Did you ever receive a model/toy train set for the holidays? Do your children or grandchildren love Thomas the Tank Engine or the Hogwarts Express from Harry Potter? If you answer yes, then you may be ready to explore the world of model railroading. So many of us who are in the hobby today got started because of similar experiences. In Part One I told you of my personal story; now let’s look a little deeper into the hobby to see if it is right for you and your family.


Families visit Thomas the Tank Engine at the B&O Museum in 2011.
Photo by  W.F. Yarasko, by way of Flickr Creative Commons

If you are my age, 57, or close to it, you might remember the train sets of that time? The locomotives smoked, whistled, and had lights. The animated accessories loaded coal, cattle, and milk cans. There were the illuminated passenger cars with human figures silhouetted in the windows. There were also towns with little houses, schools, farms, and railroad stations. And the trains would run over bridges, through tunnels, and up and over other tracks on trestles. All of these items were available right out of the box 50 years ago. If the memory of these things touches you for the good, perhaps you are ready to take a closer look at model railroading.

That old saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same”, holds true for model railroading. A lot has changed in the hobby, but the bottom line is that it is still a lot of fun, and perhaps even more fun and rewarding than ever before. Back in the 1950’s there was a fairly large catalog of model trains; both Lionel and American Flyer offered hundreds of items. Today’s catalogs are printed in volumes, and the items available reach into the tens of thousands. The bells and whistles of the 1950’s are now specific to each locomotive prototype sound, and each locomotive is replicated down to the numbers of rivets on the tender. The thrill of watching a big black steam locomotive or a long slick streamliner running on your layout is truly more exciting than ever before!

So what if you are totally new to model trains, never had a train set as a kid, or you did have one and you are not quite sure that you can do it again? My answer goes to the heart of why so many are interested in this hobby and the answer is that model railroading opens a very wide door for everyone. It can be something you indulge in yourself, or involve the whole family. This wide reaching hobby in fact can offer something for everyone, so it can be truly a home entertainment center for all the family to enjoy together.  From the total novice to the highly experienced and talented modeler, model railroading has a place for everyone. You do not need to be an expert modeler or have vast knowledge of trains or the hobby. You do not have to stick to strict adherence to prototype models, operations, or locations. You can do whatever you want. And if you have a specific talent or interest, you can use that as your foundation and build around it. Let’s now look at this hobby for those who are total novices, and how they can get started.

For those just starting out there are complete starter sets in all scales. They are designed for the very beginner in the hobby. This is a good intro for those who want to test the waters for the first time. These sets can be set up on the floor or on a table; they don’t have to be tacked down. The track comes attached to the roadbed and they fit together very tightly. There are very few problems with separation of track during operations. This will give you a good starting point. These track systems can be expanded on with various different specialty tracks. Here are a few examples: switch tracks, (allowing you to go from one track to a second), crossovers (allowing you to cross one track with another in an X configuration), and a basic variety of curve radii. Many of these are sold in complete sets.

Now is a good time to bring the whole family into the hobby. Let them help set the trains up. It is just as simple for them as it is for you. By doing this it will help make model railroading a family project and it might help get the kids off the computer and into hands-on hobbies. Also, remember to let them operate the trains; letting them be a part of the model railroad will be very handy down the road.

If you start to find that the trains keep getting set up for longer and longer periods of times, and you keep looking to add on more and more items to your set, you might want to start to consider it may be time to go permanent. We’ll take a longer look at that in Part 4, but first, in Part 3 let’s take a look at what this hobby has to offer you today.

— Ray Del Papa

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