Article by: Jim Spavins
Published: February 14, 2017
I've spent the last 20 years in the hobby mostly focused on building model railroad modules. Modules are essentially linked dioramas which have a set of mainlines at a prescribed location at the end of the module. Typically, modules also have standardized electrical connections which allow for large numbers of modules to be linked together to be displayed at an event. Modules have been evolving over the last forty years since the first popularized standard - Ntrak - gained traction and swept through the hobby.
Part of the enjoyment of building and displaying modules arrives in five parts - which are covered below.
Finite Size and Scope
First, modules have a finite size and scope. The vast majority of modules which I have completed for myself have tended to be stand alone 2'x4' modules or 2'x8' module sets which can usually be built in less than a few hundred hours. If one was to work one evening a week and one weekend a month for a year, it would easily provide enough time to finish one, if not two or three small module sets during this time. I have found this satisfying because the design goals can be developed fast and allow one to move see a completed project relatively quickly. No need to spend years and years to finally get to the point where a layout can become enjoyable. On the extreme end, I've even been able to go from idea to operating module in less than 90 hours! (See time lapse video here. Read the construction story here.)
Second, through the years I've used module building as a way to learn new skills and try new modeling techniques. Since these module projects tend to be smaller than a large home layout, their isn't too much risk involved in trying new materials, new themes, or new eras. In addition, since these modules are designed to be shared with fellow hobbyists, there is a great opportunity to receive feedback from other modelers. Sometimes this feedback will be positive and affirming, sometimes it will be constructive, other times it will be useless, and on the rare occasion it can be negative. In general, if you are willing to listen to all of the feedback and process what was said, you'll grow as a modeler. Over time, it also becomes easier to figure out what comments are constructive and helpful and which ones you can just let go.
Since the modules serve as a learning platform, as you build new sections, these modular layouts which you bring to events will also (hopefully) improve over time. Unlike a permanent layout, it is easy to have this continuous improvement built into every aspect of your modular layout. If something goes wrong early on during the construction of a permanent layout, it generally turns into a large project to take corrective action and make changes. With a modular layout, all you need to do is build a new module using your new skills and over time, your layout will slowly evolve and become better one section at a time.
Building and Transportation Challenge
The third part of the enjoyment of module building is taking the layout on the road. Figuring out how to pack a highly detailed model railroad safely so it can be moved, setup quickly, operated, taken down quickly, and then finally moved back home can be quite the logistical challenge and one which I thoroughly enjoy. In many ways, this replaces my interest in "operating" a model railroad. Each show is its own operating session - granted not the way most people think of it in the hobby. In a way, the process of moving a modular layout mimics the fundamental reason for railroads to exist - to move goods and people around. In this case, we are moving a train layout and the operators to a train show.
Along the same lines, modular railroading tends to open up travel opportunities to display your layout. Most modular layouts won't stray too far from home, but even going on a weekend trip a few hundred miles from home can be a fun experience. With my club, we've been starting to do some long distance travel with our modular layouts. It's been fun to think that a layout I've built here in the northeast was sitting in a trailer at the Fostoria Railroad Park in Ohio last summer.
A trailer full of Mohegan Pequot Model Railroad Club modules at the Fostoria Railroad Park in the summer of 2016. | Photo by Jim Spavins.
There are lots of different people in the hobby - some prefer to be "lone wolves" doing their own thing but a lot of people enjoy the social aspects of the hobby. Since it is a niche subject, most people don't have many opportunities to have conversations about the hobby with fellow hobbyists. Modular railroading tends to make this easy as, most of the time, you'll be a part of a club and show your work at public events.
In the same vein, bringing your layout on the road offers a chance to share your layout with more people. One of the drawbacks of sharing a home layout is that all potential visitors have to travel to you and your layout needs to be setup to accommodate visitors. With a layout which can go on the road, it is possible to bring the layout closer to other people. During my 20 years of building modules, I have displayed modules at events which have drawn, conservatively, 400,000 visitors. I don't think it would be practical to have that many people visiting my home to see a layout which I have created. For example, during the twelve year life of my home layout - Amtrak's Northeast Corridor - I maybe had 150-200 folks stop by for a visit. If you want to share the hobby with others, the preferred style for a layout to share with as large an audience as possible would lean heavily towards towards a modular layout design.
Promote the Hobby
If you've spent any time at all in the hobby, you've probably come across some articles noting how hard it is to get people involved in model railroading. If we take that thought to be true, it means we need more people to help promote the hobby. Nothing works better than to see what is possible in real life. Photos in magazines or on websites are helpful - but to see what the layouts look and sound like in person, adds a better dimension onto what a person can do in the hobby. The more people who are willing to take their work on the road, the more variety of layouts all of us will be able to enjoy at train shows - and hopefully inspire someone new to start their journey in the hobby of model railroading.
If you haven't considered building modules, give it another look. You might find it's just the perfect platform for your next model railroad project.
Module Standards Organizations
- Ntrak - N Scale >
- NMRA - All Scales >
- Ttrak - Primarily N, Also HO, O >
- Z Bend - Z Scale >
- Free-Mo - HO Scale >
- East Penn Trolley - Trolley Modules in HO and O >
- Lionel Fastrack - O Gauge >
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.