Wednesday, November 29, 2006 at 8:26 pm

Prototype vs. Freelance

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In model railroading, there is a continuum between prototypical modelling — modelling a specific railroad, its locomotives, rolling stock, stations, operations and locales — at one extreme, and freelance modelling — a make-believe railroad that exists only in the imagination of the layout owner — on the other. Now, freelancing doesn’t necessarily mean that anything goes, and prototypical modelling doesn’t necessarily mean a rigid adherence to accuracy: you can model the Union Pacific, for example, and have impossible locomotive combinations, like a 4-12-2, a DD40AX and an AC6000CW. But in general, or in its most abstract sense, prototype modelling means fidelity to reality.

There is, of course, something in the middle; as Byron Henderson argued in a Layout Design Journal editorial, it’s a continuum, not a dichotomy. Some call the in-between state “proto-lancing” (the subject of a discussion on the LDSIG mailing list), others call it “prototype freelancing.” It may mean an imaginary division or subsidiary of a real railroad, or an otherwise freelanced railroad that adheres to real operating procedures or otherwise has a veneer of verisimilitude.

Tony Koester, the main proselytizer of the prototype freelancing concept, describes it as “freelancing within limits” in his book, Realistic Model Railroad Design, which might well be seen as a prototype freelancer’s manifesto: it talks about coming up with a plausible concept for a railroad — a raison d’être — as well as choosing a time frame and even a graphic design scheme for diesel engines that is appropriate for the era. The railroad, in his view, should make sense.

But, as John Bruce points out, “prototype freelancing” is frequently just a bit of rationalizing to justify using what’s on hand rather than prototypically accurate models. Bruce argues that prototype freelancing

can be interpreted as one way of dealing with the limited quality and selection of models in the 1960s and 70s. Not enough models were on the market to allow a committed modeler to reproduce even representative versions of the locomotive and car rosters for most railroads. As a result, if a modeler couldn’t easily put together equipment that would accurately represent a train of the Western Pacific or the Maine Central, he could say “I’m modeling a fictitious railroad that is like the Western Pacific or the Maine Centrral, but its equipment is coincidentally much closer to what I can obtain at my hobby shop.”

The modeler would name his railroad something like the “Salt Lake Western” or the “Portland and Bangor” and proceed from there. One esthetic difficulty of the approach was the highly abstruse reasoning modelers would engage in to explain their choices of region, name, route, traffic, and so forth. It was fictitious, it was done mostly to justify using what was on hand (which everyone knew), and past a very early threshold, it just didn’t matter.

In Realistic Model Railroad Design, Koester makes a similar point about his former layout, the Allegheny Midland, which is essentially the Nickel Plate relabelled and moved to the Appalachians, because he liked the Appalachian scenery and the Nickel Plate prototype. The justificatory gymnastics that occur afterwards are an implicit admission that “because I want to, dammit” is not sufficient, at least in the view of hard-core prototype modellers, and “because this is all that is available, and I’m making do” is hard to admit.

I’m in the same boat: I want to model southern British Columbia, and I’d like to model steam, but I can’t afford to purchase the brass models of the G4-, N2- and P1-class Canadian Pacific steam locomotives that would be required, and I’d rather not spend ten years researching the prototype before gluing down a single piece of track. So either I run nothing but diesels or I make up a freelanced line that connects to a dieselized Canadian Pacific — I chose the latter.

But there’s something to be said for the third option: run what you’d like, and quit worrying about it. Even if that means a GG1 and a Stephenson Rocket on the same track as a TGV.

1 Comment

  • I’m also more into “freelance”. For me, it’s more important to make things look more like the real thing ( I mean, weathering and stuff) than actually following an existing railroad prototype. If my railroad “might” exists somewhere, things are great then 😀