Truth is Stranger than Model Railroading


It’s often said that there’s a prototype for everything, and there probably is. But that’s usually meant as “do what you think is right, somebody, somewhere probably did it that way”. Now I’d be the last person to say that there’s a “wrong” way of making a model railroad layout. You can do highly prototype-specific layouts, or completely fictional ones, or anything in between. And scenery can vary from entirely imaginary to near photo-perfect. And if you want to run nineteenth-century steam locomotives alongside twenty-first century electric trains, or whatever, that’s cool too. It’s your railroad.

But I think that if you want to have a railroad that is interesting to someone else, whether than someone else is a family member, friend, or an audience at a show, “anything goes” is perhaps a bit too open-ended. Because ultimately a model railroad is a representation of something. If that something lives entirely in your own head, than it just needs to meet your requirements. But for someone else to participate, they need to understand what it’s representing, and be able to see that themselves. And if, like me, that’s what you want, then you have to make it happen with planning and deliberate action.

I like to think of this as visual story-telling. Beyond being simply trains and scenery, a model railroad layout is composed of a set of visual elements that work together to produce a result. I’ve described these in terms of three large “scenes” on my layout (or four if you count the subway) based on where a viewer is standing. But a big scene really is a collection of smaller elements (which I’ll also call scenes) because you can look at the details in one place or another, or at the larger overall picture.

And as you build a layout, you are in a sense composing these scenes, large and small, whether you intend to or not. Because when someone looks at the layout, it is those visual elements they see, not what you were thinking of when you made them, or your “design” for the layout. What you have built, of plastic, wood, plaster, glue and paint is what conveys your meaning.

And to do that, the elements have to work together. A broken-down car requires a street to break down on, a sawmill requires a river, a container terminal a highway (and perhaps a dock as well). That’s all pretty obvious. But would you put a junkyard next to a ten-story commercial building? Probably not, since tall buildings imply expensive land, and a junkyard isn’t likely to survive if the owner can sell the land under it and retire. Someone looking at the two together may not run through that logic, but the combination still looks “wrong” because they’ve never seen anything like it in real life. Which doesn’t mean that somewhere there isn’t a junkyard next to a skyscraper, but it’s likely going to look wrong on a model railroad layout. And for that reason the real world will always contain things that look out of place in a model world, and part of designing a layout is picking things that will work together rather than jarring against each other or against the viewer’s assumptions.

You might be wondering what the photo at the top of the page has to do with this (scroll up and take a look at it). It’s a view of the Akabane section of Kita ward, Tōkyō, (from Google Maps; image Copyright © 2011 Google) showing the Tōhoku mainline on the far right, as it approaches the Arakawa River. Branching off from this are the separate tracks of the Tōhoku Shinkansen line and Saikyō commuter line, which have been paralleling the near ground-level mainline. The mainline and Saikyō line are on a low viaduct here as it heads north out of Tōkyō, with the Shinkansen line overhead, then the two lines split off, with the Shinkansen line descending to meet the Saikyō line. Then the two of them run into the side of a hill, through it and out the other side (still elevated), angling away from the mainline they’ll later rejoin.

It’s a small hill, rising just 13m (43’) above the surrounding land. In N-scale that would be 86mm, or just over 3 inches. Atop the hill itself is a classic Japanese Shinto Shrine (the Akabane Hachiman Shrine, 赤羽八幡神社, Japanese), a school and some other buildings that appear to be part of the same complex as the school (there seem to be both a high school and an elementary school from references I’ve seen), a hospital (with helipad) and a residential neighborhood.

Now if you actually built this on a model railroad layout, a three-inch high hill standing alone in the middle of a relatively flat city, with a rail line that seems to go out of its way to tunnel through the hill rather than going around it, and a bunch of “typical” structures all located atop it, it would look terribly contrived. The story of the hill and the rail line isn’t at all obvious with just visual clues to go on, so it would be a poor choice for a model railroad layout.

There was a good reason when the Shinkansen line was built why it couldn’t simply follow the main line from Akabane to Ōmiya (where they rejoin), and that reason is a story in its own right. According to Wikipedia, the residents of the area were upset by the construction of the Shinkansen line in the 1970’s. This was a period when ordinary people had begun to question the government, and public protests against large and disruptive civil engineering projects were fairly common. And so the government responded by building a commuter line, the Saikyō Line, serving communities bypassed by the main line between Akabane and Omiya. The Shinkansen line was built along the same route, and thus the land takings needed resulted in a rail line useful to the residents, and not just a viaduct full of noisy trains running overhead with no stations.

And the hill? Well, I don’t really know that story. Japan National Railways was pretty good at spending government money when the line was built, and they’d had a lot of practice at tunneling through hills. It probably was cheaper than going around it (and the land-taking that would have involved). My suspicion is that the school was a new one built after the tunnel (the tunnel runs close enough under a couple of the buildings that I doubt they remained in place during construction), perhaps as another gesture from the government. The shrine was there beforehand. I think it dates to 1469, although the current buildings are from 1931 and were renovated in 1988, about the time the Shinkansen line was built. A couple of buildings (not the main shrine buildings) are directly atop the tunnel entrance and obviously date from then, and the torii (gate) over the path leading up and over the tunnel is a modern one, of concrete.

So in the real world, things happen for a reason, but the results may not make much sense on first viewing. A model railroad is somewhat different: it’s supposed to capture the essence of an environment. Put another way, its function is to clearly impart the story of what you’re seeing: this is a residential neighborhood around a station, this is a freight terminal, etc. If you can’t figure out the story by looking at it, the model has failed to some extent.

That’s not to say that a layout must tell a story, nor that it needs to be spelling out War and Peace. But a layout that has a narrative, or a collection of individual narratives that aren’t in conflict, is going to capture the viewer’s attention and hold it better. The best “magazine layouts” are the ones that you look at and get drawn into, rather than just saying “oh, another warehouse with boxcars, how nice”.

Now in truth, a warehouse with boxcars is a story, and perhaps a good one if the layout is an industrial branch line, for example. But if it’s just planted there because you had some extra space, and it’s not even clear what the building is (A distribution center for produce? A furniture factory?) then there isn’t much reason to give it a second glance.

If a scene on a model railroad is to tell a story, then that story needs to be simple and relatively obvious, as well as interesting in some fashion. A scene can be small: some railfans trackside photographing trains, or a disabled car causing a traffic jam. Or it can be large: a residential neighborhood beside the tracks going about its daily business with people doing ordinary things. Or even humorous: Godzilla walking down a city street, or a dinosaur pulling boxcars in a yard. But what it can’t be is confusing: why is that lone hill just sitting there? Why is there a pointless tunnel through it?

So unless you’re building a diorama intended to specifically re-create an exact scene (which itself is a form of story-telling), that means you can’t simply copy real-life scenery without considering what story it is telling, and how that fits in with whatever is around it. If you just throw things down, they’re not going to tell a story, or perhaps worse, will tell a story you weren’t intending to tell, and conflict with some adjacent scene.

I’m being a bit more long-winded than usual today, so let’s cut to the chase: if your goal is to have trains that run through scenery, and that is one of the benefits of working in N scale, then you need to give that scenery some thought. Why is this building here? What is its purpose? How do people get to it? On foot? Is there a sidewalk? By car? Where do they park? Is this bridge here serving a purpose, or is it redundant with the one a foot away? You don’t have to plan out every detail, or understand who lives in every house. But you have to ensure the parts work individually and as part of the whole to reinforce, or at least not disrupt, the story you’re trying to tell. Otherwise, people looking at it will sense that the parts don’t work together. They may not be able to say why, but they’ll know something is off, and that will break the illusion that the model represents something real.

Once you have your story, or stories, in mind, you can select elements from the real world, or create things similar to real-world elements, that will have that feeling of “reality” while also serving your story-telling purpose. It can go the other way too: real-world inspiration can drive visual scenes on the layout, you just need to think about them as a whole, as well as considering the individual elements. If one part is saying “steam engine terminal” and another is saying “cell phone tower under construction”, to take an extreme case, it’s going to be hard to reconcile the two stories.

Sumida Crossing, the layout, doesn’t necessarily do that very well. It started with the concept of running lots of trains, and the story, to the extent there was one, was “urban trains of Tōkyō”, and that’s rather broad and more of a unifying concept than a story. The Urban Station scene will, hopefully, tell the story of a bustling city-center station in a busy commercial district when it’s done. The River Crossing scene, although it has a lovely curve for the trains, doesn’t say much, and I need to think on that a bit as I plan what’s actually going in the “village” area. And the Riverside Station scene, well that’s a train station without much around it other than a small river, and an express line above a fairly pointless subway station with no entrance. As story-telling goes, I’d want my money back on that one. And the three, well they mostly stand alone, although all three at least do reinforce the “modern urban railroading” story of the layout as a whole.

I don’t mean to say I’m displeased with the layout. On the whole, it’s meeting the original intent of giving me a place to run trains through scenery. It’s just that as I start to get more detailed with that scenery, the limits of my original concept are becoming clear, and that’s been nagging at me for a while now. It would have benefitted from more thought in the beginning, I suspect. However, now that I’ve realized what’s been bothering me, I can pay more attention to the story-telling aspects as I flesh-out the scenery.

And there are some things I think I did right. The terminal buildings on the Urban Station have a clear separation of Shinkansen terminal from Commuter terminal, which helps give the tracks below them a sense of identity (these two are different somehow from those other four). The expressway and park below it, with adjacent railroad bridges not only evokes a typical Sumida ward scene, but it says “this city is too crowded for things to be separate, we need to layer highways above parks, and squeeze in small parks between streets and bridges”. And that’s one of the stories of Tōkyō that caught my interest in the beginning.


I should credit Martijn on the JNS Forum for the seed of this Musing. When I pointed out this hill, it was his observation that it wouldn’t look right on a layout that started me thinking about why that was, and what the implications were for my modeling.

In other website news:
- I’ve added another update to the JNSForum contest page regarding the ongoing work on the Expressway.
- I also added photos to the Construction photo album and to the Expressway and River Crossing scene pages.