Just say no to oval tracks

For model train enthusiasts, realism is paramount

Often, model railroading is literally an underground hobby. But Sam Posey is not content to leave it in the basement. Like many boys who grew up in the 1950s, he once had a Lionel model train, a traditional Christmas present of that period. Now, as an author, he plunges us into the world populated by those who've become serious model railroad enthusiasts. His new book, "Playing With Trains," is an exploration of a small-scale culture.

A race car driver for 20 years, as a father he had only a hazy image of what it meant to be a Lionel dad. But he decided to dust off his boyhood passion for scale-model railroading and build a layout with his son. It took 16 years. He even hired contractors to move a basement post so his foam cliff would look more realistic.

He became so enamored of the hobby and so impressed by the work of its followers that he sought out the country's finest modelers to find out what makes them tick. Many of them have had their masterpieces displayed in the pages of Model Railroader magazine. It, like Walthers, the largest wholesaler of model railroad products, is based in Milwaukee.

For most novices, the layout begins on a simple 4x8 plywood table. But serious modelers avoid this predictable and limiting shape. Oval layouts can't simulate realistic train operations, which appeal to sophisticated adult enthusiasts. For them, realism is paramount. They want layouts that allow trains to travel from point to point, to tell a story about an actual railroad. As Posey says, model railroading is like a play with a plot. Buffs gather at friends' homes for "operating sessions," in which they perform true-to-life freight operations using printed timetables.

Serious modelers often pick a time and place in history and try to re-create it in their carefully constructed, miniaturized scenes. In Posey's case, that was the late 1800s in a Western mining town. The quest for authenticity led him to study the Colorado Midland and shoot rolls of film on several trips to Colorado.

Among Posey's observations:

• Despite the introduction of new products, including preassembled model buildings and on-screen computer model railroading, the hobby still appeals most to those who are resourceful and patient and take pleasure in teaching themselves the craft. Ingenuity counts for more than money. Modelers relish the chance to fashion mountains from chicken wire, shrubs from steel wool, and ground cover from dyed sawdust.

• Many of the top modelers have beards, which Posey believes makes them look a bit like locomotives (with cowcatchers).

• Model railroading is a guy thing that appeals to men's interest in controlling a bit of the universe, regardless of how small, and mastering machines. That women are less fascinated was once driven home to Posey when his 13-year-old daughter and a friend built him a stunning layout. The scenery was great, but they neglected to include one thing: tracks.

Ross Atkin is on the Monitor staff.

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