Prototype and Freelance Model Railroads

When you talk about model railroad layouts, they generally fall into one of two types, the Prototype model railroad and the Freelance model railroad. This decision is going to determine most of what you will, or will not put on your model railroad layout. There are positives and negatives to any choices you make, and your choice of Prototype or Freelance layout is no exception.


Combres & Toltec RRI'm going to tell you that creating a prototype layout is usually done by experienced modelers. That doesn't mean you can't build a prototype layout as a beginner, only that most beginners don't choose this type of layout. The reason for this is that most beginners want as much freedom to play with ideas as they can get, and a Prototype layout doesn't allow for that at all.

The rule of a Prototype style of layout is absolute fidelity to the actual real world railroad. This means that in order to be a Prototype layout, it has to be as close as possible to an exact replica of the prototype railroad as possible, modeling the actual places, times and objects of that railroad.

Modelers who like to just watch trains run, don't usually choose to model a prototype layout. There are some who just really enjoy the challenge of the research and the building of the models, but by and large, it is the modelers who enjoy Operating Sessions, who build Prototype layouts. As with everything else, there are many who enjoy railroad operations, who also build Freelance layouts.

While it's easy to say that there are always absolutes in a particular type or style of model railroading, you almost always find there are exceptions as well.

Generally (but not always) what happens is that a person is bitten by the model railroad bug, and puts a basic oval of track together. That very quickly loses its appeal, and the person starts to look at more complex track arrangements. In years past, this person would go back to the hobby shop, and start looking at publications that would teach the basics of model railroading. These would have been various books and periodicals that had information, ideas or inspiration for building a model railroad.

Today, we have the Internet, and finding out how to build your own model railroad empire has never been easier...or harder. The sheer volume of information available on the Net is both model railroading's biggest advantage, and its biggest problem. There are so many people, on so many channels, talking about so many ways to do the same thing that it can be overwhelming to the Newbie, who is simply looking for the best way to put together track in such a way that it will remain interesting for a while. I say this as one of those people stating how best to build a model railroad. I will also tell you that there is no best way, there is only the best way for you.

Building your first layout is a learning process, no matter how much you read, or how well you prepare. You are going to learn new skills, and most likely, you are going to learn some things about yourself. One of these things you might learn is that you really enjoy the history, or that you love the idea of getting every detail exactly right. If this appeals to you, you might be a Prototype modeler.

I really do get the mindset of the Prototype modeler. It's a challenge to first find the required information about a particular locomotive, or piece of rolling stock, or specific area in a particular year, and then to recreate the exact details to bring that object to life. There is a huge sense of satisfaction when you spend weeks, months, or even years, putting something together, and have it come out exactly like the pictures.

Of course, we can't model the entire railroad, even if we are modeling a small railroad, and we can use the entire basement, it would just be impossible. Even a relatively small railroad like the Denver & Rio Grande Western, would require something like 60 miles of track, to recreate the entire railroad in HO scale. Instead, Prototype modelers will pick a small area of their chosen railroad to model. Some will pick just a single place, and create the most detailed diorama they can make. Others make use of selective compression .

For the Prototype modeler, it's all about the details. There are hundreds, if not thousands of great ready to run (RTR) plastic models available to buy. For the prototype modeler, these just aren't good enough. Even when the manufacturer makes a model of the modeler's railroad, these models just don't have the detail a Prototype modeler is looking for.

So the Prototype modeler may start with one of these RTR models, and modify it to their satisfaction, or many times, in order to get exactly what they need, the Prototype modeler must build it from scratch. Let's face it, it's just not economical for a manufacturer to produce every exact detail for every exact locomotive that was ever run on every railroad. So, they produce a basic model that will have some stand out details for some specific railroads. This is good enough for most modelers, and can be a great starting place for the Prototype modeler.

The Prototype modeler's need for detail has caused some of them to be referred to derogatorily as "Rivet Counters". This has also been used as a playful nickname by some, but it can be hard to put aside your own bias toward having every exact detail as correct as possible. Most who do this, are really trying to be helpful, but they sometimes forget that not everyone wants or needs every detail to be exact. This sometimes causes friction. The biggest thing to remember is, this is a hobby. It's supposed to be fun! Not everyone's idea of fun involves months of research on a specific gondola that ran on a specific railroad for a specific number of years.


Babylon 5 MonorailMany Prototype modelers think of Freelance modeling as the extreme opposite of Prototype modeling, and it can be, but most of the time it is more structured. Originally a Freelancer was a knight who held no fealty to any particular Lord. Their lance was free to fight for whoever was willing to pay the most, or to fight for themselves in competition. Since then, a Freelancer has come to mean someone who gets paid for jobs they do, but isn't an employee of the company they do those jobs for.

In the case of model railroading, a Freelance layout isn't restricted to following any particular real world railroad. Many Prototype modelers started out as Freelance Modelers. While there have been, and still are those completely unrealistic layouts, most are simply layouts that may have some unrealistic elements to them. For example, when we get to looking at the layout I'm planning, you'll see that it has two main industries. One of these, Castle Luna Meadery, is based on the Coors Brewery, in Golden Colorado, near where I live.

If I were doing a Prototype layout, I would have to be modeling either the Burlington Northern, or the BNSF, depending on era, as that is the railroad that servers the Coors Brewery. Now, My dad and step mother worked as programmers for the Rio Grande railroad. I grew up with Black and Aspen Gold running through my veins. The Coors Brewery is a great example of a real world industry, and I'm not going to let something like what railroad serves it, block me from using it as a basis for my layout industry.

The other thing is, I'm not a beer drinker. I prefer wine, and my favorite type of wine is mead. Mead is basically fermented honey, where regular wine is fermented grapes. So, on my layout, I'm going to have a large industry that makes mead, based on a real world example I can go to if I need. By itself, that makes my layout a Freelance layout. Other factors that add to the Freelance aspect are that I'm modeling a railroad that doesn't exist in the real world. Oh, and I also plan to have a Giant Japanese Robot factory on the layout.

Gundam RobotAlong with model railroading, I'm also a science fiction geek. I've enjoyed watching Japanese Anime since the 80's, especially anything to do with Gundam. For those that don't know, a Gundam is a specific type of giant robot that the Japanese came up with for their Anime. They were the original Transformers, except they had human pilots. After building one of the models that has full articulation, it occurred to me that such an industry would be a really neat part of a model railroad layout.

TARDISMost likely, such an industry would be hidden, so it wouldn't be seen at all from the mainline, and since I was planning to model Colorado anyway, I could literally put it under a mountain. Granted, putting super secret military bases under a mountain isn't an original idea, Stargate did it in the 90's, oh, and the US government did it in the 50's (I also live not that far from Cheyenne Mountain). Still, it presents some modeling challenges, and would be a very large industry to model, with some really unique trains to service it. Now if I can just find a spot to place the TARDIS.

These are things I really couldn't do on a Prototype layout. They don't actually exist, and never have. To say that they may someday would still make this a Freelanced layout, since a futuristic layout is by definition Freelance. Even with all the fantastic elements of my layout, I don't really consider it a Freelanced layout. It is instead a third type of layout.


Allen McClelland's V&O RailroadWhen you take the realistic elements of how a real railroad runs, and combine them with fictional locations or railroads, you get the Protolance layout. Protolance is the best of both worlds, you can have as much detail to the locomotives and rolling stock as you're comfortable with, and still create your own railroad.

As I said earlier, if I were building a Prototype layout, I would have to go with BN or BNSF in order to serve the Coors Brewery. Castle Luna Meadery, on the other hand is served by the Rocky Mountain & Great Plains Southern (RM&GPS) railroad. This is a fictional railroad I dreamt up, that uses two real world railroads as its basis. As I said, I grew up with the Rio Grande. I was very sorry to see it go, so in my world, it hasn't.

Instead, the Rio Grande has partnered with the Norfolk Southern, and created a third railroad, the RM&GPS, that runs from the west coast down to the gulf coast. This is a completely made up timeline that allows me to run Rio Grande, Southern Pacific, Norfolk Southern, and my own paint scheme for RM&GPS locomotives on the layout. Like the guys down at Burnham shops, who keep putting Rio Grande locomotive repaints at the end of the line, in my mind the Rio Grande will never die.

I can run with authentic Rio Grande equipment, on scenery that looks like Colorado, through real or made up towns. I can be as realistic as I want, and still include the fantastic elements I desire. What's not to like? Of course, since I'm modeling the western part of the railroad, there will be a lot more Rio Grande locomotives than NS, but all the newer locomotives, like SD70's will be in RM&GPS livery. I can also use the Rio Grande speed lettering.

This is how you design a railroad.

Planning Your Railroad