Don’t laugh but model railways can learn a lot from Lego. Okay, not about realism or authenticism but about something perhaps more important. I’ll be honest, the genesis of the idea for this article came from another website I frequent bricksmcgee.com by Richard Carter.
We’re alter egos.
While he likes Lego and also trains; I like trains and also Lego. I’m a regular visitor to his site and we occasionally chat on Twitter. If you like Lego too, I recommend dropping by his site.
Anyway, I was recently playing with my Lego Intercity train set and was browsing his site for ideas when I came across his article on what Lego fans can learn from model railways.
Reading this article it dawned on me how fun playing with Lego still is and how the enjoyment of just making and playing with trains occasionally gets lost with model railways.
And let’s face it if we don’t enjoy doing something we’re unlikely to keep doing it for long. Once the fun goes our interest wains. Our hobby becomes a chore, and an expensive one at that.
It’s a short branch line from here to a disused model railway stacked up in the corner of the garage or loft.
Now, this could be attributed to the complexity and cost of model railways. I don’t want to even think how much I’ve spent on my layouts and trains or the complexity that goes into them.
But this applies just as much, more so even, to Lego.
Think a Hornby train is expensive at several hundred pounds?
Take a look on Amazon at this Lego kit. A single Lego building can cost £350 and old Lego sets increase in value to the point where the Telegraph recently reported that Lego was a better investment than Gold.
And Lego sets can easily be as complex as a model railway. Just take a look at these.
So if Lego can be fun while also expensive and complex what is that keeps the fun? What can we learn from Lego to keep our model railways fun?
Here’s what I’ve found from “playing” with both model trains and their Lego equivalent, seeing other non-train people interacting with my trains and sitting with my boys assembling Legos.
Build For Flexibility
Watch a child or adult Lego fan (AFOL) work with Lego, and you’ll quickly notice that nothing stays the same for long. Building commences only for the creation to be disassembled and taken apart to be reformed differently.
I have to confess my railways often suffer a similar fate — I’m always reworking and changing bits of my layouts. And I know I’m not alone in this.
The difference is that with Lego changing things is part of the enjoyment but with model railways, it’s hard work.
My current layout is now being built with future flexibility in mind to allow me to swap out and change things more easily.
Firstly, I’m using multiple baseboards that plug together. If I dislike a particular element I can remove the board containing it and start again just on that section without disrupting the rest of the layout.
Secondly, I no longer glue track down but only pin it. This has actually had another advantage in that it allows the track to flex as the rolling stock runs over it and the trains seem to run better but that’s another post… By doing so I can pull up track more easily. I touched on pin-only track laying a couple of months ago.
Thirdly, Scenery is tough to redo, there’s no short answer but you can make landscapes so they can at least be pulled up more easily.
Rather than building and glueing directly to be baseboard, mount scenery features on separate pieces of plywood that are pinned to the baseboard. If you don’t like a hill, just prize up the board it’s on. You still need to deal with the scenery joins but at least you’re not scraping scatter and polystyrene off the baseboard in the middle of a layout.
The lesson from Lego: The fun of Lego is reinvention and creativity. Build your railway to allow for future flexibility and change, and make it easy to modify.
Marvel At Your Trains
I must admit this is something I wish Hornby etc would do.
Look at Lego. A collection of plastic bricks. Now they’re fun in themselves but they’ve transformed themselves and play by incorporating Hollywood into their models.
From Ghostbusters to Marvel to Star Wars you can get Lego models to match and kids and adults flock to them (I’ve got a large collection of Star Wars and Marvel mini-figures).
It’s been done on a small scale with the Hornby Harry Potter set but there are so many other possibilities where a train set could be based around or feature trains from films. For starters, here’s a list of films set on trains here.
But even if manufacturers don’t do this there’s no reason why modellers can’t do this.
Instead of building a layout based on a Cornish mine setting (erm, looks at self sheepishly) or a Northern train station let’s build them in totally fantasy settings and let the fun begin.
It’s easy to see how a layout based on a blockbuster or sci-fi setting (a steampunk environment could be spectacular) would be hugely interesting to build and operate and would certainly challenge any Lego blockbuster kit for entertainment value.
Laurie Calvert is doing just this with his Cato Pass layout. Watch the video below for inspiration.
Lesson from Lego: Let your imagination run wild. Create fictional fantasy layouts that capture your imagination and have fun.
Make The Basics Simple
Lego is fun because, at a basic level, it’s very simple. Anyone can understand pushing bricks together and building from there. This is something Hornby, Bachmann etc could really learn a lot from but we don’t need to wait for them.
I have a OO layout that’s designed for just playing with. It’s got a lot going on so it doesn’t get dull but it’s also designed with simplicity and reliability in mind so trains can be stuck on tracks and just operated without having to worry about the complexities of switching, power problems and the like.
The lesson from Lego: Lego is simple. Keep the core of your layouts simple. Build for reliability (multiple power feeds etc) and straights near the operator so trains can be plonked on track easily.
Rollable Rolling Stock
Did you know that after your lips your fingertips are the most sensitive part of your body? Humans are designed to pick up, feel and touch. We enjoy feeling things with our fingers and so when we see tiny trains it’s only natural we want to pick them up and examine them in our hands.
Sadly, while Lego bricks are tough and hard-wearing model trains are far more fragile.
This is especially the case with the latest models, with their delicate DCC internals and superfine external detailing just waiting to break, let alone their finger-print sensitive paintwork. They’re just not designed to be handled frequently.
But if like me you keep your expensive trains safely stored away and only use them occasionally this means you drastically reduce the amount of train time you have, lessens the fun and so potentially the future of your hobby.
So along with my latest models, I keep a collection of cheap, secondhand, old Hornby and Graham Farish locos handy just for playing with. These older engines tend to have fewer delicate parts to snap off so making them less prone to breakages and even if the worst does happen it’s not a pocket-pinching disaster if they do get broken.
The Lesson from Lego: Have some old cheap, second-hand, trains for yourself and others to pick up and play with. But just as with Lego bricks don’t step on them 🙂
What have I missed? How do you make your model railways more fun, what could you borrow from Lego?
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Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of modelrailwayengineer.com. He has been building model railways, dioramas, and miniatures for over 20 years. His passion for model making and railways began when he was a child, building his first layout at the age of seven.
Andy’s particular passion is making scenery and structures in 4mm scale, which he sells commercially. He is particularly interested in modelling the railways of South West England during the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, although he also enjoys making sci-fi and fantasy figures and dioramas. His website has won several awards, and he is a member of MERG (Model Railway Electronics Group) and the 009 Society.
When not making models, Andy lives in Surrey with his wife and teenage son. Other interests include history, science fiction, photography, and programming. Read more about Andy.