Between December, 2007, and June, 2017, Model Railroader magazine has featured rock and roll legend Rod Stewart. Since December, 2010, those features have been cover stories, the magazine falling open at the centerfold to reveal stunning photographs of his model railroad. In his autobiography, Rod (2012), he subtitled his chapter on model railroading “In which our hero owns up to a habit most shocking and time-consuming.”
As habits go, it is time-consuming, but not all that shocking. Consider it in the context of what in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” J. R. R. Tolkien called “sub-creation.” Tolkien referred to the Primary World, created by God, and a Secondary World, created by the author of a fairy story. That sub-creator uses imagination to make a credible world of inner consistency, taking elements of the Primary World into the realm of fantasy. “Fantasy is made out of the Primary World,” Tolkien said, “but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone, and wood which only the art of making can give.”
Here Tolkien purists could object, since Tolkien insisted that the imaginative work of sub-creation requires words; in painting, for example, said Tolkien, “the visible presentation of the fantastic image is technically too easy.” Tolkien’s essay, though, must be read with caution: In it he muttered against automobiles and other developments of modern life, including “railway-engineers,” meaning designers of trains and their rails, bridges, and stations. Still, all such literary Neo-Luddites ignore the fact that their verbal creations (or sub-creations) will be published and distributed by means of modern technology.
It might be amusing to pine for the days when one’s writings were copied by hand onto parchment, but those days are gone forever, as dead as the Holy Roman Empire and the Papal States. They are as dead as the era of horses and buggies and steam locomotives. To dream for their return joins the delusion that for a man to be authentically Catholic, he must affect a taste for whiskey and cigars.
Like any good historian, a model railroader studies the past, he doesn’t live in it. (Nearly all model railroaders are men.) Most model railroaders strive to create miniature versions of trains and towns in the era of steam and coal. Rod Stewart’s model railroad, called the Grand Street and Three Rivers Railroad, aims for a time around 1945, when steam engines were phasing out and diesel engines were coming to the fore.
Stewart’s Grand Street and Three Rivers is in HO scale, meaning three millimeters equal one foot. That scale is the most popular size for model railroads, and American companies such as Atlas and Bachmann produce model trains and buildings in HO scale. Next in popularity is O scale, twice the size of HO scale; put another way, the H in HO scale refers to its being half the size of O. The Lionel train set going in circles under a Christmas tree is in O scale.
For their sub-creating, however, avid model railroaders desire more complexity than a basic circle or oval. Their layouts have multiple tracks, with bridges and tunnels, sidings and landscape, and even at a small scale like HO, model railroads necessarily occupy a lot of space. For example, HO scale trains need a turning radius of eighteen inches. According to the June, 2017, Model Railroader magazine, Stewart’s sub-creation is 23′ by 124′, covering much of the top floor of his house in Los Angeles.
While the name of his railroad is fictional, it runs through a setting meant to evoke a city in Pennsylvania. To conjure such a scene, Stewart spends hours making model buildings suitable to the time and place. Like many model railroaders, he improvises for realism, modifying or combining commercially available kits, a process known in the hobby as kitbashing.
Here again, the sub-creator’s sense of reality intervenes: Heljan, Hornby, and Kibri are, respectively, Danish, British, and German companies making accurate scale models of trains and structures typical of railways and locations in their countries, but their products would be out of place in a model of an American city around 1945. As Tolkien said of fairy stories, the sub-created, secondary world must be true within itself. More appropriate for the self-contained little world Stewart works on would be model buildings made by American companies like Walthers and Woodland Scenics.
Needless to say, such a hobby calls for stability, and model railroaders tend to pride themselves on their carpentry skills and their ingenuity in constructing the framework to support their track, buildings, trees, and trains. Making it all work takes electricity, in some cases snaking hundreds of feet of wire into elaborate configurations to operate the trains and to illuminate buildings and tiny street lights. How to build and wire and otherwise outfit one’s model railroad is where monthly magazines like Model Railroader come in, and more recently, hobbyists have been helping one another through web sites and YouTube videos.
Prominent among the latter is jlwii2000, a channel by James Wright. An officer in the United States Air Force, he reviews products relevant to model railroading and shows progress on his ongoing layout, his HO scale model railroad taking up a large part of his basement. Since his job has frequent re-assignments, he has devised ways to make his sprawling sub-creation break down into sections and become relatively easily transportable.
As Wright, Stewart, and other married model railroaders will attest, this “habit most shocking and time-consuming” asks a lot of patience of spouses, although Stewart concedes that his wife welcomes some time to herself. Mention of spouses alludes to another aspect of this hobby: Its demographics are aging. A point worthy of national news, on 11 February, 2016, The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story about the greying population of model railroaders.
One way to attract youngsters into the hobby involves a range of HO scale models based on a children’s television show, Thomas the Tank Engine. From the make-believe island of Sodor and its talking trains whose good intentions nevertheless often “cause confusion and delay,” kids may someday grow up to model real, albeit defunct, railroads, like the Southern Pacific or the Pennsylvania.
They will find it a satisfying contemplative activity. As Stewart wrote in Rod, “It’s pretty addictive—and totally absorbing. The world disappears when I’m doing it.” Tolkien would understand.