The Credible Model

Note: This subject was presented at:
  • a National Model Railroad Association convention clinic (Toronto, Canada) in 2003,
  • the first Canadian Association of Railway Modellers (CARM) convention ( St. Catharine's, Ontario) in 2004,
  • the Platelayers' Society Symposium (Brampton, Ontario), in 2015. For the notes of that presentation, please click here.

Purpose of the clinic

The purpose of this clinic is to offer some tips on how to make your model railway a more realistic miniature of the prototype.

Purpose of a model railway layout

The purpose of any model railway is to be an enjoyable hobby in creating in miniature a railway scene that gives pleasure.
Think for a moment about what attracts you to a particular model railway layout at a hobby show:
Chances are:
  • it will be "finished", i.e., fully "scenicked"
  • you will be intrigued by some detail that brings the scene close to real life
  • you will be impressed by one or more aspects of the scene before you: the colouring of the "countryside", the meticulous creation of a particular model, the professional appearance of the trackwork - and so on and so forth
  • you will like the panorama of the overall scene,
  • but likely most of all because the layout evokes memories of railroading that are familiar and that you enjoy.
This view of the north end of the Ferguson Avenue, Hamilton, Ontario freight shed, featured on page 46 of my award-winning Hamilton's Other Railway, illustrates the design of the freight office and the nearby Barton Street crossing tower. The Sirman Collection.

This view of the north end of the Ferguson Avenue, Hamilton, Ontario freight shed, featured on page 46 of my award-winning Hamilton's Other Railway, illustrates the design of the freight office and the nearby Barton Street crossing tower. The Sirman Collection.

The south end of the Ferguson Avenue, Hamilton freight shed as modelled by Rich Chrysler on his prototypical HO scale layout of the former CNR Hagersville Subdivision. (This layout was featured as part of the layout tour during the 2003 NMRA Toronto [Maple Leaf] Convention). Rich Chrysler photo.

The south end of the Ferguson Avenue, Hamilton freight shed as modelled by Rich Chrysler on his prototypical HO scale layout of the former CNR Hagersville Subdivision. (This layout was featured as part of the layout tour during the 2003 NMRA Toronto [Maple Leaf] Convention). Rich Chrysler photo.

Visual Perception

We all know that a model is a model - it's not the real thing, and we accept the fact that any model is a compromise in every way. With that as "a given", the eye then scans the scene and runs a comparison with what the memory has stored about the real thing. During this process, some allowances will be made by most of us for the knowledge that what the eye sees is not the real thing, but a representation of the real thing. The degree of this allowance will admittedly depend on the critical threshold of the beholder. Chances are that to a six-year old, a train running round and round without any scenery at all, will be completely real because the child's very active imagination is supplying everything that the average adult eye demands to see. On the other hand, for a seasoned modeller who has built his hundredth item of rolling stock from scratch, every rivet may count. Most of us are somewhere in-between, but chances are that our evaluation will pinpoint some aspects of a layout that "grate" - somehow not real. This could be an absence of familiar features that ought to be there, or it could be an incongruous dimension or a texture, and so forth.

Also, our perception is inclined to evaluate the model in terms of what we know about the prototype, the builder of the model and the kind of model. For instance, our appreciation and interpretation of a toy train set-up will be quite different from that for a "modern" model railway. The eye will make allowances for considerations such as size, scale and space: - as a random example: If telegraph poles are not present on the model, they may be missed, but it is likely not necessary to have a complete network of telegraph poles throughout the layout, or for that matter, to have telegraph wires. (Admittedly though, the absence of telegraph wires in a larger-scale or in a static diorama is much more likely to be noticed than in a large modular layout in a smaller scale.)
Acceptance Threshold

So why do some model layouts look real, and why are we dissatisfied with others?

While our visual perception is prepared to make some allowances, it balks when it is asked to push its acceptance factor beyond a certain point. A good model has to "look right". So how much of the prototype has to be embedded in the model before it is accepted as looking like the real thing? The answer for most of us is probably "as much as possible".
How to get the model to look like the real thing

By observing the real thing. 

Direct observation: 

It is unsafe (and illegal) to walk along the tracks of our main line railways, but it is still possible to observe a lot at stations, overpasses and grade crossings and from highways, without trespassing onto high-speed railway property. Take photographs from all angles to fortify your memory. Former branchlines now operated as shortlines and heritage railways provide the opportunity for more leisurely examination, but remember that you will want to supplement what you observe from other sources.

What are these other sources?:

Your main sources of information about yesterday's railways come from
  • photographs
  • building plans
  • track diagrams
These are readily available from 

1. archives and museums,

2. the Internet, such as on Page 1 (History and Research) of my Links

3. railway periodicals, especially monthly (model) magazines and "how-to" publications, available from your local hobby store or direct from the publisher

4. railway books, available from your local hobby store or direct from the publisher

5. hobby shows, clubs and meets that usually offer quality model railway layouts for observation, instructional ("how-to") clinics and railway photographs and old publications for sale at reasonable prices

Of particular value are the railway publications, because these interpret the railway scene and place it in its correct historical context as to time, place and function. The authors of these works have often gone to considerable trouble to source the information presented from archives, museums, former railway archives and engineering departments, retired railroaders, and long-standing photograph collections.

By designing the overall model layout appropriately.
 
Effective representation of the prototype is governed by two essential properties of the model layout: its type, and the space available to it in relation to its scale.

Type of layout

From a representation standpoint, a layout is either prototypical (i.e., it represents an actual railway scene, past or present - see also my articlePrototype Modelling), or it is freelance (i.e., it represents an imaginary railway scene, although many freelance layouts have started to incorporate recognizeable prototypical features). It should be noted however that whatever the representation, for a realistic model layout general railway prototypical appearance ought to be observed and followed to the best of the modeller's ability:

"A realistic railroad starts with a thorough understanding of the prototype being modelled."
- Patrick Lawson, featured modeller, Model Railroad Planning 2002.

From a design standpoint, all layouts are one of four basic types, and with the exception of dioramas, afford the more usual and ever-popular continuous circuits, or the less common end-to-end (point-to-point) operation, or a combination of both:
  • diorama - analogous to a stage set: a portable scene in any scale. There is usually a central feature, such as a station or an engine house or a coaling tower. It is self-contained with very defined scenic boundaries, and is always finely detailed. It is static (i.e., non-operating), but is usually capable of being integrated into an operating layout.
  • self-contained portable - an operating layout in one (portable or semi-portable) unit. In 0 or S scale, this would be with very limited, usually end-to-end (point-to-point) running.
  • modular - a layout built in sections that can be moved/dismantled intact. This includes all of the layouts at a hobby show other than the above, and is also highly recommended for any home layout. Most modular layouts at hobby shows are designed for continuous running. Since the various sections may be owned by different members, these layouts usually conform to an agreed-to standard for their connection. 
    In HO scale, the Free-mo design system affords a very flexible, potentially prototypical and versatile method of connecting modules for a modeller who wishes to create different combinations of modules for the purpose of varying a layout, or for a group of modellers who wish to combine their own sections for the purpose of creating and varying a layout, whether at a club or for exhibition. While there is a universal Free-mo HO scale standard, an individual or a group may modify it as long as there is no proposed interchange with other Free-mo modellers who conform to the universal standard. And incidentally, while designed for HO scale, the Free-mo principle can be adapted by an individual modeller or group of modellers to any scale. 
    In N scale, the North American-wide N-TRAK standard is popular in permitting interconnection of modules from different clubs. While the N-TRAK system affords the same opportunity for varying modules, the design standard is less flexible as each module end requires a three-track connection, and is therefore better suited to larger layouts at clubs or exhibitions. 
  • permanent - a larger layout in a home or at a club that would have to be torn down to be moved.
This view, featured on page 332 of my award-winning "Hamilton's Other Railway", shows CNR Mogul-type #88 in charge of southbound M233 train across the Grand River, Caledonia, Ontario bridge sometime between 1951 and 1952. Paterson/George / Dave Shaw Collection

This view, featured on page 332 of my award-winning "Hamilton's Other Railway", shows CNR Mogul-type #88 in charge of southbound M233 train across the Grand River, Caledonia, Ontario bridge sometime between 1951 and 1952. Paterson/George / Dave Shaw Collection

CNR Mogul-type class E10a #915 heads a local freight southbound across the Grand River bridge on Rich Chrysler's prototypical HO scale layout of the former CNR Hagersville Subdivision. The view would be from the west side of the north bank of the river. (This layout was featured as part of the layout tour during the 2003 NMRA Toronto [Maple Leaf] Convention). Rich Chrysler photo.

CNR Mogul-type class E10a #915 heads a local freight southbound across the Grand River bridge on Rich Chrysler's prototypical HO scale layout of the former CNR Hagersville Subdivision. The view would be from the west side of the north bank of the river. (This layout was featured as part of the layout tour during the 2003 NMRA Toronto [Maple Leaf] Convention). Rich Chrysler photo.

The interrelationship of type of layout, space and scale on "looking right"
  • A larger scale obviously demands more space, unless it is to be designed as a diorama or as a self-contained (portable) layout.
  • The larger the scale in a larger space, the more opportunity for roughed-in or "impressionist" "scenicking" and detailing.
  • The larger the scale in a smaller space, the greater the need for detailing.
  • The smaller the layout in any scale, the greater the need for detailing.
  • The smaller the scale in a larger amount of space, the more opportunity of building a credible end-to-end operation, and/or to represent a larger and diverse (rural, urban and industrial) landscape.
  • Smaller scales are ideal for a layout of reasonable size in a restricted amount of space.
Aspects of "looking right"
  • defined boundaries - since a model is a model, it has to end at a defined edge. In the background, the edge is often extended into a vertical backdrop. A backdrop, to be effective, requires a sense of colour and perspective, as well as some artistic ability if it is to be painted. In the foreground, wherever the landscaping is above or below track level, a properly cut-to-the-contour vertical (usually masonite) panel will define the edge of the model. In the foreground, it is in order for roads, (non-operational) tracks, yards, fields and meadows, to end at the edge of the model without any kind of vertical shield. (Where it is considered desirable for protecting the model from viewers, consider a transparent barrier, such as perspex.)
  • space, scale and perspective - the smaller the scale in relation to the size of the layout, or in the case of any multi-tier layout, the greater is the need for the proper treatment of perspective.
  • hiding the improbable - continuous operation layouts of any design (circular, oval, "dog bone", figure-eight, multiple figure-eight, reversing loop) will seek to hide the curve(s) to avoid the appearance of trains chasing their cabooses.
  • texture and colour - kitbashed or scratch-built motive power and rolling stock should be painted with an air brush and carefully lettered (decaled). Matte colours and a little weathering are in order for structures. Above all, colouring the landscaping should not be attempted with paint at full strength and a brush, or the result will be a ghastly daub. A sieve for powdering on landscape materials and a syringe of diluted paint for rock faces work well for proper texture. Techniques vary from modeller to modeller - those displaying layouts at meets and shows will be happy to answer your questions - and then there are many instructional publications.
  • time and place - many layouts are dated to the 1950s, which allows for the operation of both contemporary steam and diesel power, perhaps including even an oil-electric unit or two. In the past, manufacturers tended to produce motive power models that never existed on a particular railroad, or with numbers chosen at random, or without offering a choice of more than one number, but fortunately, models produced today are more likely to be a more correct representation of the prototype, both in design and livery. Be sure to choose rollingstock that conforms to the era and location of choice - streamlined passenger cars and heavy modern freight cars are simply not credible on a 1950s branch line. That said, you can cut yourself some slack by including a railway tourist operation on the layout, or by designing it in such a way that parts of it can be legitimately designated as main and branch line operations.
  • tracklaying - the appearance of many a promising layout has been spoilt by indifferent tracklaying and poor or non-existent ballasting. "Dog-legs", that is rail joints with a kink, not only look unsightly, but are a hazard to good operation. Track that is not in good alignment is also very noticeable. It only takes a few moments to slide spare ties under the track at joints, in order to preserve the continuity of the prototype. Ballast is also an important component of "acceptance threshold", although since glue has to be used to solidify ballast along the track, it has to be recognized that in the event of an alteration, the track will almost certainly have to be replaced. Last but not least, turnouts with attached above-ground electric motors will stretch credibility unless located at busy stations or junctions.
  • tunnel entrances - these should afford a view of a tunnel rather than a cavern.
  • detailing - this makes a model appear to come to life. Detailing comes after the essential railway buildings and structures are in place, starting with people, livestock, road vehicles, station names, order boards, switch stands, signalling, fencing, telegraph poles, non-railway buildings, and so on and so forth. Some layouts add lighting, houses on fire, a street accident, half-built houses, illuminated business signs, a static or operating trolley line, an operating front-end loader in a lumber yard. Then there are loads for the gondola, flat, hopper and bulkhead cars. Got a stash of bits of scrap metal, discarded axle sets? Perfect for a scrap yard or a car load.
The possibilities are simply endless.
Fenelon Falls station ca 1957. Al Paterson Collection.

Fenelon Falls station ca 1957. Al Paterson Collection.

The Fenelon Falls station area as modelled by Larry Murphy of the Lindsay & District Model Railroaders, in the era ca 1910

The Fenelon Falls station area as modelled by Larry Murphy of the Lindsay & District Model Railroaders, in the era ca 1910

The Milton, Ont. crossing, looking towards Milton. June 1959. The transfer track between the CNR and the CPR had already been removed, but the roadbed is still visible beside the train. (Click on the image to enlarge.) Robert J. Sandusky photo.

The Milton, Ont. crossing, looking towards Milton. June 1959. The transfer track between the CNR and the CPR had already been removed, but the roadbed is still visible beside the train. (Click on the image to enlarge.) Robert J. Sandusky photo.

The crossing at Milton CNR and CPR. The view in prototype is looking south, as a long CPR freight descends from Guelph Junction. The transfer track had been removed in the later years of operation. Railview Modellers, courtesy Dan Drake. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

The crossing at Milton CNR and CPR. The view in prototype is looking south, as a long CPR freight descends from Guelph Junction. The transfer track had been removed in the later years of operation. Railview Modellers, courtesy Dan Drake. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

Common traps to Avoid

Lack of defined boundaries or backgrounds
Freely admit the necessary boundaries of the model. Think of it as a stage set. Study the various types and designs of background. Some are very elaborate and artistic, but even the simplest background is better than none. Most layouts are constructed at a height of between 42 and 48 inches. At the front a dark (green is popular) cloth will hide the wiring and storage and allow the eye to rise to focus on the show piece.

Too much railway
When planning a layout, resist the temptation to jam in as much track as possible. Unless the plan is for a marshalling yard, that's simply not prototypical. Allow the layout to breathe. Less is better. Study the many variations of layout plans published in many magazines and periodicals. For a successful layout there has to be room for other activities that represent the model community around your railway - there is not just the station, but a water tower, a freight shed, a yardmaster's hut - there are trees, the road leading to the station, some people, road vehicles - even some abandoned track. An abandoned roadbed is very prototypical today, and is proof of the determination to resist laying track on every available inch of space. A related rule is not to plan too big - better to start modest and do it well than to have a vast expanse of layout (even if you have the space, lucky person) and make a sloppy, obviously rushed model.

Violation of perspective
The importance of perspective increases in proportion to the amount of geography represented by the model. A part of a layout that is elevated, or is otherwise intended to be at some distance or in the background, must appear to be at a distance. A good way to achieve this is to reduce the scale of the structures involved, and to ensure that any backdrop acknowledges the necessity for perspective.

Over-detailing
Too little detail does not let the model come to life - too much may detract from the overall impression that the model is trying to make. Again, scale plays a part. For instance, experienced modellers in HO, S and O scales usually "weather" their motive power and rolling stock, but in N and Z scales  weathering may detract from the fine detail of the equipment in those scales. As another example, many layouts include roadways, but an excessive attention to road signs, traffic lights, and so forth, is likely to be at the expense of, or will detract from, the detail that should be bestowed on the railway-related infrastructure. Too much detail can swamp the viewer's ability to grasp the essence of the model - a good model is a representation, not necessarily a minutely-detailed imitation.
 
Bradford, Ontario in 2002, now part of the GO-commuter train service to Barrie, Ont. Whatever industry is still there relies on trucking, and the area has reinvented itself accordingly. To recreate the scene as it was 50 years ago, one now has to rely on books, magazines and archival records of local photos.

Bradford, Ontario in 2002, now part of the GO-commuter train service to Barrie, Ont. Whatever industry is still there relies on trucking, and the area has reinvented itself accordingly. To recreate the scene as it was 50 years ago, one now has to rely on books, magazines and archival records of local photos.

Bradford, Ontario, on Ian Wilson's prototypical HO layout "Steam at Allandale" (featured in Model Railroad Planning 2002). The station building and contemporary track layout at Bradford is shown on page 36 of Ian Wilson's award-winning book Steam at Allandale. Ian has faithfully captured the scene from the 1950s era, when the traditional rail customers were still close by the station area, and their sidings and spurs were still intact. Ian Wilson photo.

Bradford, Ontario, on Ian Wilson's prototypical HO layout "Steam at Allandale" (featured in Model Railroad Planning 2002). The station building and contemporary track layout at Bradford is shown on page 36 of Ian Wilson's award-winning book Steam at Allandale. Ian has faithfully captured the scene from the 1950s era, when the traditional rail customers were still close by the station area, and their sidings and spurs were still intact. Ian Wilson photo.

Note: Link to Ian Wilson's prototypical HO layout "Steam at Allandale", featured in Model Railroad Planning 2002.

Conclusion

Imitating the real thing is more of an art than a science. There are few absolute rules to follow, yet the realism of a model will always depend on an impressionist adherence to the essentials of the prototype, set in the appropriate time and space. At a minimum, the purpose of the model has been achieved as soon as the viewer's forgiveness threshold has been satisfied.

Note:
For an abbreviated summary of this article, please click here.

Copyright © 2014 Railway Pages and Charles Cooper. All Rights Reserved.