I love modular railroading. I hate it, too.


This week I’m recuperating from the Syracuse Train Fair, which is the biggest show in our end of New York State. Our club always participates in a large, modular N scale layout. For the past four years, we’ve built T-Trak layouts with two other clubs. The intensity of this event serves to reminds me of everything I love, and hate, about modular railroading.

Our layout this year filled 12 folding tables. Its outer loop was about 150 feet long, or 4.5 scale miles, and powered with Digital Command Control. There were also three shorter loops running on straight DC. Setup began Friday afternoon, finished early Saturday, and operation proceeded until the show’s close late Sunday afternoon.

What I Love

It’s my chance to run long trains.

My “big layout,” the Gopher Valley Central, is capable of running a 30-car train, so long as you don’t mind seeing the caboose running alongside the locomotives. Realistically, five cars are about the limit. Without a Basement Empire, modular railroading is my only chance to put together a realistic-length mainline train, and see it all stretched out against the countryside. Yeah, I’m still running in circles, but they’re really big circles.

I can share my hobby.

Take modules to a show. Meet other people with modules. Combine modules into a layout. Run trains, in front of an audience. Answer questions. Share ideas. I’m still surprised at how much I enjoy doing this.

Modules lower the barrier to entry in the hobby.

At shows, and in online discussion groups, I hear this all the time: “I’d love to get into model railroading, but I don’t have the space.” What they mean is they don’t have the space for a Basement Empire, and they don’t realize that there are alternative ways to participate in the hobby. A T-Trak module is so small and simple, even people who think that they can’t do it, start thinking they can.

What I Hate

The simplistic geometry.

With most modular standards, you get straight modules, and 90° corners, and not much else. This results in a severely geometric look that is not at all reflective of real-world railroad geography. In youth, I spent many hours observing the Erie’s Chicago main line from my school-bus window, as it snaked its way through the valleys. (There are modular standards, such as Free-mo, that are capable of more realistic geography, but they seem to have a limited following, at least around here.)

That crazy-quilt look.

I build modules with clear-finished oak fascias. I have a certain mix of ground cover that I use. The module next to mine has brown-painted fascias, a totally different shade of green on the ground, and a jet-black highway that stops dead at the border. The next module beyond that is built foam-on-a-slab style, with speckled-gray rock cliffs where the fascia would be, and a brownish desert scrub on the ground. I wish it were possible for a modular layout to have the kind of unified, cohesive look that a good Basement Empire has, but who’s going to set—and enforce—an aesthetic standard? And who’s going to tolerate it when the Scenery Police crack down on their creative expression?

Being at the mercy of the worst module in the layout.

I can expend all kinds of effort in making my own modules trouble-free, but my train is still going to break in two at that lumpy one down the line. Supposedly, there are mechanical standards that must be met. The Ntrak handbook devotes several pages to module inspection. In practice, club leaders are loathe to kick out bad modules, lest they alienate the membership. (A former leader of my club once confessed to me that he surreptitiously relaid bad track on somebody else’s Ntrak module. Having run trains over that same module myself, I can only imagine what it must have been like before he did the work.)

I do have a coping strategy for bad modules. I run my most fault-tolerant rolling stock. My Life-Like C-Liners, with a quantity of Micro-Trains-equipped, properly weighted, 40- and 50-foot freight cars in tow, make for a pretty reliable train. Any car that derails or uncouples more than twice gets examined, and either fixed on the spot, or returned to the box. Only if I’m confident that trains are running well do I get out the more finicky stuff, like my 44-tonner, or my modest passenger fleet.

Also being at the mercy of the worst operator on the layout.

Once upon a time, trains ran on DC current. A loop of track had one train on it. If you wanted to run a second train, maybe you divided the loop into blocks, but more likely, you just added another loop. In most situations, a train had a loop all to itself, and therefore so did you. Digital Command Control changed all that. Our practice these days is to power the outer loop with DCC, and run several trains simultaneously. This opens up new opportunities for mayhem. If you’re sharing the line with somebody with bad couplers, or attention-deficit issues, it gets frustrating in a hurry. (One operator at Syracuse was, by my count, responsible for three turnouts left improperly aligned, two rear-end collisions, a derailment that fouled both mains, and several nearby standing cars knocked over while rerailing. As a club officer, it was my duty to discreetly foil a murder plot during teardown Sunday evening.)

The caboose chasing.

Conventional wisdom says that train-show audiences want to see trains in motion, period. They’re not interested in switching moves, or dispatching, or anything that involves stopping the train. Even if they wanted to see something more sophisticated, operator attention spans are typically stretched too thin to permit much of it. So we just let ’em run. Like I said above, it’s a really big circle. Many experienced modellers have drifted away from modular railroading for just this reason—it gets boring after a while.

Why I Persist

Once everything was connected, levelled, and tested, we ran trains, and for the most part, they kept running. I had to banish some troublesome rolling stock, and make some adjustments here and there to modules. I ran my Broadway Limited set for just two laps (the passenger cars were fine, but the lead truck on the GG-1 had some trouble). Spectators enjoyed themselves. Those of us in the operating pit swapped tips, shared horror stories, and compared show deals. We had fun. The next layout will be better.