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Building a model railway is one of the most common indoor-hobbies enjoyed worldwide. This can be seen by the number of magazines on the subject on sale in every newsagent, for instance titles such as Model Rail, Railway Modeller, Model Railways Illustrated and so on are available in Britain today.
Model railways are sometimes used to bring back nostalgic memories of times gone, for example, used to rekindle memories of a now-closed railway, now re-created. Model railways create an ideal world that the builder can disappear into for between a few minutes to a few hours.
Model Railways and Train Sets
It is possible to assume that anything that is a small train must be a model railway. Nothing could be further from the truth! So, what exactly is a model railway?
A model railway is essentially a scaled-down version of a real (or fictitious) railway, but is too small to transport a person. A small-scale railway that can carry passengers is a miniature railway. But what is the difference between a model railway and a train set?
The best way to think of a train set is to imagine a little train (which more often than not looks nothing like a real one), perhaps on a track, with a child pushing it round the living room floor making Whoo Whoo! and Chuff Chuff Chuff noises. Almost anyone you know will have owned a train set in childhood at some point. Inevitably, the original train set will get bigger and more complex, maybe getting to the point where the owner will start buying, making or bugging the parent for scenery. If this happens, it is almost a sure sign that it will, one day, make the magical transformation into a Model Railway.
Model railways are special advanced train sets, on which the owner runs, crashes, and gets mad with their very expensive train(s). Usually this is either to a strict timetable, or just running trains at random.
Never confuse a train set with a model railway; train sets are primitive in comparison. Model railways can be anything from exact scale models of, say, King's Cross Station, to models of an entire imaginary railway. A railway played with by a toddler is a train set.
Perhaps the main difference between model railways and train sets is the price. If you could pick it up for under £20 at a jumble sale, it's a train set. If it costs £80+ it's a model railway. Another, secondary difference is the detail. Model Railways are generally more detailed than the average wooden train set. Train set engines are either battery-powered or need to be pushed, whereas a model railway is usually mains powered, although some run on diesel or even live steam. Train sets are toys, model railways are to-scale models.
This is not to disparage train sets, which are good ways of indoctrinating the next generation into a love of railways and, by extension, model railways. They are also often more robust and easier to assemble than a model railway.
Getting Into Model Railways
Of course, not everyone has room in their home or the money available to build their own model railway. If you fall into this category, it does not mean you cannot enjoy the model railway hobby. At the very least, you can still enjoy reading the magazines. Alternatively you can visit model railways that are open to the public. For instance, if you live on the Isle of Wight, you can visit the Fort Victoria Model Railway in the summer. Outdoor model railways, also called 'Garden Railways', are often found in model villages such as at Bekonscot.
Another way to get involved is to attend a Model Railway Exhibition, most large towns and cities in the UK host at least one a year. At exhibitions, model railway enthusiasts from all around the world display their tracks and layouts for members of the public to see, for a modest entry fee. Model railway exhibitions are also good places to get model railway equipment, both new and second-hand, at bargain prices.
In addition to attending exhibitions, there are many railway clubs and societies that allow people to join. On joining, members may be able to help design and construct the group's model railway and, when completed, run group-owned locomotives or their own personal stock on the co-owned track.
Many serious Model Railway enthusiasts take a small box with an Engine, carriage and a log book, that they seek to run, record and photograph on as many layouts as possible.
The Thomas the Tank Engine television series was originally (1984-2008) filmed using models on a model railway. Since 2009, however, the series has been made in CGI, but the original models are on display at Thomas Land at Drayton Manor.
In the television series James May's Toy Stories Christmas Special episode 'Hornby', James May attempted to make the world's longest model railway. He planned to rebuild the 10-mile closed Barnstaple to Bideford railway in Devon out of 00 gauge model railway. Although originally unsuccessful in getting a train to travel the full length in 2009, in 2011 the challenge succeeded.
Of course model railways isn't a uniquely British hobby. If you are in Hamburg, why not visit Miniatur Wunderland, the world's largest model railway?
Having a One-Track Mind
Model railways can transform any normal, sane, person into a single-minded one-tracked train fanatic. This can cause frenzies of strange, elusive crafts, practised only by modellers, such as 'super-detailing' and 'fixing'1. Every now and again, the common railway modeller may throw a kit of a model train across the room after changing one of the components beyond repair and then realising that it was merely upside down, while the wife / daughter / girlfriend etc. says that she/he/it thought it was meant to be a relaxing hobby.
If you know someone who is acting strangely, before you report them to the loony bin, ask if they are a railway modeller.
And whisper it who may, but at the end of the day we are just playing trains, aren't we?
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