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A Palette, not a Dichotomy

Prototype vs. Freelance – the answer is "yes"

It seems that model railroaders are always arguing about the one way to do things. L-girder vs. open-grid benchwork. Handlaid vs. flextrack. Homasote or no Homasote. Give me a break! And there is no topic that produces more controversy than the question of Prototype vs. Freelance. Yet, I am convinced that we are framing this last question in entirely the wrong way -- as a “one or the other” issue which “should” have a single answer.


In many ways, Model Railroading is much more art than science. And artists (you may remember from a general ed course in high school) use many different media. Yet any of these media can create a pleasing end result that captures the artist’s vision and presents an interesting experience to the viewer. Bottom line, there is no “one way” to make art. As LD SIG-member John Young has said, “Model Railroading is our art. The quality of the piece is how well it conveys our message without additional explanation.”


While there might be those who argue that oils are superior to watercolors or that sculpture is better than either, these seem to me to be the pointless types of arguments that people engage in on virtually every topic. (The sports examples would be Ryan vs. Koufax, Bird vs. Magic, Gretzky vs. ... well, actually, there’s no argument on that one.)

The artist's palette


Returning to our first metaphor, art, it seems to me that the “prototype/freelance” question cannot realistically be viewed as an “either/or” dichotomy. Instead, prototype and freelance concepts can be viewed as elements of the artist’s palette. Due to limited space and the laws of physics, nearly every “prototype” model railroad contains some elements that have been modified from a true mile-for-mile, tie-for-tie depiction.


Space constraints, visual appearance, or operating opportunities may cause us to shorten or combine towns. Scenery, structures, etc., may be changed or added to make each individual scene a better “piece of art”. Trains may reflect the general make-up of the prototype consists, but except in rare cases, they likely do not approach the length of their real-life counterparts. Staging yards and hidden exchange tracks do not have a true prototype, but offer much more viewing and operating enjoyment.


By the same token, there is no such thing as a completely freelanced railroad. Even the fantasy model railroad at Northlandz (again, for practical reasons) uses models of real locomotives, rolling stock, etc. For me, any freelance railroad can be enhanced by interchanges with prototype lines that help communicate era and locale. Others may follow Allen McClelland’s example with the V&O of using paint schemes to suggest corporate connections. In each of these cases, blending a bit of the prototype with the freelance vision creates a picture that better matches the artist’s original inspiration.


The important issue, it seems to me, is how we blend the elements of the palette to create a pleasing end result. And here is where taste and preference come in. The artist must please him- or herself and build a layout which attempts to balance all the competing priorities of appearance, cost, space, time, railfanning and operating potential, etc., etc. Not everyone cares about all of these elements and certainly not to the same degree, so every model railroad will look different. Freelance and prototype elements are just another part of this mix.


Continuing the palette metaphor, the model railroads we create represent points on the spectrum ... the “color” and “personality” determined to a great extent by the blend we have chosen of all the different elements. To me, arguing whether prototype or freelance is better is like arguing that red is better than blue. (Not that there aren’t model railroaders who would, in fact, argue just that point.) We need some of each hue, in varying degrees and amounts, to create the final picture.

Mixing Freelance and Prototype Inspiration


Interesting examples of mixing prototype and freelance elements are found everywhere. Prototype railroader and author John Signor's atmospheric Southern California Ry. (Great Model Railroads 2004) beautifully combines elements of three prototypes and mixes structures and scenes from various real locations with freelanced track configurations and traffic patterns.


Freelance and Prototype inspiration can work in either direction. Tony Koester’s ambitious Nickel Plate Plan (Model Railroader 9/00 & 10/00) is rigorously based on the prototype, but was inspired in part by the success Bill Darnaby has had with a similar concept on the freelanced Maumee (Model Railroad Planning 1995 & 1998). And the Maumee, in turn, was inspired by real-life granger railroads such as the Monon and the NKP.


It also seems to me to be fruitless to try to describe “degrees” of prototype vs. freelance content in a model railroad as some suggest. (John Allen’s Gorre & Daphetid on one end of the scale and Jack Burgess’ Yosemite Valley on the other, for example.) Instead, we should consider how each designer addressed his or her desires for the layout and draw inspiration and ideas from well-done plans and layouts of any type.


Everyone is free, of course, to follow his or her own muse. But it's not edifying when adherents of one philosophy or the other present absolutes and denigrate alternatives. Newcomers to the hobby or to serious layout design who look for help are better served with fewer dogmatic pronouncements and more discussion of the “whys”, “wheres”, and “whens”. 

A version of this article was published in Layout Design Journal #25, Winter 2001.

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