Tag: railroad

What Color is Your Ballast?

Every year my father participated in his model railroad club’s “Open House,” an all-day event where anyone can stop in to see the club’s working layout.  Occasionally, we went as a family.  I hated it. There’s just only so much “don’t touch” train-watching a kid can take.

Beware the sentence, “I’ll never, ever….”  A few weeks ago I attended (voluntarily) a three-day regional conference of the National Model Railroader’s Association.  A conference includes tours of local member layouts (you get a map, drive to somebody’s home and spend an hour in their basement) and operating sessions, where you do the same as above but participate in running someone’s home layout as if it were a real railroad.  During “Ops Sessions” a dispatcher hands you instructions to “form” a train, car by car, and take it from “A” to “B” by a certain time.  There are also scratch-built (hand-made) best-in-show modeling contests along with raffles and auctions—so you can take home more of the same stuff I’m trying to get rid of.

A local modelers layout. EVERYTHING is scratch-built, including the overhead wire system, called catenary.

Part of a local modelers home layout. The overhead wire system, called catenary, is scratch-built.

But oh, the clinics!  These are hour-long seminars on topics of interest to modelers.  For the rest of us, the clinic titles and descriptions are about as riveting as a three-page long physics equation.  Here’s a sampling:

  • Modeling Oversized Loads
  • Tack Boards, Route Boards and Placards
  • Concrete Viaducts of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad (Note: Modelers argue about the color of concrete.)
  • The Case for Car Float Staging

During one session I attended, the presenter asked, “What color is your ballast?”  Ballast is the gravel layer that forms the track bed for the ties and rails.  His point?  Layout ballast shouldn’t all be the same color because it isn’t in real life. The next time you’re on a train, you’ll look on the ground and realize—he’s right. Like the presenter, some modelers are on an endless mission to create prototype layouts that are exactingly realistic.  All I want to know is: “Honey, does my ballast match?”

I’m a dabbler; not a diver.  I have many interests, to the point where I often find myself struggling to decide which ones to pursue. That’s why I know I won’t become a model railroader. although I have ample supplies should I change my mind. But I get it.  If you’ve got a passion for model railroading, it will be a source of endless fascination.  The hobby is interesting, engaging and multi-faceted; it activates the creative mind, requires the continuous acquisition of new knowledge and skills and provides a social circle of comrades wearing railroad engineer hats adorned with buttons and patches.  To those who love them: Be thankful they’re not into anything worse.

I’ve been working on Dad’s railroad…

My Dad was a model railroader for over 70 years; he was also a hoarder. At age 95 he passed away, leaving me his massive collection of model trains, track, books, scenery, kits, magazines, locomotives, and parts, all dispersed randomly across the five-bedroom house he’d occupied for 55 years. It took me nearly three years of weekends and vacations to complete the excavation, during which time I organized, photographed and packed his collection into 55(!) moving boxes. Still, there was a catch; Dad secured my promise that I would not sell the entire lot to some scheming collector offering ten cents on the dollar in exchange for his prized possessions.

How do you sell stuff you know nothing about, to experts?  This blog is about my experiences as a reluctant model railroader.

So far, I’ve learned the following:

  • Unless you know what you are selling, you cannot describe it well enough to sound credible.  I’ve had to crash-learn a highly technical hobby; painstaking research is required.
  • Things will go wrong at the worst possible moment: For example, while packing a delicate item for shipment to a customer, it breaks apart in my hands.
  • Model railroaders are (mostly) the kindest, gentlest people you will ever meet; I’ve befriended model railroaders all over the world; their stories are surprisingly sentimental and moving; it’s not just about the trains.
  • As my husband pointed out, Model Railroading isn’t just a hobby; it’s a disease.  God help me.
  • Acceptance: By putting my hands inside the gloves of my father’s hobby, I have grown to understand him, and myself, in ways I’d never expected.