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Model Railroading’s Quiet Cool

| April 2, 2014 0 Comments More

Model railroad documentaries are not something we come across often, when I heard of one being produced in San Diego, CA, I had to look in to this. The documentary, and associated website, is Model Citizens. The person running the show is Sara Kelly, a journalism professor and previously the Executive Editor of the Philadelphia Weekly. I contacted Sara and after a good phone conversation, I asked if she’d write a piece for Raildig talking about Model Citizens.

Model CitizensModel Railroading’s Quiet Cool
Sara Kelly

Modelers are the toughest sell. Whenever anyone hears I’m making a documentary about model railroading, the response is simple: “Wow. That sounds cool.”

But things aren’t so simple for the modelers themselves. They want answers.

The questions are endless:
“You mean a short video, right? Like something on YouTube.”
“Women don’t like model railroading. Why are you doing this?”
[Implication: Are you a spy?]
“Why would anyone want to make a movie about model railroading?”

No wonder model railroading has a PR problem.

For me, all it took was a quick visit to the San Diego Model Railroad Museum in Balboa Park. Watching the men half hidden within their club layouts, working their DC controllers with such focus and determination, I was immediately hooked. Little did I know back then, some 18 months ago, that this was just the beginning. It’s been a long, strange, always entertaining trip with lots of cool roadside attractions.

Before I started work on Model Citizens, I had never met a modeler or railfan. Hard to imagine that today, when I seem more occupied by thoughts of model railroading than most of the modelers I now know.

Since I’ve been at this for a while now, people are starting to ask: “When will this be finished?” Good question. In a few months. A year maybe. Tough to tell. Like building a model railroad layout, shooting this movie could go on forever. At some point I’ll have to call it and cut the final edit. Since we don’t have whole lives left ahead of us, I’m shooting for 2015.

Sara Kelly Interviews Michael Gross

Sara Kelly interviews Michael Gross for Model Citizens. Photo: Steve Budko

It’s hard to know where to stop when the great stories keep coming. Whether you realize it or not, you modelers have a lot to say. I’ve learned so much from you, and discovered new ways to experience the world.

From “Chief Bob” Chaparro, who manages several online communities of model railroaders, I learned that this world is vast and well connected. Bob helped move this project along by posting a notice about it online a couple months back. After his first post directed readers to my video shorts, Vimeo, the site that hosts them, crashed, taking my website along with it. I like to think the model railroading community had something to do with it.

From Charley Hepperle of the ’20s and ’30s Modular Model Railroad, I learned that the obsessive nature of model railroading is no secret within the community, and that a little (or a lot of) OCD is not only normal in this world, but expected. And that it’s okay to talk about it. Model railroaders are, in general, a pretty self-aware bunch. Which might explain the community’s reluctance to self-promote—even when self-promotion is needed more than ever.

And from Stuart Forsyth, a futurist, historian and model railroader who makes connections between the past and the present to illuminate what’s to come, I learned that there’s more to model railroading than winning new converts and ensuring future growth.

Of course many modelers I’ve interviewed expressed real worry about the ultimate fate of their hobby. With few young people involved these days, there is legitimate concern that model railroading could die out.

That shouldn’t happen.

Especially with the amount of cool new technology available to model railroaders these days, there’s no reason why mobile game play should be limited to Words With Friends and Candy Crush. If only someone could introduce young people to model railroading. If the modelers are too shy to do it themselves, let me at least try.

To the dubious model railroaders reading, I will reiterate: Model railroading is cool. It’s particularly cool to outsiders, most of whom just never got the memo. If only more of them knew about model railroading, they’d be as enchanted as I am. Many may even become involved.

What can I do to convince you? Oh, I know. Make a movie?
Done and done.
Well, not quite.
I’ve got a ways to go yet.


Project site: www.modelcitizensmovie.com

“Chief Bob” Chaparro’s Model Railroads of Southern California:

’20s and ’30s Modular Model Railroad (Charley Hepperle):

San Diego Model Railroad Museum

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