fields.   If we have fond memories of a location, structure, or way of life, there is satisfaction in having a 3d version of it in our basement.  It’s the same need that is satisfied by photographs or movies of a pleasing subject.  Closely related would be creating a copy of a human practice we find interesting.  In this case I’m talking about the fascinating chess game of railroad operations.

There are similar paths that can be taken, which is precisely why you see such an overlap in hobbies and interests.  Have you ever noticed how many model railroaders are also musicians, artists/painters, and automotive enthusiasts?

It’s not the model railroad hobby itself that is key, but what it does that matters.   I can accept, and often agree, that miniature trains, in and of themselves, are not important (just as throwing a white ball at a person with a bat, on the surface, is not important).  The key point is this, it is a vehicle that fulfills critical, deeply ingrained,  human needs.    Needs that are important.  Needs that are not trivial.    To not recognize and address this fact of life, to dismiss how we are wired, would be a serious mistake indeed.