Model Railroading: A Hobbyist Reborn

When I was a kid, I used to fantasize about trains. Specifically HO-scale model trains, the kind that the truly talented can use to create massively-detailed miniature worlds, and which I used as a mode of transportation for my G.I. Joe guys (not to mention as a timely plot device for rescuing Scarlett from danger … unfortunately her fellow Joes were not always successful…)

I had a nice-sized set that I set-up every year under the Christmas tree, but during the other 11 months of the year I spent time doodling layouts, reading Model Railroader Magazine in my grade school library, and drooling over the layouts in my friend Jeff’s basement, where his father had built not one, not two, but three HO-gauge set-ups.

Unfortunately, my parents didn’t have a basement, so I never had a chance to build a layout of my own (and the other options for building layouts – i.e. something that dropped from the ceiling in the garage or slide under the bed – just weren’t going to happen without extensive amounts of adult help and a lot of personal motivation).

By the time I got to high school, my trains were packed away in boxes (ok, that’s an exaggeration – more like “tossed into random corners of my room”) and I moved on to geekier hobbies.

Then the other day, as I was working in my basement, it hit me: I have a basement. And I got put stuff in it. Stuff like trains.

Now we bought our house in 1998, so you’d think that this should haven’t been that great of a realization, and in point of fact, the thought had occurred to me once or twice before. But it had been a passing speculation, like “hmm, I could finally build that train layout I always wanted”, which was promptly filed with the other ideas for things I’d like to have in my basement, like the Indiana Jones and Star Trek: The Next Generation pinball games.

What made the difference this time was the fact that I was actually organizing my power tools and building a work area downstairs. Now not only did I have the space to build a layout … I actually had the tools to do the job. And even more importantly, I had the desire to do the job (see the Manly Art of Power Tools for more on that) as well as plenty of proper inspiration (Taggert Transcontinental anyone?)

So I’ve been slowly getting back into the hobby. For Christmas this year, I built a simple layout – an O-gauge oval inside of an HO-gauge oval – and borrowed some train supplies from my in-laws to build a simple village. It’s nothing too impressive – all the trains do is go around in circles – but it works, and its got me thinking about the cool stuff I can do next year.

I got a subscription to Model Railroader, which amazingly enough still exists after all these years, and I’m hoping to pick up a book or two on railroading this Christmas. I’m slowly beginning to formulate an idea for a layout and sometime in the next few months I figure I’ll finally start building the layout I first dreamed about back in 2nd grade.

Of course, some might say that the last thing I need is another expensive hobby, and model railroading is not particularly cheap, especially when it comes to buying mechanical components like animated crossing guards, freight-car loaders, and new engines. And then there’s the time spent building stuff – that’s not cheap either, especially with a new baby less than 4 months away. This is all very true. It may sap time and finances from other hobbies, like gaming and HeroClix, but it also scratches an a growing mental itch I’ve had to actually build something.

Then again, model railroading actually complements some of my geekier hobbies – the same materials railroaders use to build their layouts can be used to create some really killer terrain for D&D and Clix…