Scenery1 - 97-07-30
Scale Model Scenery

by: Rick Blanchard

One of the beauties of model railroading for me is the ability to take me away from reality and transport me to another time and place. Suddenly I am in a land inhabited by strange beasts called 'Berkshires' and 'Mudhens' that are being driven by 'Hoggers' and 'Tallowpots'. The smells of steamy cinder laden exhaust and steely wheels and heated brake shoe linings overtake the smells of house, dogs, and a recent meal. Suddenly it is 1911 in Pennsylvania, or 1946 in Arizona, or 1960 in Texas. This illusion is full of rich details that lead me into the past, as the Denver Zephyr pulls out of Union Station in Chicago. But what is that large plastic thing doing in my created world? And what is that crack doing in the river?

To be able to create and maintain an illusion is one of the arts of model railroading. It is also becoming a way to preserve a major part of our culture that is disappearing. For the newer generations, steam engines are only large display pieces that they may see on a visit to a park or town square. What that large metal sculpture #3751 did is not apparent. On rare occasions, one of these relics is fired up and kids are amazed (me too!). The ability to understand the context of when, where, how and why these machines were important is unavailable today except in books and movies. A scale model railroad with a realistic simulation of freight movement can teach the next generations what this was all about.

There are fewer and fewer people available for interviews that used to work for the railroads. In the first half of the 20th century, almost everyone worked for or was affected by the railroads. For 50 years, the railroads were the major form of transportation. That's 25% of the entire history of the US! Rail transit is returning to major cities that are clogged with automobiles, but it isn't on the same scale. The achievements and abilities of the railroads during those 50 years can only be described as heroic and epic. The railroads built this nation, and opened up the vastness and beauty of the West.

So many times I have seen beautiful models of a locomotive set in a scene that has some obvious giveaway that it is a model I am looking at and not the actual locomotive. It may be a switch machine motor, a hill with a rock moulding perched on it, or wheelsets with pointy ends in a roundhouse scene or on a MOW car. I am most pleased when I have to stop and decide if I am looking at the prototype or a model.

I have also observed that railfans will notice that UP 5947 has a dent in its air filter enclosure and race home to add that 'feature' to their model, but will fail to notice that is sitting on a mainline that has pink ballast from Arizona. They also fail to 'see' that the mainline has a 12" shoulder or that the ties are covered to within 2" of their top surface. They also might miss the warehouse from 1946 that the locomotive was passing in front of. This sort of 'tunnel (motor) vision' is where models get the detail and their setting doesn't.

When so much attention is lavished on the specific length of the spacing on the Flexicoil truck or the ridge on a GP15-1, I would think that equal attention would be spent getting other details of a railroad right. The art of modeling is extended adding these details to head end power or rolling stock, but what is missed is the 'sense' of a railroad in operation. The ambiance, the feel of work being performed, the extraordinary efforts of a train crew pulling 80 tons over the Cascades is missing.

What is needed is to extend the illusion that we are trying to create. When adding scenery to a model railroad, the performance and operations of railroad personnel have to be considered. The right-of-way was designed by Civil Engineers, and ought to reflect their concerns for a well constructed roadbed, with proper clearances , easements, slope angles, cut and fill balance, and drainage channels. Tunnel portals ought to look like they were built into the hillside, not glued on after the fact. Bridges need proper support, correctly sized and spaced bracing, and allowances for expansion.

Maintenance personnel must maintain the trackage, and need structures placed where they are necessary and used. Tool sheds, line shacks, bridge runouts with sand or water barrels, spare parts storage, track and turnout parts (like piles of new ties and fishplates), all contribute to the feeling that real people are maintaining and running the trains over the tracks.

Photographs of prototype scenes show a lot of these things if you look around the locomotive. Most of the time these details are lavished on the enginehouse area and are minimal only a few inches away. Carry the details out along the main, including yard limit signs, battery boxes by the signals, telephone boxes, even a pile of cardboard boxes might help.

Safety is stressed highly by the prototype, with signs on all sorts of things. Add these to a bare portion of the yard and it will help the area fill in and fit.

Leave room for such things when planning the area to be modeled. Take a large piece of paper and lay it over the area to be modeled. Make a rubbing of the position of the tracks with a pencil. Now lay out the work areas needed to fit with the scene. Where do the workers park? How do they reach the area? How are supplies brought into the area? Where is the Yardmasters Office, locker room, showers? What else is needed to make the area functional? Picture yourself as a mechanic coming to work at 6AM for a shift and follow the motions you would take on a typical morning. Is that a lunch wagon pulling up for the morning coffee break? Who is going to uncrate that new replacement engine for the tired old Geep?

It does not take much for the scene to drop you out of the worry over car payments and the kids' braces, plop you into West Virginia on a foggy morning, and check out the progress of those helpers pushing the coal drag into the mountains. To me, it's the essence of model railroading. Remember, it's ALL an illusion, and the longer you can sustain the illusion, the more enjoyment you can have!

May, 1991

Top of Page

If you have comments, suggestions on what you would like to see
or data you might like, you can email me at:
Rick Blanchard -

--Back to da trains!--

--Back to da data.--

©1997 blanchard design, all rights reserved
Top photo courtesy Don Winslow. Used with permission.