Starting Model Railroads
Begins With Some Questions

Starting model railroads is as easy as sitting in your favorite chair.

This is known as "armchair railroading". Some people never go any further. 

They just like to read train magazines and books, watch videos and DVDs of real trains in action, search on the Internet for information about a specific prototype, or day dream about what they're going to build someday.

Others get out of their armchair to take pictures of trains or to simply watch them go by. This is referred to as "railfanning". 

There's actually a place on the Trains website operated by Kalmbach where you can watch trains pass through an interlocking plant on a very busy midwest rail line.

In Britain, some train enthusiasts record the numbers of specific train cars and check to see if they've ever recorded that specific car before. It's called "train spotting".Then there are those who take the next step and visit a local club or a train show in the region. 

A train show is a terrific way to get your children interested and for you to be amazed at the options available for building and operating model railroads.

The Internet is a good source of ideas for model railroading and other modeling ventures. For example:

www.scale-modelers-handbook.com delves into all modeling venues with emphasis on model railroading.

Starting model railroads the best way
includes some legwork

Go an extra mile, literally, and visit a local club. Most clubs will be delighted to show you around. 

We all like to add a new member to the roster to help build and run the layouts. It's a great way to "try before you buy".

Getting started building your first layout

Click Here!

If you decide to go it alone, my advice is to take the time to ask yourself the following questions and spend some time thinking about the answers before ever committing to anything.

Ask yourself:

  • How much time do you have in a week to devote to model railroading?
  • What other leisure activities are you doing?

 Are they year-round or seasonal? Do you have commitments to a social club or community organization? Do you travel a lot? Are you still working and have to put in overtime on the job?

  • Are you taking up model railroading for yourself or as a family activity?
model railroad city of north pointIndustries at North Point on my UNRR

This is a good hobby to get youngsters away from the computer. 

It is a way of teaching them about tools, architecture, construction methods, history, electricity and electronics, geography, geology, mathematics, art, transportation, business basics, and yes, even computers. 

If they are interested in computers you can introduce them to computer-assisted drawing (CAD) programs like CADRail. Operations software like  ShipIt. Games like Train Dispatcher. Virtual Reality trains, both model and prototype, like Auran's Trainz.

Perhaps you have a few things from the above list you'd like to learn more about? 

If your children are young, you can introduce them to trains through Thomas the Tank engine. There are books, pre-school train sets and HO scale models available. Bachmann manufactures Thomas with Annie and Clarabel, Gordon's Express Set and James the Red Engine Freight Set. Emily, Spencer and Mavis with moving eyes as well as a host of Thomas accessories are available, too.

For Christmas you could start with something like the Life-Like Trains Nostalgic Heartland Express that features officially licensed reproductions of Saturday Evening Post covers of Santa Claus. Combine your Christmas trains with a Christmas village.

If they are a little older there is the train world of Harry Potter.

Don't forget your wife, daughter or girl friend. The ladies who like crafts make terrific trees, paint marvelous backdrops, build superb structures, and have a creative flair for creating mini-scenes with people, vehicles and animals.

Many women enjoy gardening. Perhaps you do as well. Then you should seriously consider G scale trains. Pick up a copy of Garden Railways the next time you're at a newsstand or look for it in the grocery store when your lady is looking at the women's magazines. 

You're allowed to put one in the grocery basket, too!

Where will you build your model railroad?

  • How much space do you have for the train "pike" ?

(a term that was used frequently for "layout" in bygone days. )

  • Will your train layout need to share space with other family activities or share space with a car in the garage? 

Is the room for the layout already finished or is there work you need to do first, such as installing drywall or ceiling?  Can you leave the layout in place or do you need to take it down or store it? 

  • Will you encounter large swings in temperature (winter to summer) or be faced with high humidity?
  • What tools do you own and how handy are you?
  • Do you have a workshop? Do you own any hand tools or power tools like drills and saws and screw drivers?  Will you be building models at a kitchen table or on a TV tray? Will you need to put things away every night or can you leave things in place while you work on them?
  • How much money can you spend on your train hobby?

I say "can" instead of "will" because when the bug bites it is very easy to get carried away.  Many of us have our own hobby store that contains item we've purchased over the years that we have yet to use or build. 

Part of this phenomenon is due to the "limited runs" that manufacturers do. Model railroading is somewhat of a cottage industry where many products have been conceived and manufactured by modelers who did not have deep pockets. Many have gone out of business for a variety of reasons. 

Some have been acquired by bigger firms who have kept the lines going, Walthers being one of the biggest. Sometimes these limited runs have been to increase the value of the product. This happened with many brass engines built overseas. Sometimes it's due to the dies wearing out or the cost of the molding process. 

In any event, there's a "better buy it before it's gone" mentality we tend to fall into.

George's Trains, one of Toronto's oldest model railroad stores, used to place your purchase in a brown paper bag to help you smuggle it past your wife. My wife has a sharp eye and always noticed but it certainly was a novel marketing technique. 

At first glance model railroading would seem to be an expensive hobby. It needn't be. See my comments about cost

What's the answer when
Starting model railroads?

Once you've given some thought to these questions, it's time to start doodling. 

Before you do, pick up a copy of <i> John Armstrong on Creative Layout Design</i> (Kalmbach Books ISBN: 0-89024-538-X). He will show you how to find room for your "pike" even if you think you don't have the room, use different combinations of scale and gauge to tailor your layout to the space available, and give you 120 pages of "wit, whim and wisdom".  Then you'll really be ready for planning.

I don't pretend to have all the answers. I'm still learning, too. 

If you would like some other guidance, check out this offer:

Step-by-Step Guide for Beginners.

Other sources of information

There are many other fascinating books available through Amazon on researching, building and running your railroad. Type in some keywords here and look for yourself. Kalmbach Books is one of the leading suppliers of books on railroading and there are many others.

Railroad Model Craftsman also published some excellent "how-to" books. I continue to buy these publications because they contain a wealth of knowledge and act as a refresher course for me. 

Now that we have the Internet you can get instant help and also chat with other modellers when you encounter a problem or are challenged with a project. Model railroaders live in many countries. I know. I have modellers who come to this website from many parts of the world.

I think you will find model railroaders generally to be a friendly and helpful group who like to share their expertise. Join the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) and attend some regional conventions. In Canada we also have the Canadian Association of Railway Modellers (CARM). Take in some clinics and be sure to visit the Contest Room to be truly inspired by the work of other modellers in your region.

If a national NMRA convention is within reasonable distance, try to fit in a visit. Usually the National is held in July and alternates between the Eastern and Western United States. 

Go to the NMRA website (but be sure to come back here!). Why not add me to your RSS feed? RSS is totally anonymous. It lets you be informed when I update my website.


Follow along as I build the new Utopia Northern model railway.

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