Picking a Theme For Your Layout

Although there is no right or wrong way to participate in model railroading, there is, without question, a measuring stick of how successful we are at it.   Success is measured by how much enjoyment and satisfaction we get from our involvement.   To that extent the guy with the Lionel set that is on cloud nine is highly successful, period.     Success isn’t measured by the quality of our assembly and painting skills, how often we’ve been published, or how accurately we copy a given element in miniature.    There is however the barometer of enjoyment and satisfaction that can’t be ignored.   Typically it’s not so cut and dried though.  A modeler may be somewhat content while, at the same time, have the subtle feeling that boredom is creeping in without really knowing why.

Having established there is no right or wrong way to pursue the hobby, if your enjoyment level is a six out of ten then why not explore ways to get it to an eight or nine, whatever path that takes?

This takes me to the point of the discussion, selecting the theme for your layout.  Personally, I feel modelers limit themselves by being way too quick to settle on a totally generic, themeless model railroad.  This approach is often driven by randomly accumulating whatever freight car or structure catches the eye on a particular day and then bending the layout to incorporate said purchases.  This isn’t so important on a first layout where the goal should be skills development.  However, by the time you’re on layout two it’s an important enough subject to give more than lip service to.  The second factor that drives this malaise is a lack of self awareness as to what we find satisfying (or perhaps having the self awareness but not accepting it).

With three and a half decades in the hobby, my fly on the wall perspective is that those modelers that base their layouts on a specific place get more enjoyment and a deeper satisfaction out of the hobby.  This isn’t a prototype vs. freelance discussion.  Note that I said theme ‘based’ upon a place that they draw inspiration from.  You can have a quasi freelance layout that is still tied closely to a specific town.  Also I want to be crystal clear that I said ‘get more enjoyment and satisfaction’ from the hobby.  I didn’t say they were superior, better modelers, or higher and mightier, just more content as a group.

A major part of the payoff comes from the fact that once you pick a specific place to model, you open up a second world totally separate from model building, the thrill of discovery associated with exploring and learning about the town(s) you are modeling.  You get as much satisfaction from delving into the details and culture of the town as you do the modeling.  Every month seems to unveil an ‘aha’ moment of “I didn’t know that about town X, even if it’s your own home town’.

Let’s face it, model railroader’s are odd ducks in terms of what they find fascinating.  They are blissfully content exploring the back roads of Livingston, MT, Altoona, PA, North Little Rock, AR or Compton, CA.   Given the choice between Disneyworld or being trackside watching a Los Angeles Junction switcher working a ratty industry in our twisted minds we’d pick the LAJ trip every time.

That being the case, have the self awareness to recognize and acknowledge our fascination with these places that the tour buses deliberately avoid.  Model a specific location and delve into it as deeply as your time and resources allow.  Visit the town.  Talk to the locals at the diner.  Track down the employees that work or worked there.   Go beyond the tracks and learn what makes the town tick.  Continually re-visit.  Immerse yourself and enjoy the thrill of discovery.  The more you learn, the more fascinating the place becomes and the more satisfying it becomes having a miniature version of it in your basement.

How do you pick a location?  First, you need to know what aspects of the hobby you enjoy most.  If you enjoy switching operations, certainly you want a spot that has that activity.  If your interest is more in tune with modeling scenes and less so on operations, factor that in.  How much of the line still exists?  The more that still exists, the more interesting in my view.  That’s why I enjoy modeling the modern era so much.   The location has to be something that pushes your buttons, a place that produces an emotional response, regardless of what others think.  Finally, given the limitations of space and time we all have it’s unrealistic to think we can model much of even a mid-size town.  Modeling a small portion of it well will hit the spot.

Not a month goes by where somebody doesn’t email me a fascinating industrial park that I didn’t even know existed.  Sadly I know most of these deserving themes will never be modeled.  At the same time every time we open a model railroad magazine there’s another generic layout, built by a modeler that is ‘pretty happy’.  Maybe that’s you, you’re pretty happy, fairly satisfied.  Don’t you owe it to yourself to at least consider the possibility that there is another approach to the hobby that would make you even happier and more satisfied?   Food for thought when your current layout has run its course and you’re faced with a clean piece of paper and ready to start anew.