Your Model Railroad Era

Your model railroad era is the point at which you are trying to model. Just as the location pinpoints the geographic placement of the model railroad, the Era pinpoints the location in time that it operates. This is the when of your model railroad.

This is the third of the big three questions that you need to answer. When is your model railroad located? As I stated in What does your model railroad haul, and Model Railroad Location, this one question is going to have a huge impact on the type of model railroad you end up building.

At its broadest, there are three commonly recognized railroad eras that people model. First is the Steam Era, which is the entire history of railroads up to the 1940's. Next comes the Transition Era, which is a 20 - 30 year span from the 1940's through the 1950's where the last steam locomotives ran, and the first generation of diesels took over. Last, there is the Modern Era, which is everything from the 1960's to present.

Steam Era Railroading

The Steam Era consists of any steam powered locomotive that pulled freight or passengers. It is a long history running from 1804, and the first full-scale railway locomotive built by Richard Trevithick in the UK, to the massive 6000 horse power articulated Locomotive called the Big Boy, built for the Union Pacific in 1941. It wouldn't be until the next century that a diesel locomotive could match its horse power.

Steam Era LocomotiveEveryone loves a steam locomotive, with their wheezing and chugging, they seem to be living beasts. There probably isn't a model railroader who doesn't want to own at least one steam locomotive model, even if they aren't modeling the correct era. There is a romance of a long gone time, when you model the Steam Era.

The Steam Era is about way freights, and milk trains, icing Refers, and cattle cars. It's about modeling a time when life seemed simpler, and less stressful. Urban sprawl was far in the future, most of the US was little touched countryside, with small towns connected by rails of iron or steel.

On the other hand, operations in the Steam Era is much more complex than the Modern Era, for either the prototype or the modeler. The prototype steam locomotive required an army of people to keep it running. If it spent the night in a place, someone had to keep the fire going because it took hours to bring up to operating temperature.

There were no radios. For the Dispatcher to communicate with the Fireman and Engineer, you either had to stop the train, or figure out a way to get written orders up to the crew as the locomotive passed. If you were running the train, you had to keep your eyes on the rails for any signs of a train in front of you. If you saw one, hopefully it was going the same direction as you.

Transition Era Railroading

The Transition Era is a gray area covering the last of the steam locomotives in regular service, to the point where diesel locomotives took over. There really isn't any way to pinpoint an exact year for the start or end of the era, it's very much up to the individual to determine that for themselves.

F7 Santa Fe LocomotivesTransition Era is by far the shortest in span of years. That means a much smaller pool of locomotives and rolling stock to choose from, for modeling purposes. That can be a good thing, in that you'll have a much narrower focus as a Transition Era modeler.

One thing that can be said for the Transition Era, is that it was a time of change, and the changes came fast. The beginning of the era was very much like the Steam Era. The same types of trains ran as before, just with shiny new locomotives at the head. By the end of the era, there were no more milk trains, iced Refers were being replaced by refrigerated units, and the train crew could call into the Dispatcher, to get orders and warnings.

Many who model the Transition Era have childhood memories (or perhaps adult memories) of the times. Unlike the Steam Era, they can remember details of what it was like to live then, and those details are added to the feel of the layout. A time is always easier to model if you have direct memories of that time and place.

This era also allows you to have both diesel and steam locomotives, which is one reason why it is so popular. If Steam Era modelers want to model a simpler time, Transition Era modelers are wanting to model the complexities of an economic boom.

Even though the biggest diesel locomotive only had 1500HP, you could couple several together and run them as a single unit. These Multiple Unit (MU) consists meant that four diesel locomotives MU'd together matched the horse power of the biggest steam locomotives, and it only took one crew to run it.

There was less passenger traffic, but more freight to haul. Passenger trains tended to have names, like the Zephyr, or The Super Chief. The Vista Dome passenger car let you ride through the canyons of the Rockies with nothing to obstruct your view but glass.

This was a time when anything seemed possible.

Modern Era Railroading

The Modern Era of railroading starts with the second generation diesel locomotives, and runs up to today. It is currently the second longest era of railroading. At least for another century.

Modern Era Unit Coal TrainIf you want to see Modern Era railroading, look out your door. Watch as a train stops you at the railroad crossing. Look around you any time you're near a set of tracks. In many ways this is the easiest era to research because the research is all around you.

Many Modern Era modelers like to model the 60's or 70's. It's the time of their youth, and freight trains had a large variety of cars they pulled. In the 21st century, through freights tend to be unit trains, hauling a hundred or more of the same type of car. Tank trains, coal trains, container trains, even grain trains.

If anything, with fuel shortages and pollution regulations, the one thing the Modern Era is about, is efficiency. Fuel efficient locomotives, getting each car from origin to destination with as few moves possible, hauling the most for the least.

Still, the local freight will have a larger variation of cars. Not every industry served by the local yard, will have the same cargo. So even in todays world of Unit Trains, you can still spot and pull a lot of different cars. Though I have to admit, there is something about watching a model train with a drag of 50 coal cars go by.

With todays technology in the model railroad, you can actually run a full sized Unit Train (assuming you have the room for one) exactly like the prototype. With DCC, you can have 8 or 10 locomotives at the head, middle and end, all powered, and all working together.

While today's locomotives don't seem to breath like the steam engines of yesterday, they are absolutely massive, and you can't help but get excited when you feel the rumble of the Prime Mover in your chest.

Choose Your Time (Wisely)

The three Era's that I've outlined here, are simply guidelines. They are to give you ideas. It really comes down to what you want. What is it about railroads that thrills you? Use that as a guide to when your model railroad should be.

Most Model Railroaders use a span of years to describe their era. Joe Fugate, editor of Model Railroad Hobbyist magazine, is perpetually stuck in the 1980's. In 2012, he models 1982. As the calendar switches to 2013, he moves to 1983. When 2019 becomes 2020, he will move back from 1989, to 1980 again.

Others simply say they are modeling the 1950's. Still others will claim a single year that they model. The fanatics (and I mean that in the dictionary definition form) will model a single season of a single year.

When you model is completely up to you, but it is important that you have a clear timeframe in mind, if you want to build a realistic model.

Planning Your Railroad

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