It is not merely that pleasure, once it is defined as an end in itself, takes on the qualities of work. . . . Personal life, no longer a refuge from deprivation suffered at work, has become as anarchical, as warlike, and as full of stress as the marketplace itself. . . . [A]ll of life, even the ostensibly achievement-oriented realm of work, centers on the struggle for interpersonal advantage, the deadly game of intimidating friends and seducing people.
Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism
Foothill Model Railroad Club Swap Meet, Sunland, CA, August 30, 2003
Let me start by pointing out that I'm not a sociologist, I don't play one on TV, I don't have a Ph.D., and if I did have one, it wouldn't be in Sociology. On the other hand, the hobby of model railroading represents a set of social institutions and social relationships that are worth attention, and nobody else seems willing to look at the hobby from a systematic perspective. In his extended definition of Sociology, one of the founders of the discipline, Max Weber, suggests that our task is to ask, in his words, what is the "social action" that is taking place in the model railroading hobby? How can we "arrive at a causal explanation of its course and effects?" In other words, what are we trying to accomplish in the hobby via our relationships and institutions? Most important, are we doing what we say we're doing?
The method he suggests is, in effect, to try to determine what a rational person would do to accomplish these goals, and then to ". . . treat all irrational, affectually determined elements of behaviour as factors of deviation from a conceptually pure type of rational action."
One of the most clearly stated goals of the hobby is to improve its public image. There is a long-standing stereotype of adults "playing with trains" as a feckless or immature activity, and it is likely that some people are deterred from participation in the hobby due to a fear of being characterized as such. It is a general goal of hobby participants to be seen as engaging in a serious and challenging pastime, and it's generally understood that as the public views the hobby in this light, its prestige will increase, and business for hobby suppliers will also increase.
The World's Greatest Hobby campaign was begun in 2001 by Kalmbach Publishing Company the publishers of Model Railroader magazine to ". . . raise public awareness of the hobby of model railroading and to make it easy for newcomers to get started." While the web site doesn't say it, Kalmbach began the campaign following a ten-year decline in circulation and advertising pages in Model Railroader, which has been regarded as the hobby's flagship publication.
The publisher has implicitly explained its own business outcomes by pointing to a perceived decline in the hobby overall, and implicitly expects an improvement in its business if the public image of the hobby improves. (This explanation appears to have succeeded within Kalmbach's internal corporate environment, since the managers who presided over the magazine's decline continued until recently to be employed there; the Publisher's early retirement at the end of 2003 may or may not have been related to the magazine's decline.) These assumptions are also not controversial within the hobby industry; as the web site points out, "This is a program that has the backing of the Model Railroad Industry Association with funding provided by the companies whose logos you see on these pages."
But as with all conventional wisdom, there's cause for some skepticism here. Even in a severe recession, capital has been available to fund a major high-end startup supplier, Broadway Limited Imports, as well as major new products and innovations like ready-to-run models, from traditional suppliers like Athearn. It's likely that the business analysis that justifies this level of continued or increased investment in model railroads as a commercial venture does not actually see the hobby in a state of decline -- and certainly not just an activity pursued by children or eccentric adults, or limited to the holiday season.
Nevertheless, promoting the image of model railroading as a serious and challenging lifetime activity hasn't been an easy sell. Even in a time when society has accepted lifestyle choices that in the past would have been regarded as eccentric, immoral, or deviant, many people who participate, or would like to participate, in the hobby see a tradeoff in a potential lowering of social and self-esteem. Indeed, at a time when news media style sheets have attempted to extirpate all stereotypical language in dealing with racial or ethnic groups or lifestyle choices, newspaper articles dealing with model railroading continue to take a heavily condescending, "cute" attitude toward the hobby. How, then, are members of the hobby working to improve their image through their social interactions and institutions? Are they succeeding? And while the overarching goal of improving the hobby's status is important, are these institutions succeeding at the more specific tasks they pose for themselves, either explicitly or implicitly?
I want to look at the following model railroad hobby institutions, in ascending order of complexity, to try to make some kind of an assessment of how we're doing, and to make recommendations:
However, the more purely economic motivation in a commercial enterprise has clearly resulted in the current generation of hobby suppliers, such as Athearn, Atlas, Kato USA, Life-Like, Intermountain, Stewart, Walthers, and others making a remarkable series of correct calls in product innovation and quality, in part during difficult economic times. The magazines and the volunteer organizations, with the exception of the technical and historical societies, simply haven't been able to match this record. The possible reasons for this contrast probably belong to economic analysis and are beyond the scope of this discussion.
Some recent experiences have also brought forward in my thinking the position of clergy as participants in the hobby. Of those who have identified themselves in online forums as clergymen, my experience has been uniformly bad, and this has begun to cause me enough concern that I've added a section to the end of my discussion of e-mail groups and on-line forums to discuss why this may be the case.
Foothill Model Railroad Club Swap Meet, Sunland, CA, August 30, 2003
Swap meets are the most primitive of formal model railroad social events. In Southern California, with good weather for much of the year, they are almost always outside, on parking lots roped off for the purpose. They are organized by clubs, museums, and hobby shops, primarily as fund raisers or as part of a business promotion. They are formal insofar as they take place at a particular date and time announced by the organizer; often vendors pay a fee to participate, and sometimes the customers must also pay an admission fee. However, they are informal insofar as efforts are seldom made to enforce state sales tax laws, and there is no warranty offered on merchandise by vendors. Indeed, buyers can't be fully assured that some merchandise on offer is not stolen, and conversely, vendors have no way to assure themselves that checks from buyers are good.
A Weberian, rationalistic approach to swap meets would assume that they are meant to be efficient local markets for second-hand merchandise. They would, for example, be a means for hobbyists or those leaving the hobby to liquidate unneeded supplies in a fast, informal way, without the potential heavily discounted effect they would see by trying to sell them back to a hobby shop. Some swap meet vendors are able to negotiate with heirs to purchase the model railroad assets of estates and then sell these assets at swap meets.
The rationalistic assumption would be that the consumer goes to a swap meet expecting to find a lower price for merchandise that she may find acceptable, though it may be outdated or in imperfect condition. One might also assume that a seller, finding price resistance to goods at a particular level, would be prepared to negotiate in order not to have to carry the goods back from a swap meet unsold.
A major factor that contradicts these rationalistic assumptions is the fact that many hobby goods of the type that are offered at swap meets have simply lost all economic value -- while hobbyists are fond of calling swap meet merchandise "junk", much -- probably a lot more than half -- of what appears at swap meets can't realistically be sold at any price. It is literally trash, kept from the landfill by the expectations of the putative sellers. Often it's dusty, broken remnants of merchandise that was already schlock when it was new in the 1970s or earlier. The effort to restore it to operation, if it's practical at all, is greater than the still-low cost of new, better-quality merchandise, and the original junk hasn't even got sentimental value.
Another problem is the non-model railroad merchandise on sale, equivalent 30 year old military toys, toy racing cars, broken model airplanes, and the like. For those not involved in collecting or restoring such material, it's hard to estimate its value, but at a model railroad swap meet, the stuff is essentially not sellable. If the aim of such vendors is to sell the merchandise, they are simply not acting rationally.
Unrealistic expectations by the sellers clearly inhibit the efficient operation of a market at swap meets. The conventional wisdom that old toy trains are somehow always worth a lot of money probably operates here. Another factor is probably the need for the seller to counteract the "feckless" stereotype of the hobby. He may feel he has to show in his own, his peers' or his family's eyes, for instance, that he is "making money" off the hobby rather than simply pursuing it as an idle interest.
But a major obstacle to efficient swap meet transactions is in fact the low cost of new goods. The quality of hobby items has increased enormously in the last 30 years, with only an incremental increase in cost (especially factoring in inflation), assisted both by technology and by production in Korea and China. If I can go to a hobby shop or mail-order discounter and buy a new item, in a shrink-wrapped box with a warranty, at a lower cost than an equivalent, dusty, used, and imperfect item at a swap meet, there's simply no contest, as long as I, as an informed consumer, know this.
In an efficient or rational market, sellers would quickly receive the price-resistant message once their prices went above something close to the cost of a new item. This doesn't appear to happen at swap meets. A bubble or first-stage Ponzi-scheme psychology appears to account for this.
Certainly some swap meet consumers aren't well informed, and will simply buy second-hand items at a price higher than what they'd pay for a new item in a hobby shop. They assume, I guess, that if they're buying at a swap meet, it must be cheaper. Many vendors seem to hope for this customer, but giving human nature some credit, not all people are this poorly informed.
And many of the transactions at a swap meet take place, not between vendors and customers, but among vendors. A vendor will show up on the parking lot at some time early in the morning (most swap meets advertise a start time of 7:00 AM, but "unofficial" transactions can take place among those who show up earlier), and if other vendors think his goods are cheap enough, they'll buy them from him and put them on sale at a higher price themselves, either at the same swap meet, at a train show, or on eBay.
The problem is that the margin between what one vendor will sell an item for and what a customer down the line is willing to pay is, realistically, quite small. An efficient market can't tolerate infinite markups, but swap meet dealers don't recognize this. The problem isn't much different from the mathematics that make a Ponzi scheme impossible: there are only so many suckers, and then you run out of people. One swap meet vendor, however, described the early-morning activity of other vendors buying his low-priced merchandise to me as a "feeding frenzy", words again highly suggestive of bubble psychology.
The conventional wisdom of swap meets has become, "you have to get there early before the good stuff is gone." However, the "good stuff" may not actually leave the swap meet; it's simply resold to the point that its price reaches a sales resistance level. The vendor who bids the merchandise up to the price at which no one will buy it is the primary victim here, and it's hard to sympathize, since he's largely the victim of his unrealistic expectations. Those expectations, however, appear in practice to keep him from deciding to cut his losses and cash out of his acquisition by lowering his price.
A quick check of the model railroad listings on eBay shows economic activity that is what would be predicted by these observations. One finds 30-year-old, low-quality Tyco, Bachmann, or Athearn cars, for which no bids are received at the $2-3 reserve range -- this equipment has economic value now only for parts in certain cases, and might sell at the 25 to 50 cent range, but the sellers won't acknowledge this. More recently discontinued items, such as from the former E&C Shops, are offered at the $7-10 reserve range, with no bids. (I was at a swap meet where I observed an individual purchase a number of E&C Stops items at $5 each from a seller; these items on eBay may in fact be the ones I observed.)
The hobby at large also suffers from swap meets as they're currently run. The bubble psychology inhibits the operation of an efficient market in realistically priced second-hand items. The dealers who buy equipment reasonably priced at $5 and mark it up to the sales-resistance level are keeping these items from productive use, just as the treasures buried in tombs by the ancient Egyptians kept those from productive use. The enormous profusion of unsellable trash -- both model railroad items and unrelated toys -- creates a depressing atmosphere and puts model railroaders in a bad light. The occasional use of swap meets as venues for selling stolen merchandise also needs consideration. Most participants in swap meets resist calling law enforcement under such circumstances, since few vendors observe sales tax laws, and they do not wish to draw attention to themselves.
While I still enjoy swap meets, I've found that locating true bargains is an increasing challenge. Unrealistic expectations have made sellers less willing to haggle. However, the herd mentality on what constitutes "good stuff" can result in finding bargains if the vendors aren't fully informed on what they have. In addition, some vendors clearly continue to focus on providing worthwhile second-hand material at realistic prices. Fixing what's currently wrong with swap meets while preserving an efficient market in second-hand items will be a challenge to hobby leaders in the future.
On the other hand, if a public-spirited hobbyist determined that for the benefit of the hobby, swap meets should be put out of their misery, such a person could probably do it single-handed in his area by simply reporting the date and time of each swap meet to the appropriate state sales tax authorities.
However, many swap meet vendors also sell at train shows. Part of their business model is to acquire stock at putatively low prices at swap meets, then sell it at higher prices at train shows -- but as we've seen, prices at swap meets are already quickly bid up to the sales-resistance level due to the bubble mentality of these same dealers. As a result, it's common to see outdated, imperfect, or used merchandise and remnants on sale at train shows for prices several dollars above what you would pay for equivalent new items at a hobby shop. The presence of essentially unsellable non-model railroad junk toy items, noted at swap meets, is also a problem at train shows.
In addition to the admission charge for such shows, there's usually also a substantial parking charge, so that the full cost of admission to the show isn't trivial, and that cost must also be added to the cost of any merchandise acquired there. This total is likely to be significantly more than the cost of shipping paid to a discount web or mail-order vendor, or the sales tax paid at a hobby shop. Consumers who buy merchandise at train shows without being well-informed on prices risk a real fleecing.
In fairness, there are several very reputable vendors who do most of their business at train shows, though they sell important niche items like historical photographs that don't correspond to what's sold at swap meets. In addition, a few shows, like the winter show at Springfield, MA, rival industry trade shows in importance, and are key regional venues for hobby suppliers to announce or display new products. The great majority of shows and vendors, however, do not approach these levels of quality.
Train shows add one attraction that isn't normally found at swap meets, modular railroad layouts. These layouts are assembled from interoperable modules built by individual members of clubs and normally kept in storage. Several times a year, the pieces are assembled into an operating layout and displayed to the public in venues like malls or train shows. Key limiting factors for such layouts are the size of the individual modules, which must be small enough to be moved in vans or small trucks, and the restrictions on complexity, scenery, and detail that stem from the need to handle the modules extensively, as well as the need to set up and take down the layouts in a short period of time. This means that a modular layout won't have features that would allow a permanent layout to show what the hobby can accomplish in its best light.
Added to these restrictions is the problem most clubs face, the need to accommodate tactfully the varying skill levels of the members. Most modules will be completed to an average level of quality; some number will be less competently done, with scenery consisting of features like dusty plastic dinosaurs. The overall effect of a few well-done modules, with most ranging from mediocre to horrible, is not inspiring.
Again, in fairness, there is a small number of modular layouts completed to a uniform high standard that can be found at a few train shows, but their presence at a given show is a highly touted event, and the great majority of layouts at such shows does not remotely approach such standards.
A friend recently attended a train show and, calculating the trouble he took to get to the show, as well as the cost of parking and admission, and comparing that to the low quality, limited variety, and high prices of the merchandise, the poor quality of the modular layouts on display, and the generally depressing atmosphere of futility caused by the profusion of unsellable junk, resolved not to attend such shows in the future, and wrote the organizer a letter to that effect. My friend hasn't reported a reply to his letter, and I imagine the organizer ignored it as the rantings of an isolated disgruntled person. But my friend, an accountant, was making a rational decision based on an evaluation of pros and cons, the sort of decision other intelligent people can be expected to make.
The problem for the hobby is that a show that's generating some kind of an income for its organizers, but which casts model railroaders in a poor light by featuring mediocre layouts, overpriced merchandise, and a depressing atmosphere, is perpetuating the kind of feckless stereotype we in general want to avoid. There is a conflict for the hobby's overall good if a show organizer admits every vendor who will pay her fee and meet her very minimal standards, yet those vendors put the hobby in a poor light by, for instance, displaying broken GI Joe paraphernalia and the like, creating an overall sense of cheapness.
Add to that the fact that, for informed consumers, attendance at a typical train show may not be an economically rational decision, and the issue arises that the purpose of such shows is to cater to the uninformed and undiscriminating -- in other words, to suckers. This is an issue the hobby's leaders and visionaries need to address, an essentially political problem not much different from the one community leaders face if some residents, by misuse of their property, damage the community as a whole. We as hobbyists have a right to expect proactive leadership on issues like this from those who represent themselves to us as leaders.
An innovation in the hobby that has come with the Internet is the rise of e-mail lists and forums. Among the most popular e-mail lists are those found at Yahoo Groups, but others exist hosted by other value-added providers, as well as on independent servers. A forum differs from an e-mail list in that all messages are posted on the server and are viewed by visiting the site, rather than by receiving broadcast e-mails. A popular forum site is Trainorders.com. There really hasn't been a form of communication like e-mail lists or forums before the rise of the Internet; the closest equivalent was round-robin letters, in which each correspondent added sheets to a group letter that was re-mailed in sequence to a list of participants. This, of course, was slow and unwieldy. It was used, however, by model railroad pioneers such as John Allen and others to develop techniques that we now regard as standard for model railroad operation.
Clearly it's useful for a group of people whose interests focus on a common subject to exchange views on a real-time basis. If the information is complex and technical, doing it in writing will be more productive than a conference call. The rationalistic assumption would be that such an activity would be most productive if all members of the group are at an approximately equal (and relatively advanced) level of familiarity with their subject area, though necessarily some members will be better-informed in particular fields than others. Each member can then expand her knowledge of the subject by using the contributions of the other members, while providing her own contribution to the group from her specialty field. As one hobbyist put it, "nobody knows everything, but everybody knows something."
This assumes an egalitarian model, where each member has equivalent respect for every other member's specialty knowledge, as well as a shared view of the common goal of the group. It's possible to imagine ways in which such an egalitarian-cooperative model could break down. A central problem is that each member feels he has an equal claim on every other member's attention, and his opinions are of equal merit to every other member's. The result is likely to be trivial, disorganized discussion, or variations on bullying, which I will go into below.
Considering all the factors that can make a group's focus, productive discussion, and fellowship a fragile thing, it's amazing that many such groups function as well as they do. The ingredients for success include strong, yet tactful and subtle leadership, as well as general good will and good judgment on the part of all members.
However, there also appear to be clear ingredients for failure on the part of e-mail groups and forums. Past a certain point, it appears that groups can be too large to be successful; in the case of model railroading Yahoo! groups, this number seems to be in the 1000 range. If the group is in an area that's being promoted by the hobby magazines, such as layout design or operation, it may attract too many wannabes. Too many members may result in too many messages. The most popular lists can generate hundreds of e-mails in a single day, a potential technical problem for many people's in-boxes. (It's also plain that some participants receive group messages primarily at work, and reading hundreds of messages and actively responding to many of them during the work day is likely to have bad effects on work performance.)
The biggest sign of failure is flaming, public attacks against group participants, usually involving character assassination. Regular flaming in a group is a failure of leadership, since most e-mail groups and forums have the technical capability of banning users who don't adhere to basic guidelines. Everg dog, as they say, gets one bite, but once a group leader recognizes a flamer, it's the leader's failure if that individual isn't banned. Yet flaming is very common on e-mail groups and discussion boards.
Mail bombing is, I think, a more serious abuse than flaming, less common on model railroad e-mail groups and forums, but it happens. This involves sending unwanted and abusive e-mails to the individual's personal e-mail address. The good part of this abuse is that, even if a group leader is unwilling to ban a flamer, you can contact a mail bomber's ISP directly, and such a complaint may result in the mail bomber's own internet access being cut off.
I've also seen cases where individuals who participate in e-mail groups or on-line forums from work have sent me mail bombs from their employer's servers (this is evidenced by the sender's address showing as something like email@example.com, where "employer" is a recognizable corporate name). Corporate information security policies typically specify that use of corporate computing resources is for business purposes only. Some amount of surfing the web during slow time at work may be tacitly allowed. However, I've seen one specific corporate policy prohibiting participation in non-business forums using a company e-mail address. And sending an abusive e-mail to a private individual from a corporate server, using a corporate e-mail address, is reckless activity.
Every domain is required to have an active "abuse" mailbox where such behavior can be reported. Anyone who receives an abusive e-mail from a corporate e-mail sender is entitled to forward that e-mail to the address "firstname.lastname@example.org". I've probably received three or four such e-mails over the years. I always reply to the sender that his e-mail is likely to be a violation of corporate policy, and any further e-mails will result in my forwarding them to the "abuse" mailbox at his employer. Only once have I had to follow through and forward the e-mail to the "abuse" mailbox. (Interestingly, the individual whose e-mail I had to forward then began posting indignantly on the forum complaining about what I had done. The reaction of those on the forum was nearly unanimous that my doing this was completely out of bounds, since it could get the individual in trouble with his employer. Apparently the prevailing view on such forums is that bullying and abuse, including mail bombing using an employer's computer, is acceptable, or should be tacitly permitted, and any effective reaction to it, after a clear warning, is out of bounds. This situation has led me to question the overall level of maturity and realistic thinking among many forum participants.)
Flaming and mail bombing, it seems to me, are forms of bullying. The UK and Australia seem to have a much clearer understanding of this subject, perhaps due to general awareness of a bullying culture in their schools. Bullies are thought to exist in traditional English boarding schools largely because they are useful to the school administration in keeping the students in line. Ordinary discipline can be left to the bigger boys who are willing to dominate the smaller ones, and there's less work for the teachers. The difficulty, of course, is that petty jealousies, cronyism, corruption, violence, and even sexual coercion go along with the bullying, but are conveniently ignored.
In this interpretation, a flamer who is tolerated in a group or forum is performing a function that the group's leadership finds useful. The clearest case, as the example I linked to above suggests, "is sometimes directed at unwitting but opinionated newbies who appear in a newsgroup". It's much easier for a leader to let a flamer deal with a beginner who commits an obvious faux pas than to handle it tactfully and helpfully. But flamers are also useful for defending the prestige of the leadership and favored group members, and indeed for ensuring that only an accepted range of opinions is given in posts.
At worst, if a member stands up to a flamer and challenges him either for an unsupportable opinion of his own or for flaming in violation of established guidelines, the owner/leader (or his trusted designee) will ban the dissident -- for flaming, of course. Flamers are also useful for inconsistent enforcement of off-topic posts. For some reason, a number of model railroad e-groups discuss Krispy Kreme doughnuts in addition to the stated topic. Ordinary members who make off-topic posts on most subjects are flamed. Leaders and favored members who post on Krispy Kreme doughnuts are not flamed.
My experience and observation have been that, on groups or forums where flaming is tolerated at all, the group owners or forum proprietors are complicit and allow it to exist. Here's what I think is a typical situation:
The bottom line is that where flaming exists, it's probably because it's tolerated and even tacitly encouraged by the leadership. When this happens to me, I leave the group or forum, because the aims of the group appear to be to maintain a social pecking order where a usually very mediocre high-status group gets to abuse those they feel are beneath them. Hobby related fellowship is secondary to a few third-rate guys getting their jollies. Life is too short for this.
Electronic groups are at their worst if they have to deal with controversial subjects. In fact, a tendency toward rigid conformity is the other potential downside of electronic groups. This manifests itself in messages that can continue for days on a single, obscure topic, doing every possible detail to death. I think the reason for these sometimes maddening threads is that members appear to want to participate in the discussion and want to appear knowledgeable, but are too timid to initiate new topics, and indeed too timid to contribute in any but the least consequential way to existing topics. The penalty for misjudging one's contribution in this way is, of course, flaming.
One finds a certain bias toward the non-controversial and the trivial on forums as well as e-mail lists. A check of one such forum, for instance, the trains.com Model Railroader General Discussion, shows topics ranging from "How old are you?" to "Are you a member of a club?" to "Model railroading and my brother-in-law's wedding." There may be some specific threads regarding technical issues relating to specific hobby products, but very little in the nature of "what are we trying to do here, and are we succeeding?" Topics that may appear to address this, such as "How can we attract more young people to the hobby?" usually don't stray far from non-controversial remarks and conventional wisdom ("interest in the hobby is declining, there's nothing we can do.") As with e-mail lists, there is probably considerable peer pressure in forums to avoid truly maverick opinions.
I've read discussions of abusive family situations where there was a "walk on eggs" atmosphere, a sense that any slight misstep could trigger an extremely unpleasant reaction. Groups where flaming is common seem to have a similar ethos. As a result, I think that flaming, threads that go on and on over trivial issues, or a feeling that normally reasonable opinions will not be accepted by key members of the group are all signs that it's not worth participation. An atmosphere where flaming is excused because the victims "had it coming" is also classically abusive. Clearly the best solution is for individuals to understand that participation in such a group is less valuable than a sense of integrity and peace of mind.
I'm currently a member of some groups that approach my theoretical 1000 member limit, but the discussions are uniformly courteous, and epidemics of trivial and repetitious posts on a single subject are relatively infrequent. (I don't want to identify either good or bad examples for fear of upsetting equilibrium.) Clearly there are variations among groups, and this is probably a testament to the effects of good versus bad leadership, as well as to the good effects of tactful and intelligent key members.
Membership or participation in an e-mail group or forum can be a rewarding way to get information and experience good fellowship. But if we want to advance the status of the hobby, we need to be concerned with maintaining a high level of courtesy and mutual respect. We should withdraw immediately from groups that do not enforce a high standard of conduct on all members, and we should insist that our leadership maintain such standards. We have both the right and the responsibility to report anyone who sends unwanted, abusive e-mail to their ISP, and if the e-mail contains actual threats, to law enforcement. Hobby activities should not need to concern themselves with this kind of behavior.
That said, forums and e-mail lists are clearly not good places to try to express strongly dissenting opinions or controversial viewpoints, due to peer pressure among all participants to adhere to received opinions and the likelihood of "enforcement" via bullying tactics. It should also be noted that all such forums have a bias in favor of talk and against doing things. Other forms of web-based opinion, such as blogs, may be more effective.
Another factor I've begun to notice more recently has been the tendency of some posters to post the exact same post at multiple forums -- at least half a dozen at a time. This probably reflects an immature (or to use a more current term, narcissistic) need for attention, as well as the likelihood that these participants see the potential for quick gratification of this need in such forums. It also suggests that some fringe participants in the hobby spend more time on line than they do in actual hobby activites. This goes to a perception I've begun to have that certain adventitious aspects of the hobby are more important to some hobbyists than the hobby itself -- a kind of sub-hobby consisting of narcissistic games devolving from actual hobby activities. One function of the internet, unfortunately, has been to enable this development.
While flaming and other abusive behavior are common to both e-mail lists (such as Yahoo! groups) and on-line forums, on-line forums present an additional problem for the hobby's image, because they're more visible and can be found by members of the general public via search engines. Flaming or bad language in an e-mail group is at least limited to a small audience that might know what to expect. This isn't the case with forums, where the general public may expect, but not necessarily receive, family-friendly content on a model railroad site. The absence of a small number of objectionable four-letter words in and of itself (though there's no guarantee of this) doesn't mean the tone of discussion isn't frequently vicious, and not the sort of thing children should see.
There's another problem on many lists, and that's the remarkably low level of literacy in posts. It's very common to see, for instance, phonetic spellings of what I would call "uneducated speech" -- for instance, "I've been workin on this year model engine", "I got a Athren kit", and so forth. I have vivid memories of elementary school in a small New Jersey town, where teachers in the first and second grades were assiduous in getting students to avoid saying "this here", or making sure we said "an" instead of "a" in front of a vowel. The level of elementary misspellings and phonetic representations of speech patterns that suggest a lack of training in the early grades is a feature of on-line forums that I simply find discouraging. Many participants are simply semiliterate. I would assume that conscientious parents would not wish children to be exposed to this kind of an example in self-expression.
Add to this the fact that one of the worst forums in this area, Trainorders.com, charges money for members to participate, when there are many free forums available. In fact, it puzzles me that semiliterate posts of the sort I've described are almost the norm on Trainorders.com. (A quick search turned up this one on the front page of the model railroad forum on that site: "is the yellow that is used by both kato and atlas on there sante fee war bonnets the corect coler or is it to orngish i am refering to units that would be fresh from the paint booth thanks in advance for your answers". Another poster then answered, "I have a atlas gp 38 and a kato gp 35, the paint on them is a little off becuase kato painted the blue first, so the yellow is dark. Atlas paint the yellow first so it is a true yellow. But as far as correctness goes, it really doesnt matter becuase different shops painted with different shades of the yello and blues.") One possible explanation would be that the forum members, who are currently paying $29 per year for the privilege of posting there when many other forums are free, are a self-selecting group of uninformed consumers, or "suckers", similar to those already discussed in relation to train shows.
The Trainorders.com forum was at one point acquired by Yahoo!, with the forum's host apparently taken on as a Yahoo! employee. Trainorders was, however, dropped by Yahoo! in fairly short order, I believe at least in part because the bad atmosphere, bad language, and semiliterate posts appearing under the Yahoo! trademark were simply unacceptable to the company. (Trainorders.com's owner described the situation as follows in August 2007):
1998: While [I was?] looking for a job, Mark Cuban, co-founder of Broadcast.com came across the site on my resume and purchased it. I stayed on board to run the site. A year later Broadcast.com was purchased by Yahoo. One [year?] after that Yahoo was on the verge of shutting down the site and pointing the domain to a Yahoo club that later became Yahoo Groups. After a chain events (that I am not permitted to talk about do to a perpetual non-disclosure agreement) I regained ownership of the site.
In an attempt to clean up the posting environment, Trainorders.com instituted reforms designed to keep children from signing on and posting, but the continued low literacy level of the posts only reinforces my sense of the odd nature of the population that frequents that and other forums. I'm also somewhat distressed to see frequent posts on all such forums where visitors discuss upcoming exploitive train shows with great enthusiasm. Forums are in many ways a way for the least-informed, least-educated strata of the hobby to reinforce a set of generally dysfunctional attitudes. Often the questions posted in forums are of the sort that could be answered via a simple Google search, or by purchasing and reading a hobby magazine. This suggests that many forum visitors lack a certain level of basic initiative, even if they're well enough off to pay exorbitant prices for forum membership or train show admission. It hurts all of us for this behavior to be so prominently visible.
There's an incentive for commercial web sites to include forums, since the visitors update their own content, and frequent return visits to view the updated content contribute heavily to the commercial site's traffic -- thus allowing the site to eke out an income from advertisers. But it's not in the interest of the commercial site to spend time (which is money) paying much attention to what happens on the posts. Thus flaming, bad language, and a vicious atmosphere are common, and are not dealt with by the moderators until the situations are well out of control.
As with train shows, I think commercial on-line forums represent a situation where bottom-feeding commercial ventures are damaging the image of the hobby. I'm puzzled, though, that established hobby businesses like Kalmbach Publishing with the Trains.com forums, and Atlas with its model railroad forum, contribute to the problem, since they are investing considerable resources in hardware, bandwidth, and administrative overhead to provide "free" content that brings in no direct income. In fact, since some portion of what hobbyists now pay for Kalmbach publications or Atlas products pays for these forums, I think hobbyists should begin to question the price level of those companies' products in this light. I've both experienced and heard of an increase in quality assurance problems with Atlas products lately, for instance -- could the staff time and investment Atlas currently puts into its forums be better spent upgrading its quality assurance procedures?
It seems to me that Yahoo! made a correct corporate decision in deciding the typical content and behavior of a model railroad on-line forum simply didn't fit its corporate mission. I am waiting for Kalmbach and Atlas to reach similar conclusions. While there is little to distinguish the high-traffic forums, the Atlas forum seems to have a particular penchant for uninformed, uneducated posts. This post appeared on June 30, 2007:
about a month ago i accused engineerkyle [the nickname of an Atlas forum member] of being the person who had riped of numerous to [apparently referring to Trainorders.com] members in a interstate fraud scheme. i felt i had seen pictures of his private rr ARCHER GRAIN CO on the atlas web site. after checking the atlas web site i find that in this i was wrong. i have all ready apologized to enineerkyle and anything further between him and myself will remain that way. i am now apologizing to both the atlas web site members and to the atlas web site its self for my unwarranted actions.This sort of thing isn't unusual. Atlas is devoting what must be significant corporate resources to providing a platorm for semiliterate, potentially libelous material that emanates from the very bottom layer of the hobby population. A month earlier, in response to similar posts on the Atlas forum, I sent the following letter to Atlas:
May 29, 2007
Mr. Thomas W. Haedrich, CEO
Atlas Model Railroad Company
378 Florence Avenue
Hillside, NJ 07205
Dear Mr. Haedrich,
Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a number of threads on the Forums at the Atlas web site in which participants make unfounded allegations against Atlas dealers. Over the Memorial Day weekend, for instance, pseudonymous members accused An Affair With Trains, a hobby store (and presumably an Atlas dealer) in Phoenix, Arizona, of downgrading its business following a change of ownership. This prompted the store’s owner to reply, providing a photograph of the store’s upgraded interior and explaining that he’d expanded it by knocking down a wall and taking over the neighboring storefront as well.
A few weeks earlier, another pseudonymous forum member criticized M.B.Klein, which is certainly an Atlas dealer, for its move from central Baltimore to a suburb, again into expanded quarters. This also prompted a reply from Klein. Before that, pseudonymous members criticized another major Atlas dealer, Allied Models in Los Angeles, in the same way.
Mr. Haedrich, do I detect a pattern here? I’m glad I’m not a hobby store owner and have to deal with the risk of a major supplier maintaining an internet forum in which people who don’t identify themselves can make wildly inaccurate accusations about my business. Why should a hobby dealer carry Atlas products or support your company in any way if your moderators don’t make any effort to limit this sort of defamatory material?
I often wonder what Atlas employees could be doing if they weren’t babysitting your forums. The often ungrammatical, uninformed, poorly expressed, and immature posts that a visitor sees there put the hobby as a whole, in addition to Atlas, in a bad light. Why not do Atlas, your dealers, and the rest of us a favor and redirect those resources?
Very truly yours,
Mr. Haedrich made no reply.
In August 2007, a thread on the Atlas forum grew to five pages within a day on the subject of the moderators' suspension of a regular member, who goes by the handle "Spikre". Spikre, one of the most prolific posters on the Atlas and other forums, routinely violated the Atlas forum guidelines, although tolerance for such violations, as we've seen above, is a routine feature of such venues. At one point, the Atlas moderator made a post saying that Spikre had been warned repeatedly of his violations, and had finally been suspended. The discussion on the thread continued, on the theme that Spikre posts on other forums, and in fact so do most of the others. In fact, it began to occur to me that posting on most forums is done by a hard core of maybe two dozen individuals, all of them narcissistic, semiliterate, and quick-tempered. It also began to occur to me that Atlas staff had spent some amount of time babysitting Spikre and the other two dozen, all of whom would suffer no hardship if Atlas were to discontinue its own forum -- there are many others where they post already and would continue to post. How much staff time is Atlas spending on this useless task?
On April 25, 2012, Atlas made the following announcement on its web site:
Atlas Model Railroad Co. Inc. announced today that it will discontinue its model railroad forums, www.atlasrr.com/forums, effective Tuesday, May 1st. In making the announcement Atlas CEO, Tom Haedrich explained the decision behind the shut down as, “a result of the ever-increasing amount of time and other valuable resources expended to monitor and administer the forums. Besides the monthly costs of bandwidth, software and service providers, Atlas dedicates a significant amount of precious R&D staff time responding both on and offline to forum based issues and problems. It’s time that Atlas reestablished these limited resources, in particular valued R&D employee time, toward increased efforts at developing new and innovative model railroad products ”, Haedrich said.Well, I told him the same thing five years earlier.
It occurs to me that one service a group like the NMRA might perform would be to offer a "ratings" system for forums similar to the US film rating system. The rating could be based on criteria such as overall family friendly language; a subjective judgment of "atmosphere" based on flaming, cliquishness, and courtesy; an objective judgment of usage, grammar, and spelling to be found in posts (a family-friendly feature for children); a judgment of content level (beginner, intermediate, advanced); and an overall judgment of the moderators' willingness to be proactive and even-handed in deleting offensive posts or banning troublesome members. One suspects this would be too useful a development for the current NMRA leadership to consider.
A 2008 book by Emory University English Professor Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation, raises questions about how on line media may affect the hobby. Bauerlein began to investigate claims that access to computer games, web sites, and other on line destinations like Twitter, Myspace, and Flickr, have made rising generations of students smarter. He found, instead, that students were more reluctant to devote anything other than superficial attention to subjects and were less, not more, inclined to investigate issues in depth. He found that reading books continued to be the best intellectual exercise, while on line resources did not provide the same quality of stimulus.
One characteristic of on line forums that I've seen is that members seem generally undemanding of themselves and of their peers (unless, of course, someone says something inconsistent with conventional wisdom, in which case all bets are off). Photos posted of layouts or modeling projects are overwhelmingly mediocre, for instance -- both in quality of the photos themselves (often taken with cell phone cameras but in any case poorly lit, out of focus, and badly composed) and of the models. Each forum will have a limited number of modelers (who often post the same photos on multiple forums) "allowed" to post good work to the uncritical acclaim of the forum members. However, innovation is discouraged, along with competent work by modelers not on the "approved" short list.
One set of implications that might be drawn from Bauerlein's conclusions is that innovation in the hobby isn't likely to come from on line sources. Innovators in prior generations, like John Allen and Allen McClelland, were strong personalities who weren't afraid to go against the grain. Allen is described in Linn Westcott's biography as a person of wide intellectual interests who was fond of taking contrarian positions on many subjects just to have an interesting argument. McClelland himself describes in the Allen Keller V&O video how his early ideas on walk around control were rejected by the then-elites of the hobby. Contrarian views and interesting arguments aren't popular in on line forums; the authoritarianism usually present there suggests that the views of a contemporary McClelland wouldn't be accepted, either.
I've encountered enough clergy posting in online forums to have some concern about how they identify and conduct themselves in this hobby venue. As I've observed above, the combination of anonymity (or at least invisibility), the egalitarianism of a forum or e-mail environment, and the sense of conformity that develops in such groups can lead to flaming and other types of immature and abusive behavior. It seems to me that clergy, with a particular 24-by-7 commitment to seeing people deal fairly and courteously with each other, have a special challenge if they participate in such groups at all. No clergy I've encountered who identify themselves as such in on-line groups has met this challenge remotely, in my opinion.
In fact, the three who come most prominently to mind, an American Baptist pastor in Kansas, a United Methodist minister in the Southeast, and an Eastern Orthodox priest in an East Coast city, strike me as having abdicated their pastoral roles on various groups to the point of irresponsibility, apparently to avoid appearing controversial. Each identified himself clearly as a priest or minister on the forums, so that an observer would be entitled to match expectations with performance. And it should be pointed out that priests are always priests -- you don't get time off, especially not when you say that's what you are.
The first issue is whether a member of the clergy chooses to identify him or herself as clergy in such a group. Certainly everyone is entitled to a hobby, and clergy more than many need to relax from a demanding profession. In fact, I may have seen many clergy in on-line groups who are there for relaxation, but haven't identified themselves as clergy. On the other hand, if your on-line handle contains identifiers like "Rev", or if you make a point of your calling in your posts, you are drawing attention to yourself and creating a set of expectations.
So I suspect in part that my bad experiences with clergy in on-line groups are because the group I'm seeing is self-selecting: they choose, likely for reasons of prestige or deference, to call themselves "Rev Mike" or whatever, or refer ostentatiously to their status in the body of their posts. These, of course, are the sorts of people who make a public show of their religion, about whom Jesus of Nazareth said in the gospels they've already got their reward -- they won't find it in the beyond. So in part I think we're dealing with an unpleasant bunch here in the first place, and there may be many clergy in on-line forums who have the spiritual humility and good taste not to make a big show of their status -- and as a result I haven't recognized them. Good for them. Sort of.
I've also chatted with clergy who express disdain for colleagues who wear clerical collars to do something like buy a car, hoping to get a better discount. I think clergy who call attention to their status in on-line forums but don't exercise constructive leadership are also vulnerable to similar disdain. It's also worth pointing out that clergy who call attention to their presence yet do not attempt to moderate abusive behavior are implicitly endorsing that behavior by participating in the discussion, whether they themselves are abusive or not. There are, of course, clergy who have chosen the profession out of a desire to gain social prestige, and I suspect that we're looking at some of these characters in this kind of a situation. Despite their years in divinity school and their ordination, they're phonies. God knows it, too. Heck, they know it.
The model railroad hobby, like any other activity in life, offers some spiritual obstacles. One of the biggest is certainly idolatry, a tendency to confuse one's ultimate concerns with trivial hobby-related issues, a loss of proportion or priority. One feature of on-line forums is often a rigid social hierarchy, in which flamer-bullies either prevail or enforce the status of the "leadership", who are almost uniformly mediocre in their modeling, other hobby skills, self-expression, and human relations. This, as C.S.Lewis has pointed out in his essay "The Inner Ring", is a feature of in-groups: they reinforce the status of their members by exempting them from the normal criteria of merit.
Taking one's relative status in a group so seriously that one has to resort to bullying or flaming, it seems to me, is a sign of fairly major spiritual confusion. It seems to me that a member of the clergy has a problem if he or she finds himself in a group suffering from this kind of confusion, and I don't have a good answer. Even more so, I think some clergy, who may be inclined to a type of authoritarianism themselves, may actually feel it is their duty to endorse the "authority" that attaches to in-groupery, cliquishness, and bullying. Of those I've seen who seem to feel this way, I can only say I'm deeply concerned for them and their parishes, as this strikes me as a profound misunderstanding of the Christian message.
Certainly if the pastor is keeping a low profile, the problem is less than if the pastor is signing on frequently as "Father Ed", but it's worth pointing out that the Good Samaritan didn't pass by on the other side of the road claiming he was trying to relax from a hard day.
So I don't envy clergy the problem they face when they participate in poorly-run online forums. On the other hand, there are times when, based on Christian teaching, all of us, clergy or not, are called upon to make some positive effort to improve what we see. This would include various forms of idolatry, cliquishness, and bullying that we encounter in the hobby. There is such a thing, most clergy would agree, as a sin of omission. So I have special disdain for those who sign on as "Brother Bob" or whatever, but only slightly less for those who stay silent under any circumstances when they ought to speak out.
I received an e-mail in response to this section from an individual who says he is one of the clergy I had specifically mentioned above. In light of the policy on e-mails I've posted on the home page of this site, as well as his remarks at the conclusion of this e-mail, I think this e-mail is worth reproducing here as an example of the type of "Reverend" I'm discussing. I've edited out references to a third party here, but I've included the rest of the e-mail as it was sent:
I was told by several on the Atlas Forum of your recent diatribe against clergy on the Atlas forum over the flap over Model Railroader, et.al. I want to first of all tell you, that I certainly do answer to God FIRST and not you as far as my conduct, what I do and don't do, and anything else that happens in my daily walk. Second, I answer to the congregations that called me, Third I answer to the denomination I am a part of, and somewhere in there, my wife is included. After reading through all that "stuff" I guess you are of the opinion that clergy should not have a part in anything controversial in these forums and indeed, I don't intend to, and did leave the forum at one time over some very obscene stuff. I returned after hearing from the moderator it wouldn't be allowed to happen again.
. . . . In short, you can disagree with me, but you can't condemn me, or Mike [apparently referring to the non-existent "Rev Mike" I mentioned above], and that is what you have done. You have identified me in your ramblings on the website by location and denomination. A large number of people from the Atlas forum have read it and commented to me about your tone, and that will spread, so you have labeled me before a hobby community that I have been a part of since my Seminary days back in the late 1950's.
I have worked in the computer field to support myself so that I could pastor small congregations that did not have the resources for the big salaries to have a full time pastor, think Paul and making tents, and when I took early retirement in 1996 from the computer field, I took two small congregations full time, using pension and the salary they can pay me, along with Social Security, to support myself. In the years past, I was also used to start new congregations while working. So I will let God/Christ judge me, but certainly not you.
I will pray for you, that you might have a change of attitude, I will not write any public forums or emails to any one else about you, I will not curse your name in the "temple". But I am not going to engage in an open debate with you and drag my profession through the mud as you seem to want.
And, I will put a filter block on my email account so I won't have to deal with your continued ravings.
West Franklin Baptist Parish
[e-mail address redacted]
Since I hadn't previously e-mailed the Rev. Mr. Miller over ths matter (I may have corresponded with him non-confrontationally about his calling several years ago), it's puzzling that he should put a block on his e-mail so I can't reply. It strikes me as something of a "late hit" -- he gets to vent, and he doesn't want me to reply in kind (which I wouldn't have spent the effort to do in any case). However, this made it impossible for me to request his permission to use his name on his e-mail before posting it here. I wouldn't, in fact, have posted this e-mail at all except in regard to his assertion that he "will not write any public forums or emails to anyone else about you". The good Reverend, however, posted the following on the Atlas forum on March 20, 2004:
As for Mr. Bruce's right of free speech, he certainly has that. So did Adolph Hitler, and a lot of people died for it and because of it.
A Reverend who insists he won't engage in open debate (think Paul and addressing the Areopagus), who promises he won't post on forums about someone and then apparently has second thoughts (and compares me to Hitler, with incoherent mutterings about people who died), who won't even let someone reply to an angry and ill-considered e-mail -- some "Reverend". This is exactly what I'm talking about here, and it seems to me that, since I'm not a member of the clergy myself in any case, it's not me who's dragging the profession through the mud.
An item in the Railroad Model Craftsman "Editor's Notebook" for August 2007 points out some of the problems that face clergy who wish to become prominent in the hobby. The piece featured two photos of the Rev. Douglas Harding, who is Pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Eldora, Iowa, as well as an author of articles in Railroad Model Craftsman and a high-profile member of various Yahoo! groups (as we've already seen, this is a potentially bad sign). One of the photos showed Harding in his clerical vestments, in the act of performing a wedding ceremony at the NMRA Pacific Coast Region convention in Santa Cruz, CA. Harding, a pastor in Iowa, marrying a couple at an NMRA regional convention in Santa Cruz?
Let's start by granting that people get married every day in all sorts of strange venues, under all sorts of different auspices. They do it while whale watching, while skydiving, while tree hugging, and they're free to do it as wiccans, as Buddhists, as radical feminists, or anything else. I don't have a problem with this. I do have a problem with seeing a wedding of almost any sort prominently featured in Railroad Model Craftsman, and here's where the problem starts. (Actually, small blurbs about the weddings of magazine staff members are fine, but this is different.)
If the wedding is specifically identified as religious (in this case, Christian), then we're simply entitled to certain reasonable expectations. This piece made a big deal of Harding, the fact that he was a UMC pastor, and of the couple he married, Patrick LaTorres and Veronica Shadlo. LaTorres and Shadlo, according to the piece (confirmed to me later in e-mails from LaTorres) chose to marry, in effect, in the NMRA rather than in the church, because all their friends were in the NMRA. It was a little odd that they went out of their way to have a Methodist pastor tie the knot, when it could have been a civil ceremony. But aside from that, the piece had nothing to do with model railroading outside of the fact that the couple took time off from the NMRA regional convention to do it, and, were it not for the fact that they weren't enjoying their 15 minutes of fame, the piece would more appropriately have appeared in People magazine. The main problem here is Bill Schaumburg's editorial judgment, of course, and in that context, I certainly hope that with a new Publisher in charge, Carstens Publications and Schaumburg are actively planning for succession in Schaumburg's job.
But given reasonable expectations I might draw from seeing a UMC pastor presiding at the ceremony, various questions began to bother me about it. Why was a pastor from Iowa at a California regional NMRA convention in the first place? Well, turns out he goes there every year. "If I lived in Iowa, I'd go to California a lot, too," said my wife. That's the only explanation I can see. As a pastor, Harding probably can't go to Vegas to blow off steam like some other Iowans do, so he does the next best thing and goes to regional NMRA conventions in California.
So that's strangeness number one. Strangeness number two is why this Iowa pastor is marrying two residents of California -- something that would be problematic in some Christian denominations. In fact, in some states (though not California), it's illegal for an out-of-state pastor to perform a marriage. In other words, this is a little hinky on the face of it. Among the questions that stem from that circumstance are whether the couple are members of a church, or intend to join one. This is the sort of question a pastor normally asks, and normally a pastor would take the answer seriously. They apparently wanted a religious ceremony (something LaTorres confirmed to me in an e-mail), but apparently not badly enough to approach a local church and a local pastor to conduct it. Ronnie, the bride, wanted a beachfront wedding, said LaTorres, though a California pastor might have been a choice for that, too.
Because Harding is a high-profile member of several model railroad Yahoo! groups, his e-mail was easy to find, and, identifying myself as an active Christian, I e-mailed him privately with a detailed list of my concerns, indicating that what I saw in RMC bothered me, but perhaps I didn't understand all the circumstances, and I asked him if he could give me more information. My concerns were why, when his parish was in Iowa, he did the ceremony in California; whether he was satisfied that the couple intended to join a Christian community; whether he had performed all necessary premarital counseling in such an unusual context; and whether it was appropriate to hold the ceremony in the context of a model railroad convention.
Harding's first answer was, in full, as follows:
John, as many pastors do, I was officiating at a wedding for a friend who asked. Many clergy are called upon for such "special" occasions for family and friends. In the United Methodist Church I am an Ordained Elder, which entitles me to preform ministerial functions anywhere in the world. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, said "the world is my parish" and we Methodists practice that belief.Elmer Gantry meets Captain Marvel! Harding seems to have repented of this almost immediately and sent me a second e-mail that discussed my concerns at greater length, although his basic point remained the same: he cited only his status as an "Ordained Elder" for his authority to perform the ceremony, and he repeatedly claimed John Wesley (not a scriptural authority) somehow gave him permission to do it. Now, there are lots of things I can do anywhere in the world. The question is whether doing them anywhere reflects good judgment. He did say in the second e-mail, however, that ethically, he could only perform such a ceremony in California outside a church. To do it inside a church, he would need to be invited by that church's pastor, something the pastor might or might not agree to. But this was moot, since the couple wanted a beachfront wedding, in Santa Cruz. So let's party!
He also insisted that the wedding was legal in California, he'd checked. In his second e-mail to me, he also said
I cannot control or dictate what Bill Schaumburg writes in his column. I was as surprized [sic] as you were when I got my copy this week. You need to ask him your questions about his column, his email is [email@example.com].I really felt this was a good point. My main concern was less that the wedding had taken place, but that it had been publicized. Harding's strong implication was that this had happened without his approval. If this was the case -- and given my increasing skepticism on whether Bill Schaumburg is hitting on all cylinders, I thought it might be -- then my problem was in fact with RMC, not Harding. On the other hand, I felt Schaumburg might be too absent-minded, too busy at a wine tasting, or too preoccupied otherwise to read my e-mail, and he might just blow it off anyhow. So I thought a better recipient might be Henry Carstens, the new Publisher of RMC, and just for fun, his dad, Harold.
I sent them both an e-mail saying I thought the religious content in "Editor's Notebook" was inappropriate, and beyond that, Harding had told me he hadn't expected to see it. And beyond that, given the circumstances Harding had outlined to me, many Christian clergy would have refused to perform the ceremony, since it was outside the pastor's venue, and the couple's commitment to joining a church seemed questionable. I copied Harding as a courtesy.
Surprise! (or Surprize!) The Rev. Mr. Harding apparently lost his temper big time! He sent me a third e-mail, saying
I said I was surprized [sic] when I saw Bill's column. Never once did I indicate I did not give my permission, or that I was unware the wedding would be mentioned. I was anticipating some mention, I was not expecting a photo. . .So he did in fact have something to do with Schaumburg's column. This, it seems to me, changes the circumstances, and it suggests he'd been less than frank in his first explanation. I can only conclude that he was involved in putting the column together, and that raises for me the question of why. We'll get to this.
The other thing the Rev. Mr. Harding did was e-mail Patrick LaTorres, the groom in the NMRA wedding, copying him on both the initial e-mail I'd sent Harding, and on the e-mail I sent to Carstens Publications. Seems like e-mailing Schaumburg himself was one thing (which I figured out for myself); e-mailing Henry Carstens with a complaint was something else indeed. It seems to me that e-mailing the groom over my complaints was something completely out of place and unprofessional for Harding to do. I would take Harding's intent as basically inciting LaTorres to harass me, which in fact LaTorres did, sending me two e-mails on his own, and a third through Harding. The one Harding forwarded, with his implicit approval, rambled among other things about gays, which had nothing to do with the discussion. I assume LaTorres, discovering I was Episcopalian, either thought I was gay or that I hated gays, so he figured he'd say something that would be obtuse and offensive either way! That Harding would forward this to me goes again to his unprofessional conduct. Some Reverend.
Three harassing e-mails in a day, in addition to an angry one from Harding himself, goes to what I've already said about "mail bombing" and the abuse of e-mail. I told LaTorres that any further e-mails would result in a complaint to his ISP, and I suggested to Harding that more of the same would result in forwarding the correspondence to his bishop. I haven't heard from either since, and I hope I don't, since the opportunity to discuss these matters with Harding's bishop would make my day.
The spiritual issue here, as far as I can see, is an unhappy one. The RMC piece, confirmed by LaTorres's e-mails to me, suggests that the couple's entire social, intellectual, and spiritual life (insofar as it exists) centers on the NMRA and other model railroad activites. These include many of the things that make up what I would call the "narcissistic structures" of the hobby: clubs and their politics, NMRA committees and their politics, operating sessions and their politics, on-line groups and forums, and appearance in hobby magazines. It's very easy for participants to get involved in these and have very little to do with enjoying the model railroad hobby for itself. Playing social games becomes primary, and even a second hobby that's more important than the first one.
In some ways, I sympathize with this couple. They appear to have attached themselves to Bill Schaumburg and Douglas Harding as the strongest, most attractive (even glamorous), and most authoritative figures they can see in this closely circumscribed environment. Schaumburg and Harding appear to be flattered by this. Schaumburg calls LaTorres a "friend", as does Harding, except, of course, that any friendship either can offer is limited to their presence for a few days at an annual NMRA regional convention, and e-mails now and then. If Harding, as a Christian pastor, had had an ounce of decency at any point in this process, he should have been referring the couple to whatever local resources in California he could bring to bear within the UMC or any other organization he could find. Instead, he appears to have kept these folks to himself as people who admired him and Schaumburg (what some psychologists might call "narcissistic supply"). He served as an enabler of their somwewhat confused desire to be married in effect in the NMRA, rather than in a church, when, as a pastor, he had a different responsibility. Neither Harding nor Schaumburg is what I would call a "friend" of this couple.
There's another question that bothered me from the start, but I wouldn't have been able to bring it up had not LaTorres volunteered the information in one of his rambling e-mails. Harding, we know from the RMC piece and his own version of events, is a regular attendee at the NMRA Pacific Coast Region conventions --- he's gone there something like four years running. So his travel expenses would be something he'd pay in 2007 like any other year. How he paid for his trip this year would normally be none of my business, except that LaTorres volunteered that he and his bride paid his expenses for this trip. So what would those expenses come to? The closest big airport to Eldora, Iowa is Des Moines. The closest airport to Santa Cruz is San Jose.
I checked Travelocity.com, and the cheapest round-trip fare from DSM to SJC is about $400 with taxes and fees. LaTorres didn't mention if they paid for his rental car, but the cheapest rental for a compact from a Thursday to a Sunday at SJC is about $120. Hotel rates (assuming Harding is staying at the convention hotel at some preferred rate) I would guess to be $150 a night, all taxes included. So leaving food, gas, airport parking in Des Moines, tips, and incidentals aside, LaTorres and his bride apparently paid Harding something like $870 to reimburse his travel costs -- except that Harding would have made this trip anyhow, even if he didn't perform the wedding ceremony. This to me creates an ethically ambiguous situation: normally a couple would pay clergy travel expenses assuming the clergy wouldn't otherwise make the trip. This isn't the case here. Money is fungible, so this reimbursement added $870 or so to Harding's hobby budget.
On top of that, LaTorres's explanations (volunteered to me via his e-mails) of the chronology indicate that the major premarital counseling Harding conducted took place in Santa Cruz, where he'd traveled on LaTorres's nickel. Harding would have had very little incentive to ask probing questions of any sort in such a situation. Normally clergy would have the option of not performing the ceremony if potential problems emerged in counseling; in this case, Harding had already accepted travel reimbursement and had made the trip -- more ethical ambiguity, as I see it. LaTorres didn't say whether he and his bride paid Harding an honorarium over and above his travel expenses, but this would certainly be customary. A quick internet search reveals honoraria to clergy for wedding ceremonies running in the $2-500 range. A productive weekend for the Rev. Mr. Harding, it would appear. I'm sure he can find some saying of John Wesley to justify it, too.
Harding gave me what I feel are conflicting accounts of his involvement with the "Editor's Notebook" piece. It appears to me that he wanted to give me the initial impression that he'd had nothing to do with it, but when it became plain that his crony Schaumburg would look bad to his boss based on that version, he changed it. Some Reverend.
On top of that, I'm puzzled that Harding and Schaumburg would get together in some fashion to produce an "Editor's Notebook" piece more appropriate for People magazine than RMC. My guess is that two things are involved: one is, as Harding put it to me in his second e-mail, that Schaumburg often discusses things he does with his friends in "Editor's Notebook". Schaumburg does have many, many friends, if his editorials are to be taken seriously, though given the number, I would call them "friends". (My hobby dealer tells me he's a charming guy, though that's not always a recommendation.) The trouble is that Schaumburg seems less and less interested in the hobby itself and more and more interested in pumping up his cronies. That the content of RMC is increasingly repetitious and based on half a dozen contributors is part of the same problem.
The second factor is it's hard to avoid the impression that Harding felt that appearing in his clerical capacity in RMC would be a boost to his standing in the hobby -- and that this essentially narcissistic boost was so important to him that he'd employ any nasty tactic (mendacity and mail bombing, for instance) he could think of to get back at someone who raised questions about it. In fact, considering the amount of money that apparently went to Harding for his participation in the wedding, there's some reason to think that the couple was implicitly buying a package that included publicity for themselves and their wedding, courtesy of Harding's "in" with Schaumburg. Some Reverend. My sense is that the socially narcissistic side of the hobby -- including the drive to make a public display of secular status in places like e-mail lists and hobby magazines -- is so tempting that some clergy have a very difficult time with it. I'm sorry that the Rev. Harding's congregation has someone of his apparent caliber to deal with.
The phrase "prototype modeler" has considerable resonance and prestige in the model railroad hobby. It came to currency in a grassroots movement in the mid-1970s as modelers became dissatisfied with the low quality and poor selection of the commercial products that were available to the hobby at the time. By the mid-1970s, many railroad technical and historical societies were well-established and publishing research on railroad equipment that was much more thorough than what had been available. Extra 2200 South, a specialty magazine publishing detailed information on contemporary locomotives, provided much more information on locomotives' technical features, history, and variety than the mainstream hobby magazines.
There was a general sense that those mainstream magazines were neither encouraging improved products from the hobby industry (who were their advertisers), nor publishing material that suggested that improvements might be made to existing products on an aftermarket basis, again presumably because it might offend advertisers to imply that their products were less than perfect. But it might even be going too far to impute commercial motives to the editors for their complacency, since complacency alone was probably a sufficient explanation. The magazines were also, it was felt, giving insufficient attention to railroads in interesting parts of the country, such as the Rocky Mountain states and California.
A Massachusetts hobby dealer named Bob Longo began to meet the wish for more complete, region- and railroad-specific information by publishing a series of newsletters with names like Western Prototype Modeler and Southwestern Prototype Modeler, each issue of which stressed various aftermarket detail improvements and technical enhancements that could be made to models then on the market, or information that would allow a modeler to build models for which no commercial product was available. In 1977, he combined the newsletters into a new, full-size magazine called Prototype Modeler, which continued to innovate in providing articles that covered interesting subjects in a more detailed and complete way than the mainstream hobby press, which at the time was producing a bland, predictable, and generally superficial product. (In mid-2005 I had a chance to chat with a modeler who had frequent articles in Longo's version of the magazine. He said Longo was apparently quite well off, with a private jet in which he flew from Massachusetts to meet in person with his authors all over the country. However, the author with whom I spoke said that he never saw any money for his contributions.)
At the same time, groups of modelers began to meet in informal groups that called themselves "prototype modelers' meets". In part reacting to the perceived organizational rigidity and complacency of the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA), which had accomplished nothing of interest for some years, the groups deliberately avoided formal organization. Anyone could announce a meeting and declare, should she be so inclined, that it was a "prototype modelers' meeting".
The impulse motivating the "prototype modeler" movement was anarchic, iconoclastic, and innovative. In some ways it presaged the same impulses that generated the computer revolution in the 1980s, a sense that useful information was worth distributing widely regardless of institutional constraints, a willingness to work hard and take risks to support worthwhile innovation, and a certain subordination of individual ego to the general purpose. If the existing magazines wouldn't publish the challenging and exciting material informed readers wanted, they'd start their own magazine. If the NMRA's existing activities couldn't support modelers who wanted an organization that would help them achieve their goals of getting innovative, challenging, and exciting products, they'd start their own anarchic activity to achieve those ends.
Bob Longo died within a few years of starting the magazine, which then passed through various hands, declined, and finally ceased publication in the early 1990s. In the meantime, the NMRA made its peace with the "prototype modelers" -- though given the anarchic style of the original groups, it's difficult in hindsight to determine with whom and on what authority this could have been done -- and the informal "prototype modelers" were then given separate meeting rooms for their use during NMRA national conventions (This was an enormous public-relations coup for the NMRA, allowing it to seem more innovative and flexible than it has ever actually been).
The new magazine, however, convinced other publishers that a market existed for additional hobby magazines. The interest in more accurate, more representative, better-quality, and more highly detailed model equipment convinced manufacturers that a market existed for new models to higher standards, and in fact the movement was probably a major factor in the phenomenal increase in product quality, accuracy, and variety that's taken place over the past 30 years. Within a fairly short period of time, the "prototype modelers" acquired more prestige than was probably good for the movement -- assuming the goal of such a movement (on a Weberian rationalistic basis) would be the continuous improvement of the hobby environment, rather than the introduction of any particular generation of products, or the publication of any particular magazine with any particular content.
Since the original "organization" was essentially anarchic and the result of loosely coordinated independent efforts, no one can say what its objectives were for sure -- but if I'm as competent a spokesman for an anarchic group as anyone else, I would say that its objective ought to have been a continuous state of mind, that of seeking challenge and excitement in the hobby, regardless of personalities or prestige.
To that extent, the "prototype modeler" movement has fallen somewhat short of its original task, or at least its original potential. But every movement loses its original spontaneity after a time, and the "prototype modeler" movement is now about 30 years old. In addition, every movement has its hangers-on and heavy-breathers, and as the initial excitement has dissipated, the tendency toward distracting secondary effects like ego-tripping and pedantry has increased.
A "prototype modeler's" meet is now a highly ritualized, predictable event, with participants bringing large numbers of models to display on thigh-height tables covered in white linen in hotel ballrooms. These are remarkably poor conditions to view or discuss small-scale models, but there is no move to improve or innovate in this area -- such a move would now likely be resisted as not what participants were used to. "Clinics" or presentations on various subjects are given in adjoining meeting rooms. The clinics vary widely in quality, and they are frequently disrupted by attendees pursuing questions on obscure details, in an attempt to one-up the presenter. Ordinary good manners in such cases are clearly a secondary consideration.
The biggest problem is that the "prototype modeler" movement appears to see itself as separate from an "operation" movement in the hobby. Highly accurate models are often constructed without the intent of actually running them -- significantly, facilities for running the models on display at a "prototype modelers'" meet are frequently not provided; they just sit on the white linen. In this respect they more closely resemble static military models than operable railroad models. The modelers who are most prolific at building highly detailed railroad models often do not build layouts on which to run them -- they focus exclusively on the essentially static models of equipment.
Finally, a major focus of the "prototype modeler" movement has become e-mail lists, and many of the lists suffer from the leadership failures outlined in the previous section. The anarchic, egalitarian nature of successful e-mail lists would complement the nature of the movement -- but the potential absence of the leadership qualities needed to ensure success in e-mail lists is a potential ingredient for failure. Another factor is the disruptive conduct of some attendees at in-person meets, as well as the personality issues that might be expected from people who take such a movement too seriously. Humility and good humor are qualities in short supply as the movement currently exists. The tendency to subordinate ego (in whatever minimal way) to the group purpose that was present in early phases of the movement is less evident now. A disturbing trend, to my way of thinking, has been the tendency of "prototype modelers" to infiltrate the technical and historical societies, so that their focus is less on the overall picture of the railroad as a historical entity and more on the pedantic details of equipment and the specifics of modeling.
If this means that "prototype modelers" don't always have a fully-developed sense of proportion in approaching a hobby that ought, after all, to involve running the models in a more fully-realized miniature environment, on the other hand, the continuing minimalist style of the organization has allowed it to avoid self-destruction on schismatic or organizational issues.
A welcome recent trend in "prototype modeler" meets has been the presence of modular layouts, so that equipment can be seen in operation as part of an overall picture, as well as the innovation of using higher-level tables, rather than standard hotel banquet hall-style tables, to exhibit models.
On the other hand, an unanswered question is the eventual impact that high-quality, moderately-priced commercial models will have on the movement. It got started during a period when the best models available were, by current standards, clunky. Now it's possible to buy models off the shelf in the $100 range that have a level of detail and execution that modelers would likely have spent hundreds of hours (and indeed, hundreds of dollars in detail parts) trying to achieve only a few years earlier. Does this leave open the possibility that modelers can redirect their time and effort toward areas that need greater attention?
Thompson's books (I own several) are something of a conundrum to me. If nothing else, they're monuments to pedantry and a hypertrophied collector's impulse. While Thompson has a PhD, he's not a business historian, so that a comparison of his books to those of academic rail historians like Maury Klein or H.Roger Grant is instructive. While Thompson dwells almost exclusively on minute differences in mechanical features of freight cars, there is very little human context to this assiduously accumulated detail.
On the other hand, writers like Klein and Grant -- whose material sometimes overlaps Thompson's -- show the operations of the railroads as businesses and institutions, with the human qualities of the actors fully portrayed. The railroads in question typically looked the other way over issues like alcoholism, incompetence, nepotism, cronyism, and a bullying style of management. As a result, all but the strongest players easily fell to changes in the business environment. We get no such discussion in Thompson's books, even if Pacific Fruit Express in particular represents itself as a business history. We see slots on the organization chart, but we quickly return to the obsessive discussion of mechanical minutiae.
On the other hand, a prominent feature of conference sessions where Thompson is in attendance, as well as Yahoo groups where Thompson is a major participant, is his supercilious personal style. His shouts from the back of the room, or his angry postings, can't be ignored. Heaven help the clinician who commits the error of saying that the operating rods on a certain class of drop-bottom gondola were cylindrical, when they were actually square! (I saw this specific instance at a prototype modeler meet in 2006.) Thompson's tone in such cases strongly implies that not only is the speaker ignorant, but he's a deliberate fraud.
His reviews of models in the technical and historical press, as well as his Yahoo postings, frequently employ words like "bogus". Not only is a model inaccurate, it's dishonest! Unfortunately, this style sets a very bad example for the hobby. From the standpoint of historical accuracy, though, Thompson also does nobody any favors. He appears to feel that his pedantry on mechanical features allows him to make unsubstantiated pronouncements about matters outside his tunnel vision.
Once I heard him, making a presentation at a prototype modeler meet, denounce models of refrigerator car icing docks if the modeler placed wheelbarrows on the elevated deck. The problem was that he apparently hadn't looked closely at the next slide in his own presentation, which showed a prototype refrigerator car icing dock with wheelbarrows on the elevated upper deck. Following Thompson's excellent example, I called from the back of the darkened room, "Gee, I guess that modeler shouldn't have put those weelbarrows there, huh?" Thompson's response, of course, was to lose his temper and denounce whomever had criticized him.
This has also resulted in errors and unsubstantiated statements in his own books. In Pacific Fruit Express, he asserts that the Erie handled the greatest amount of perishable freight between Chicago and the East Coast. The Erie, of course, was a financially weak and badly-managed carrier, and the biggest city on its main line between Chicago and Jersey City was Akron, Ohio. I've queried Thompson on his source for this statement, without success. Tallies of freight cars interchanged in Chicago show, on at least an anecdotal basis, many more perishable and stock cars going to the New York Central and even the Grand Trunk Western and Nickel Plate (to eastern destinations via the Lehigh Valley) than the Erie.
Unfortunately, Thompson's authoritarianism and abusive style seem to fill a niche in this sector of the hobby. Questioning his assertions leads to unpleasantness. In an area as unimportant as model railroading, whether certain historical fallacies are perpetuated isn't a great matter. On the other hand, beauty is as beauty does. While I know nothing of metallurgy, if he's as slipshod intellectually in that field as his hobby books suggest, I would think skepticism of his work there might also be warranted. But American scholarship is, overall, nothing if not slipshod anyhow. No wonder Thompson has risen so far.
A model railroad club is a formal organization, often incorporated, of model railroad hobbyists who make use of membership dues income, in addition to other business or endowment income as may be available, to build and operate a model railroad layout that is owned by the joint venture and used for their mutual benefit. The New York Society of Model Engineers is apparently the oldest such organization in the US, having been incorporated in 1926, but its web site says that it existed as an informal organization since the 1910s, though it didn't focus on model railroading in its earliest years.
In talking about clubs, we have an advantage in that two well-established organizations come about as close as any real-world institution can to matching the rationalistic expectations we might have of what a model railroad club ought to be. The La Mesa, CA Model Railroad Club, part of the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, has been building a model representation of the railroad line over Tehachapi Pass. While the La Mesa club was founded in 1961, it lost its original building in 1978 and moved to San Diego's Balboa Park museum complex. This project opened to the public in 1982, though the overall layout is a work in progress. All features of the layout have been executed to a very high standard. As part of a public museum, the layout is required to be in operation on a near-daily basis, so that reliability and durability are key qualities. Rensselaer Model Railroad Society at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute was founded in 1947, but work on the existing layout dates from 1972. Like the La Mesa club, the standard of execution is very high, with equipment, structures, and scenery based on careful historical research. It is also regularly open to the public as an educational exhibit, but not as frequently as the San Diego Model Railroad Museum.
One of the key objectives we've postulated for hobby institutions in this discussion is to raise the public perception of our activities. Both of these clubs clearly do about as much as can be done to meet this objective, since both operate in cooperation with local government entities to serve a public educational and recreational function beyond the simple mutual enjoyment of the membership. A casual visitor receives an overall sense of quality and purpose that answers by itself the question "why are you doing this?" Certainly the experience of seeing these layouts helps educate the general public in what the hobby is capable of doing, and helps discredit the stereotype of adults engaged in an immature or eccentric activity.
The clubs also serve to set a high standard for activity within the hobby. The club layouts have been repeatedly featured in the model railroad hobby press. In both cases, they draw a regular membership from distances ranging hundreds of miles from their location. The interaction of talented members creates a synergy effect, and current as well as former members of both clubs regularly publish worthwhile articles in the hobby press. The two clubs, in other words occuply the very high end of the bell-shaped curve that we would expect to show the distribution of quality in this type of enterprise.
What contributes to the success of these institutions? How does this success contrast with mediocrity or failure among other clubs? It might seem that the controlling factor before any other is the ability of a club to keep its venue for a long period. The history of all the clubs cited above, as well as most others, has involved the periodic need to vacate a rented or donated space. This usually puts all activity back to square one as the club attempts to find equivalent space and then rebuilds its layout. It appears that the current locations for both the La Mesa and Rensselaer clubs are relatively bullet-proof, but the plans of a university or a museum complex can always change. It is likely that a decline in the standard of the exhibits for either club in the eyes of the institution would hasten such a change in plans.
Another club that has a similar arrangement with a local government, however, The Model Railroad Club, Inc. of Union, NJ, isn't on the same tier of execution as the other two. The Pasadena Model Railroad Club of Los Angeles, CA, owns its building and has open houses that are well-publicized in local media, but its standard is also not as high, and its layout is in fact not well set up for public viewing.
So permanence or longevity of venue, while important, isn't the single determining factor. The Slim Gauge Guild, of Pasadena, CA, offers an example of a club that briefly appeared to be creating a layout at a standard of execution that matched the Rensselaer club (the La Mesa club's Tehachapi layout was not in existence at that time). However, the Slim Gauge Guild fell short of this standard after being in contention. I was a member of this club during the late 1970s, when it occupied its site on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, and while it was still receiving very favorable coverage in Railroad Model Craftsman and the Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette. As with both the Rensselaer and the La Mesa clubs, a large number of well-known figures in the hobby were members of the Slim Gauge Guild during this period, including several who have gone on to be well-known authors of railroad history books, a hobby magazine columnist, a supplier of highly accurate decals (since deceased), a well-known painter of railroad subjects (since deceased), major figures behind the restoration of the Santa Fe 3751 steam locomotive, and several key employees of hobby suppliers.
I've run into Slim Gauge Guild alumni in surprising locations all over the US. We're always happy to catch up with each other, but a frequent subject that comes up in such conversations is the fact that the experience of membership, while it had rewarding aspects, was essentially disappointing. The club lost its Colorado Boulevard space that contained its best-known layout about 1980, and it spent a number of years without a venue before finding its current, smaller space. Loss of venue has often been a driving factor for other clubs (like Rensselaer and La Mesa) to come back with a larger, better-executed layout, but this wasn't the case here. In fact, the club had lost much of its momentum even while it was on Colorado Boulevard.
A core group of hobbyists began the club in the late 1960s with the idea of creating historically and geologically accurate scenes of Colorado narrow-gauge railroading. The group's early work was prominently featured by Linn Westcott in Model Railroader at that time, an example of Westcott's ability to spot and foster worthwhile trends in the hobby. The group had a clearly focused objective, which was to create historically accurate scenes to a high standard. The model equipment of the time, especially in HO scale narrow gauge, was barely operable, and the group developed a number of innovative techniques, including replacement of the motors in the model locomotives with precision Swiss instrument motors, to bring operation to an acceptable level. In the early 1970s, this was almost unheard of.
Narrow gauge equipment often had unusual features, such as brake beams that hung from the carbody and were visible outside the trucks and wheels, and the members developed viable ways to reproduce such features. The result was small-scale narrow gauge equipment that was operationally, mechanically and electrically reliable, at a standard of detail that routinely won model contests, at a time when the quality of much model railroad equipment was only moderate.
The idea of modeling historically accurate scenes on a model railroad was also something that had essentially not been tried. In the first years of the club's work at the Colorado Boulevard location, it scenically reproduced the Palisades area near Alpine Tunnel on the South Park narrow gauge line, as well as the Ophir Loop area on the Rio Grande Southern. However, progress quickly slowed after the first burst of energy, and as sometimes happens, grandiose projections began to exceed execution. The planned benchwork to support the full track plan was never completed in the approximately 10 years the club occupied that location, and only a few areas had complete scenery. Photos of the completed areas, however, were spectacular, as might be expected, and frequently appeared in the model press.
A major reason for the dropoff in work was loss of interest by members of the early core group. It's possible that the actual day-to-day work required to bring such a large project to completion began to seem daunting to people after the initial excitement of the early publicity and the fun of making projections. But as the early core leadership drifted away, nobody was left who could effectively coordinate and focus the work of the members. Instead, a second tier of members, enthralled with the early publicity, concentrated on having items of clothing made that featured the club's emblem and dominated business meetings with discussion of the club's "image".
This second-tier group then became the leadership core, although they didn't have the modeling talent, or the motivational and coordinating abilities, of the first-tier group that was drifting away. Nevertheless, they were able to dominate activities by becoming the group that would approve work. Electrical wiring came to a halt because the wiring "expert" was developing a grandiose wiring scheme that never appeared -- but until it did, no work could be done. Scenery work moved at a crawl because the core group felt that only they had the competence to do it at a high standard -- but no program was started to bring newer members up to that standard.
Indeed, the second-tier core group began to display classic "in group" behavior, undertaking projects on its own initiative without securing consensus in business meetings. The best-known example was the core member who, not long before an open house, destroyed the existing Palisades scenery area (which had been a signature feature of the layout in published photos), saying that he would replace it with better-quality work before the open house. Given the time available and the work required, this simply wasn't a realistic assertion. It might be interpreted as a version of bullying, in fact, where the second-tier core group could assert its power to create unpleasantness without the ability of ordinary parliamentary or consensus processes to control it.
As a result, little happened in the weekly meetings. The essentially obstructionist activities of the second-tier core meant that trackage was removed in strategic areas to prevent operation while some projected "improvement" was in the works. Areas of scenery would be completed to the bare hardshell level (which didn't require particular skill), but would then be abandoned for lack of further interest by the core group, who wouldn't permit newer members to continue the work. Most members, as a result, simply gathered at particular areas in the club room and compared notes on their personal modeling work. This did in fact create a synergistic effect among those members, and I received an outstanding apprenticeship in basic and advanced modeling skills as a result. However, this had no effect on the joint club effort.
I left the group in frustration not long before it lost its venue. It was plain that no one had the leadership ability to control the essentially bullying activity of the second-tier core once the first-tier leaders drifted away, and the overall effort had become futile. It's significant, though, that during this "decadent" period, the hobby press continued to feature the Slim Gauge Guild as a top-tier effort. This was partly due to the self-promotional activities of the second-tier core. The in-group, for example, wrote, photographed, and submitted an article on the club to the Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette without consulting the club in general, and featuring only their particular activities and equipment. But it was important to the hobby press as well to "package" the club's activities in a favorable light, a basic type of inaccuracy that's perpetrated by many journalists. While nothing could likely have brought the club to a realistic assessment of its position by that point, the favorable publicity certainly made such an event much less likely.
The club reassembled itself with fewer people after finding a new location. I never rejoined, but I've both kept in touch and mended fences with many participants over the years. A big difference was that the earlier version had been HOn3 only; the new one was both Sn3 and HOn3. While some of the second-tier core returned to the new version of the club, the Sn3 constituency was entirely new, and in succeeding years made considerably more progress on their layout than the HOn3 group had on theirs. The same obstructionism by the core members resulted in the same behavior, such as unauthorized tearing out of completed areas for "improvements", and vetoes of projects on the ground that core members would later do a better job. In recent years all but one of the former Colorado Boulevard members has left the group, and the Sn3 members have been able to assert control over unauthorized changes to the HOn3 layout. I wish them well, but the group's moment is clearly a generation past.
Effective focus and leadership ability are clearly the most important ingredients to prevent the kind of feckless activity that frustrates the intent of those who join a club sincerely wishing to achieve a significant goal, and which damages the reputation of the hobby with the public at large. A major task facing the leadership of a club is to be sure the bar of individual achievement is kept high enough to keep the club at large from deteriorating to a mediocre standard of execution. This requires a combination of tact and forcefulness.
John Nehrich of the Rensselaer club described in an article in Railmodel Journal the long-standing efforts of the club leadership to get the members to remove the low-quality mass-produced equipment of the 1970s from the club layout. This effort represents a key conflict in a club environment between members of less ability and those who want to see an overall higher level of execution. If the lowest common denominator is too low, there's a risk of satisfying only the lowest-ability members. (In fact, the tendency to cater only to the least critical, least demanding participants is a major problem now facing the hobby.) The result in the Rensselaer club's case was apparently that a number of members went away mad, though these were the ones who took the low-quality equipment with them.
How the Rensselaer and La Mesa clubs have been able to satisfy demanding members, make clearly visible consistent progress, and maintain a high level of execution is a question worthy of further examination. It's the kind of story that ought to find its way into the hobby press, but hasn't. It seems likely that one component is leadership that is sometimes willing to be forceful for the common good if tact doesn't completely get the job done -- and clearly also leadership that is staying for the long term. All of these issues eventually probably boil down to questions of character, because although many club members may wish to avoid dealing with larger issues (saying, in effect, "I'm just here for the trains"), the larger issues will eventually affect the success of the group effort.
The National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) is the hobby's umbrella charitable, technical, and educational organization. It was founded in 1935; serious interest in modeling the technical and operational aspects of US railroads by means of small-scale electric models had begun in the 1920s. An excerpt from the NMRA's bylaws appears on the page cited above.
The bylaws quite naturally say that the NMRA's purpose is ". . . in part, to promote, stimulate, foster and encourage by all manner and means the art and craft of model railroading . . .", but as the list of more specific purposes farther down in the bylaws indicates, the NMRA's focus is largely internal to the hobby and the industry that supports it. The NMRA sees itself primarily as a standards-setting body, and over the years this has resulted in US manufacturers (and all others who want to supply the US market) adhering to electrical and dimensional standards for model railroad equipment.
In the face of a gradual but continued decline in membership in recent years, the NMRA has pointed out that the standards it developed have made interoperability possible for equipment made by different manufacturers. Whether this is the case is debatable, since in many other industries (such as the Windows-compatible PC industry), issues of compatibility and interoperability have worked themselves out without a standards-setting body.
Had the NMRA attempted to set standards in opposition to what existing manufacturers were willing to produce in the early years of the hobby, it likely wouldn't have succeeded. As evidence, we still have the dimension for "O" gauge track, 1-1/4 inches, which is about 6 percent larger than the scale dimension, a discrepancy that doesn't appear in most other scales, and something the NMRA apparently wasn't able to rectify. In many cases, the NMRA's "standards setting" function has simply been to ratify the wishes of the key market players, or approve practices that were generally accepted anyway.
In fact, while the NMRA has pointed to its adoption of a Digital Command Control (DCC) standard as a key accomplishment in fairly recent times, its main action in developing this standard was to adopt in full the already-established DCC product specifications of a German company, Lenz. The NMRA claims credit in these instances for things that could well have happened without its intervention, and indeed appears to have ratified practices (like "O" gauge) that have caused problems in interoperability and compatibility for many years.
An episode in the early 1960s illustrates the questionable value of the NMRA in setting and enforcing standards. During this period, several manufacturers determined that it was necessary to reduce costs by coarsening wheel standards, and approached the NMRA to increase the tolerance on its standards to allow this. The NMRA officials directly responsible for the move agreed, but dissident members more concerned about maintaining product quality for the good of the hobby took a campaign to retain the earlier, tighter standards to the hobby press. The proposal was quickly withdrawn. However, the manufacturers involved proceeded to coarsen the dimensions of their wheels without the blessing of the NMRA's revised standard.
The manufacturers' decision to cheapen their particular products eventually backfired, since the buying public perceived the decline in quality, and the manufacturers left the hobby business. However, the NMRA was powerless to affect their business decision, and was nearly persuaded to endorse it.
Although the NMRA in the 1950s attempted to propose a standard HO coupler, it was never able to approve a design. The proposed design somehow reached the hobby manufacturers, who used it and advertised if for many years as the "NMRA coupler" without objection from the NMRA. Its results in operation were so poor that the hobby press editorialized that it was a factor in beginners' frustration with the hobby; at that point, the NMRA distanced itself from the design. The actual HO standard coupler was developed by a manufacturer (Kadee) and achieved market acceptance as a de facto standard without any endorsement from the NMRA. When the Kadee patents expired, other manufacturers also developed Kadee-compatible couplers without the need for a standard. A standard N scale coupler was adopted by manufacturers early in the history of that scale, by the expedient of one manufacturer making a successful design available for license without charge by other manufacturers. This happened in Europe, with no intermediation by the NMRA. However, this non-NMRA standard has subsequently been replaced by another non-NMRA standard, an N scale Kadee (now Microtrains) coupler.
It's significant, I think, that the first graphic the user sees when opening the NMRA's national page is an organization chart. While the organization endorses on its web site the non-controversial "World's Greatest Hobby" program intended to improve the hobby's public image, discussed in the introduction to this essay, its own focus is primarily internal, especially following a financial crisis and dues increase, which has led the organization to reassess many of its activities in light of actual need. Other than statements like that in the meeting minutes cited above, "The [Board of Trustees] restated their support [for] the 'World’s Greatest Hobby' campaign", the organization has made no practical effort to further that campaign's goals.
The NMRA is, in fact, a highly bureaucratic, internally focused organization that exists largely to justify the need of its many local, regional, and national officers for important-seeming activities to keep themselves busy. In this it resembles fraternal organizations, as pointed out by one hobbyist, "where everybody has a high-falutin' title and wears a funny hat" (we should not ignore the fact that many enthusiastic NMRA participants do in fact wear traditional railroad headgear to NMRA functions). Indeed, since so much NMRA activity is busy work, it has been a serious challenge for the organization to identify justifiable costs versus unnecessary ones in the effort to clean its financial house.
Like many internally focused organizations (and indeed some cults), its communications are filled with organization-specific jargon and acronyms. The Board of Trustees is the BOT. The Achievement Program is the AP. Via the web site, you can easily identify your Regional AP Manager, and with his help, you can become a Master Model Railroader, or MMR.
This complacency and inward-directedness has been criticized for many years, and in fact was a factor in the "prototype modeler" movement, which specifically abjured many aspects of NMRA-style organization. Eventually there was an effort, apparently connected with some in the "prototype modeler" movement, to establish a new umbrella organization, the American Model Railroad Association. This appears to have gotten the NMRA's attention, and it undertook reforms.
One of the reforms, mentioned earlier, was to provide rooms at national conventions for "prototype modelers" to meet and display their models. This apparently defused one major focus of criticism, though it was a largely symbolic gesture. Another was to institute the Achievement Program, an innovation that allowed members to earn certificates of competence in various areas of the hobby (the organization had previously paid little attention to hands-on model railroad activities, as opposed to meetings, banquets, conventions, and the like).
I joined the NMRA in 1995, knowing about the group's poor reputation, but deciding to give it a chance in light of the upcoming Long Beach, CA national convention in 1996. My experiences were uniformly disappointing. The committee members I met in working to get my own layout (documented on this site) on the bus tours of local layouts turned out to be elderly, having some difficulty dealing with new members and preferring to continue with the long-established relationships in their own cliques. As a result, they offered numerous criticisms of my layout (which I took in good spirit and addressed prior to the layout tours). It wasn't until after the convention was over that I got to see the layouts of the committee members and their cronies, which were astonishing in the ineptitude of their execution.
While some of those who attended the Long Beach national convention were in fact the elite of the hobby -- established authors, noted craftsmen, and careful researchers -- many more were people with what seemed to be only a superficial interest in the hobby, having seemingly chosen the convention almost at random as a vacation activity. As the bus tours came to visit my layout, I was puzzled that families would elect to spend major time and money traveling to such a destination, when their comments and questions revealed such a limited interest in the hobby.
All conventioneers were required to be NMRA members. The total number of NMRA members nationally (2014) is something in the neighborhood of 19,000. The current circulation of Model Railroader magazine (MR) is 177,000. Both NMRA membership and MR's circulation have declined in recent years, but the relative numbers would suggest that members of the NMRA number roughly 10% of active participants in the hobby. They do not, however, appear to correspond in any definite way to an elite, or even a group with an informed interest in model railroading, based on my experience.
Local NMRA officers have self-described the group's purpose to me as "primarily a retirement-age social activity." Interest in the model railroad hobby, while a basic qualifier for membership in the group, seems to take a subordinate role to other social interactions among long-standing groups of friends, who do not actively work to recruit or welcome new members, either into the organization or into their social relationships. These were a particular group of local officers. The national organization has little control over the local organizations, who select their officers via nominating committees and single-candidate slates from the established groups of cronies (however, promotion to national-level officer results from service as a local officer and nomination from that pool). As a result, local organizations differ widely in their makeup and the level of local activity.
Interested in the Achievement Program, I worked to earn several certificates of competence, but found the process very frustrating. The applications for each certificate required extensive paperwork and supporting documentation. Each application had to be submitted to a local coordinator, who submitted the paperwork up through a regional and national chain of evaluation and approval. Given the complexity of the approval process and the caliber of volunteers in the program, my applications were lost at one point. Although the standards for the certificates appear to be quite clear, differences of interpretation took place at each level, and my awards were delayed as these differences had to be resolved. It seems likely that the actual purpose of the program is less to validate the skills of the participants than it is to reinforce the importance of the petty officials who run it.
These experiences led me to make an economically rational decision that the cost of NMRA membership wasn't justified. I wasn't meeting fellow hobbyists at my level of interest through the organization, an important failing from my point of view. Key local officers showed little interest in hands-on hobby activities, but perceived the organization as a way to gain prestige through important-sounding titles. In fact, I had a general sense that, even though the stated goals of the organization were support and enhancement of model railroad hobby activities, the actual goals were social interactions among established cliques, most of which could be accomplished without reference to the hobby. The steady decline of national membership in recent years suggests that a segment of informed membership continues to make this decision, and fewer new participants decide membership is worthwhile.
The fiscal crisis that came to a head in 2000, caused apparently by undisciplined spending at the national level, resulted in a dues increase. This increase covered continued operation at approximately the level that had caused the crisis, while the leadership undertook a lengthy and inconclusive analysis of what costs might be cut. While deciding to increase dues, the leadership recognized that this would cause an additional loss of membership (around 25% to date), but their priority was clearly the preservation of the core, inward-looking organization in its general current form, at the expense of narrowing its presence in the hobby. It appeared, for instance, that officers were charging the NMRA expenses for frequent organization-related travel, a practice that, while legitimate, is typically cut during corporate cost-saving efforts. Board of Directors meeting minutes available on the NMRA web site show that the organization routinely conducts a "mid year" Board meeting during the winter at various places around the country. The minutes suggest that not only the directors, but various invited guests and headquarters staff attend -- the minutes show only who was absent, not how many actually attended each meeting. But extrapolating from the discussions, I would estimate that 20 people travel on expenses to each such meeting.
Allowing for refundable air tickets, car rental, meals, hotel, mileage, parking, and incidentals, it wouldn't be surprising if each person were reimbursed for $2000 travel for the three-day weekend, or $40,000 per meeting, which represents the hard-earned annual dues (less Scale Rails) of over 1000 members. (For instance, refundable round trip air fare between Cincinnati and Seattle, the itinerary for the NMRA President at a recent meeting, is about $1500. Hotel could easily be $150 per night, rental car another $150 for the weekend.) However, the NMRA does not appear to have had enough sense of urgency to cut such junkets in the face of its financial shortfall. We'll see more on NMRA travel below. This also doesn't count equivalent travel that's presumably reimbursed for Board members and other invitees attending the annual convention in the summer. That Board members benefit from seemingly extravagant travel benefits must reinforce attitudes of exclusiveness and superiority that don't benefit the organization as a whole. The travel is also, of course, a powerful incentive to go along and not rock the boat.
Only in 2013, during its winter Board of Directors meeting, did the NMRA decide to make its budget public. The reason given in the motion was
There is an ongoing perception that NMRA HQ is either spending funds on “nice to have things” for somebody else or just plain holding money back from divisions. A clear understanding of the finances of the Association would go a long way toward answering those concerns. The membership has every right to receive proper information on the financial operation of their Association.However, as of early 2014, nearly a year after passing the resolution, the budget had not been posted on the NMRA web site. As of December 2013, the NMRA Chief Financial Officer said in a newsletter,
We have committed to place the annual audit results and budgets on the website once it is redesigned. [The Board resolution made no such qualification.] The IT department is busy with other higher priority work and this project is a bit down the list.Transparency, it would seem, is still not a high priority.
Much of the day-to-day purposeful activity of the organization is centered on its national, regional, and local meetings and conventions. These, interestingly enough, extensively incorporate swap meets and train shows, whose unsupervised development, as we have seen, is not helpful to the interests of committed hobbyists, since a bubble psychology distorts market action, and the low quality of merchandise and exhibits results in an overpriced admission cost and in fact damages the public image of the hobby. Insofar as the NMRA sponsors and supports such train shows, it is contributing to what has become a community problem, and this conflict prevents it from recognizing or addressing the problem for the good of the hobby.
A message from the NMRA's president in the November, 2007 Scale Rails (the current name for the former NMRA Bulletin) illustrates the level of cynicism -- indeed, corruption -- among the organization's elite. "There are even divisions and regions that have elected as 'officers' persons who are not members of the NMRA. Some of these individuals have never been members, or have not been members for many years." The message goes on to say, on one hand, that the NMRA can't enforce its policy because, the "officers" not being on the mailing list, won't see the message in Scale Rails! This is peculiar -- the organization recently said it had 12 paid staff members at its headquarters. Apparently they're all too busy to take an hour from their schedules to check the names of regional and divisional officers (readily found on the web) against the membership list!
Instead, the president wants other NMRA members to turn in their non-complying regional and divisional officers! (But how would an ordinary member know? And the regional or divisional treasurer is probably on the boodle himself!)
Oddly, the only problem Brestel seems to see here is with insurance. That this should be an astonishingly bad leadership example seems not to have occurred to him. And it seems as if the NMRA Bylaws give the national organization the leeway to remove a regional officer who isn't even an NMRA member -- seems like a case of misconduct to me. That the president would acknowledge his own fecklessness in dealing with such situations probably shows how difficult it would be for anyone to clean house. Those who honestly pay their NMRA dues are suckers, and it seems plain that many of their officers openly act as if this is the case -- I don't see any way around it.
The NMRA's most clearly stated function, setting standards for the hobby, has had highly ambiguous results over the organization's history. As happens in most commercial situations, standards will be effective only insofar as major market participants find it in their interest to follow them. On one hand, major players will impose de facto standards on a market. On the other, participants may find it in their interest to deviate from standards at any time, and a body like the NMRA is powerless to affect it -- and indeed, as in all such cases, the organization is vulnerable to "capture" by particular players or interest groups. This has happened at various times in the organization's history.
The NMRA's reputation within informed hobby circles as a bureaucratic, inward-looking organization whose leadership is preoccupied with its own perks and prestige over the best interests of the hobby is an extremely serious limitation. Efforts to reform the organization in the 1970s and 1980s had limited success. In the meantime, the hobby magazines have tended to distance themselves from the NMRA more than in the past. A.C.Kalmbach, who founded Model Railroader magazine, was also a founder of the NMRA, and for many years MR editorially took positions on NMRA issues and endorsed NMRA membership. The endorsement in particular seems much less common (although I note a recent column in which Lionel Strang did endorse it), and based on my experience and observation, the magazine now routinely edits references to NMRA activities from author biographies. In 2002, Mainline Modeler published an editorial questioning the need for the NMRA, although a following editorial backed off this position, possibly in response to organized pressure, indicating he wouldn't allow "NMRA bashing" (something that appears to have been about to occur!). Clearly Hundman's initial instinct was the correct one; he likely would have increased his magazine's reputation, credibility, and reader loyalty if he'd maintained his original position of integrity.
Several UK informants have told me that members of the British Region of the NMRA have become dissatisfied with the high US national NMRA dues that go almost entirely to fund US activities that don't benefit those in the UK, such as the travel by NMRA officers cited above. As a result, a move has been proposed (I'm not aware of how formally and would be interested to have more information) by UK NMRA members to put the British Region on a different basis, with less money going to the US. This appears to be a fascinating reversal of the issues that led to the American Revolution in the mid 18th century, where at that time a UK political establishment was out of touch with developments in the colonies, in part relating to how taxes were used and what benefits flowed from them back to the country being taxed.
As a practical matter, the NMRA's role within the hobby has declined from effective spokesmanship in certain areas, to (at best) a convention bureau, show organizer, travel agency, and senior citizens' center. It retains a declining prestige from earlier days, but it is unlikely that it can regain an effective leadership role.
According to a report by Job Luning Prak in the April, 1996 NMRA Bulletin, the organization's membership peaked in 1978 at 28,855. Its 2007 membership was about 19,500. The decline in attendance at the annual NMRA conventions has also been precipitous. The 2006 Philadelphia convention was apparently a financial disaster: according to Board of Directors minutes available on line, the room reservations didn't meet the NMRA's guarantee to the hotel, resulting in an $8,000 penalty and loss of complimentary rooms, and the "company store" lost $18,000. Contemporaneous posts on forums suggested that the National Train Show, held along with the annual convention, had lost equivalent exhibitors and attendees. (The Board minutes show that the directors blamed the problems on post-9/11 unwillingness to travel, though the economy and travel industry had long since recovered by 2006. The minutes, in fact, can be unintentionally entertaining, as the hobby's putative best and brightest periodically remark wistfully that perhaps the membership slide has finally halted, or maybe next year the financial picture will improve.)
It's interesting to note that some of the most important hobby developments, such as the rise of the "prototype modeler" movement and the 30-year tendency toward improved product quality, have taken place during this period of nearly one-third membership decline. It is likely that this tendency will continue. The question is whether some other form of leadership is desirable or possible to deal with the problems that do face the hobby, such as the continued stereotyping of adult model train hobbyists in the media, or the economic exploitation and distortions of swap meets and train shows.
More recently, with the prospect of another NMRA national convention at Anaheim in 2008, I decided cautiously to give the NMRA another chance, though, once bitten, my willingness to reach out fell short of rejoining. I discovered that many of the same people who'd run the 1996 Long Beach convention were still in leadership positions, and the same passive-aggressive style dominated. My glimpse into planning for this convention suggested the layout tours would feature trivial and poorly-executed efforts; clinics were likely to be pompously delivered and not well planned. Why bother? I withdrew my layout from the tour.
Preliminary reports from the Anaheim convention suggest this was prescient. One report on the Atlas forum said
[T]he layout tours were slim pickings. They cancelled about half the tours (including the one with my layout).Another poster replied,
The turnout was low. I registered on Monday and was registrant #1203.
As to the train show, it was a lot smaller than past years. Many vendors and manufacturers figured the cost of going to California was too great. I spoke with one vendor who told me that they only brough about half the inventory they normally do because they did not want to pull a trailer behind the truck.
Several manufacturers (most notable BLI and its affiliates) were a no show.
The last convention I attended was in Seattle a few years ago. There were too many layouts on the tours that did not deserve to be visited. Small insignificant ones that just took time away from the better ones. I've always wondered if convention organisers just accept all layouts for tours without taking this into consideration. I'd rather spent a good part of a day visiting several great layouts than a whole bunch of small ones. One "layout" we visited was a small L-shaped one in a fellow's bedroom. Hardly room for a few visitors at a time, what a waste.Intrigued by the remark about the National Narrow Gauge Convention drawing more than the NMRA, I found the following figures: the 2009 NMRA Hartford National drew 1,250, according to Scale Rails (September, 2009). The 2009 National Narrow Gauge Convention in Colorado Springs drew 1,850, according to the Gazette (November/December, 2009). Several points leap out here. One is that the Narrow Gauge convention has increased its attendance year-to-year in bad economic times, which would seem to contradict the NMRA's claim that the bad economy has led to its own attendance decline. The markets for the two, after all, must be nearly the same. Second, the Narrow Gauge convention doesn't just outdraw the NMRA, it outdraws it by almost 50 percent. Yet the Narrow Gauge conventions aren't run by a national organization. And while they have the loose endorsement of the Gazette, the NMRA conventions are routinely pumped by Model Railroader and Railroad Model Craftsman, both of which feature each year layout articles keyed to the layout tours on the NMRA Nationals.
Any word what the final attendance numbers were? I attended the National Narrow Gauge Convention in Portland, Maine last summer, they had almost 1700 in attendance. Think these conventions are routinely attracting more than the NMRA ones.
While the NMRA apparently has a committee devoted to finding out how to put value back in the Nationals, it's plain that so far, they haven't found an answer to the problem. If I were to venture an opinion as to what's caused the problem, I would agree with the individual above who noted that the layout tours, an extra-cost item promoted as a chance to see well-known layouts, are in fact heavily padded with layouts that are poorly done. In addition, the NMRA Nationals are now closely associated with Prototype Modelers, the Operations SIG, and the Layout Design SIG, all of which have special events in connection with them. And all of these tend toward the humorless, the pedantic, and the unoriginal -- the accusation has been made that such groups are taking the fun out of the hobby. The Narrow Gauge conventions, on the other hand, seem to be fun.
In late 2009 I received an e-mail from an individual with knowledge of the NMRA's financial condition, who asked me not to reveal his name, since doing so would damage his relationships with NMRA officials. (This is unfortunate, since it sounds as though these relationships don't extend as far as allowing honest discussion of important matters.) He said, apparently with inside knowledge, that continuing losses from national conventions threaten to put the NMRA into bankruptcy. This would bring about a new financial crisis for the NMRA, less than a decade after the last one -- yet the same group of the same old people seems to be in charge.
In July 2010 at the 75th Anniversary national convention in Milwaukee, the NMRA rebranded itself, without making any other apparent changes to the organization, its personnel, or the way it does business. It unveiled a new logo.
New NMRA Logo, 2010
The biggest haha in the store today was the NMRA's new logo......everyone that looked at the new logo said it looked like a certain part of a lady's body......what was the brain trust of the organization thinking....and surely SOMEONE would have seen this similarity and raised a red flag.....right??????Another comment, several weeks later:
I pulled up the new logo and showed it to my sister, who does not have a dirty mind , without telling her who the NMRA is or what the logo was. She took one look at it and asked who nmra.org was and why they had a "boob" (her word) for their logo? After I told her what NMRA stands for and what the logo was supposed to be she commented that nmra.org sounded like some kind of WEB-based organization and that the wheel logo doesn't really look like what she thinks of as a railroad wheel.
The Sacramento move, clearly controversial among the NMRA membership, appears to be highly uncertain. An article in Scale Rails referred to it as "by no means a done deal," but it "looks good". The arrangements, in fact, were announced by the NMRA before the California State Railroad Museum finalized the deal by which it may, in three years, be able to acquire the buildings in which the Day museum will be accommodated. According to The Sacramento Bee,
The red brick-erecting shop also will be transferred to the parks department, but not until it raises the money to rehabilitate the shell of the building and pay for 25 percent of the exhibits planned in the new museum, Steinberg said.In other words, it won't be known for as much as three years whether the California State Railroad Museum will even have the money to restore the buildings, and the actual cost of this work isn't yet known. As of 2008, also, the State of California had entered a multi-year budget crisis, with parks in particular subject to cuts. It's likely that the state will not be in a position to subsidize this effort.
The department will have to raise the money in three years or lose the erecting shop, unless Thomas Enterprises fails to deliver streets, sewers, utilities and other improvements in that time. If such necessities are delayed, state parks gets more time. . . .
Both parties have agreed to hire an independent consulting firm to determine what should be in the museum and how much it will cost to create.
In 2010, Thomas Enterprises, which had originally undertaken the Sacramento Railyards development of which the Howell Day Museum would be a part, declared bankruptcy, and the property was foreclosed. The State of California then stopped making bond payments for the project. The project has been tangled in litigation into 2012, and its future is uncertain, especially given economic conditions in California and nationally. At minimum, the NMRA is not informing its members of these circumstances.
Much has been made of the fact that one portion of W.Allen McClelland's former Virginian and Ohio layout has gone to the Museum (though not, of course, on display). A group of modelers did receive a tour in January 2008 of the stored portions of this layout in Chattanooga, and one modeler posted on the V&O Yahoo group:
Clintwood and Blackstone are still there, up on tables, and wrapped in plastic. Seeing them was very cool, and I could easily imagin[e] trains passing through.Among the questions that come to my mind are, if extensive rework must be done on these (and presumably other) modules, how can we be sure that the restoration work will be as competent as the original? There's only one McClelland, after all, and there's no conservation "industry" for model layouts as there is for great paintings. And how many donors will be around when the museum is finally available for the exhibits? A follow-up post to the above said that McClelland would help set them up when the time came, but he was born in 1934 and as of 2008 had moved into a retirement home.
However, the modules have taken some damage. Were they to ever be restored, all new track would be needed, and several hours of scenic rehab per module would be needed.
There they sit, in the basement of NMRA HQ, along with 30 or so other chunks of other fallen dreams (curiously, all HO)..... a sad graveyard.
But other accessions seem more questionable. A project layout built by Malcolm Furlow for Model Railroader, currently owned by Charlie Getz (who is on the Museum board and has since become president of the NMRA) is scheduled for donation as well -- see the discussion of Furlow below. The Museum web page says "Tony Koester's CTC Panel" will one day be an exhibit -- one suspects that this item, not built by Koester himself, but by a specialist who manufactures such machines for model railroads using recycled prototype components, factored mainly as a tax deduction for Koester. There doesn't seem to be a mechanism whereby a group not connected with the Museum evaluates accessions, with the potential, as we see in the Furlow layout, for self-dealing by members of the board and their cronies.
Another question that puzzles me will be how attractive such a museum may be if all it features is pieces of model layouts and artifacts like Tony Koester's CTC machine. The developer who will donate the buildings that will house the museum will also apparently need to approve the exhibits, and one questions whether Tony's CTC board will meet those standards. These presumably won't operate, and thus will be less attractive to the general public. Other questions will be how to preserve and curate the exhibits, and how much floor space the exhibits will demand. For now, it's hard for me to envision taking the time away from the many other worthwhile things to do in the Sacramento area to visit the Museum, should it ever open there, and certainly not to pay whatever it will one day want in admission charges.
Another puzzling issue is the Museum's financial management. A report from 2005, five years after the Museum's founding, says "The Howell Day Museum has $86,116 in the Investment portfolio and $765,658 in Checking." and goes on to mention a "funding shortfall" that has been corrected. This and other concerns led me to send the following e-mail to the Howell Day Museum e-mail address, with a copy to the NMRA President:
I’m preparing an update to my section on the NMRA for my on-line essay “The Sociology of Model Railroading.” (This can be found at http://www.trainweb.org/lfnwfan/html/Sociology.htm )Somewhat to my surprise, I received the following reply from Charlie Getz:
From reviewing material on the web, I find a 2005 report by the SER-NMRA that says "The Howell Day Museum has $86,116 in the Investment portfolio and $765,658 in Checking." An individual with knowledge of the Museum has told me that its original endowment was $1 million. I’m somewhat puzzled that normally, an endowment that size would be entirely under investment management, with a budget expecting to spend three to five percent of the endowment amount per year. With investment income normally greater than that three to five percent, such a budget would allow the endowment to grow while spending is done responsibly. The report suggests that, over a five-year period, nearly 25 percent of the endowment has been spent, with no Museum open to the public, and the vast majority of the money is in a checking account, with one or two authorized signatures always able to write another check against principal.
This leads to other questions, which I wouldn’t ask unless the question of how the endowment is managed had led to them. Would you be able to explain:
It seems to me that the NMRA holds the Howell Day Museum in trust for the hobby at large, and there should be transparency in its operation. In addition, it’s hard for me to imagine the Museum attracting additional major donors if such individuals can raise questions like those I’ve identified simply as a result of information available on the web. (For instance, the late John Armstrong’s family apparently decided not to donate any portion of his layout to the Museum.) As a result, if you can clarify these issues, I’ll be delighted to include your response in my next update of my Sociology essay. If I receive no reply, however, I will publish the full text of this e-mail in the essay with the notation that you haven’t replied.
- What criteria are used for accessions?
- What controls are in place to prevent self-dealing or cronyism by Committee members regarding accessions? I’m especially interested in Committee member Charlie Getz’s statements in the Gazette that a layout built by Malcolm Furlow that is presently under his control will eventually be donated to the Museum. This seems worthy. However, did the Museum purchase this layout in advance? If no advance purchase was made, does Getz have the expectation that the Museum will purchase his layout down the road? There may be excellent explanations for these circumstances, but it would be most helpful if the Museum would provide them.
- How are accessions acquired? Are they paid for in cash? (This would be one explanation for the nearly $250,000 expended from the endowment in five years.) If so, how are they valued? It seems to me that the ordinary value of, say, a ten-foot segment of anyone’s model layout, no matter how well executed, is actually de minimis. If not purchased, it would go to the landfill or be distributed at nominal cost among friends.
- If accessions aren’t acquired for cash, what other expenditures have accounted for a decrease in principal of nearly $250,000 over five years?
- Does the Committee have an estimated budget for the money it will take to open the Museum in Sacramento? Is there a timetable? At the 2005 rate of spending, it seems to me that by 2010, half the endowment will be spent, with no Museum; by 2020 it will all be gone.
My interest here is simply that prominent institutions in the hobby should conduct themselves with a level of professionalism and integrity that we expect in society at large. However, if the NMRA should be operated in a consistently unprofessional manner, it seems inevitable that difficulties with the IRS could ensue, which would be bad for the NMRA and the hobby as a whole.
John -- i'd like to respond to your points as noted below in CAPS. Please note these are my responses and not the Museum Comm. which I am part, or the NMRA on which Board I sit. Thanks! Charlie. Date: Sat, 29 Dec 2007 10:01:15 -0800 From: John BruceThis response is almost completely meaningless. I'd addressed the NMRA President and got a reply from Getz, who says the responses are his own, not those of the NMRA or the Museum committee. And those responses are typically "I DO NOT RECALL", "DO NOT BELIEVE THIS TRUE", "I CANNOT RECALL", and so forth. Getz is an attorney and is fully aware that these replies are evasive. Of the Committee, he says "WE DO NOT ACCEPT PAYMENT AND VOLUNTEER OUR TIME". This is literally true, but Hal Carstens in a "Notes on an Old Timetable" editorial in the February, 2004 Railroad Model Craftsman recounts a trip he took to Sacramento, CA, under NMRA auspices -- and presumably expense-paid -- to visit a potential site for the Howell Day Museum. Carstens notes (and Getz confirms above) that "[t]he NMRA's Museum Committee has had meetings in various corners of the country" to evaluate possible sites for the museum, and his trip to Sacramento, with an unspecified number of other committee members, was part of this effort. Again, a for-profit business interested in controlling costs would eliminate any line item like this from a budget. The "committee meeting" would be a conference call or web-based meeting in the business world.
Reply-To: John Bruce Subject: Questions on Museum Financial Management To: firstname.lastname@example.org I'm preparing an update to my section on the NMRA for my on-line essay "The Sociology of Model Railroading." (This can be found at http://www.trainweb.org/lfnwfan/html/Sociology.htm )INTERESTING! ONE WONDERS WHETHER IT BETTER TO ADDRESS THE "PSYCHOLOGY OF MODEL RAILROADING" BUT I DIGRESS!!
From reviewing material on the web, I find a 2005 report by the SER-NMRA that says "The Howell Day Museum has $86,116 in the Investment portfolio and $765,658 in Checking." I TEND TO DISPUTE THIS AS I DO NOT RECALL THAT LARGE A SUM AT ALL!I BELIEVE THE AMOUNT FAR LESS. An individual with knowledge of the Museum has told me that its original endowment was $1 million. DO NOT BELIEVE THIS TRUE; WHILE IT WAS A GENEROUS BEQUEST, IT ALSO HAD COSTS AND STRINGS ATTACHED. WE REALIZED FAR LESS. I'm somewhat puzzled that normally, an endowment that size would be entirely under investment management, with a budget expecting to spend three to five percent of the endowment amount per year. With investment income normally greater than that three to five percent, such a budget would allow the endowment to grow while spending is done responsibly. The report suggests that, over a five-year period, nearly 25 percent of the endowment has been spent, with no Museum open to the public, and the vast majority of the money is in a checking account, with one or two authorized signatures always able to write another check against principal. THIS PART I BELIEVE TRUE BUT IGNORES THE COSTS OF MAINTAINING OUR COLLECTION, INSURANCE, TRAVEL FOR THE COMM. TO MEET PLUS DESIGN COSTS FOR OUR UPCOMING GALLERY EXHIBIT. A WORLD CLASS MUSEUM WILL COST 10-15 MILLION! THIS IS ONLY SEED/DEVELOPMNET MONEY AND WE HAVE A LOT TO SHOW FOR IT!!
This leads to other questions, which I wouldn't ask unless the question of how the endowment is managed had led to them. Would you be able to explain:
- What criteria are used for accessions? WE USE STD LANGUAGE IN OUR POLICY FROM A SOURCE USED BY MUSEUMS.
- What controls are in place to prevent self-dealing or cronyism by Committee members regarding accessions? WE ACT AS A COMMITTEE. ALL ACTIONS ARE REPORTED AND MUST BE AUTHORIZED. WE DO NOT ACCEPT PAYMENT AND VOLUNTEER OUR TIME. SURPLUS ITEMS ARE VALUED BY AN OBJECTIVE APPRAISAL FROM AN OUTSIDE SOURCE AND AVAILABLE TO NMRA MEMBERS. I'm especially interested in Committee member Charlie Getz's statements in the Gazette that a layout built by Malcolm Furlow that is presently under his control will eventually be donated to the Museum. This seems worthy. However, did the Museum purchase this layout in advance? NO -- THE LAYOUT IS MINE AND WILL BE DONATED W/O CHARGE OTHER THAN MOVING EXPENSES IF I DECIDE TO DO SO. If no advance purchase was made, does Getz have the expectation that the Museum will purchase his layout down the road? NO -- SEE ABOVE. There may be excellent explanations for these circumstances, but it would be most helpful if the Museum would provide them.
- How are accessions acquired? PRIMARILY BY DONATION; I CANNOT RECALL PURCHASING ONE!
- Are they paid for in cash? NO. (This would be one explanation for the nearly $250,000 expended from the endowment in five years.) If so, how are they valued? OUTSIDE APPRAISAL WHEN DONATED PER IRS REGS. It seems to me that the ordinary value of, say, a ten-foot segment of anyone's model layout, no matter how well executed, is actually de minimis. NOT REALLY! DEPEPNDS ON THE LAYOUT. JOE SHMOO -- MAYBE. JOHN ALLEN? MALCOLM FURLOW'S LAYOUT IS LITERALLY WORLD FAMOUS. IT HAS VALUE! If not purchased, it would go to the landfill or be distributed at nominal cost among friends.NO -- IT (I.E., THE "AVERAGE" LAYOUT WE DO NOT WISH TO KEEP -- AND WE HAVE DISMANTLED QUITE A FEW IN THAT CATAGORY!!!)IS DISMANTLED AND THE BITS ARE SOLD TO RAISE FUNDS AT THE NMRA CONVENTION AS A MEMBER BENEFIT AT THE SILENT AUCTION.
- If accessions aren't acquired for cash, what other expenditures have accounted for a decrease in principal of nearly $250,000 over five years? SEE ABOVE! MAINTAING A COLLECTION AND PLANNING TAKE $$$.
- Does the Committee have an estimated budget for the money it will take to open the Museum in Sacramento? FOR THE GALLERY EXHIBIT, WE ESTIMATE $400K MAX WITH $100K FROM THE NMRA MUSEUM FUND AND $300K FROM THE NARROW GAUGE PRES. FOUNDATION W/ WHOM WE ARE PARTNERING.FOR THE "PERMAMENT MUSEUM, I WOULD ESTIMATE $10-15 MIL.
Is there a timetable? YES -- GALLERY EXHIBIT AT THE CSRM (READ YOUR SCALE RAILS!! MIKE HAS MENTIONED THIS IN PAST MONTHS!!!), WE ESTIMATE SUMMER 2008. PERMAMENT MUSEUM IN SACTO HOPEFULLY BY 2012.
At the 2005 rate of spending, it seems to me that by 2010, half the endowment will be spent, with no Museum; by 2020 it will all be gone.WE NEED TO FUNDRAISE; THE HOWELL-DAY $$ WERE NEVER INTENDED TO BE ENOUGH TO OPEN A MUSEUM! FAR FROM IT!! WE HAVE HIRED EXPERT MUSEUM PLANNERS AND FUNDRAISING CONSULTANTS; ONCE OUR GALLERY EXHIBIT IS OPEN, WE WILL START IN ERNEST!! I WILL CALL ON YOU TO DONATE SO START SAVING YOUR PENNIES!!
It seems to me that the NMRA holds the Howell Day Museum in trust for the hobby at large, and there should be transparency in its operation. IT IS -- YOU NEED TO READ OUR BOARD MINUTES AND MIKE BRESTEL'S OCCASIONAL REPORTS IN SCALE RAILS!!
In addition, it's hard for me to imagine the Museum attracting additional major donors if such individuals can raise questions like those I've identified simply as a result of information available on the web. DO NOT JUST RELY ON THE WEB!!! IT IS GREAT BUT HARDLY INFALLIBLE -- EVEN OUR SITE CAN BE DATED. (For instance, the late John Armstrong's family apparently decided not to donate any portion of his layout to the Museum.) FOR DIFFERENT REASONS!! As a result, if you can clarify these issues, I'll be delighted to include your response in my next update of my Sociology essay. If I receive no reply, however, I will publish the full text of this e-mail in the essay with the notation that you haven't replied.
My interest here is simply that prominent institutions in the hobby should conduct themselves with a level of professionalism and integrity that we expect in society at large. WE AGREE BUT WE RELY ON PEOPLE INFORMING THEMSELVES AS WELL!! MOST OF WHAT I HAVE REPORTED HAS BEEN IN PUBLIC IN SCALE RAILS!! DO YOU READ IT?
However, if the NMRA should be operated in a consistently unprofessional manner, it seems inevitable that difficulties with the IRS could ensue, which would be bad for the NMRA and the hobby as a whole. COULD NOT AGREE MORE! THAT IS WHY OUR POLICIES, FISCAL MEASURES AND ACTIONS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN MOST PROFESSIONAL. THANKS FOR YOUR INTEREST AND PLEASE SEND ME YOUR REPORT! CHARLIE GETZ, MUSEUM COMM. MEMBER, BOD MEMBER.
A rough calculation of the cost of flying Carstens from Newark to Sacramento via refundable coach fare, with other normal expenses, over a three-day period would be somewhere in the $2500 range. Carstens didn't say how many others made the trip from other areas of the country, nor how frequently such "committee meetings" take place -- but from his editorial, it appears the high point of the junket was a trip to Bruce's Train Shop in Sacramento, where he was able to add a model to his collection. This is a "junket” in the strictest sense, of course, since it’s an expense-paid trip for a journalist (and it got the requisite favorable blurb for the NMRA, too).
The Committee doesn’t accept payment -- it just accepts expense-paid travel. Various discussions on the NMRA site about the choice of Sacramento suggest that, although the Committee visited a number of cities, it apparently knew from the start that only Sacramento had the type of freebies for the Museum they were looking for. So why did they take so many other trips at $2500 or so per Committee member? Assuming a cost of $40,000 per committee visit, six such visits would account for most of the $250,000 that appears to have been spent down from the Museum fund. (Getz never specifically denies that an amount like this has been spent; he only includes travel as one of the reasons -- a big one, it seems to me.)
Again, as with NMRA Board of Directors travel, it looks to me as if extravagant junkets are one way members are, in effect, compensated for their time and complaisance. The NMRA doesn’t have a good track record in financial management; all Getz is doing in his response is doubling down with even more glib promises and grandiose schemes. $15 million is over ten times what the NMRA has ever had. It’s hard to foresee a good result.
In June 2008, I touched base again with Charlie Getz to see if the Howell Day Museum pre-exhibit in the California State Railroad Museum mezzannine was on track for installation in Summer 2008, as he'd said in his letter quoted above. In 2008, he said it would be Spring 2009, -- and remember, he said fundraising "in earnest" would begin only when the mezzannine exhibit was installed. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, on issues like Allen McClelland's availability to rehab his layout section, and the 2011 fundraising deadline for the Museum's spot in Sacramento. (As of 2013, a place for the museum separate from the mezzanine display appears to be a dead letter.)
An editorial in the July/August 2012 Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette announced a drive to get $500,000 in pledges by January 1, 2013, to allow completion of the mezzanine exhibit by December 1, 2013. Getz's earlier estimates that completion would occur in 2008 or 2009 are worth keeping in mind here. The most prominent feature by far, based on the artwork in the Gazette editorial, will be the Malcolm Furlow San Juan Central owned by the same Charlie Getz -- apparently there will be a much smaller case with a piece of the Virginian & Ohio, a much more significant layout. The editorial says, "We are asking for sincere pledges." A pledge, of course, is a non-binding promise to make a donation; it's difficult to see what criteria the museum will use to determine whether a pledge is "sincere" or not. Another question is what may have happened to the roughly $765,000 that was reported to be in the museum's checking account as of 2005. And of course, the mezzanine exhibit was never intended to be more than an appetizer for the main Howell Day Museum, to be located in the former SP Sacramento Shops complex. Nothing is said in the editorial about the status of the main project. Again, given Mr. Getz's track record in predicting progress on the museum, and the NMRA's financial track record, I don't see grounds for optimism, and I certainly would never even consider a pledge until I had a more credible explanation of the museum's finances than Mr. Getz has given here.
Yet another postponement was announced in October, 2013, reproduced here. It says, "The founding visions have not become a reality in the way that was planned, but have evolved with even better options. Over the period 2010-2012, NMRA and the CSRM jointly explored the exciting possibility of creating a Gallery and/or Museum of Scale Model Railroading." Note that the whole concept of a museum is morphing into a "Gallery and/or Museum", and indeed the name Howell Day Museum does not appear in the announcement. It goes on, "We have signed a contract for construction of the initial exhibits and the opening is planned for late 2014. One day, we can expand this exhibit into a permanent museum in different dedicated space as resources become available."
The current project now exclusively involves fundraising for an exhibit in the CSRM gallery level, currently estimated at $500,000 - $750,000, with a permanent museum as a completely separate project for which funds will be solicited at some indefinite future time. And oh-by-the-way, a completion date of December 1, 2013 is now December 1, 2014. Completion is now six years or so behind schedule, with no visible progress. I speculated earlier that the original Howell Day Museum endowment, understood in some quarters to be $1 million, was being steadily spent down, presumably on board travel and other expenses. We know nothing of the current situation there.
Another puzzling story about the Howell Day Museum came out in 2011: a satchel containing 13 G&D locomotives salvaged from the 1973 fire in the late John Allen's Monterey, CA, home came to light in the early part of this century. An anonymous modeler, "Bob", more or less inherited it after Model Railroader Editor Linn Westcott, who'd had the idea of salvaging the locomotives in it, retired and lost interest in the project.
Bob had nowhere to send the satchel, but was disinclined to throw it out. So, he put it under his layout and after moving it many times finally relegated it to the attic. There he tripped over it a number of times and contemplated disposal several times but knowing they were John Allen's engines, he couldn't bring himself to do so. I happened to be on a layout tour in 2007 and in conversation the subject of the G&D came up. He surprised me with the tale of this tripping hazard satchel in his attic. I encouraged him to contact a mutual friend who is involved with the NMRA's Howell Day Museum. I didn't hear anything further, so in 2009 I contacted Bob about it again and he floored me with the statement "if you want it, you can have it; it's just in my way." Did I want it?
As far as I can determine from this story, one of the great archaeological finds in the hobby was offered to the Howell Day Museum, and the museum somehow dropped the ball.
The more I look into issues like this, the more I get the impression that capable individuals with integrity won't go near the organization, and conversely, the organization is populated with individuals who don't feel uncomfortable with a high level of amateurishness, cynicism, self-dealing, even corruption.
The hobby's pre-eminent publication has always been Model Railroader, founded by the visionary Albert C. Kalmbach. Through the 1940s and 1950s, the magazine was the chief chronicler of the hobby's growth, with a series of highly capable editors, some of whom were committed hobbyists, but all of whom were capable journalists who developed and published authors like John Allen, Paul Larson, John Armstrong, Frank Titman, Jack Work, W.Gibson Kennedy, and others. The work of such authors was indispensable in showing the public what the model railroading hobby was capable of providing in creative enjoyment.
However, after Kalmbach himself, a second visionary editor, Linn Westcott, was responsible for keeping the hobby alive, if not prosperous, through several crises in the 1960s. The hobby industry faced conventional wisdom in the early 1960s that model trains were going out of fashion, to be replaced by slot cars, and a number of manufacturers were disinvesting in the model railroad field. Others made a business decision, based on what appears in hindsight to be questionable analysis, that they would need to cheapen their products to survive, radically reducing product quality in order to sell at a lower price.
These manufacturers had succeeded in "capturing" the NMRA leadership, and had gained their endorsement for coarsening wheel standards as part of the cost-reduction process. Westcott editorially supported the dissidents who opposed the coarsening, and indeed was among the voices that opposed the philosophy that the path to hobby survival led through reducing product quality. Looking at Model Railroader's more recent editorial timidities, it's almost inconceivable that the magazine would, by implication, oppose the business intentions of several major advertisers in that way.
Westcott started as one of Kalmbach's early employees, and it appears that he had Kalmbach's trust and support, although the memoirs of another MR editor, John Page, suggest that Kalmbach characteristically backed up his editors in controversial decisions. While Kalmbach later in his life was severely disabled with Parkinson's Disease, he was likely still very active in management while Westcott was editor.
Another set of developments in the 1960s goes, as far as I can tell, completely without direct editorial mention in the magazine -- the watershed events in the civil rights movement, the growing protests against the Viet Nam war, the increased popularity of the Playboy Philosophy, the rise of the Beatles, the terrible assassinations, and many other distractions that could threaten the idea of adult interest in model railroads as any but the most inconsequential activity. I was in college during those years, and I was profoundly affected by all the social developments listed here -- but I never stopped buying Model Railroader. (I do recall, on the other hand, a late Westcott editorial on the 1973 energy crisis and gas lines, suggesting that the hobby used little fuel and was probably a good way to relieve stress.)
I think this is because Westcott had a natural instinct for an editorial balance that would satisfy readers who were less experienced in the hobby, or less interested in challenging material, but would also stimulate, excite, and challenge other readers who saw the real potential for creative expression in many areas of the hobby. You could get very tired of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," but the idea of using simple materials to build a complex, accurate, detailed, and ultimately inspiring model or a piece of rail equipment didn't pall.
Westcott in fact, in a period of some suppliers trying to dumb the hobby down, consistently published material by contributors who were trying to raise the hobby's standards, such as the "1/4AAR" movement, modelers who wished to follow wheel standards far more exact than the NMRA's perfunctory "O" gauge dimensions. The disappearance of common-carrier narrow gauge rail operations during this period inspired many modelers to build models of this equipment to very high standards, and MR frequently featured photos, construction articles, and drawings to support this interest. Such articles were detailed and complex, explaining painstaking construction steps, completely against what appears to be current conventional wisdom that readers want quick, easy entertainment.
In my own life, when I was being exposed to the thought of everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Immanuel Kant, I continued to find the material in MR stimulating, and indeed inspiring -- in fact, I frequently struggled with myself then, feeling I should "grow up" and abandon the hobby, but a key influence that kept me interested was the challenging material in MR. I think Westcott is second only to Kalmbach as a highly influential figure in popularizing the hobby and communicating its interest and ultimate respectability.
MR's circulation continued to increase during Westcott's editorship. I think the biggest reason was that the magazine kept providing a diverse set of upward paths for those who wanted to stay challenged in the hobby. Trying to get cheapened train-set equipment to run was a dead-end proposition. Putting reasonable effort into successively more complex projects that were clearly explained could become addictive.
MR's circulation in fact increased until the early 1990s when it peaked at about 225,000, but I think the magazine's decline began well before that time. Westcott retired as editor in the late 1970s, at a time when the "prototype modeler" movement had already become frustrated with MR's apparent unwillingness to cover an emerging new generation of modeling interest, with standards still higher than the contributors Westcott had fostered. Westcott's successor, Russ Larson, seemed to have the words but not the music regarding MR's content.
John Allen, a very influential modeler in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, had a unique modeling style that was instantly identifiable. Allen, who had formal art training, was able to blend caricature with close observation of the real world to produce a truly imaginative effect. A number of modelers attempted to imitate that effect, but inevitably the result was imitation, not imagination, which can stem only from an original impulse.
Westcott published John Allen, the real thing, but Allen had passed away in 1973, and Larson published his imitators, John Olson and Malcolm Furlow, without apparently understanding the difference. At the same time, the world had changed, and Allen's imaginative vision -- still less that of his unimaginative imitators -- no longer matched the interests of younger modelers who found subjects like diesel locomotives and piggyback freight cars more interesting than scenes that might have come from A Ticket to Tomahawk. I think many who were inspired by the "prototype modeler" movement had a vague, if not fully conscious, sense of discomfort with MR's increasing use of a formula that included second-hand versions of ideas that had worked in the past, but were no longer current.
At one point, Richard H. Hendrickson, one of the most prolific authors who represented the movement, wrote a letter to the editor of MR saying that its material reminded him of junk food. To its credit, MR published the letter, but if it understood Hendrickson's point at all, it didn't show in any editorial change. Hendrickson was clearly referring to the frequent articles and project layouts from both Olson and Furlow, who later left his semi-professional status in the model railroading hobby to become a painter of Native American subjects. Olson had considerable talent, that he misused by not developing his own style with a greater sense of integrity. Furlow, on the other hand, made some readers uncomfortable in a way I didn't fully understand until I discovered the web site on his painting cited above.
The gallery displaying his work says, of his propensity to paint blue, orange, and yellow horses and the like: "When asked about the bright images he creates, which are fragmented by color, he says they are '. . . a metaphor for the human condition. The further Native Americans are removed from their heritage and embraced by anglo culture, the greater the conflict that results. This is the dichotomy that fuels the fires for my paintings.'” I finally understood the problem: Furlow was a phony. (I suspect that Native Americans are not fully appreciative of the condescension Furlow, himself an "anglo" who seems to be doing quite well by embracing them, is showing here.)
Furlow e-mailed me in May 2012 as follows:
Dear Sir,It appears from the above that the art gallery must have corrected his spelling and grammar in the blurb. But in other ways, I think Furlow's opinion confirms some of my observations about the hobby: he keeps wondering who I am -- somehow I have to have a level of prestige or whatnot (x number of friends on Facebook, maybe?) for him to take me seriously. In other words, the hobby isn't about having fun with trains at all -- it's about gaining prestige by being published in MR!
A couple of days ago I stumbled accross your website and the comments that you made about my modeling and its relationship to the somewhat demise of the model railroading press. I found the seriousness of the article humourous and without intellectual merit because we're actually talking about a hobby here. Not some sort of social movement. By hobby I mean the following: I get to do what I want to do, you get to do what you want to do. And by the way, who are you ? I've never heard anybody mention your name nor have I ever heard an opinion about you. You're certainly free to dislike my modeling efforts but to call me a "phony" ... prove it. And as far as my artwork is concerned, I'm going to say this one time and one time only : You're statement was one of the most ignorant and uninformed statements about me I have ever come accross as my father was 1/2 Choctaw. The success of my artwork has never been wholy dependant upon the portrayal of the Native American image. It is more about the expressionistic approach to the work that I employ. As a self-proclaimed critic of my artwork and modeling I invite you to discuss with me your credentials. I've pointed this artical out to John Olson and Bob Brown and they're still laughing.
Your uniformed statements call into question the accuracy of your investigations. And I still might remind you that model railroading is and always has been ...playing with toy trains.
Have a nice life,
While MR could continue to point to increasing circulation, and indeed to approving letters from uncritical readers, the first major sign of its decline appeared. Prototype Modeler magazine started in 1977 without any advertising other than for the publisher's own business ventures. Nevertheless, hobby shops began to carry it, and there was an inevitable recognition that there was a market niche that MR had abandoned: the more informed, committed hobbyists weren't satisfied by MR's increasingly dumbed-down, imitative formula. By 1980 -- during a severe recession -- several new magazines that followed the traditional advertising format entered the monthly model railroad market, including Mainline Modelerand Model Railroading. With the death of its founder, Prototype Modeler eventually passed to a publisher that accepted advertising. (For completeness, I should note an additional magazine, Railroad Modeler, published from 1971 to 1980, that was published by Challenge Publications, which had begun as a California girlie-magazine house. An individual close to that magazine indicates that Challenge was trying to move beyond that genre (tame by current standards), but its efforts were ultimately defeated by the more established magazines, who discouraged potential advertisers by pointing to Railroad Modeler's girlie association. The individual says that the magazine innovated in several areas, including regular use of color photos inside the magazine. Model Railroader, however, published a color photo of John Allen's layout in the late 1950s.)
MR's readers did not stop buying MR, but those whose needs weren't being fully met by MR -- those most likely to spend money on the hobby -- did buy the other magazines. This meant that advertisers who aimed at these readers -- those, in other words, who expected quality and were willing to pay for it -- could pay less to advertise in these smaller-circulation magazines, yet be more likely to reach the audience they were looking for.
The overall market for model railroad magazines had suddenly grown, and MR's market share had suddenly shrunk. By failing to satisfy its more critical and more sophisticated readers, MR was leaving money on the counter. In 1984, MR held a public conference to celebrate its 50th anniversary. The staff of Prototype Modeler sent in a check for admission to the conference -- it's hard to tell whether they sincerely meant to share MR's milestone or not. However, MR returned the check with a letter explaining that they reserved the right to refuse admittance to a competitor, a reaction Prototype Modeler noted with editorial glee.
It's hard for me to understand how Kalmbach, MR's publisher, which was steadily becoming a larger, more traditional corporate environment, could have missed the signal these circumstances had sent it: through its own complacency, scores of ad pages were being sold every month to new magazines that were serving readers who'd told MR directly that it wasn't meeting their needs. If MR had kept those readers' loyalty, it would be as thick as Yachting. MR was simply squandering a prime business asset, its reputation.
At this point, we reach the fascinating question of the hobby's second magazine, Railroad Model Craftsman (RMC) and the innovative editor who will always be associated with it, Tony Koester. RMC's antecedent magazine, Model Craftsman, was founded in 1933, covering the scale model hobby generally, and later changed its name with a more specific focus on model railroads.
Through the 1960s it was always an obviously cheaper product than MR, with a smaller staff, less expensive paper (which is now disintegrating in existing copies), and lower editorial values. Typos, stylistic infelicities, grammatical errors, and production glitches like blurbs on the cover for articles that didn't appear inside, were common. Harold Carstens was the editor for much of the 1950s and 60s; he was no Linn Westcott, but he had a naive enthusiasm for the hobby that shone through his rough-hewn product.
RMC was an unabashed discount product. Growing up in New Jersey not far from its editorial offices, I always thought of it along with the ads for Robert Hall, the cheap clothier, and Two Guys from Harrison, the proto Wal Mart. I assume its advertising rates gave it a corresponding market niche. While MR's articles always had a professional polish, RMC's tended to be more offbeat, regional, and even esoteric.
As a New Jersey boy, I appreciated RMC's more frequent discussion of my local railroads, like the Erie, Lackawanna, and Jersey Central. MR tended to cover railroading in a more generic way, while I was becoming fascinated with the specifics of what I saw around me. RMC's approach was steadily evolving in this direction, whether at Harold Carstens's conscious instigation or not, I don't know.
In 1969, Tony Koester visited the RMC offices as an interested modeler, and apparently during the visit accepted an offer of employment as an associate editor. Koester had been one of the founders of the Nickel Plate Road Historical and Technical Society, one of the earliest such groups. His interest in one of the regional railroads, along with the focus on specificity and detail, was part of what I found appealing about RMC.
I began to notice an improvement in the editorial values of the magazine almost immediately. At the same time, he was publishing material from Jim Boyd, a traveling technician for General Motors' locomotive division, that showed angles and details on contemporary diesels I wasn't used to seeing. This material likely had an influence in forming the "prototype modelers" movement.
Koester also recognized and regularly featured the work of Dave Frary and Bob Hayden, which fit the existing RMC pattern of regionalism (New England) and the offbeat (narrow gauge). Hayden and Frary teamed to publish articles on HOn30, the use of N gauge track with HO scale bodies, to simulate 24-inch narrow gauge. This was a caricature that was nearly as effective as the work of John Allen, but it was original and creative, unlike the derivative material of Olson and Furlow published by MR.
However, Koester is probably best known for emphasizing the work of W. Allen McClelland, who had already been published in RMC with some frequency before Koester's arrival. But starting in early 1977, Koester published a multi-part series on McClelland's layout, the Virginian and Ohio. McClelland has been, next to John Allen, probably the most influential model railroad hobbyist. Like Allen, he has considerable artistic talent and an artistic eye for the real world. Unlike Allen, his view of the world of railroading is more matter-of-fact, less romantic, and less of a caricature.
This matter-of-fact attitude combined with Koester's editorial willingness to cover McClelland's approach to the hobby in considerable depth, was something MR hadn't recently done (though Linn Westcott more than a decade earlier had published an equivalent article by John Allen taking a comprehensive look at his layout and his approach to the hobby). Hobbyists who wanted a magazine that reflected their level of commitment to the hobby were increasinly looking to RMC.
While a clear improvement over MR's now-superficial and derivative approach, RMC didn't fully satisfy the "prototype modeler" oriented readers. McClelland called his approach "prototype freelancing", which can be interpreted as one way of dealing with the limited quality and selection of models in the 1960s and 70s. Not enough models were on the market to allow a committed modeler to reproduce even representative versions of the locomotive and car rosters for most railroads. As a result, if a modeler couldn't easily put together equipment that would accurately represent a train of the Western Pacific or the Maine Central, he could say "I'm modeling a fictitious railroad that is like the Western Pacific or the Maine Centrral, but its equipment is coincidentally much closer to what I can obtain at my hobby shop."
The modeler would name his railroad something like the "Salt Lake Western" or the "Portland and Bangor" and proceed from there. One esthetic difficulty of the approach was the highly abstruse reasoning modelers would engage in to explain their choices of region, name, route, traffic, and so forth. It was fictitious, it was done mostly to justify using what was on hand (which everyone knew), and past a very early threshold, it just didn't matter. McClelland to some extent set the tone for this in his own series, and Koester's mindset, always just a little pretentious, didn't restrain him.
As a result, the series, on one hand a breath of fresh air, and certainly an innovation in depth of coverage, also displayed a level of fussiness, self-absorption, and authoritarianism that probably started with McClelland, but perhaps appealed to Koester and would become characteristic of his own later writing. Enthralled with how successfully McClelland and modelers closely associated with him used the "prototype freelancing" concept, Koester began to stress editorially that this was close to the only acceptable approach to the hobby. He'd adopted it for his own layout, hadn't he?
"Prototype modelers", of course, didn't agree that this was even a remotely acceptable approach. A better idea, as they saw it, was to publish on how you actually could modify commerical products to make your equipment look more like that of the Western Pacific or the Maine Central, and to make recommendations in whatever medium they could find for hobby manufacturers to make the products they actually wanted. Much as RMC was improving, and much as its content was increasingly preferable to MR's, Prototype Modeler still made its appearance shortly after the McClelland series appeared in RMC.
And as the "prototype modelers" studied model and prototype equipment more closely, they found increasing discrepancies. Athearn, the most prolific manufacturer, produced locomotives that operated acceptably for the time at a low price. However, in order to fit its design of inexpensive motor, Athearn had compromised a key dimension in many of its models, the width of the engine compartment hood. The company, still run at the time by Irvin R. Athearn, its founder, was reluctant to make investments in new tooling to correct such problems. (A former Athearn employee who had stayed in touch with his ex-boss told me at the time that Athearn felt he had learned that modelers who made such requests didn't respond by purchasing the new products.) The dimensional errors in Athearn's locomotives steadily became a subject that everyone knew about, but no one would mention editorially for fear of offending a major advertiser.
In the late 1970s, RMC, I think, hit the limits of what it could accomplish given the publisher's view of his business. Koester clearly focused on satisfying the more demanding side of the hobby's readership. He continued to publish innovative and imaginative authors. One problem, however, was that those same authors, including Dave Frary and Bob Hayden, as well as McClelland, eventually wound up writing for MR -- likely because RMC didn't pay as well (though what is actually paid writers by the hobby magazines is remarkably little in any case). Hayden went to work for Kalmbach editing one of MR's sister magazines. Kalmbach, a larger enterprise, could offer greater career potential than Carstens in such cases.
Even Malcolm Furlow, who became so closely associated with MR, and who did so much to damage the relationship of trust MR had had with its high-end readership, had started as an author writing for RMC under Tony Koester. Furlow's work for RMC, however, was relatively restrained, and interestingly enough, he followed Koester's "prototype freelancing" concept, describing models of equipment for a fictitious "Denver and Rio Chama Western" railroad. (But even before his move to MR, he inspired mistrust. I remember speaking with a fellow modeler at the time who, at a swap meet, pointed to a model that had begun to warp in the hot sun, and said it "looked like Malcolm Furlow had gotten hold of it.") It wasn't until he moved to MR that the uncontrolled urge toward manneristic emulation of John Allen took over.
Toward the end of his editorship, Koester made one of his most lasting contributions to the hobby: he sponsored a poll in which modelers could vote for the models they most wanted. In hindsight, given the atmosphere that apparently prevailed in the industry, even this could have been construed as offending advertisers -- why would anyone be remotely interested in a new product if everything now available is perfect? Irvin Athearn had certainly decided new products weren't appreciated by the buyers, and apparently no longer wished to release them. Yet RMC did hold its poll, and the product wishes that resulted were part of the revolution in product variety and quality that is still under way. Koester helped start it.
Then I noticed that I'd read several issues of RMC, and there weren't any columns or editorials from Tony Koester. I checked the masthead, and he was gone. Carstens, the publisher, mentioned some months later in response to what must have been many questions from readers that perhaps Koester intended to return to school, but that was the extent of official recognition.
Frank Pearsall, who published a small-circulation newsletter called the ASODCO Coupler, reported at the time (Volume 6, Number 2),
Well, for the few of you who didn't know (or don't really care), Tony Koester was fired as Editor of RMC the morning of March 12th  (Black Thursday). The exact reason? I don't really know and probably never will. . . . I do have some opinions I would like to share with you.
First, Tony was an excellent editor editorially, graphically, and balance wise. I think he sometimes had a tendency to get hung up in minutia[e], but we all have our particular faults. Considering the limited product he had to work with, he produced excellent results. He kept RMC in the fight. MR is a big bucks outfit, and keeping up with them is, or can be a real struggle.
. . .
The straw that broke the camel's back? The fairly recent article on the reader poll as to what they (the respondents) would like to see made, improvements, etc. These respondents (model railroaders) really took Athearn and Atlas to the cleaners. . . . Advertisers pay a lot of big bucks to be in the magazines. . . . A certain amount of free "puff" comes with the territory.
. . .
What do I personally think? As a lot of you know, there was no love lost between Tony and myself. He always thought I was a radical and a firebrand. I always felt he had a lot of people fooled. He did not mix well with the masses although a lot of people felt otherwise. I always thought he was arrogant, overbearing and a pompous ass but then, nobody's perfect. However, like I said, he was a great editor.
On the other hand, the progress of RMC after Koester's departure may give some insight into Carstens's business intent. Carstens promoted Bill Schaumburg, an associate editor, to fill the vacancy. Schaumburg, a former schoolteacher without Koester's apparent drive and ambition, has left the magazine essentially in the state to which Koester brought it: much improved in execution, but still a secondary player. In the ASODCO Coupler issue cited above, Pearsall described Schaumburg as ". . . 'laid back.' He favors blue jeans and loves a good glass of wine." Interestingly, RMC hasn't produced writers like Boyd, Frary, Hayden, McClelland, or even Furlow since that time. Schaumburg hasn't innovated in his 30 years as editor (and thereby has satisfied Carstens for more than twice as long as Koester).
My observation about the time Koester left RMC was that RMC was likely, given Koester's energy and innovation versus MR's complacency, to surpass MR as the hobby's premier magazine, and Koester's departure took place, in the odd way such things sometimes happen, not long before such a trend would have had to be acknowledged generally. This inevitably would have caused conflict over the direction of the magazine; given its subsequent stand-pat posture, it seems likely Carstens would have resisted undertaking the additional investment -- and perhaps reassessment of his own personal and business goals -- that such a change in status would have demanded. So I suspect that more than one single factor was involved in Koester's departure, though this is pure speculation on my part.
Within a short time, now with a non-hobby day job, Koester resurfaced at MR, like Frary, Hayden, Furlow, and McClelland who had gone before him. He didn't become an editor, though; he wrote a monthly column called "Trains of Thought." It seemed to me that he wasn't well cast in this role, and it's possible that his objectives in life were changing, and his moment had passed when he left RMC. His columns quickly became as predictable as those of Maureen Dowd at The New York Times. He variously described events that were mostly excuses to drop the names of other prominent hobbyists; or he described events where his own sensitivity and craftsmanship enhanced another person's holiday season or relieved someone's period of bereavement; or he pronounced on what, in his expertise, was the definite Correct Thing in the hobby. This got old in a hurry, but editor Russ Larson, tone-deaf as always, carried the column and was presumably happy with it. Koester's unexceptional work in this role may even have been especially satisfying to Larson and others at Kalmbach, if the editor who shortly before had been a real threat at RMC was now a tame Samson, prisoner of the Philistines, doing mediocre writing at their bidding.
Indeed, the column was the culmination of a trend toward fussiness, self-absorption, and authoritarianism that had started while Koester was at RMC. And as a columnist, he couldn't play to what had been his strong point, the ability to recognize and encourage talent in other hobby writers. But even when Kalmbach later gave him the chance to be an editor again, the results were disappointing.
The "layout design" movement grew up along with the "prototype modeler" movement, spurred in part by the McClelland series in RMC. Koester in that magazine editorially raised the profile of concepts like staging, providing yard-like tracks connected with but conceptually separate from a layout, corresponding to distant, off-layout destinations. Like many ideas in the McClelland series, it was innovative, but a tendency toward self-congratulation meant it could potentially be overdone.
The idea of layout design and configuration as an important factor in a modeler's effective enjoyment of the hobby wasn't new; E.P.Alexander discussed it in Chapter 2, "Laying Out and Planning the Model System", of his 1940 book, Model Railroads. John Armstrong added many highly imaginative enhancements to layout topology in a series of articles in MR in the 1950s and 60s, and in his 1960s book Track Planning for Realistic Operation made the key point that a modeler designing a layout must make a series of essentially artistic decisions on how best to work within constraints of time, space, and personal preference.
Layout planning as a discipline, present near the start of the hobby, had grown up incrementally with it, and in fact there was no "revolution" in the movement in the 1970s or 1980s. John Armstrong's own layout, begun in the early 1950s, still looked like a well-designed contemporary layout of the 1990s, in part due to Armstrong's own long-standing influence on the hobby. However, the tendency reflected in the McClelland series to take fairly commonplace things a little too seriously had resulted in a group of modelers organizing into a "Layout Design Special Interest Group" (or SIG) to promote particular theories, such as the use of multi-level layouts and helical tracks to communicate among the levels, or point-to-point layouts with manually serviced staging tracks at each end.
As with "prototype freelancing", a characteristic of this movement is the excessive verbalization, self-absorption, and self-congratulation that accompanies it. A central characteristic has been grandiose projection with insufficient follow-through. The group's newsletter started with fanfare, but the intervals between issues quickly grew longer. The Layout Design SIG's Layout Design Primer displays all of these characteristics. It claims in the first sentence of the introduction to be a "novel publishing effort". While its intended audience is the "beginning to intermediate railroad modeler", the "primer" is verbose, self-referential, and highly theoretical. (A sentence like, "The overall theme present herein is one of blending a variety of components to produce a uniform scale model that is consistent with the viewers own sense of the prototype reality" is likely to turn off a beginner, but it probably enhances the writer's sense of his own importance.) Despite updates, sections remain incomplete after many years -- a "primer" so complex that multiple authors build each section with the painstaking slowness of an ant colony is something of an oxymoron.
As time has passed, it's also become plain that layout design discussions have increasingly blurred into discussions of home improvement and real estate. I recently saw a presentation by a Pittsburgh-area modeler, for instance, who explained how, in designing his new house, he felt impelled to expand his breakfast nook because it would occupy a space above the planned engine terminal in his basement. The presentation included photos of the breakfast nook, and indeed as much else of the non-basement areas of his house as he could possibly justify. In other words, model railroading has become an insufficient basis for ostentation, but no matter: the layout design movement allows us to impress our peers with our big house in a pricey neighborhood.
The informal impression of several fellow modelers I've talked to has been that a number of the people most closely associated with the Layout Design SIG had a strain of self-promotion and were perhaps hoping in some way to make a commercial venture out of the movement. The only person to succeed in that, however, was Tony Koester. If we postulate that in his editorial record there are tendencies toward "Good Tony", the talent spotter, the early recognizer of productive trends, the thoughtful editorialist, and "Bad Tony", the self-absorbed, overly verbose, authoritarian, then the Layout Design SIG was the devil whispering in Bad Tony's ear. His earlier ability to spot clear winners like Frary and Hayden had somehow gone through a climacteric. His next move was to found a Kalmbach spinoff of MR called Model Railroad Planning (I intended to add a hyperlink to this magazine's web site, but find no current content for it on Kalmbach's sites, perhaps another illustration of a certain hollowness at the core of the movement).
The magazine's approach was to turn the Layout Design SIG's tendency to overanalyze, overtheorize, and self-promote into a journalistic formula, a parody of Koester's earlier success at talent-spotting. Taking tiny, incremental ideas and pumping them into a magazine feature is the essence of hack writing, and given the tendency of "layout design" adherents to chew every thought 99 times, the overall effect is the opposite of spontaneity or creativity. For the hobby's development, Model Railroad Planning is an overspecialized evolutionary dead end.
Koester's influence, while unofficial, spilled over into the content of MR as well. The February 1994 issue carried a story on the layout of Lionel Strang, a modeler of moderate ability, who had brought his layout to what he felt was a reasonable level of completion -- but something was missing: ". . . now I wanted some experts to view what I had accomplished and give me their comments." It should come as no surprise that the "experts" Strang had in mind were Allen McClelland and Tony Koester, and he discussed how, working through the NMRA, he was able to get both to visit his layout and "make comments", presumably approving or at least tactful.
MR's editors are ferocious in gutting anything remotely controversial from copy, so it's clear that Strang's position that his layout wasn't finished until Koester and McClelland blessed it met the approval of those in authority. Nor is it surprising that Strang's layout was a "prototype freelanced" Appalachian coal railroad like McClelland's original and the derivative layout Koester had developed by minutely following McClelland's ideas. This was Malcolm Furlow writ small, an endorsement of the hobby as imitation rather than creativity, with the correct people to imitate clearly identified. The final unsurprising development was Strang's appointment as a columnist at MR in his own right, and like Furlow before him, he became a semi-professional hobbyist for the magazine, building several project layouts and writing numerous articles, all to a less than challenging standard (some of his columns have been truly risible, such as the one in which he expained how he uses hockey stick putty to improve his grip on his X-Acto knife).
Strang's run as a columnist ended with the announcement in the May 2005 issue that he would be "taking a break" from his column, but at the same time, the Editor named him a Contributing Editor of MR. "Contributing Editor" in the magazine industry is an honorific carrying no financial compensation; it simply indicates the individual in question contributes frequent features to the magazine. It's MR's announced intent to have Strang continue doing project layouts and other features, of the sort he's already done, but the discontinuance of the column must have required some additional sweetener, such as the title. That Strang continued to write his column for eight years in the face of what must have been strong complaints on model railroad forums, letters to the editor, and likely weak internal polling by MR regarding its own features, suggests he must have had at least one powerful protector. That his column was finally killed suggests other changes may be in the works. An anonymous web poet summed up Strang as follows:
Bulletproof boxes for holding my styrene,
Nine color pictures to show you what I mean,
Bright hockey tape on the handles of knives,
I get paid for this drivel, and you have no lives!
Patching up holes in my Masonite fascia,
Buying DeWalt, 'cause I want to disgrace ya,
I suck up to Koester, and the V & O too...
These are the things that L. Strang likes to do.
Strang's 1994 debut as one of the people to watch in the hobby came two years after MR's circulation and advertising pages peaked. That peak corresponded with Russ Larson's promotion to the magazine's publisher and the appointment of Andy Sperandeo, a former associate editor, to the vacancy. Sperandeo, who had joined the magazine as a 1970s refugee from the academic Ph.D. job market, struck me as a peculiar choice, the sort of surprise you sometimes see in the corporate environment when a colorless also-ran succeeds to a highly visible position.
It should be pointed out that MR's decline in key statistical areas corresponded with unprecedented prosperity in the US, with the stock market growing four or five times in value over the period 1992-2000. The baby boom generation was reaching its most productive, highest-earning years, and many of those who were long-time hobbyists had reached a point where they had ample disposable income to spend on the hobby. In 1980, there had been MR, RMC, and Prototype Modeler as monthly magazines (but Prototype Modeler didn't take ads at the time); by 1992, the hobby was supporting as monthlies MR, RMC, Mainline Modeler, Model Railroading, and Railmodel Journal (a specifically Canadian-content monthly also now exists north of the border). The number, selection, and quality of products had grown enormously -- and somehow, MR's share of those buying magazines, as well as those buying advertising in hobby magazines to promote the burgeoning supply of products, had begun to decline not just relatively but absolutely.
If the hobby itself was in decline, this wasn't reflected in the products available, nor the people buying them. MR, as the flagship publication, might reasonably have been expected to look more like the very thick, upscale magazines like Architectural Digest, which itself sometimes had features on model railroads in expensive homes. MR had instead lost 20% of its circulation and much of the heft it used to have in page count.
An example of its decadence was the cover of the July 1999 issue, where electronic horseplay among staffers resulted in the image of a space alien being placed in a photo of a locomotive cab on the magazine's cover. Through some inadvertency, the staffers, who had produced the image as an inside joke but intended to delete it from the production cover, left it in place, and the space alien cover went out all over the country. Sperandeo editorially indicated that the person responsible had received a "serious talking-to," but such episodes, like any horseplay, reflected management inattention. Sperandeo himself during this period was a highly visible participant in high-traffic e-mail lists, leading me to question how he was spending his time in the office. (A former Kalmbach staffer has since confirmed my surmise in this respect.)
While Sperandeo was philosophically aligned with the "prototype modeler" movement, and some in the hobby expected that MR would move away from the Malcolm Furlow school of model railroading with Sperandeo's appointment, he seemed to lack a clear sense of where the hobby and the magazine ought to be moving. A cover and feature story on the Northlandz tourist trap in New Jersey suggested he was still likely to knuckle under to Russ Larson in featuring dumbed-down content -- something that further eroded the trust of the high-end readership. More serious features deferred to Koester's ideas on operation and layout design, which had become at best controversial. While some who preferred doctrinaire points of view enthusiastically supported Koester, this further tried the patience of others among the high-end readership.
Another episode during this period, while not Sperandeo's fault, illustrates the overall bad business judgment that has characterized Kalmbach in recent years. MR entered a "business partnership" with an advertiser called eHobbies during the peak of the dot-com bubble. As part of the partnership, MR staff members would provide content for the eHobbies web site, which intended to sell hobby merchandise over the web. Like most dot-com startups, eHobbies appears to have been poorly funded, and the merchandise it sold on its web site seemed poorly selected, with little understanding of the hobby market.
At the same time, MR's brick-and-mortar advertisers were offended at MR's apparent change in policy. In the past, MR had been even-handed among all advertisers, showing no preference for one over another. By providing content for the eHobbies web site, however, MR appeared to be favoring one advertiser over all others, tilting the playing field. A number of brick-and-mortar advertisers promptly withdrew their ads from MR -- but not long afterward, eHobbies went belly-up in the dot-com bust. The result was that MR damaged its reputation with a number of advertisers who, unlike eHobbies, continued in business, but lost the eHobbies advertising in any case. Accounts from a former MR staff member quoted below suggest that Russ Larson was primarily responsible for the eHobbies debacle, but was able to avoid accountability, at least for several more years.
In late 2001, Sperandeo was finally removed as editor. Reasonably attentive management at Kalmbach would probably have paid heed to problems like the space alien and the high-profile presence on heavy-traffic, flaming-and-mail-bombing e-mail lists much sooner. However, his penalty was quite mild -- he was demoted to a newly-created "executive editor" position, where he now appears to perform the duties of a lightly-burdened associate editor. Russ Larson, who as publisher and the presumptive adult in charge might have been expected to be held accountable for MR's decline, instead took over again as acting editor, but initiated a "national search" for a replacement. The "national search" resulted in Kalmbach simply recycling an editor from another of its magazines, Terry Thompson, into the vacancy.
Rumors from Kalmbach suggested that Sperandeo's demotion represented a victory for corporate opinion that felt attempting to satisfy the high-end readership was futile, since this was the philosophy he represented. It seems to me that Sperandeo, whatever his personal preferences in modeling (he is thought to be an authority on the Santa Fe), primarily represented mediocrity. A Ph.D. should not be given control over creative functions without extensive reflection, and without imagination, he confused accurate observation of the real world with pedantry.
Terry Thompson, the new editor, also had a Ph.D., a bad sign. I recently received e-mails from Paul Schmidt (who did not request confidentiality when he sent them, which under generally understood internet etiquette makes them publishable here), who worked briefly for MR as an Associate Editor during its period of extreme staff upheaval, and from posts on various forums does not appear to have been happy during his time there, although he insists that he resigned from MR because his wife wanted to return to the Pacific Northwest. Schmidt says of his exposure to the magazine's management:
I hold [Russ] Larson responsible for most of the internal issues at MR, as he made decisions on staffing, e-hobbies, etc., then later triangulated himself when those decisions failed.In mid 2008, I got an e-mail from the individual whose name is redacted (at his request) from the quote above. His version is completely at variance with Schmidt's regarding staff revolts and who fired whom, although he is equally critical of Larson, Thompson, and the human resources department. He pointed out that he had never met Schmidt nor worked with him; the best conclusion one can draw from all the stories is that conflict and intrigue were rife on the MR staff.
Remember the short-lived [redacted]? Larson's work. The guy was hired nominally to replace Jim Kelly after Kelly retired. He had little to no model railroading experience or interest. Ended up being a spy for HR and Larson as to what other MR staff members were saying and doing. It almost provoked a revolt amongst the staff. Andy finally demanded that Russ fire the guy -- not something an editor should have to do if he was the one who did the hiring initially.
Terry settled things down for a while, brought in a sense of cohesiveness, but something about hiring PhDs to take the helm of MR just seems to snakebite that company. And he's arrogant. Was angling to be Larson's fair-haired boy from the first day he stepped into KPC as an associate editor at CTT. He was subtlely, and not so subtlely, bucking for the MR editor job from the get-go. He is not a person to be trusted. What I said about him in August, and here, is as charitable as I can be.
Bottom line, Russ Larson had a problem choosing a successor. Andy was the best of the lot of the staff available in 1993. Marty McGuirk or Jeff Wilson too in 2001 when events finally began eroding beneath Andy, but by then they'd had enough and had moved on. Wilson announced his departure the first day I arrived in Wisconsin. I stepped into the void left by Marty -- a big void in terms of experience with the magazine and name recognition.
In another e-mail, Schmidt said,
As for the internal turmoil at MR, sheesh, it was going on long before I arrived there and continued sometime after I left. I flat out told Human Resources during my exit interview that were I to stay at Kalmbach I would seek to transfer to another magazine or to Trains.com, as I didn't want to work with Terry Thompson as editor. The laundry list of reasons is long, and contributions to it were made by other MR staff members.
Here's another account of Thompson's interpersonal skills:
Lou [Sassi, a well-known model railroad photographer] calls me back the next day to tell me that he has spoken to Thompson who has confirmed that the magazine is indeed interested. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Thompson doesn’t want Lou involved. Evidently, contract photographers are paid a lot more than regular contributors. Thompson feels that the only angle to this story is the restoration…in other words, a “how to” article. He doesn’t want to pay extra for something that is a “secondary story”.
Lou suggests that I call Thompson to introduce myself, and make sure he and I are on the same page. I want to make sure I am not wasting my time by providing the magazine with material it doesn’t want. I also want to give Thompson an opportunity to ask me any questions he might have concerning my abilities as a modeler, writer and photographer. I also want to try to lobby to get my friend Lou back in the project.
After two messages on his voice mail over two days, I finally get a call back. “Mr. Mason, this is Terry Thompson at Model Railroader Magazine.” As it turns out, this would be the longest sentence I will extract from him during our five minute, mostly one-sided conversation.
I explain why I want to talk with him, and he explains briefly the he sees little interest in the wheelchair issue, and the magazine cover is reserved for full-length layout features. He wants me to write a “how to” article on the restoration…plain and simple. He reiterates that he doesn’t want Lou involved, and we both agree that sending Lou to photograph the layout once it’s done is a waste of time.
I hang up the phone and realize that my conversation with Thompson is symptomatic of the demise of a once-fine publication. Instead of writing something different and unique, I am offered an opportunity to write another “how to” article. Geez!
Model Railroader September 2003 Cover (from MR web site)
Another bad sign was the magazine's cover and feature story in its September 2003 issue, the return of Malcolm Furlow from his 16-year, politically correct, Santa Fe-chic painting career, complete with a cover showing mustachioed, sombrero clad, bandolier-wearing "banditos" riding on a locomotive, which one assumes they, as "revolutionaries", have commandeered. The copy of MR's September 2003 cover is reproduced here under "fair use" doctrine for the purpose of comment. The presence of sandbags on the locomotive reinforces the idea of systematically hostile, "revolutionary" activities that are apparently taking place. What fun! The mustachioed, hostile, bandoliered bandit is a long-standing Mexican stereotype that is not appreciated by many in the Hispanic community. While John Allen depicted highly overweight Mexicans wearing sombreros on his layout, none was specifically a "bandit" or revolutionary, and those scenes date from the 1950s. There should be no reason to cite his precedent in placing figures on a magazine's cover that some people will inevitably find offensive in our own time (a google search quickly reveals other references to the long-standing recognition of this offensive stereotype). Furlow's condescending remarks about Native Americans cited earlier should also be read in the context of his clear willingness to employ well-known ethnic stereotypes to sell his material -- again, in my opinion, Furlow appears to be simply a phony.
MR is apparently willing to employ ethnic stereotyping in an effort to sell magazines and increase its circulation. MR's editors would quickly excise from copy any derogatory reference to an advertiser, and likely wouldn't permit (though I'm now not completely sure here) offensive characterizations of African-Americans. But it feels "Frito bandito" will sell magazines to mainstream hobbyists, who presumably will not object to its association with their hobby.
In fact, a cover like September 2003 damages the image of those in the hobby who would like to appear intelligent or socially aware among their peers, clearly a worthwhile goal. The sources cited above indicate that the Mexican-American community fought and won the battle over stereotypical representation of hostile Mexicans in sombreros, mustaches, and bandoliers by the early 1970s. Yet more than a generation later, the flagship publication of the model railroad hobby sees commercial merit in using this stereotype, which most had thought was long-discredited. On one hand, Kalmbach sponsors the largely ineffectual "World's Greatest Hobby" campaign; on the other, it actively works against the objectives of that same campaign.
In early 2006, a thread on the Atlas forum discussed MR's newest strategy: increasing the number of "special issues". Modelers on the forum complained that MR seemed to be cutting content in regular issues, already paid for by subscribers, while moving content to the "special issues", for which subscribers would need to pay extra. One commenter noted
If one looks into MR's circulation figures it's easy to recognize that the proliferation of "annuals" and other special offerings (the D-P-B DVD) is likely an attempt to generate new income to offset flagging MR sales. The parent magazine has seen a dramatic loss of readership in recent years, some 55,000 in a dozen years. Last year's decline in readers amounted to 7,000 - the 2nd largest decline MR has ever experienced in a single year. Do the math and you'll realize that's an awful lot of lost income.That Kalmbach, in the face of such steady declines in sales, hasn't replaced the magazine's management, or even seriously reassessed editorial policy, is astonishing. On the other hand, it's encouraging to see at least some forum participants recognizing a back-door price increase and mooting the idea that they don't want to be suckered.
Of course, a possible downside of such a proliferation of publications is, as someone did note up-stream, the dilution of MR's own content, causing a further decline in subscribers who want the "meat" and not fluff. Note that the current issues have 1/3 less pages (thus 1/3 less modeling content) than they did a decade ago.
The final outcome of all this will be quite interesting to see.
On June 11, 2007, Kalmbach announced that Neil Besougloff had been promoted to Editor of Model Railroader. Terry Thompson remains as Publisher. The quality of MR seems gradually to have improved under Besougloff, and capable modelers on the staff, such as Cody Grivno and Managing Editor David Popp, are getting greater prominence. The Virginian project layout series of 2012 was very well thought out and very well executed, and it treated its audience as intelligent adults, a major change from the pattern of the prior 30 years. It probably is not a coincidence that Andy Sperandeo apparently retired as Executive Editor and is now listed on the masthead as a Contributing Editor, a fairly clear indication that he's been moved aside.
My own knowledge of technical issues like magazine distribution is limited to what I can glean from the owner of my local hobby shop, but it's likely that MR's decline in circulation would probably have been greater if it were not for Kalmbach's control over distribution channels and the ability to put its product in front of potential buyers. MR's competitors are at a disadvantage in this area, and this is probably a factor that prevents competitors without strong industry connections and financial backing from mounting a serious challenge to MR's continued, though diminished, dominance in its field.
RMC appears to be satisfied with its secondary role. One indication is its increasing stress on Canadian authors and material (despite the presence of a specifically Canadian-content model railroad magazine north of the border) -- a niche market in North America. RMC remains formula-driven, serving not the high-end market generally, but more specific segments, such as resin kit builders, those of Canadian nationality or interests, or DCC operators. The 1960s focus on the offbeat and regional has given way to the overspecialized and the pedantic. No effort appears to be made to identify new, appealing authors of general interest, such as Boyd, Frary, or Hayden. (I should say here that, while I don't put myself in that category, I've occasionally submitted material to RMC with a self-addressed, stamped, return envelope, and up to the time they asked me for the story I discuss below, they never acknowledged it. An editor interested in developing a new author of any sort would be expected to provide at least minimal feedback.)
In late 2003, I did have an article published in RMC -- apparently someone connected with the magazine found the page on Larry's Truck and Electric on this web site, and RMC contacted me wanting to use the material in a feature. Things went fairly smoothly until the time came for me to be paid, and then RMC went into bargain-basement mode. I found myself still attempting to collect the amount they promised, two months after the article was published. I've seen remarks on other forums discussing collection problems with RMC, and other difficulties dealing with Bill Schaumburg. The e-mail below is typical, discussing specifically problems trying to deal with RMC, but also referring to issues with other magazines:
In early 2008, I received an e-mail from a modeler who'd recently been published in RMC:
It was suggested at one time (by a person that has had good contact with Schaumburg) that I might do an article about my Metra F40PH engines. Now, I don't mind going to the trouble to do an article, but I don't particularly want to submit a manuscript into a "black hole", so I emailed Schaumburg first to start a dialog as to whether there would be interest and what level of detail should be included. No response. No article.
At least one other magazine seems to require that you be part of their "group" to get any response. One person observed that if you send a picture of something (prototype), rather than publish that picture, they will send out their "insider" for that area to take a picture of the same thing for publication.
I had a large work published in RMC in [the redacted] issues.My correspondent went on to wonder if RMC has been having financial problems. It's hard to say, but Schaumburg's expense-account travel, to judge from his columns, hasn't suffered. Stiffing contributors simply doesn't help the sense of community that a magazine ought to be promoting in the hobby.
After several reminders to Bill, to which he did reply telling me they are a "small company" and "just slow at these things", I have still yet to be paid. My work was the cover shot for the [redacted] issue, ta boot.
RMC announced in its March 2013 issue that Bill Schaumburg was moving to part-time status s Projects Editor in anticipation of retirement, replaced as editor by Christopher P. D'Amato, a long-tme associate editor. This move was definitely overdue, although whether D'Amato can make an improvement is still an open question.
Over the years, there have been various "other" magazines in the field besides Model Railroader and Railroad Model Craftsman. I've already mentioned Railroad Modeler and Prototype Modeler. In the 1980s and 90s, the "others" were Mainline Modeler, Model Railroading, and Railmodel Journal.
In 2006, two of these "others" ceased publication. Over that year, Mainline Modeler's Publisher, Robert Hundman announced first that the magazine wasn't profitable, then that it was for sale, and finally that he was closing most of his business enterprises. He was able to sell his other two magazines, but Mainline Modeler had no takers. Model Railroading also ceased publication, with the publisher apparently going into bankruptcy. Railmodel Journal continued, though on an increasingly irregular publication schedule, until its June 2008 issue.
I suspect that one factor in the demise of these magazines was an expectation that all they needed to do was not be Model Railroader, and this was never enough. From the start, an objection to Mainline Modeler was the appearance of too much white space in the magazine's layout, which translated into a lower proportion of content per page than in the competition. As time went on and color became cheaper and more common, Mainline Modeler mostly stayed black and white. It also stressed scratchbuilding, with many articles authored by Hundman himself, following his own somewhat tedious techniques. Its high point came at the beginning, when it featured articles by Robert Zenk, a talented modeler who broke new ground in detailing by cutting up and reassembling mass-produced plastic models by Athearn, Atlas, and others to produce better-detailed models of specific prototypes. In effect, what Zenk did was multiply the effect of the manufacturers' die work.
The problem is that this, like Hundman's own techniques, was tedious, and after a few years of such articles, Zenk seems to have burned out. On the other hand, his articles were part of the impetus that resulted in the model manufacturers' revolutionary product improvements. The place for extra detailing, after all, was in the die work in the first place, where every improvement reached thousands of customers. It was simply not a good use of anyone's time to cut up and reassemble the products of the tooling after the fact, as Zenk was doing. To their credit, the model manufacturers seem to have seen the opportunity Zenk opened up for them and brought out products with better (and better-planned) tooling, multiplying one person's effort and increasing the suppliers' profit. This may ultimately have been a key to Mainline Modeler's demise: it was in many ways a showcase for misdirected effort and an invitation to burnout.
Model Railroading had what might be called a "golden age" in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when it published many innovative articles on contemporary intermodel equipment, not matched by any of the competition. For whatever reason, it fell away from that level of content, though Randy Lee, its Editor, seemed fixated on prototype modeling style articles. The result was content that became boring -- intense detailing of Santa Fe covered hoppers, for instance -- and repetitious, multi-part series on diesel units and containers.
Railmodel Journal, the last one standing of the "others", was similar in that it cast its lot, even more than the other two, with prototype modeler, hard-core operations, and layout design types, a particularly joyless group. Why would people pay good money to buy this pedantic, uninspiring stuff? Especially when, in the case of RMJ, it was so poorly produced, with typos, grammatical bloopers, and out of focus photography?
Neither Hundman, Lee, nor Schleicher was really an editor, someone who could infuse a magazine with an overall balanced vision of the hobby. For that matter, Terry Thompson wasn't much of an editor, and neither is Bill Schaumburg. The hobby hasn't really had a successful editor of a general-interest magazine since Tony Koester at RMC. The interesting question is why the three "others" that went under in 2006 and 2008 lasted as long as they did, and that probably goes to the question of the poor quality of the overall field, where any magazine seems able to survive for decades simply by going through the motions.
These "other" magazines existed for as long as they did, in other words, due to market distortions. The US auto industry was able to survive producing a substandard product in the 1970s due to tariff protection, though eventually the combination of Japanese competition and the buying public's ability to visualize quality and reliability that could exist probably constructed a de facto political situation in which the industry had to sink or swim. Equivalent factors will eventually force themselves on the model railroad hobby magazines.
January 2009 marked the debut of Model Railroad Hobbyist, a "free" quarterly available for download from the publisher's web site. The publisher is Joe Fugate, who has written for the hobby press and has maintained a personal web site and forum. Based on bios with his articles, Fugate is a professional computer programmer, but as far as I can see, he's made a very basic error in system analysis: he's written a computer system that tries to act like the old manual way of doing things.
The Model Railroad Hobbyist web site, for instance, announces that the debut issue is "122 pages". Great! This is the length of a print issue of Railroad Model Craftsman. Why on earth is he using 21st century technology to mimic the old style print magazines? Why have a paper page count at all? On top of that, the file size for the download is 77 megabytes. This is next to impossible to download from dial-up (the practical limit is 5-7 MB for dial up downloads): the subscribers must have high-speed internet connections. It also requires Adobe 9. In general, it's not a good idea for home computer users to upgrade their existing systems with newer versions of such products: it creates too many new variables. And if their systems aren't fairly new, they won't support Adobe 9 at all. In other words, he's aiming at a market of model railroaders who have high-speed internet and the latest and greatest on their home computers. I'm not sure how completely he's thought this one through. I don't get the impression that there's either business or editorial savvy behind this effort.
One of the individuals behind this effort posted in response to comments on the Atlas forum about the dial-up issue:
We're trying to work out ways to make it more usable for the 56k crowd - including links on the MRH website to download handlers that will gracefully handle dropped connections and the like and which will pick up the download where it left off instead of needing to re-download the entire thing.The effort seems to be blithely unconscious that their market is likely not to be so technical that they will find using such "download handlers" easy, nor that the many hours in download time over a dial-up connection would be inconvenient, even if problems like dropped connections can be solved. And upgrading one's computer system and internet connections to accommodate Model Railroad Hobbyist will certainly be much, much more expensive than subscribing to a print magazine. Where's the value? As far as I can see, Fugate and his collaborators are spending quite a bit of money and effort without having given enough thought to basic problems in their business model.
Later, Joe Fugate told me that I could request a postal copy of Model Railroad Hobbyist via CD, for free (I assume this is generally available), to get around the problem with dial up downloads. But we're back to emulating old-time print media, using snail mail: the only difference is that, where I can simply rip open the envelope and read a paper magazine that comes in the mail, I have to take the CD to my computer, physically mount it, and then do the mouse-click thing -- harder, not easier!
Beyond that, there's a very complicated procedure for signing up to download the thing. My own reaction, as well as that of various commenters on Fugate's forum and elsewhere, is that it would be much,. much easier to pay for a conventional print magazine and get it via snail mail, especially since Fugate is trying to publish what is essentially an old-fashioned print magazine in the first place. (By the way, if you tried to print 122 pages out on your home computer, it would likely cost you more in ink than the cover price of an issue of a print magazine.) I had a brief e-mail exchange with Fugate when he started this project, and he indicated he'd pitched the idea to Kalmbach, apparently in hopes that they'd hire him to put out what would essentially be a downloadable MR. Kalmbach didn't buy the idea, and I can see why. They already have a print magazine, and it's a loser. Why duplicate a failing formula on Adobe Acrobat?
A much better approach to on line publishing is Carl Arendt's Micro/Small Layouts site. This is usually updated twice a month; it's dial-up friendly, and it breaks new ground. As opposed to the MR formula of big layouts that requre a dozen operators (and associated politics) with much conspicuous consumption of expensive hobby items, Arendt features projects that can be done inexpensively without an entourage. He has video on his site, and it's colorful and well-designed. This is innovation. Fugate is an imitator. We'll have to see how this pans out, but for starters I don't see that Fugate is bringing anythng to the party that various failed efforts to produce a new hobby magazine haven't tried.
As I've gained more knowledge of the publishing side of the hobby, I've been hearing more dissatisfaction with the job most of the magazines are doing and the way they treat writers. An author of some scores of model railroad magazine articles recently e-mailed me, for instance:
I have no experience with MRG, other than that they lost, literally, the only article I sent them, including the slides. I kid you not. They got it in, acknowledged it was there, then it was gone. Nice. Had no incentive to re-send to them. RMJ screwed up my stuff on such a regular basis that I gave up on them too. No matter what I did, no matter how I spoon fed it to them, they destroyed it.
MR pays on acceptance, a big difference. They send you a contract when they accept the article, then you send it back signed, and they send you a check. So this is before it's even published. In fact, when I was a teenager, they bought an article from me, paid me for it, THEY lost it, and never published it! MR also has a bad reputation for taking an axe to your text, greatly reducing it or even re-writing it, which I can't abide by. MM can be tough at times to get money out of, did a few articles for them for a period.
The magazine editors occupy a position at the top of the social heap in the hobby. They are in demand as speakers at NMRA meetings, and as we've seen, ordinary modelers like Lionel Strang aspire to have them visit their layouts and extend approval. This position provides a considerable measure of prestige and perks, such as expense-paid travel and speakers' honoraria, to the editors. Their ability to decide whether to publish or not a particular hobbyist's articles means they receive considerable deference at their appearances.
This respect doesn't appear to be repaid to the hobby community at large, however. Bill Schaumburg discussed in the June 2003 issue of RMC his habitual lateness at such events: "'Rambling' and I get along together all too well, so much so that 'getting there' means getting there late, often real late. Add to this my known allergy to time and you can figure that I will be one of the desk clerk's 'last ones'. . . . This year I decided to outsmart myself. . . . It worked so well that Dick Flock, one of the meet's organizers, was amazed to se me walk in around 2:00 PM on Friday, only an hour after the first seminars began. . . . (People know they should never schedule me at the beginning of anything)." It's good to see some self-awareness of discourtesy in this passage, and possibly even the start of finding a solution to it, but it also indicates the relative standing in which a magazine editor places himself: lateness is just something people need to put up with where he's concerned, because he, presumably like other editors, can get away with it. And naturally, such cheerful rudeness occurs only if he's the guy on top -- if it were a job interview, he'd no doubt be a trifle early, like anyone else.
Along with the greater criticism of the press that's occurred with the weblog or "blog" movement in society at large, there needs to be increased monitoring and awareness of the ways in which the hobby magazines aren't serving committed hobbyists' needs. And from outright bigotry in editorial content (even if obtuseness is a partial excuse); to simple rudeness and discourtesy in arriving late for meetings or not acknowledging submissions, even with return postage paid; to implicit endorsement of bullying on e-mail lists by unprotesting participation in the list; the hobby editors, like other journalists, appear to place themselves at a level of society that they may not currently deserve, and they damage relationships within the hobby by this thoughtless personal conduct. I suspect that eventually, however, economic reality will call all the editors to some type of account.
MR, like the monopoly urban daily papers, produces a bland, predictable product, irrespective of flaws in execution like space aliens or Mexican banditos on the cover. MR's readers, like the readers of the daily papers, have been abandoning this product. The story of MR's decline, and the potential effect it will have on the other magazines as its status changes, isn't complete. And in a key development since I originally posted this essay, MR announced the retirement of Russ Larson at the end of 2003. I believe Larson would have been 65 in 2008, so the exact reason for the timing is unclear -- though if the turmoil in the last few years at MR is any indication, other developments will follow Larson's retirement. However, MR's position in the hobby, like that of other once-established institutions like the NMRA, seems increasingly less relevant.
In the months following Larson's retirement, Kalmbach's management has apparently become increasingly sensitive to knowledgeable criticism. Paul Schmidt, a former MR Associate Editor, posted the following remarks on the Atlas forum in January 2004:
That deal with e-hobbies was one of the brainstorms of Russ Larson, who frankly gets too much credit for what's been right with MR and not enough blame for what's gone wrong, especially the internal turmoil in the past few years. Oh, the background information I know!
This post was on the Atlas forum, independent of the Kalmbach-run Trains.com forum, and Schmidt was a former, not a current, Kalmbach employee. In a second thread on the Atlas forum, Schmidt detailed Kalmbach's reaction to his Atlas post:, a very high-ranking Kalmbach executive ordered Schmidt's ID on the Kalmbach Trains.com forum deleted. One suspects that if Kalmbach is so hypersensitive to criticism, the "turmoil" Schmidt mentions isn't over.
Erie Lackawanna Historical Society member Jake Jacobs (left) with other ELHS members at Larry's Truck and Electric, September 19, 2003
Railroad technical and historical societies exist to preserve, organize, and interpret the technical records and other heritage of railroad corporations. Most of these corporations no longer exist, and in many cases the technical and historical societies have taken over the corporate archives (or significant parts of them) of those corporations. The exact tasks and functions, however, differ among specific organizations. Some, like the Reading Company Technical and Historical Society, restore, maintain, and operate actual preserved railroad equipment of their subject organization. Others, like the The Santa Fe Railway Historical & Modeling Society, focus more on the model railroad area of interest. The Pennsylvania Railroad Technical & Historical Society, in addition to many other notable preservation efforts, includes many retired employees of the former Pennsylvania Railroad, to the extent that these retirees refer to it as "the old lodge". The earliest of these groups, such as those covering the Nickel Plate, the New Haven, and the Pennsylvania Railroad, were founded in the mid-1960s. They are almost always tax-exempt non-profit corporations.
Although the missions of the particular groups differ in specific areas, typical functions undertaken by nearly all such groups cover activities like operating or maintaining a facility where the corporate records are preserved (or coordinating research efforts with government or university archives that retain the records); publishing a professional-quality journal (often quarterly) containing the results of research on the archives or other material; publishing other research, often in book-length form; assisting or conducting restoration efforts for full-size preserved rail equipment; maintaining a business activity selling models or memorabilia for the subject railroad; answering requests from hobby manufacturers for information to assist in producing models; collecting dues and maintaining membership functions; and running annual meetings.
The most important technical and historical societies predate the "prototype modeler" movement and in part contributed toward its start, though there has always been only a partial overlap between the two. The "prototype modeler" movement has generally resisted formal organization, while the technical and historical societies found themselves increasingly in a trustee relationship with tangible assets of various kinds and saw the need for incorporation and formal organization at an early point. A "prototype modeler" may be interested exclusively in constructing an accurate model, and she may not share the other objectives of a technical and historical group.
While this discussion has focused primarily on model railroad hobby-related institutions, it's plain that the range of railroad technical and historical society activities extends beyond the model railroad hobby into areas like full-size railroad preservation and museum efforts, as well as more purely academic research conducted by Ph.D. economists or historians. The demands for commitment, mature, businesslike conduct, and action directed at furthering a large overall social purpose are much greater on the leadership of such organizations than on the organizers of swap meets or the officers of model railroad clubs or the NMRA.
What's remarkable about these groups is how consistently well, given the greater scope of responsibility they cover, their leadership -- all volunteer -- has responded to this challenge. I've variously joined or let my membership lapse over the years in the Anthracite Railroads Historical Society; the British Columbia Railway Historical Society; the Erie Lackawanna Historical Society; the Great Northern Railway Historical Society; The Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad Historical Society; The Missabe Road Historical Society; The New York, Susquehanna and Western Historical Society; the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society; the Reading Company Technical and Historical Society; and the Three Rivers Narrow Gauge Historical Society. I've attended local or national meetings of several of these groups. I think this has given me a fairly good cross-section of the movement.
Some of the groups have had occasional crises of leadership, though it appears that in every case I observed these were resolved via ordinary parliamentary and procedural expedients, and the overall purposes of the group were never threatened, as I observed, for instance, at the Slim Gauge Guild model railroad club, where ordinary measures couldn't control destructive conduct by members. Some of the organizations have had relatively mild financial crises, but none like what culminated in 2000 at the NMRA, where extravagance in staffing and apparent undisciplined spending required a major dues increase simply to cover the shortfall.
In many cases, I've seen professional individuals of high caliber in fields like accounting or law contribute their efforts at no charge toward securing incorporation, tax-exempt status, or financial analysis of operations. In other cases, individuals with strong skills in editing and publishing produced the journals. In these areas, their opinions were treated with respect and deference, they were allowed and encouraged to function as they needed to within those areas, and as a result the organization enjoyed the successful result of their work. By and large, the organizations have nominated and elected officers of strong personal integrity, tact, and leadership skills -- and the ability to work hard and follow through on important tasks. My impression is that individuals of that caliber would probably be bullied out of most model railroad clubs or NMRA organizations, and the writers and editors involved in the journals would probably become frustrated by trivial job functions and internal politics at the hobby magazines.
The standard of writing and research in the organizations' journals is clearly the highest in the hobby, often reflecting normal scholarly standards in use and analysis of sources and footnoting (it's worth recognizing that there's a large contingent of amateur historians in many fields whose work is at least at a comparable level to professional Ph.D.s). One simply does not encounter "dumbed down" material in these journals. On the other hand, there's a wide variety of subject areas and levels of intellectual challenge in their material, ranging from oral history to original art work to technical and engineering analysis to social history.
While members of technical and historical societies sometimes lament that the manufacturers of new hobby products could have made them more accurate at no additional cost by consulting the relevant groups, the fact is that in many more cases than in the past, the manufacturers do in fact consult the groups for information on paint and details when producing a new model. The presence of the technical and historical societies and their ability to make accurate information available has in fact been a major influence on the revolution in product quality that's taken place since the 1970s.
As social institutions in the hobby, the technical and historical societies most consistently achieve the goal of improving the public perception of the hobby in their areas, although their functions don't have the same visibility as club open houses or the hobby magazines. Major existing rail corporations, concerned about any potential damage to their own public image, nevertheless have entrusted key functions like public document archiving or corporate history to some of these volunteer groups, and apparently feel comfortable in dealing with them. Other corporations or their successors, given numerous alternative places to deposit their archives at the end of their own corporate lives, have chosen these volunteer technical and historical societies as responsible stewards of their heritage.
The New York, Susquehanna, and Western Technical and Historical Society was invited to run Santa Claus special trains in 2002 on New Jersey Transit's Bergen County line using its restored RDC car. The president of the NYS&WT&HS indicated that this was due to the "very good, if not excellent, reputation" the group had with the adults at NJ Transit. This would reflect the carrier's estimation of the group's ability to maintain its equipment in acceptable mechanical condition, as well as its ability to adhere to real-world rules and safety precautions -- and keep in mind that the individuals operating the equipment were non-employees, not subject to the ordinary stringent discipline a carrier would expect to assist in enforcing such rules. This goes well beyond the modular layout show at the mall.
As social institutions in their own right, the most successful of these groups serve as a repository for important aspects of national history in areas like the industrial revolution, social history, the settlement of the continent, the union movement, and economic life. Interestingly, as the scope and responsibility of such groups has increased, the caliber of their leadership has consistently met the challenge. This suggests that we should not be looking toward "dumbing down" any aspects of the hobby, or lowering any expectations of quality in any area, in the interests of its future.
My initial reaction to the start of the World's Greatest Hobby campaign was not to take it seriously, but on reflection, I think that may have been a mistake. A post in a thread on the Atlas forum suggests an overall problem with "[t]he guy in the World's Greatest Hobby Ad clutching his engine to his chest with both hands, portraying a 'mine!, mine! don't touch it!' attitude. This should be a younger person. Why do we always portray the hobbyist as being from the 'older' generation?" I believe other artwork from the same campaign depicts an older gentleman wearing a stereotypical engineer's cap, smoking a pipe. If the object of the campaign is to raise social awareness of the hobby, it seems to be the wrong place to start if ads and artwork internal to the hobby depict its participants as older, eccentric (for instance, with an attitude of childish possessiveness to model trains), and behind the times (smoking a pipe).
In other words, nobody connected with the campaign seems to be giving serious thought to whether the campaign itself is simply perpetuating the stereotypes that people concerned with improving the image of the hobby ought to be seeking to eliminate. Another concern that's surfaced more than once on the Atlas forum is the very poor image that swap meets and train shows present to hobby newcomers. Posts frequently refer to the poor appearance of broken and dirty merchandise, the unreasonable prices, and even the disreputable appearance of the sellers, who frequently are unshaven and wear filthy clothes. It's likely that if a single measure would improve the public image of the hobby, it would be either to eliminate swap meets and train shows as they're now held, or to institute serious reforms that would include reasonable minimum standards for vendor conduct and grooming and display content and appearance. Vendors and displays who don't meet the standards shouldn't be permitted to participate. The problem is that clubs, local and national NMRA organizations, and even Kalmbach Publishing, sponsor and make money from train shows of the sort that now damage the hobby's image. A vendor with several days growth of beard, a torn Budweiser T-shirt, and jeans covered with mud, trying to sell broken Hot Wheels cars in old grocery cartons, is just fine if he can pay the entry fee to the sponsor.
If Kalmbach, itself the originator of the "World's Greatest Hobby" program, is actually part of a big problem facing the hobby, and the NMRA, which "endorses" the program, also sponsors swap meets and train shows that damage our image, we can't expect serious action from some of the hobby's chief institutions. A public campaign demanding accountability on the matter of how the organizations that sponsor and get money from swap meets and train shows that hurt our image is probably in order. A powerful lever may well be the threat of reporting the time and place of all swap meets and train shows to state sales tax authorities.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, two of the companies that had started HO model railroading, Mantua and Varney, as well as another important supplier, Penn Line, appeared to be in serious trouble. No one, to my knowledge, has made a systematic study of the exact business decisions that led them to their position, but it appears that the hobby's population was changing. The first of the baby boom generation was reaching its teenage years, with enough disposable income in allowances and part-time jobs to let them make hobby decisions on their own. The type of expensive scale model railroad products that had satisfied an earlier generation -- made largely of metal with some wood, requiring considerable care and effort in assembly, as well as careful painting and finishing -- was losing its appeal. New products of plastic would require significant new investment in tooling, with uncertain return -- the conventional wisdom was that the younger hobbyists preferred slot cars, not model trains.
When I see survivors of the earlier type of wood and metal scale model products at swap meets, my impression is that almost no one was able to do a good job at assembling that equipment. Nobody had the patience to seal and sand the wood grain; nobody wanted to spend time to let paint and glue dry; nobody had the small-diameter drills needed to install parts like steps and grab irons. The couplers didn't work together. The quality was what it was; people apparently put up with it, but in most cases, thinking back to friends' basements in my boyhood, a model railroad was something to putter with. It must have been very frustrating even for patient adults to achieve anything close to a satisfying finished product that would run reliably. As a hobbyist in my 40s and 50s, like some others, I've enjoyed finding these kits, seeing their potential, and using tools and materials like an airbrush, sanding sealer, CA glue, and modern wheels and couplers to build or "restore" a model to a level few could accomplish when the kits were new.
I don't think -- and this is hindsight speculation on my part -- that Mantua, Varney, and Penn Line ever fully understood the frustration that their earlier generation of wood and metal products engendered, or how they might meet that market opportunity. They apparently recognized that they were going to have to retool for a new line of plastic products, but they didn't have a clear idea of where those products should be in the market. What they didn't understand was the need to provide a level of usefulness and quality that would take the hobby beyond the frustrating wood and metal kits.
Instead, in order to generate what they must have thought would be enough sales to provide a return on the tooling investment, they apparently decided to produce a product that was more toy train than scale model railroad. It was designed to go around very sharp curves, presumably under Christmas trees. It was probably designed to be sold at a price point somewhere below Lionel or American Flyer -- if the buyers wanted quality, they could go upward in that direction. Somehow they thought the low end of the market would save them, and if they thought of the customer who wanted a quality HO scale model, it apparently wasn't for long. The products they did produce didn't run well and didn't have the scale, detailed appearance that I know my friends and I were coming to appreciate.
Varney, Mantua, and Penn Line completely misjudged the market. By the end of the 1960s, they had all left the business, while Athearn, which had chosen its products more carefully and provided better quality, remained. I think Irvin Athearn had a clearer idea of his market at the time, and understood better the role prepainted (but with a prototypical color scheme), easy-to-assemble plastic models at a higher level of quality could play in increasing hobby enjoyment. And in fact, some of the companies that stayed with quality wood and metal kits, like Ulrich and Silver Streak, lasted longer than Varney, Mantua, and Penn Line.
I think that believing the route to economic success in the model railroad hobby lies through cheapening the product, relying on the least informed, least demanding customer, is a bad idea with a long history. Interestingly enough, I think the hobby manufacturers learned the important lesson of not trying to get by with a cheap product in the 1960s and 70s, at a time when some in the hobby publishing industry were saying "we told you so." However, Model Railroader has now been hurting its business with this idea for 25 years.
I think there are several aspects to how social institutions in the hobby that have been dominant, essentially for the entire life of the hobby, have treated the most committed hobbyists. The example of Mantua, Varney, and Penn Line is, I think, pertinent here. These companies essentially betrayed the more committed hobbyists in the lae 1950s and early 1960s by cheapening the product, in essence playing to a group that they felt would be satisfied with the product, and effectively sending the message to the committed hobbyists that they would have to accept the product that was offered. The economic result was clear; we normally assume that markets are efficient, and the market message was sent, such that Mantua, Varney, and Penn Line were forced from the hobby business due to their radical miscalculation.
Model Railroader's product has had a much higher level of respect in the hobby from which to decline, but I think the market message began to be sent almost as soon as Russ Larson began to cheapen the product in the late 1970s. A new magazine began publication almost immediately, aimed at the high-end, committed hobbyists Larson was effectively insulting by publishing the "junk food" authors John Olson and Malcolm Furlow. MR's decline, first relative in terms of market share, and then absolute, has been a response to MR's tendency to disregard and not meet the needs of its high-end readership.
Every once in a while, MR has committed what might be called an "abusive episode" with this readership -- for instance, the Northlandz cover, the designation of Lionel Strang as a columnist following his elaborate homage to Tony Koester in the pages of the magazine, the cover with the space alien, and so forth, including now the return of Malcolm Furlow with a cover stereotyping Mexican-Americans. Each of these episodes has probably served to erode MR's trust among the readership of committed hobbyists. It's hard to find any other explanation for MR's circulation decline in a period of increasing economic prosperity of the 1990s. The idea that young people aren't as interested in the hobby is probably as valid now as it was in the 1960s, when Varney, Mantua, and Penn Line convinced themselves they were losing sales to slot cars.
This has created an environment where other magazines were able to start and, if not thrive, at least survive, primarily by not being MR. They meet a market that MR hasn't covered by treating the high-end readership with minimal respect (though increased effort here would likely pay off handsomely) and providing an advertising forum for high-end products. Their technical execution is generally low, but they survive in part simply by not being MR.
The NMRA has also abused the committed sector of the hobby with a similar series of "abusive episodes", ranging from routine discounting of hobby ability in favor of "good ol' boy" cronyism at the local and regional level, to the financial crisis and the assumption that whatever happened, enough NMRA members would remain and pay a dues increase to support the organization's undisciplined spending.
In the normal democratic political process, there's a fairly rapid "throw the bums out" mechanism that applies. In the case of the NMRA, its officers are insulated from such reactions by its "Politburo election" system of nominating committees and single-cnndidate slates, so that the only effective "vote" is to leave the organization. This has been happening for many years. In the case of MR, the only option is the individual decision not to buy the magazine, which clearly has also been operating for 10 years or more.
In any group, such as the hundreds of thousands of people who apparently participate in the model railroad hobby, there are going to be credulous, uninformed, uncritical, and even timid individuals who will accept discourtesy, low-quality products, or even financial exploitation in the form of opportunities to participate in bubble markets or auction fever. That some of these people may purchase -- as they clearly always have in the hobby -- substandard products and services is not a guarantee that those substandard products and services will survive in the marketplace. This is clearly an error that some current hobby institutions, such as train shows, hobby magazines, and the NMRA now make. The existence of suckers in the world isn't a guarantee of anything except the existence of suckers, and exploiting such people has always been considered something like wickedness.
But beyond the existence of the credulous, the uninformed, the uncritical, and the timid, it's much more interesting to recognize that the competent, the committed, the inspired, the selfless, and the hard-working also exist in the hobby. Clearly when our institutions are most successful, they offer an upward path for high-caliber individuals to work to express their creativity and further the common purpose. One function of bullying in clubs, e-mail lists, and organizations like the NMRA is to drive such individuals out of groups where complacency and fecklessness are the preferred mode. One function of prominent mediocrities in organizations like the NMRA and the pages of hobby magazines is to set a tone that will discourage a higher level of achievement.
After considerable reflection, I think it's the duty of hobbyists who find themselves in organizations that aren't functioning to further a reasonable set of objectives, either for the individual group or the hobby at large, first to speak out, and then (because speaking out is likely not to have an effect in most cases) to withdraw. The presence of a clear racial stereotype on the cover of Model Railroader, for instance, places me in a position where I have to speak out -- which I'm doing here -- but also places a duty on me seriously to consider whether I can justify purchasing the magazine, at least until I'm satisfied that changes are in place that will prevent this happening in the future. This is the same responsibility that applies to individuals in abusive situations, and I've already noted some "abusive" parallels between certain hobby institutions and the committed participants in the hobby.
There is in fact often a cycle of abuse, in which an "abusive episode" takes place, which may constitute anything from extreme violence to drunkenness to verbal put-downs or tardiness, and the abused person is encouraged (and encourages him or herself) to believe the episode is exceptional, the abuser is sorry, it won't be repeated. But if it is repeated, there comes a point where the individual joins the credulous, the uncritical, the uninformed, and the timid. This isn't what we're here for. Our responsibility in these cases is to speak out, to withdraw, to stop paying money for unacceptable products and services, to find places where our talents can realistically be put to good use, and to set examples. These places do exist in the hobby. It's our business to find them or create new ones.
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May 28, 2012