Friday, November 10, 2006 at 10:21 am

Take Your Model Train to Work Day

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World's Greatest Hobby logo Today is Take Your Model Train to Work Day, one of several initiatives by the World’s Greatest Hobby campaign, which is an attempt by model railroad companies to proselytize and expand the hobby.

In his essay, The Sociology of Model Railroading (previously), John Bruce talks about the industry’s attempts to improve the hobby’s public image:

One of the most clearly stated goals of the hobby is to improve its public image. There is a long-standing stereotype of adults “playing with trains” as a feckless or immature activity, and it is likely that some people are deterred from participation in the hobby due to a fear of being characterized as such. It is a general goal of hobby participants to be seen as engaging in a serious and challenging pastime, and it’s generally understood that as the public views the hobby in this light, its prestige will increase, and business for hobby suppliers will also increase.

In other words, old, curmudgeonly men wearing funny hats and obsessing over toys is not the best image the hobby could have for itself. Taking a model train to work is an attempt at visibility and normalcy, but I don’t think it’s going to work on its own. If the public image of model railroading is feckless, then bringing a Kato AC4400CW to work isn’t going to improve the hobby’s image, but it’s certainly going to hurt yours — in the same way as bringing your favourite python to work, or wearing your Star Trek uniform, or your fetish costume, to work, is going to make you look like a weirdo. At least model railroaders are considered harmless.

John Bruce again, on the World’s Greatest Hobby campaign:

My initial reaction to the start of the World’s Greatest Hobby campaign was not to take it seriously, but on reflection, I think that may have been a mistake. A post in a thread on the Atlas forum suggests an overall problem with “[t]he guy in the World’s Greatest Hobby Ad clutching his engine to his chest with both hands, portraying a ‘mine!, mine! don’t touch it!’ attitude. This should be a younger person. Why do we always portray the hobbyist as being from the ‘older’ generation?” I believe other artwork from the same campaign depicts an older gentleman wearing a stereotypical engineer’s cap, smoking a pipe. If the object of the campaign is to raise social awareness of the hobby, it seems to be the wrong place to start if ads and artwork internal to the hobby depict its participants as older, eccentric (for instance, with an attitude of childish possessiveness to model trains), and behind the times (smoking a pipe).

In other words, nobody connected with the campaign seems to be giving serious thought to whether the campaign itself is simply perpetuating the stereotypes that people concerned with improving the image of the hobby ought to be seeking to eliminate.

As I see it, the problem is that the hobby is trying to grow without changing — i.e., on its own terms. The campaign’s page on how to help model railroading grow is not very ambitious. And I think the hobby has recruited all the eccentric, retired obsessive-compulsives with plenty of basement space and disposable income as it is.

The real question the hobby should be asking, if it’s trying to grow itself, is this: who should we be recruiting? The corollary is: who else would find this train stuff interesting?

I think I have an answer: computer and engineering geeks. In a word, Dilbert. Both train nuts and tech geeks have high incidences of Asperger Syndrome, if nothing else, so there’s already some correlation; and there are model railroader’s clubs at MIT and Rensselaer.

I think it’d be a good fit. But I’m not sure the hobby as presently constituted would like it, because the tech folks would, I think, take the hobby in a different direction. I suspect they’d be less interested in operational and model realism and more interested in the electronics and software involved in controlling a layout. They wouldn’t care so much if a model is two scale feet too long or has three fans instead of four, but they’d take DCC and sound as a given, and push the industry as a whole to new levels of computer control and automation. Automated car traffic, like in museums. Microscopic video cameras in every cab. Locomotives that can operate themselves, even as wayfreights. Automated decouplers. ID chips on every freight car. Fast clocks integrated with locomotive control. That sort of thing.

If that happened, though, the hobby would freak. Some — the ones who fetishize real railroads — would think that what I’ve just hypothesized would emphasize the toy-like aspects of the hobby. Some — the portion that clings to DC operation, wants nothing to do with DCC and openly disdains sound — would feel left behind by the changes in technology; actually, they already do. And a hobby comprised of old, curmudgeonly men with funny hats is pretty socially conservative: fresh blood is not necessarily going to share their social values.

But if the hobby is going to grow, it’s going to have to expand.


  • Hi, Jonathan!

    I found this blog via metafilter. I think the keys to expanding the hobby are (1) getting kids early (and off the Thomas the Tank Engine brand bandwagon, and (2) as you noted, bringing the hobby into the computer age.

    For that you’d need some kind of addressable cars (as you note), but you also need a bus signalling system through the rail. You’d need to be able to address each engine in the system, give it instructions (go to next station, stop for 20 secs, etc) and let the train do the grunt work. Then interface it with the computer so you can put together “shows” of trains coupling decoupling etc.

    This way you could also connect one person’s railroad to another at a show, and address each other’s trains.

  • I vaguely remember an MR article that discussed the idea of a control system that could locate the train on the layout — it’d require a lot of blocks though, I think, more so than under a DC system. Unless I’m misremembering.