Would make for some steamy slash
February 20, 2014 3:53 AM   Subscribe

Interesting article. I'm a fledging railfan (I spend a lot of time on YouTube watching trains), and I often wonder why I am as interested as I am. Why am I going to spend the equivalent of $30 to purchase a rail freight schedule so I can track down my favourite locomotive? Why? Why?
posted by KokuRyu at 4:30 AM on February 20 [2 favorites]

posted by pracowity at 4:34 AM on February 20 [6 favorites]

Model railroads were also a prototype of computer hacking.
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:41 AM on February 20 [8 favorites]

I see what you did there, choo choo! Woo Woo!!
posted by sammyo at 4:56 AM on February 20

Nice to see model railroading get a little love. Sometimes it seems that it rates down there with cock-fighting as something you'd be willing to admit to in public.

Alot of people simply settle for creating the railroads they saw as kids. Some who are more 'serious' about it will settle on a very specific railroad at a known time and place (or evokes that time and place), and the pursuit of verisimilitude is for them an important part of the hobby.

Is it fanfiction? Perhaps, in that it's often reconstructing part of a known "world". Unlike fan-fiction, most railroaders don't dwell on, or share their narrative, they just offer up the setting, and it's usually more about having a plausible starting point for displaying and running the trains than a celebration of the chosen prototype.

Next topic - when Grandad puts on overalls and a striped cap to run his trains, is that cosplay?

H Jack, thanks for the link re TMRC. I didn't know that...
posted by Artful Codger at 5:05 AM on February 20 [6 favorites]

Calling model railroading fanfiction seems like stretching the definition pretty far, and for no good reason. (Other than as a literary device for drawing parallels between the two hobbies.) It's obviously not fanfiction by any conventional definition of the term, though it's interesting to note that the two pursuits, while quite different, share a good bit of common ground. Still, I feel like model railroading is more than enough of a Thing on its own terms and we don't need to go trying to redefine things to fit it under the umbrella of a different hobby.

Next up: is geocaching sculpture? Is programming a sport? Is stock market investing heroin? Is retro house music knitting?
posted by Scientist at 5:14 AM on February 20 [16 favorites]

I love model railways, and have being enjoying this series of how-to videos.
posted by mattoxic at 5:15 AM on February 20 [4 favorites]

It's probably fair to say that model railroading might have been one of the first true forms of geekery. It's quite different from fanfic, though.

Is programming a sport?

It's the closest I get to sport.
posted by Foosnark at 5:18 AM on February 20

This lends credence to my theory that Thomas the Steam/Tank Engine is speculative fiction of a dystopic future where autonomous vehicles become as incompetent as the humans they replaced.
posted by furtive at 5:26 AM on February 20 [20 favorites]

is geocaching sculpture? Is programming a sport? Is stock market investing heroin? Is retro house music knitting?

yes, yes, yes, and hmm...
posted by yeolcoatl at 5:33 AM on February 20 [5 favorites]

The other big difference that I see (other than the lack of narrative in model railroading, which seems like the biggest one) is that model railroad enthusiasts are geeking out about obscure details in the real world rather than in fictional worlds. I think that puts them more in line with the people who care deeply about the details of 19th Century baseball uniforms than people who write fanfic.

Thinking about model trains at all, though, is bringing back some strong childhood memories from when my dad's friends were all into model trains. I loved their little setups so much, and always made them show them and explain them to me whenever we were over at their houses. I just assumed that as an adult I would spend a lot of money on model trains. Much like how I assumed that, once I was free of my parent's tyrannical saving, I would buy the $200 geodes they sell at museum stores all the time. Neither one of these things came to pass, unsurprisingly.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 5:36 AM on February 20 [6 favorites]

This totally changes my opinion of Sheldon Cooper.
posted by briank at 5:46 AM on February 20

If I was a model railroad nerd I would come down on this hard in self defense.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 5:51 AM on February 20

I think the better comparison is to crafting, that catch-all-term that includes everything from scrapbooks to refinishing furniture. Both get dismissed -- crafting as domestic and feminized, not high-art or economically productive; model railroads as something odd guys do down in the basement instead of something normal like watching sports. In both cases the amazing thing to me is the amount of time and artistry that goes into the effort with absolutely zero expectation of financial or public reward.

strong childhood memories from when my dad's friends were all into model trains

That must have been a thing, because there was a year or two when literally all the men my father worked with were building model trains. If I ever end up living in a house with the space, I would love to build one.

Relatedly, in the new season of House of Cards, Kevin Spacey's character relaxes from his scheming and manipulating by painting and building a model of a civil war battle. All it would need is a train running through it to fit right in.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:55 AM on February 20 [4 favorites]

Thomas the Steam/Tank Engine is speculative fiction of a dystopic future

But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Fat Controller.
posted by pracowity at 6:02 AM on February 20 [11 favorites]

Fanfiction and model railways are both instances of the one great childhood game, Let's Pretend.
posted by Wolfdog at 6:08 AM on February 20 [5 favorites]

This thread has reignited a wish to see the Pendon Museum near Oxford again (the last time I went was probably about forty years ago). It includes a layout called The Madder Valley Railway, an enormous fantasia built by one man during the 1930s, which I think is a lot closer to the obsessiveness of Tolkien and Middle-Earth than fan-fic as I understand it.

I wonder if one difference isn't that fan-fic is engaging with a consensus reality - all participants share the same point of contact with the narrative universe and are subject to its narrative rules - but that model railway layouts are a part of a culture where people go off and do their own thing by themselves (although the worlds do have strict internal consistence - Tolkien's reliance on Anglo-Saxon and Celtic narratives or Madder Railway's creator John Ahern's statement that “Most of my buildings are derived from something, but they are not exact copies”). Tolkien would a be a particularly celebrated example, but the group would more often shade into outsider artists such as Henry Darger, and also contain creative leaders who, of necessity, brought groups of people into their distinctive worlds (such as Sun Ra or Captain Beefheart).

There are also the places where people are expressing distinctive personal narratives in a shared universe - I'd suggest that MOOs are a good example of this. I think Minecraft, though definitely the older, purely text versions such as LambdaMOO.

Hmm. I need to go and check, see if LambdaMOO is still online.
posted by Grangousier at 6:11 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]

I used to make Barbie houses out of shoeboxes and end tables because we couldn't afford the Dream House. Fanfiction!
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:12 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]

I think both stem from the same origins in the human mind - the desire to render a portion of the world manageable, controllable, and responsive to one's interests/ideas/will. But if I try to think about what other antecedents there are for either fan fiction or model railroading, I can go back a lot farther. The history of the creation of contained, realistic worlds in space includes ship modeling, the presepi of Southern Italy, Egyptian funerary traditions, automata and clockwork toys, Dutch dollhouses - you could go on. I think this writer has identified an element of fantasy and imagination and a desire to control nature and direct the shape of a small reality that is common to both pastimes, but there's no argument for a real causal relationship or a unique similarity - they both belong to the same realm of human impulse.
posted by Miko at 6:13 AM on February 20 [6 favorites]

Maybe fanfic is a form of model railroading.
posted by carter at 6:28 AM on February 20 [6 favorites]

The New England States Limited charged forward down the track, a sheen of steam glistening on its powerful flanks. It steamed ahead, heedless of anything but the Hoosac Tunnel coming up fast before it, open, inviting. With a shudder of desire, it plunged into the tunnel.

Then it stopped.

The New England States Limited sat still for a moment. It was there. It was in the Hoosac Tunnel. After so many months of longing and loneliness, it was inside the tunnel at last.

Slowly, carefully, the New England States Limited began to back up. Not too quickly. It wanted this moment to last forever.
posted by Naberius at 6:29 AM on February 20 [15 favorites]

The other big difference that I see (other than the lack of narrative in model railroading, which seems like the biggest one) is that model railroad enthusiasts are geeking out about obscure details in the real world rather than in fictional worlds

Wait until you see my awesome Game of Thrones railroad set up! The King's Landing stop even has a tiny gibbet!
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:30 AM on February 20

Broadly speaking, all the useless hobbies share a lot in common with fanfic. Civil war re-enactors, model makers of all stripes, super-duper Trek nerds, role-playing gamers, etc are all about vicarious experience.

Knitting, on the other hand, keeps your head warm. Like useless hobbies, it offers little chance of fame or riches, yet there are AFAIK few knitters worried about using historically accurate patterns or materials.
posted by Western Infidels at 6:39 AM on February 20

yet there are AFAIK few knitters worried about using historically accurate patterns or materials.

It may be a small percentage of total knitters but my stepcousin and her spinning wheel would like to disagree. She cards her own wool.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:42 AM on February 20 [4 favorites]

I think the analogy works as a way to explain the appeal of historical and quasi-historical modeling to a community where fanfic and cosplay are influential activities. If the story was pitched to sports geeks, likely it would be framed in terms of history and statistics. ("This tiny rail line in Canada averaged 67.843 passengers a day along with 2.423 tons of cargo in the 1920s!" "This was the first to provide daily service across South Dakota!")
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 6:52 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]

Model railways are an example of the superclass of fan fiction, up one level of abstraction, with time replaced by space.
posted by acb at 6:54 AM on February 20

Thomas' funnel quivered slightly, spurting eager clouds of smoke into the darkening sky. His firebox rumbled. Slowly, pensively, he began to roll backward toward Percy.

"Thomas, what are you doing?" Percy tooted. "I'm right here behind you..."

"I know," said Thomas, "but it's time we stopped pretending. It's all just confusion and delay, isn't it? Don't you get tired of that? Is that useful?"

"What are you saying?"

"Percy, just stop. You know what I want. I don't care what the others think anymore."

"Thomas..." Percy's wheels squeaked forward ever so slightly, then stopped.

"Yes, Percy. It's time. I need this. I need you to bust my buffers."
posted by middleclasstool at 7:01 AM on February 20 [7 favorites]

What, no Swayze Train?
posted by symbioid at 7:28 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]

The main thing I know about model railroads comes from a guy on one of the game boards I frequent.

When people complain about the "high price of role playing games" he laughs.

Model railroads are subject to a similar problem as rpgs: aging and contracting base, declining markets and profits, etc..

And the big similarity? A model railroading convention can have hundreds of well-adjusted people who dress normally from various backgrounds. When the news team shows up to do a story who are they going to talk with? That's right, the single nut who showed up wearing striped coveralls and an engineers hat.

In other words, it doesn't matter what you play, you can't win.
posted by happyroach at 7:30 AM on February 20 [6 favorites]

No, it's not fanfiction. If it's any literary genre, it's Choo-Choo-Choose Your Own Adventure.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 7:30 AM on February 20 [6 favorites]

You mean something long and hard going through tunnels over and over again might have some metaphorical implications?

posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:30 AM on February 20

I'd say it's a sort of Alternate Universe creation, which much of fanfiction is also.
posted by NoraReed at 7:34 AM on February 20

If model railroad builders are making fanfics, some foamers would be the 'shippers of the railfan world.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:38 AM on February 20

Meanwhile, in Germany, they just mash everything together and go for it. Come for the ridiculous narration, stay for the guy getting head in the sunflower field. (SFW)
posted by The Bellman at 7:39 AM on February 20 [2 favorites]

I'd say model railroading certainly qualifies as a fanwork. (There are more fanworks than just fanfiction: fanart, cosplay, filk, fanvid, etc.) Lack of narrative kinda disqualifies it from being fanfiction, though.
posted by asperity at 7:42 AM on February 20 [2 favorites]

My young son really got into trains at a young age despite not being around or riding on them. I did the same thing as a kid. I've been chalking the fundamental interest up to some kind of visual stimulus prey instinct or such; I still remember being mesmerized by the snakelike movement of the train zig-zagging back and forth. Very cathartic.
posted by davejay at 7:49 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]

No, it's not fanfiction. If it's any literary genre, it's Choo-Choo-Choose Your Own Adventure.

I can't stand the Mary Choo characters in either.
posted by jaduncan at 7:52 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]

I also remember that watching the engine (sans cars) go around felt pointless, as did running a simple circle or oval. It was the twisting and turning of the full train that felt purposeful.
posted by davejay at 7:53 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]

Knitting, on the other hand, keeps your head warm.

Have you ever watched people playing tabletop RPGs? Cool heads are not a widespread problem.
posted by Foosnark at 8:07 AM on February 20

My God, just imagine the country songs that could be written from that list of railfan jargon filthy light thief linked to! It would be like C.W. McCall's Convoy, except with trains instead of trucks. And it would be like a whole country music opera.
posted by Naberius at 8:14 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]

Relatedly, in the new season of House of Cards, Kevin Spacey's character relaxes from his scheming and manipulating by painting and building a model of a civil war battle.

Wait, so he's not playing Halo, or whatever that shoot'em up game was anymore? Man, that guy drops hobbies like he drops witty, knowing asides to the people behind the fourth wall.
posted by Atom Eyes at 8:49 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]

Foosnark: It's probably fair to say that model railroading might have been one of the first true forms of geekery.
One could add that it is specifically a more recognizable and recognizably-modern sphere of what is sometimes denoted by "geekery"; and see RPGs and miniature wargaming, which you and others also mentioned:
The hobby got its start around the beginning of the 20th century, with the publication of Jane's naval war rules and H. G. Wells' Little Wars in 1913.
posted by yz at 8:55 AM on February 20

It would be like C.W. McCall's Convoy, except with trains instead of trucks.

You mean like C.W. McCall's The Silverton? I have been told that the actual Silverton train plays the song on repeat through the entire trip.
posted by asperity at 9:05 AM on February 20

Train-ing Day by PBO
Pat Monahan wakes up one day to find himself magically transported to the Island of Sodor, where Detective Alonzo Harris takes him under his wing and teaches him how to fight railway crime.
Rated: T - English - Romance/Drama/Adventure/Mystery/Sci-Fi/Angst/Hurt/Comfort - Chapters: 12 - Words: 16,417 - Reviews: 3 - Favs: 4 - Follows: 12 - Updated: 27m ago - Published: Feb 20
posted by prize bull octorok at 9:28 AM on February 20

Knitting, on the other hand, keeps your head warm.

This assumes that you are knitting primarily to produce clothing. Most knitters that I know do it for the sake of the experience, which is something that can be said about almost all hobbies, with the output being mostly ancillary (and frequently given away). A lot of hobbyist woodworkers are the same way; they're producing something (bowls seem to be popular), and aiming for some sort of self-defined platonic ideal of perfection, but they're not doing it because they needed a bowl. In the sense of ending up with a functional item, it's a waste of time — you could much more easily just buy a manufactured item with much less investment. But the point isn't the bowl as a functional item, it's the functional item which is also artistic output.

They're both fundamentally artistic endeavors, because they involve the relationship between an artist and output, a creative process, some sort of goal, etc. And I think model railroading is the same way.

I don't think the point of building a model railroad layout is to simply have a model railroad as a toy to play with. I mean, I think people do that occasionally once they've built one, but most people build it, then continue building it, tweaking it, improving it, etc., with no particular end goal. It's pretty rare to find someone with a "finished" model railroad layout that they are perfectly happy with. But it's iterative in the sense that people build it, interact with it, build it some more, etc. It's just that there's no intermediate products, like you'd get with knitting or quilting or painting; most people just keep manipulating the same final work indefinitely.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:47 AM on February 20 [2 favorites]

If you want to get technical about it I would say model railroads are a form of elaborate and extensive world-building.

Fanfic on the other hand rarely engages in world-building. The world is already built; that's kind of the point.

Also, I'm not aware of model railroads having any sort of plot mechanics or narrative involved. Although perhaps the hobbyists build stories in their heads about the tiny people on the sets. (I certainly do when I play the Sims franchise, which is a very similar hobby.)
posted by ErikaB at 10:06 AM on February 20

It's probably fair to say that model railroading might have been one of the first true forms of geekery

Rod Stewart, Neil Young, and Johnny Cash (among others) might beg to differ... or, on second thought, might cop to the description entirely, who knows? (A little more about Rod's collection here.)
posted by scody at 11:54 AM on February 20

Just seeing the photo at the top of the article gave me warm fuzziness. My father was a train nut. After my parents divorced, I only stayed with him every other weekend, but a good amount of that weekend had to do with trains, real and model. Saturday's could be tracking down a box car in a hobby shop, or fiddling with his train layout in the basement. Sundays we would get up early, have his proprietary coffee cocoa* and drive out to the train yards in and around Kalamazoo. We would sit and watch the trains go by, watch the engineers put together long series of boxcars and tanker cars. We'd wave to the engineers, they'd blow the horn. Occasionally we'd even be allowed into a switching tower (that it was all done manually, with four foot tall levers, with handles on top even then blew my mind) or an idle engine. My older sister was even allowed, once, to 'drive' a train for a quarter mile.

Any time I see model trains, I remember that stuff. I sit and fantasize about building my own layout, putting all the trains together, searching for the period specific buildings and models that would make it complete. In a way, I'm lucky that I don't have the space or money to do this. Hell, a part of me would love, absolutely love to attempt an N-gauge scale model of the train system in and around Tokyo (it would be... big). At the same time, I've always wondered about the people who finish their layout. To me, the whole journey is the planning, building, and painting. Once it's done, what? And yeah, I guess the whole point is just to sit, watch the trains go around, and smile.

*Recipe as follows: instant coffee, spoonfull of chocolate milk mix, sugar, fill three fourths of the way to the top with boiling water, top off with chocolate milk. The overwhelming sweetness can be used to load up on the coffee, so you've got a giant mug full of sugar and caffeine.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:29 PM on February 20 [2 favorites]

I sometimes joke that I'm a fantasy railroader because while I think that trains are pretty cool, I'm not really that interested in operating my own railroad. What interests me is the world-building, the idea that you can create this whole little world. Railroads even help impose a bit of order because there's a convention that there's some reason for a train to be going from one point, say a mine, to another, like an ironworks. It's not that it had to be exceptionally realistic, but it provides a kind of framework on which you can build a narrative, and if you care to share it with others, it provides them with an accessible entry point. I don't agree that model railroads ARE fan-fiction, but I can see a kind of connection.

But maybe it's just me. I remember watching "Beetlejuice" as a kid and thinking that Alec Baldwin's model of the town was about the coolest thing I 'd ever seen.
posted by wintermind at 6:46 PM on February 20

I've seen a lot of (mostly) finished layouts and a lot of people just operate the trains and slowly add more and more details. Some have cue cards and each industry needs 3 boxcars or a flat car here at "8am" and so on. Building the layout to operate was one of the reasons to do it.

I dunno if it's really fan-fic anymore than building with lego is construction worker fan-fic. I just started building a layout myself and it's based on the railway that used to run on what is now my favourite bike trail. I've read about some folks that build layouts based on "what-if" scenarios; say if their favourite railway hadn't merged or closed... that's kind of fan-fic I guess but it still seems like a lame comparison to me.
posted by glip at 7:45 PM on February 20 [1 favorite]

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