Friday, April 22, 2011

Religion and Model Railroading

This being Good Friday/Easter and Passover, my thoughts turn to the similarities between religion and model railroading.

For some, of course, model railroading is a religion. They worship at the altar of St. John of Allen, St. John of Armstrong, St. Tony of Koester and St. William of Walthers.

I’m not talking about them. I’m thinking about the rest of us, who take our hobby seriously—just not that seriously.

Here are a few similarities that occur to me (as someone in the Christian tradition).

Denominations. There are over 40,000 of them in Christianity. There are fewer in model railroading, but for some the differences are just as important.

Ecclesiastical bodies. For Roman Catholics, there’s the Vatican. In model railroading, it’s the NMRA.

Dissent. Just like in the Roman Catholic Church, not everyone agrees with the Pope. Ditto for model railroading—not everyone likes the NMRA.

Protest. Following the 2003 NMRA convention in Toronto (the infamous SARS convention), a break-away group formed: The Canadian Association of Railway Modellers. It wasn’t like Luther nailing the 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, but CARM was created as an alternative to the NMRA for Canadians. It's sort of like Protestants and Catholics in the 16th century, but without all the wars.

Beliefs. Do you believe in modeling from the prototype, or are you a freelancer? Do you believe in operation, or running in circles? Do you believe in a model has to be accurate down to the last rivet, or in good enough? Yes, I see those hands. Are there any more?

Sacred spaces. The Mormon temple in Salt Lake City, the Ganges in India, the Western Wall in Jersualem, Mecca—just a few of the sacred spaces for religious groups. For model railroaders, sacred spaces would include the Spiral Tunnels in B.C., the Tehachapi Loop in California, Grand Central Station in New York, and dozens of other places to watch trains.

Meeting places. We used to call these hobby shops. You remember hobby shops? They were places where model railroaders would gather for fellowship on a regular basis, often on a Saturday morning, and then to receive sacraments like a pack of Kadee couplers, Woodland Scenics ballast or the latest magazine.

Community. Good religions build community. Model railroaders also have communities. They’re called forums. Some of them actually do build community. Others . . . well, I’m not so sure.

Heresy. Just like a good religion, model railroading has its heresies. For some, it’s heresy to mix eras—to run a Big Boy and an AC4400 on the same layout. For others, it’s heretical not to weather. For some modern modelers, it’s heretical to put graffiti on rolling stock. For a few, it seems like it’s heresy to actually have any fun.

Mystery. How does DCC work, anyway? Does anyone really know? Or do we just pray and hope that those mysterious unseen waves of information move like their supposed to?

Persecution. Don’t think it exists? Then you don’t know any N scalers.

Evangelism. Religions that don’t want to die need to seek new converts. So does model railroading. We keep hearing that the hobby will die if we don’t attract more young people. Magazines and the NMRA keep encouraging us to reach out.

Fights. What’s a church or synagogue without a fight? I’ve seem some dandies in model railroad clubs, often over the smallest things—just like in church.

Holy Scriptures. Model Railroader, Railroad Model Craftsman, N Scale, Canadian Railway Modeller—each scripture has its followers, and detractors. Some think each word written in them is the Gospel truth, others see them as inspirational guides, a few think it is all made up.

And finally, the apocalypse. What’s a religion without a good end-of-the-world scenario? Ditto for model railroading. For some, it’s the end of kits and the take-over of Ready-To-Run. For others, it’s the prices, the lack of youth in the hobby, rising prices, or limited runs. All portend the end of the hobby—if you believe they are right.

Can you think of any to add to the list?


  1. Interesting stuff, John. I would add that beliefs/denominations could exceed tens of thousands, factoring in modelled locale, modelling era, equipment mix, fidelity in structures and details all on each layout, with every layout and modeller being different and unique, each possibly each having his/her own modelling denomination.

    We all have our crosses to bear, mine is my continued use of X2F couplers. Reminds me of that corny joke about the kid in Sunday school describing his stuffed animal during the lesson on Good Friday, saying, "Oh yeah teacher, I know all about that - Gladly, my cross-eyed bear."

    Thanks for the interesting post and happy Easter,

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  3. As a retired minister (United Church) and an avid model railroader, I couldn't agree more!! Very well said!

  4. John, thanks for this thought-provoking post. I'd like to comment on the "community" aspect. I recently used, as a sermon illustration, the idea that several model railroaders I know have joined clubs - not so much for the modelling, as for the fellowship.

    As a pastor, it left me thinking, "I wonder if the church is really doing its job in building community - especially among men - and guys are turning to their hobby organizations to look for the kind of community their church families should be offering them?"

    Hoping Jesus doesn't return before my layout is complete!! God's best to you for Easter and the promise of new life.

    Passionately His,
    Jeff Loach

  5. Sorry for the rave from the grave comment, just caught your blog, and felt driven to comment on this piece.

    I must say I thought that this was a very wry and astute set of amusing observations, and just wish I had written it myself.