Model Railroading: A Waste of Time?

A reaction I encounter from time to time when talking about model railroading to someone outside the hobby is “What’s the point?”. The obvious response is to question the need for a ‘point’ – we find it enjoyable, and that should be reason enough – and this is a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with. However, I still think the following discussion of the benefits of the model railroading hobby beyond simple ‘fun’ may be of interest to the following three groups of people:
1. Those hobbyists who would like to defend their hobby to critical questioners.
2. Those who are considering getting into the hobby themselves, but find themselves held back by the thought that they should be doing something more ‘useful’.
3. Parents and grandparents who are wondering which of their (grand)children’s hobbies to encourage over others.

I put it to you that, on average, young people today have fewer practical skills than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. I don’t have a link to any research to support this assertion, and of course there will be both regional variation and numerous exceptions, but I don’t think the idea that basic practical skills have suffered somewhat in this information age should prove too controversial. As an example, a family friend in his twenties was recently surprised when his supervisor asked him to do some soldering as part of his Masters chemistry project. This is not part of your basic chemist’s skill set, and he said as much, at which the supervisor pulled a well-used old tome on practical electronics from a shelf and instructed him to learn. This was just one of many such moments he had during the course of his very hands-on project, all of which would have been avoided had the lad been involved in model railroading as a child!

Model railroading develops a broad range of practical skills. Layout design requires geometric drawing and an awareness of different materials and their uses. Basic woodworking is necessary to make your bench. Wiring the track, signals and other components demands a working knowledge of electronics. Building scenery generally involves cutting, gluing, painting and assorted other basic skills.

I realise the above (incomplete!) list may to do more to put off than encourage those in group 2 (thinking of taking up the hobby themselves), but there’s no reason for it to. One great aspect of the modern hobby is that it’s more accessible than it used to be, with, for example, very detailed rolling stock widely available that doesn’t need to be hand-painted. It’s not at all necessary for the beginning model railroader to scratchbuild or kitbash at first, but often these are skills that you will want to learn later. Practical skills can be learnt little-by-little, as and when you want to make your layout more ambitious.

The personal development potential of model railroading doesn’t stop at practical skills. Model railroading often goes hand-in-hand with an interest in the history of the railroad in your home country (and perhaps elsewhere), and this history is often inseparable from many of the important events in a country’s development. To take the United States as an example, the railroad was of central importance to the 1810-1850 industrial revolution, the development of the West immediately following that, and the victory of the North in the Civil War. If I were to make another un-researched and possibly unfair judgment about the youth of today, it would be that some are ignorant of the most rudimentary national history; an interest in model railroading avoids this danger.

If the model rail enthusiast joins a club, the hobby can help develop the skill of collaborating on a project, which should earn her some points at job interviews. ‘Teamwork’ and general social skills are something that many pastimes can claim to foster, but one advantage model railroading has over others is the potential for cross-generation interaction; there’s no reason why a 9- and a 90-year old can’t work together on the same layout.

Creativity is another personal trait that the hobby can help nurture. Designing an interesting layout is an opportunity to let your imagination run free, and painting and weathering a building or boxcar really well necessitates a high degree of artistic skill. A model railroad is almost never a finished, static creation; the possibilities for expansion and change are limited only by your imagination (and possibly by your space, though model railroaders can also be extremely inventive at finding ways to fit exciting layouts into small spaces).

Compare this list of benefits to the comparable list which could be made for today’s young person’s hobby of choice: video gaming. That depends on the game of course – teamwork could be claimed for a multiplayer game, and strategic thinking for something from the Civilization series. I’m not remotely anti-gaming, but I think you’d have a hard time finding a game which is both fun and boasts opportunities for real, useful personal enrichment comparable to those offered by model railroading.

Model railroading isn’t a panacea for all personal and societal ills, and I haven’t tried to convince you of that. What I have tried to do is make a compelling case for the hobby being more than just a fringe pastime, which some find fun. If you’re already a model railroader and have sceptical friends or colleagues who think your hobby’s a waste of time, I hope I’ve provided some ammunition for the next time such a debate arises. If you’re a would-be model railroader who’s on the fence about whether to take it up or not, I hope to have tipped the balance in model rail’s favour. Finally, if your child or grandchild has shown interest in the hobby, I hope I’ve convinced you that it’s something every bit worth encouraging.