The Preeminence of Data

Preface: Although this post is about model railroading, it applies to any sort of model-building hobby.  Whew.  Glad that’s out of the way!

You may have gathered by now that one of my main hobbies is model railroading.  In fact, several of my others tie into it, directly or indirectly.  And amongst model railroaders, there is a well-known maxim known as Rule No. 1.  Rule No. 1 states quite simply, “It’s MY railroad!”.  In case you haven’t ever been around model railroaders, they can be quite an arrogant lot.  The worst of them are what we call “rivet-counters”, those annoying people who delight in finding the minute flaws in other people’s work.  These people are avoided and vilified, unless of course you need to farm out a modeling project that you yourself don’t have time or skills or tools for.  Then, occasionally, they have a certain usefulness.

Anyway– Rule No. 1 was formulated as a defense against rivet-counters.  When someone tries to correct the errors of a fellow model-builder, at last resort one can always fall back on Rule No. 1, often followed by an emphatic expletive. Ultimately, it’s my hobby and I will do it the way I want to do it, dang it!  Rule No. 1 is useful, and realistic, and a great tool for ending an argument, because whatever else a rivet-counter may be, in his heart he acknowledges the jurisdiction of the rule, even if he feels compelled to display his superior knowledge about the other guy’s work.  It’s the 38th parallel of the hobby world; you simply do not cross it.

But, as it turns out, Rule No. 1 is wrong.  Flawed.  Untrue.  A veritable sham.  A big, fat lie.

What? you cry.  How can it be a sham?  It IS my hobby, isn’t it?  <grabs torch and pitchfork>

Your Honor, the defense would like to call its first witness.  Mister Name-of-the-Hobby, would you take the stand?  Thank you.  Do you swear to pretty much say whatever I want you to say?  Very well.  Now, sir, would you please state for the record, your name?


Isn’t that just your phony name?  I want you to tell us your REAL NAME!  Let me remind you that you’re under oath!

<squirms> Model railroading.

Louder!  So that the jurors in the back row can hear you!


Thank you .  No further questions.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we have just established that the name of this hobby is “Model Railroading”.  That implies that it’s building small models of real railroads.  If you’re not doing that, you’re playing with a toy trainset on the living room floor.  No, people, a model is a realistic and accurate representation of something else.  (Except for those “models” in the fashion biz, which are not detectably real in any sense of the word.)  So, therefore, a “model” railroad is supposed to represent a “real” railroad, accurately.  Even so-called Freelancers are building their fantasy worlds using non-fantasy railroad equipment, because if they didn’t, it wouldn’t feel convincing.  In fact, unless they create a convincing backstory for their free-lanced empire, it would be highly uninteresting.  So, even a made-up model is an accurate representation of a fantasy.  Yes, this sounds weird, but it is true.  I have to thrash this expiring nag so that I can move on to the real point I’m aiming at.

So you think it’s your railroad?  But the fact is, you are making a copy of someone ELSE’s railroad.  Somebody in the real world, with real trains and real employees and real stockholders and a real board of directors… and a real CEO.  And guess what?  It’s HIS railroad.  Not yours.

I can just see Mr. CEO telling the board, “See Rule No. 1, guys.”

OK.  Say I am trying to build a small version of something real (or fantasy). For now let’s stay in the real world. Well, we must now ask the question: How?  How do we know what to model?  Well, I like the Union Pacific / Santa Fe / Nickel Plate / Whatever.  Nope, not good enough.  How do you KNOW what to model?  Well, I bought this train online that was painted for the Rio Grande– that’s good enough, right?  Maybe not.  How do you KNOW?

One simple word: Research.

Refer to my previous series on building the USS Midway, and ask me how much RESEARCH I conducted in the course of that project.  Let me tell you, it was massive. More hours than I can possibly count!  Far more than I spent actually working on the model itself.  Like they told us in grade school: Do your homework.

“Oh come ON,” you say.  “Like, duh?  Isn’t that obvious?  OK, fine, I’ll go buy a book about this railroad I want to model.”  Well, that’s a good place to start.  After all, it’s hard to do actual research if you don’t know what questions to ask.  But there’s a lot more to do.

Let’s take the subject of anachronism, which is where you place two things from different times into the same scene, impossible in the real world but all too common in model-building and in Doctor Who episodes.  Say, a nascent model railroader and his buddy are having the following conversation…

I’m going to build a layout based on the Plywood Pacific!

  • When?

Starting today, I think.

  • No.  I mean, when in time are you going to model the PP?  What era?

Oh.  Well… I hadn’t really thought about it.

  • Well, what kind of equipment do you like?

Um, well, steam and diesels I guess.

  • You do realize that diesels replaced steam, right?  They usually didn’t run together much, except during the transition era.  And that would only be a few first-generation diesels and a few very late model steamers. You’d have to research the details though.

Oh.  When was the transition era?

  • Depends.  On the PP, that could be any time between say 1940 and 1958.  Pretty wide mix.  Lots of change during that time, too.

Great!  I have a Central Pacific 4-4-0 American that I want to run with a BNSF ES44C4.  I can do that in the transition era, right?

  • <starts banging head against wall>

But, the Plywood Pacific tycoon decides to do research and discovers that the 4-4-0 locomotive ran in 1868 and the ES44C4 was built in 2011.  He wisely concludes that these probably shouldn’t even be in the same house, much less on the same track at the same time.  He selects the late transition era to model, which will limit his choices of rolling stock and motive power, but allows him to run an occasional steam locomotive with his mostly-diesel fleet.  Anachronism averted.

So now we come to two real-world examples of how research sometimes looks.  A fellow Rio Grande fanatic and I recently started a conversation on the subject of the road’s GP40 fleet. These diesels are interesting to us because they were numerous, had long lives, came in several waves, and often received a number of modifications over time.  This last item was the subject of an ongoing discussion, where we started noticing odd little quirks on this unit or that, segued into trying to detect patterns, which led to noticing even more oddities and unique features.  Finally, I started to realize that what was needed was a “comprehensive” catalog of detail changes over time for the entire GP40/GP40-2 fleet.  So I began scouring the internet for images of each and every locomotive, all 103 of them.

I learned so much.  Now, keep in mind that the oldest of these locomotives was built in the mid-1960s, but some were not acquired until the early 1980s.  Shortly after that the Rio Grande merged with the Southern Pacific, and eight years later with the Union Pacific.  All of these changes of ownership meant that the locomotive fleet’s standards also changed.  We’re talking about appliances, mostly– headlights, horns, plows, that kind of thing that modelers obsess over.  But the biggest learning for me was to discover how many modifications were made by the Rio Grande itself, prior to any of the mergers.  Which, in turn, has implications for our modeling efforts.  It tells us what configurations of the locomotives can be run during particular time periods.  Research which yields data which drives choices and ultimately leads to better realism.  And that is one of our main goals, after all.

A second example involves contemporary Amtrak paint schemes.  For those who pay attention to such things, Amtrak has gone through five major schemes (or phases) on its western equipment since the 1970s; four since the inauguration of the double-decker Superliner fleet.  (I’m not talking about locomotives here; that’s a separate subject.)  The current scheme is called Phase IVb because it’s essentially a modified rendering of Phase IVPhase IVb consists of a blue stripe with alternating white and red pinstripes above it– two pairs in all. But it also has a half-width white strip above the top red stripe, something that Phase IV did not have.  Phase IVb was rolled out somewhere around 2006.  Now, at first glance it just looks like they just removed the large SUPERLINER script, but there’s a lot more to it than that– such as that little white stripe mentioned above.  However, at a distance the changes are not that significant…

… until you start looking closely.  And I don’t just mean the differences between the phases, but even the differences within the phases.  Thanks to my entry into the digital camera world in 2007, I obsessively take photos of Amtrak trains whenever I can. Lo and behold, I discovered that there are differences between cars wearing Phase IVb.  Why?  How?  When?


Long story short, I plowed through my photos and extracted data on car numbers, shades of numerals, shades of the Amtrak “Travelmark” logo, and most importantly the date and place of these observations.  Gathering this data allows me to, ahem, track the trends over time and see if they make any sense.

Why did I care?  Because I wanted to print some decals and re-letter some model Amtrak cars to match the modern era paint scheme, and I had to get it right, that’s why.  Simply recycling the art from Phase IV would have been a mistake, as it turns out.  The colors are just plain different, and there are variations.  (The IVb stripes are a different shade of blue from Phase IV.  The color of the numerals and Travelmark were initially light blue, but were difficult to see against the stainless steel car bodies, so they were gradually replaced with darker versions.)  Having the data enables me to create authentic artwork, and to apply it in authentic combinations to the model railcars.

The Data makes an accurate representation of Reality possible, and therefore more convincing. Plus, it gives you a story to tell to the visitors to the layout who ask, Why are the colors different on these two cars?

I know you’re dying to ask: do I operate my Rio Grande GP40’s with my Amtrak Phase IVb Superliner cars?  No.  I don’t.  That would be an anachronism, and therefore abhorrent.  But if I chose to do so?  Please refer to Rule No. 1.

It’s My railroad.


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