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Model Railroading Is Railroading On A Bench Top

Aug 17, 2007
The hobby of model railroading has been around for almost 100 years. Every Christmas, no matter where in the country we live, Santa would bring a train set and tracks, and it would run round and round the Christmas Tree.

Then, as soon as the Christmas tree would be taken down, the train set was stowed away in its packing box. It would sit in the family closet until next Christmas. Many times, another train set would join the older train set. Then, the two train sets would run around the tree. Oh what fun!

Just before World War II, a number of very interesting things happened. First and foremost was the emergence of the Lionel Corporation. About the same time, a man named A.C. Gilbert was launching his own company to be known as American Flyer. Suddenly, toy trains became real.

Lionel modeled a train set in the exact likeness of the New York Central. It sold in 1940 for over $200, a stupendous price in that day for a train set. American Flyer produced a number of very accurate models of both the New York Central and the New Haven railroads, which also sold for a very heavy price tag.

Soon thereafter, a number of authors wrote books showing how to design various track layouts. These showed how to install switches, build railway stations and houses, trees, and model factories. All at once, toy trains were evolving into model railroads. After WW II, model railroading took off and has not stopped since. A new industry and hobby was born.

What made it all happen? I believe it was the emergence of HO Scale as the model size of choice. The very first toy trains were scaled at a half inch to the actual foot. Lionel produced its toy trains at a quarter inch to the actual foot. This was known as O Gauge.

However, it was HO Scale that really launched the hobby. While Lionel and American Flyer produced excellent replicas of the New York Central and other railroads, they were just too big to fit inside a house or apartment.

In June of 1948, Gordon Varney, founder of Varney Model Railroads, issued the second of his "Commemorative Cars". This was the Hollywood And Western. The H&W was a refrigerator car from the famous pioneering model railroad layout belonging to Jim Trout, Sam Raymond, and Dick Sutphen. Varney came up with the name and made the sides for the reefer car when he visited the layout at Trout's home prior to World War II. At the end of the war, Varney decided there was a market for private owner car sides, and began producing HO scale refrigerator cars with Hollywood and Western markings. This car kit, along with the Firewater & Kicking Horse boxcar (Heritage Collection Issue No. 8), were the first recorded mass-produced private owner cars ever made available to the public in HO scale.

Varney soon had very good competition. In the late 1940s, the Athearn Corporation entered the HO Scale market. Athearn is an American manufacturer of model railroad equipment, produced and distributed by American hobby manufacturer Horizon Hobby of Champaign, Illinois, USA.

The story of Athearn really began in 1938, when its founder, Irv Athearn, started an elaborate O-scale layout in his mother's house. After placing an ad selling the layout and receiving much response to it, Irv decided that selling model railroads would be a good living. He sold train products out of his mother's house through most of the 1940s.

After becoming a full-time retailer in 1946, Irv Athearn opened a separate facility in Hawthorne, Ca in 1948, In that same year, he branched into HO for the first time.

Irv Athearn died in 1991. New owners took control in 1994, but Irv's commitment to offer high-quality products at reasonable prices remained. Athearn was bought in 2004 by Horizon Hobby Inc. Athearn was then moved from its facility in Compton to a new state-of-the-art facility in Carson, California.

Another company, Wm. K. Walthers, Inc., is dedicated to manufacturing and distributing high quality model railroad equipment worldwide. Walthers carries over 85,000 different items for model layouts from over three hundred manufacturers. The company supplies model railroading products to thousands of hobby shops around the globe!

Under the leadership of Bruce Walthers, the company became the largest distributor of model railroad products in the world. Mr. Walthers successfully transferred the family business to the third generation in 1984, remaining active as Chairman of the Board of Wm. K. Walthers, Inc. to the present. He was a Board member and served as President of both the Model Railroad Industry Association and the Hobby Industry Association of America (HIAA). On January 28 of this year, Mr. Walthers passed away.

Undoubtedly, thanks to the work of Walthers and other firms, the most popular scale today is HO gauge (or OO gauge in Britain). The name HO came about because the scale is half that of O gauge. Because HO is only half the size of O gauge, this enables four times as much railway to be built in the same space as would be in O gauge. Trains can have twice as many cars as would be practical on an O gauge

HO gauge is still a scale large enough to incorporate a reasonable amount of detail in your layout. Your hobby shop dealer can give you a comparison between all model railroad gauges. The thing that should be uppermost in your mind is your space limitations in your home or apartment.

There is an enormous amount of ready to roll stock available in HO gauge, more so than in any other scale. This makes the construction of a proprietary layout where all of the rolling stock is off the shelf a relatively easy matter. The similarly wide range of kits and scratch building components also makes it suitable for the beginners layout where it is intended to move on to kit building and scratch building as soon as the you feel that you are ready.

This brings up the most endearing feature of model railroading. Because of the wealth of equipment offered by Walthers, Athearn, and other suppliers, you are totally free to model anything you wish. The only limitations are (1) your imagination, (2) your available space where you live, (3) your finances, and (4) an understanding spouse.

HO models offer brass replicas imported from Japan and Korea of some of the greatest steam engines ever built. You can build a model railroad depicting steam, early diesel, or current diesel engines. You can build a model railroad representing railroads that have since gone out of business or else have been acquired via merger.

Some of the most notable but extinct passenger trains like the Empire Builder or New York Central 20th Century Limited are running once again. You can check your model railroad supply catalog to see what's available.

The other popular scale today is N gauge. It is called N gauge because the track gauge is nine millimeters and N is the first letter of the word "nine" in most countries where N gauge is used.

The advantage of N gauge is that because it is so small, there is room to run long trains. A four-coach passenger train in N gauge may be only slightly longer than an O gauge locomotive. Also with N gauge it is possible to fit it into a reasonable amount of the surrounding countryside and still have enough space for the trains. With N gauge you can achieve the effect of full length trains running through open countryside without requiring an aircraft hanger to house the layout.

The disadvantage of N gauge is that because it is so small, it is very difficult to include many of the minute details available in the larger scales. Even when you find a way to include the small detail you are very likely wasting your effort, because it will be so small that many people will not be aware that it is there (except for you of course).

Therefore the aim with N gauge should be to present the broad picture rather than the smaller details. N gauge can be used for small shunting layouts but does not appear as realistic as can be achieved with a larger scale. N gauge works best with long trains and plenty of open countryside. Thus it (paradoxically) really needs more room than layouts built in the larger scales.

There is a reasonable amount of ready to run stock available in N gauge, especially for those who model American railroads. Kits and scratch building components also exist although constructing models is made more difficult by the smaller size of the models.

Today, almost a half million model railroading enthusiasts are out there. They range in age from their early teens to very gray senior citizens. They flock to model railroading hobby shops located in every town and hamlet. They build model railroads as small as N Gauge to as large as G Scale garden railroads. They model all types of locomotives, cars, buildings, bridges, rivers and waterfalls, factories, coal yards, and everything in between. Their model railroads represent all of the principal rail lines that presently operate to a thousand or more fictitious rail lines that exist only in model form.

Model railroads represent every time era of American and world history. The time spent by these modelers is endless, where the model railroad may get more attention than the newborn baby. The quest for realism is equally endless, where models emit authentic sound effects, go through signaling systems, and even have video cameras mounted in the locomotives to perform a railroad video of the model itself.

I would begin your quest for your greatest model railroad by visiting the local hobby store. Spend a few hours browsing through the various displays and seeing what is out there. Do not be afraid to ask questions because these guys are just as anxious to have you as a new customer as you are to have a model railroad with endless fun. Do a search on the web for all related topics, and above all, subscribe to the leading model railroading publications.

Also, please do not get lost in your basement, and above all, keep the family cat away from your layout.
About the Author
Bob Carper is a veteran information systems consultant. He holds a BS and an MBA degree. He is an ardent railfan and belongs to the New York Central Historical Society. If you want to get a conference together with fellow railroaders, go to http://www.secure-webconference.citymax.com
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