The one unique thing about the model railroading hobby is the many ways one can approach it. Everything from joining a club, filling a full basement with a triple-deck, mushroom plan running full dispatched operations to the prototype's schedule in July of 1969, displaying micro layouts at exhibitions or even virtually modeling via train simulation software are all game. Also, one can chose to go it alone - the proverbial "lone-wolf" modeler - all the way to becoming a social-butterfly at the local NMRA division or aforementioned club meets. Either way, the hobby has something for everyone and everyone's tastes and comfort level.
Of course, when one gets people involved with anything - whether politics, religion, business, hobbies or society at large - lines can get drawn and sides staked. Despite the big-tent that the hobby allows, so-called "experts" have tended to point the masses towards "enlightenment" by advocating one approach or another as the ideal. Whether that's been prototype modeling over freelancing, narrow-gauge versus standard, HO over N, well, you get the idea. An affliction ever since modeling first came into the mainstream during the '30s, you'll find the pontification and associated egos.
The way lately has been simulating full Time Table and Train Order (TT&TO) operations on a basement-sized, single-track, prototype-modeled layout. Before that, CTC (centralized traffic control) via full-sized US&S or GRS model boards, or by way of computer-aided dispatching (CAD) was advocated as model railroading nirvana. In either case, both approaches required a large investment in space, time and dollars to create a stage (railroad) that would support the amount of trains, operators and activity needed to do them justice.
What ended up happening - at a time where the hobby's popular advocates were lamenting the slow decline in the model railroading population - was a combination of events and evolving tastes that led to a "perfect storm" to steer the craft in yet another direction. However, this time rather than being exclusive by the nature of the price of admission a simpler, more-reasoned approach is actually having the opposite effect. Inclusion, affordability, and attainability by the masses, and for the masses. Let's hear it for "power to the people!" - something the average Joe can hope to reach in his spare time.
The convergence of less space, less time, and - in this Great Recession - less discretionary money has started the pull-back from large operating layouts popular during the post-war boom years (i.e. 1950-2007). As the amount of stable, dedicated square-footage for model railroad purposes has declined, so has the will and means to commit to a decade-long (or more) project to build a large, permanent layout. In the past, a fate such as this could cause one to leave the hobby or in the least would lead to a serious downgrade in scope - such as only building a diorama or stand-alone, inanimate models. Either way, it was thought to be a dead-end path - hardly railroading at all.
Lately, an enlightened viewpoint towards constructing smaller, freight-only switching plans has been advocated - Lance Mindheim's blog comes to mind - as a means to build something less expansive, less expensively and in a manner where the modeler avoids being overwhelmed by the project. Yet, despite their reduced scope these small-er plans have the means to become showpieces in their own right, as a modeler can shower much more individual attention within the reduced footprint.
Regarding the question of size, cost and available time, there are those of us out there that have a decent amount of space that could be dedicated to the layout, but either leisure time or money (or sometimes both) are available in lesser quantities. What then, when the size of the train room is our mythical Siren, yet we know in our rational mind it would be foolish to attempt to fill out the space in it's entirety - at least initially. Well, this is where the industrial (park) railroad plan comes into view as a good option for N. American outline enthusiasts of railroading in the present day.
Lance's library of four layout design books (available on Amazon.com - a direct link is provided via his website) - give an excellent introduction on the topic of quickly designing and constructing an industrial switching layout on narrow shelves around the room. The middle of the room (if available) can be used for center peninsula to allow for additional operation, or it can be left untouched should the room be needed for more-general domestic purposes. Either way, using Lance's approach allows for a strong argument to leave the comfortable armchair behind, and get railroading rather easily.
While the aforementioned suite of published guides provide the fundamentals, what about those of us that have been in the hobby quite a while? If you - like me - are enamored by a particular prototype (full-size, 1:1 scale railroads) and who's discriminating palate dictates a more targeted approach towards your subject a bit more research is in order. While perhaps not wanting a traditional tie-for-tie, prototype modeling approach towards a specific line or route, yet you want to know that you "got it right" for when the inevitable know-it-all, nitpicking prototype "expert" shows up at that future open house.
Me, I'm looking at biting off a section of the former Chicago and North Western Railway - a component of the old Overland Route, now owned and operated under the Union Pacific system flag. While closely basing my plan off of a particular granger branch, I am also interested in other prototype locations throughout the Upper Midwest and Northern Plains that share similar characteristics. Best described as prototype-freelancing (fact-ional modeling, per Kalmbach's Iain Rice) I understand this is common-practice in Britain with regards to prototype-centric modeling - to base one's layout off of an amalgamation of prototypical locations and scenery, all done in order to have his cake and eat it too.
The key piece or keystone of this approach is a firm grasp of how the actual railroad company in question would have gone about it in the fictional location, so as to survive not only the scrutiny of knowledgeable visitors but also one's own discerning taste. In the past this would have required a good amount of field research, which could get expensive if significant travel was required, and which could likewise consume a goodly amount of time to assemble and digest the data - armchair or otherwise. Luckily for those of us who have already spent far too many years comfortably ensconced within the abovementioned spot within our library or study, the onward march of technology has made the path much easier today than yesteryear.
Besides Google Earth, Bing map's Bird's-eye view, online photo collections and many other websites too numerous to count there are other non-traditional sources of online information, some of which provided by the industry itself. In the case of my favored prototype, I've happened upon some very interesting (and relevant) civil engineering data over on Union Pacific Railroad's website - the link in question is UPRR's Technical Specifications for Construction of Industrial Tracks for those so inclined. In it is a series of PDF-format engineering drawings for everything from roadway and track construction to signage along the right-of-way - all there for the picking (downloading), and free of charge.
By assembling a good dossier of prototype specifications and drawings, other pertinent railroad paper like rulebooks and employee timetables, maps and aerial views of the line in question one can go about accurately depicting a particular piece of actual railroad, or at least base their fictional line as accurately as possible (now, if there isn't a more-seemingly contradiction in terms, at least outside the hobby). Regardless, the tools are now available to raise the bar yet again - and do it economically to boot. All one needs is the motivation and self-direction to execute, and create a masterpiece as a result.
As I continue to blog whilst building my little piece of the erstwhile North Western in 1:87 scale, look to your prototype in the interim and see if you can't follow a similar way to more-accurate and satisfying modeling. It all starts with Google (or Bing, if that's your choice). You just never know what you might happen across in the public domain.
Happy (model) Railroading!