Is Operation the Goal?

—Andrew Castle photo

Is Operation the Goal?

October 2022Whether you are new to the hobby or an experienced model railroader, you have probably come across the term “operation.” Certain material in the hobby press and on the internet could even lead you to believe that operation and hosting operating sessions are the main goals of building a layout. But are they?

For many model railroaders, hosting successful operating sessions may indeed be their main goal. There is nothing wrong with that and it is indeed a worthy endeavor. But is operation the main goal for you? Or is it just one of many different goals a person can pursue in the hobby of model railroading?

I have written before about building my 18×24’ layout based on Truro, Nova Scotia, in the 1990s. As soon as the layout was far enough along to run trains I had several friends start asking, when was I going to have an operating session? I always had an excuse why we couldn’t do it just yet. I need to get a few more signals wired. The yard is cleared out for scenery work right now. I am working weekends when you guys are off. And those are just my recent excuses! For a while I actually felt guilty that I was not operating the layout. Surely if my friends wanted to operate my layout I should want to as well.

Recently I think I figured out why I am not ready to operate. The first part is simple. While I enjoy running trains, I am actually more of a builder than an operator. I am having so much fun building stuff right now I don’t want to interrupt that to start operating. I have scenery projects underway on two different parts of the layout, I have a locomotive almost ready for paint, I have several structures partially built, and I have dozens of freight cars to weather. So much fun stuff to do!

The second part is a bit more complex. While I am building a layout that will operate, operation is not my only goal. My main goal is to recreate the town of Truro during the summer of 1997. So having the local switcher drop an unweathered covered hopper on a spur with only a paper sign saying “feed mill” just doesn’t do it for me. Having a dirty M-420 back down a weed-covered spur to drop a properly weathered covered hopper into the unloading shed at the Co-op feed mill? Now that is the goal! I can’t wait for that to be a reality and just think of all the fun model building involved in getting there!

I have figured out my own feelings on the subject, but what about the person who wants to sit back and just watch their favorite trains run in circles through scenes they have created? What about the modeler who has a layout to display all the craftsman structures he has built? What about the beginner who is experimenting and learning the basics on a 4×8 layout or small shelf? Should any of these endeavors be considered less worthy than realistic operations? I am not trying to come across as anti-operation, but even within the operations sphere there is a wide range of ways that folks enjoy their layouts. Do you like switching cars? Running high speed on the main line? Running a train and just dropping or picking up cars wherever it suits your fancy? Maybe you prefer highly regimented operation following a timetable, train orders, and car waybills?

So what is your goal? Where do you fall under this big umbrella of model railroading? Planning, building, operating, and even collecting are all parts of the hobby.

One last thing to consider. If operating your layout is not your main goal now, that doesn’t mean your views won’t change in the future. Maybe (like me) you aren’t ready yet or maybe you haven’t been exposed to realistic operation. Just don’t make the mistake of completely discounting operation. At least allow for the possibility down the road. But, for now, enjoy whatever you are doing, whether that is building scenery, weathering freight cars, kitbashing structures, or wiring a signal system. There is no wrong way to model railroad as long as you are having fun!

—Andrew Castle

October 2022This article appeared in the October 2022 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman. Subscribe Today!

This article was posted on: October 15, 2022