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What Sport Are You Playing?

Layout Design Thoughts

Article by: Jim Spavins
Published: October 6, 2015

As we head into October, the train show season gets into full swing - and along with it - model railroad club recruitment season. This can be a great opportunity for new or veteran modelers a chance to join a group, meet new people, and potentially contribute to an interesting project.

Over the last week, I've encountered a couple of interesting discussions which show the struggle that some folks face when being a part of an organization. For my entire "career" as a model railroader, I've always been a part of a model railroad club. Each has been wildly different in the type of people who are members as well as the type of philosophy the organization took on just about every aspect of the hobby. However, in each case, I had a great time.

Today I was listening to the new Scotty Mason Show (www.themodelrailroadpodcast.com) and one of their segments was about the "cult of clubs." The panel shared their stories - both good and bad - about joining a group. Some of the frustrations vented were a standard refrain from folks who don't seem to quite fit with an organization. A sad story involved a rather talented structure builder who built award winning models whose talent was all but dismissed by the club he was trying to join. The response from the panel was that a club missed out on a potential great member.

In the last week, my club, the Mohegan Pequot Model Railroad Club, where I am the HO Module Coordinator, has been debating the merits of the new Layout Command Control standards being developed by the NMRA for use on our layout. The discussions have veered into the dreaded "politics" realm which most club members bemoan and folks who don't like clubs point to as a reason not to join.

In the two cases discussed above, both disagreements start from the same space - no one seems to understand what sport they are playing.

Let me explain. In many ways, sports can be used as an analogy to the activity of model railroading. Sports are comprised of different activities and games - just like model railroading. If you are involved in sports, you might play baseball, hockey, basketball, or football. Maybe you are involved simply as a spectator or maybe you are attempting to be a world class athlete. In model railroading, you might be a layout builder, an operator, a master structure builder, or a collector. Maybe you take it very seriously and treat this hobby as a craft or maybe it is simply a way to blow off stress from a tough day.

There might be some similarities between the sports - in baseball and football a ball is thrown - but the ball is different, how it is thrown is different, and even the number of players on each team who need to throw the ball is different (everyone on a baseball team has to throw while in football it's really just the quarterback). Same is true in model railroading - two clubs may both have HO scale layouts and run the same DCC system - but how they are built and used are entirely different.

When it comes to clubs, for the most part, there is usually a focus on one sport (occasionally, if the club is big enough, there might be a few sub groups playing different sports). Additionally, the club might be trying to be elite in its sport or maybe it is simply a social outlet where the outcome isn't as important as having a good time.  As an example, I have been a member of two clubs playing different sports at different levels. Each has been successful playing the game they have chosen and built their entire layouts and organizations to play their particular sport.

In my current club, we play baseball (build display modules which run trains in circles) and take an approach to the hobby somewhere between trying to be elite and having a good time. Everyone can build a module for the club and as long as trains can mechanically and electrically pass through the module - we will let you display it with us. We expect you to do your best but there is no need to achieve a certain standard of craftsmanship.

About 10 years ago, I was a member of the Rensselaer Model Railroad Society (currently the cover article in the November 2015 Model Railroader magazine) and when I was at RPI, we played football (built and operated prototypically). This organization has strived to build as high a quality layout as possible with scenes meticulously researched and buildings scratchbuilt and detailed to match these prototype scenes. It is quite extraordinary.

When thinking about how each organization has been built and operated, the layouts have all been tailored to the sport which they were playing. Over the last 40+ years, the RPI club built a football stadium. My modular club has built a baseball stadium. Each stadium (layout) has been optimized for the game we were playing. Sure, sometimes football is played in a baseball stadium or baseball is played in football stadium - but the experience is suboptimal for everyone involved - from the players (operators) to the fans (layout viewers). It might be possible to cobble together a prototype based operation scheme on our current modular layout - but it won't be nearly as good as an operating session was at RPI. The same is true the other way around, it might be possible to use the RPI layout as a display layout - but its design as a single track loop to loop layout would limit traffic compared to the modular layout. When we did have public open houses and used the RPI layout in this fashion - it was tough to run trains with the narrow aisles and the large number of visitors. On the flip side, my modular club displays a layout at the Railroad Hobby Show where hundreds of people can comfortably view the layout while we effortlessly operate a heavy traffic mainline.  Both layouts were designed for the sport they wanted to play - and optimized accordingly.

In each organization, I took on an active role, but how I contributed at both was different. At RPI, I spent a lot of time on research and taking field trips - as well as helping to build benchwork (a skill of mine) to help further the group's efforts of building a world class prototype layout. With my modular club, I spend a little more time having fun freelancing, teaching new members the basics of building modules, and sharing model railroading. In other words, when I was at RPI, I played football and today I play baseball. Both experiences have been great and one of the reasons for that was an understanding that I was playing different sports with each organizations. It helped to better understand how I could take my skills and contribute to groups underlying mission.

One of the things I have noticed during my tenures at both clubs has been that the members who ended up succeeding and enjoying each organization were the ones who played the sport the club was playing. I watched baseball players try to succeed at RPI - but quickly get frustrated. At the Mohegan Pequot Model Railroad Club, we've had football, hockey, and basketball players try to play baseball - all of whom eventually got frustrated and left. Just like the master structure builder in the podcast, it wasn't so much that the club missed out, as the player and team were simply playing different sports.

This isn't a bad thing - the hobby needs organizations that play different sports. For example, my current club was a great place for me to start my model railroad journey as it was acceptable to be a beginner and build relatively poorly constructed modules. It is understood by the club that the modular layout is a learning platform and after a member has built and learned from one module - they will most likely build another which will be better than the first. This can go on for as long as anyone wants to participate.

At the same time, some clubs have very high standards and beginning modelers most likely won't be a fit. Since I had built quite a few modules by the time I went to RPI, I didn't feel intimidated by the prospect of working on their layout when I joined. It was something I had graduated into from my experience at the modular club. While plenty of new hobbyists join the RPI club and are trained to build craftsman level work at the club - before their projects go on the layout - it has to reach the club's standard - not the easiest task for a beginner.

Maybe the better criticism is that clubs need to do a better job of articulating the sport they are playing and recruit accordingly. At the same time - as potential club members - we need to have a better understanding of what sports we want to or like to play when looking for a club to join.

If you aren't currently a model railroad club member and thinking about, I'd encourage you to give it a try. Go in with an open mind to learn what sport they are playing and see if that is something you want to play as well. If it is a match, chances are, you'll advance your enjoyment of the hobby immensely.

For Track Plan Tuesday's, I am digitizing all of my old track planning notebooks and sharing the designs here on the website.  To see all the plans, visit the track plan home page at: jimspavins.com/jimstrackplans.