Which Model Railroad Era is Right for You?

Model railroading is a fun, fascinating and diverse hobby. When planning your layout, you’ll make many choices. One of the first is which era to model. Two popular choices are the Transition Era and the Modern Era. Here is a brief look at each.

What is the Transition Era?

The Transition Era is roughly defined as the period from 1946 to 1960. These are the years when American (and Canadian) railroads completed the transition from steam to Diesel locomotives.

You will find plenty of products to fit this era, and if you love history this may be the era you decide to go with. In fact, visiting antique shops and seeking out 1940s or 1950s memorabilia to enhance your model railroad experience is a lot of fun, too.

What is the Modern Era?

The Modern Era is generally considered anything from 1980 to the present. (An additional sub-category commonly referred to as “Contemporary”, covers the period from 2000 up to the present.) There is plenty of space here for exploring and having fun and, like the Transition Era, there are many products available in all the popular scales. One thing to consider is whether or not you want to focus on a more specific time period or theme, and how important being current is to you.

One word of note: As you conduct your online research, approach your sources with caution. Ensure you can trust what is posted, and remember that web pages and websites are taken down frequently. Thus, you may want to print out copies of especially valuable information.

The Popularity of the Transition Era

The Transition Era is still the most popular era in model railroading for a number of reasons, including:

  • Childhood memories for a large segment of the population
  • Variety of steam and Diesel locomotives in service side-by-side
  • Family intergenerational bonding experiences
  • Beautiful intercity passenger trains owned & operated by the private railroads
  • Changing infrastructure, affording many options with buildings, industries and railroad operating practices

The Transition Era is an opportunity for you to slip back into time, to live in another world and experience how people and goods were transported over a half-century ago.

The Allure of the Modern Era

The Modern Era has a lot going for it, too. For one thing, you can experience it “real time” by stepping outside and walking through your town or city for first-hand research. In fact, there are even train cams set up in various locations that allow you to view the action in real time. That makes it easy to recreate your environment in miniature.

You can also add a touch of nostalgia here and there on your modern model railroad. For example, there are a few railroads that still operate locomotives built in the 1950s and 1960s by ALCO (the American Locomotive Company). In addition, there are special excursion and museum trains operated with vintage freight and passenger cars (and even steam locomotives).

If you’re short on space, a layout set in the Modern Era may be your best bet, because you can model one of the many short line railroads that have sprung up over the last twenty years, or so. Even a small switching layout built on a shelf can be a lot of fun. Prefer the newest and sleekest? Your options could include high-speed rail, light rail, or even monorail.

The ease of conducting research has definitely made Modern Era modeling accessible. You can find information on today’s railroads, trains and routes all over the world and build a realistic and enjoyable layout.

Unlimited Opportunities

No matter what era or setting you choose to model, there are unlimited opportunities to build a realistic and enjoyable layout. Information is more accessible than ever before, and the quantitiy and quality of available products has never been better.



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