Friday, September 25, 2015

Book Review: Playing with Trains by Sam Posey

Sam Posey is described as a "Grand Prix legend" in the front of the book. Those outside the USA probably won't have heard of him but this apparently he raced in Formula 1 for a couple of years and various American series after this. (More details on Wikipedia) After this he became a racing pundit and worked in architecture.

All this makes him very different from the "average" railway modeller.

"Playing with trains" is split into two parts. The first covers the development of his modelling life from Lionel Trains as a child through the creation of a fully sceniced scale model railroad in the basement of his house.

A couple of things struck me. The first is that he seems to have very limited contact with the hobby, at least initially. One model shop and to start with, no model railway magazines. The book was published in 2004 so I assume the Internet hadn't made much impact during construction.

Much of the detail work relied on Ralph, a assistant who works with Sam on the line. Ralf works at the local model shop and knows about wiring and making miniature buildings. As far as I can tell, Ralph is employed in this role and for quite some time.

Eventually, Sam find other suppliers, although the Walthers Catalogue seems to play a big part, and Model Railroader magazine. The layout is eventually photographed and even makes the cover. Sam also starts to find other modellers and visits them, initially with trepidation lest their great efforts put his in the shade and kill his enthusiasm.

This doesn't happen, but I was fascinated by the "lone wolf" way he approaches the layout. My suspicion is that this is mainly due to the geography of the USA. People live huge distances apart and a trip to the local hobby store, club or an exhibition can be a major outing.

The second, and most important thread running through part 1, is the joy of building a model. I've not read anyone encapsulate the mania that can drive you while working on a project that is going well. Although they never set a time limit on the project, Sam obviously enjoys the planning and scenic work. He likes to do things properly too - how many beginners superelevate their curves?

The pleasure of building a model comes through in the text. I'd love to distill it when trying to explain to "normal" people why we do this.

Part 2 sees a trip around major manufacturers and modellers. He again we see the difference between the US and UK scene. At the time of writing, Model Railroader enjoyed as many sales as all the 4 main UK magazines put together. Going behind the scenes Sam finds a far bigger budget operation then any of our mags can muster, but then that's what you get when the market it so large!

Elsewhere it's not so good. City centre model stores are shrinking or shutting up shop. An annual set of tuition talks can't find anyone who wants to attend - making the writer wonder if people just don't want to learn stuff, preferring to blunder on as he did.

There's lots of talk of an aging population but it seems that these people are happy to spend on their hobby. An interesting split is shown between those who operate a layout and those who are more "artistic". In the book, it appears as a real chasm. Perhaps this is an extreme, with a large modelling population you can find the far ends of a spectrum. Operation is very much on the Australian model with groups visiting a fixed layout and running a schedule, although in the States they seem a lot less relaxed about it. No stubby holders attached to the baseboards there I suspect.

I'll admit I really enjoyed this book. As someone well immersed in the hobby, there was a fair bit of "why do it that way" going on ,especially in the first half, but overall I found it fascinating. If you have lost the ability to view what we do through the eyes of a newbie, I recommend it. In fact if you just fancy and interesting read about railroad modelling, give it a go.

Thanks to Paul B for putting me on to this.

Buy the book for tiny money on Amazon.

I wonder if there ought to be a British version?

1 comment:

Paul B. said...

It sounds like you enjoyed it as much as I did Phil! I like that part 1 is not about the finished layout, or even the nuts + bolts of building the layout, but the feeling of being totally engrossed in building something just for the sake of it.

Sam Posey contributes a chapter in The New Scenery Tips & Techniques on designing a layout to make it look bigger, with some good photos of his own HO empire.