Prototype vs. Freelance Modeling

Prototype vs. Freelance Modeling

When setting out to build a model railroad, many modelers first decide on what they want to focus on. The American Midwest in the 1950s? Modern Australian ore hauling railroads? Cold War-era Eastern Europe? Modern coal trains in the American West? But other than just an era and a location, most modelers will pick specific railroads to model – Conrail or Santa Fe in the US, Canadian Pacific in Canada, Deutsche Bahn in Germany, and so on. But some modelers will do what is known as “freelance” modeling. Freelance modeling is modeling a fictional railway – one that does not exist and has never existed, but is based on actual contemporary railroads and railroad practices for the time period being represented – or modeling a version of a current or former real railroad that never existed in the manner being modeled.

Now, some modelers actually use three terms – prototype (as explained above), freelance (which is so fictional that it might include things like giant robots or J.R.R Tolkien’s elves and dwarves), and proto-freelancing (which uses my definition of freelancing in the above paragraph). I choose to just go with two terms. For me, freelancing is freelancing, whether it is very authentic in style, or whether it includes a spaceport for spaceships to come and go. So, prototype vs. freelance modeling, let’s talk about some specifics.

Prototype Modeling

While exact numbers are not known, it may be safe to say that the vast majority of model railroaders are prototype modelers. They pick a railroad they work or worked for, or that ran through their hometown as a child, or that runs through their current town and they model it. Prototype modeling is easy – every major manufacturer of model train engines and cars makes them for various prototype railroads. And even then, it’s easy to paint such items to match prototypical railroads.

There’s no shortage of what to model when it comes to prototype modeling. Just about any model diesel, electric, or steam locomotive from any era is available commercially, and if it’s not, they are often easy to kitbash, or build from scratch (we’ll do a future piece on kitbashing). You can run BNSF SD70Aces and UP GEVOs on a modern layout depicting the Powder River Basin or N&W Alcos and EMDs on a layout set in the 1960s in Virginia.

Some modelers like to run historic locomotives with modern power, and even if the layout otherwise depicts realistic towns, settings, operations and railroads, running types of power together that wouldn’t have ever met is beginning to border on freelancing. And there is nothing wrong with that. The point of building a model train layout is to run the trains that make us happy, so by all means run your Alco PAs side-by-side with SD70M-2s if that’s what makes you happy. Don’t let anyone else tell you how you should model!

Prototype Modeling Examples

There are a number of wonderful prototype model railroads out there. A look at any model railroad magazine or Google search will reveal dozens, maybe hundreds. Here are videos of three stand out prototype model railroads.

Dan Lang’s Boston & Maine is a good example of a prototype model railroad, modeling the Boston & Maine and its connections. The layout is set up so that Dan can run different eras and at the end of the video you can see display cases where he keeps a lot of his power when not in use.


Tim Dickinson’s Burlington Northern is another fine example of a prototype model railroad. Tim models the Burlington Northern circa 1976, and he runs power that was common on the BN in and around that year.


Ed Loizeaux’s New York Central is a beautiful example of an S scale prototype model railroad, modeling the New York Central along the Hudson River during the time of Ed’s youth.


Freelance Modeling

Freelance, or proto-freelance modeling shares most of the same principles of prototype modeling. It depicts specific eras, specific regions, and often real cities and towns (though sometimes fictionalized versions of those towns). Freelance modeling tries to stick as accurately as possible to realistic operations, making their model railroad a true “what if” or “could have been”.

With freelance model railroading, there are often two routes that someone can take: modeling a completely fictional railroad that is based (heavily or loosely) on actual railroads. An example of this would be my father’s Atlanta Southern (based on the actual Central of Georgia Railroad and the Georgia Railroad, with a dash of the Southern Railway and Louisville and Nashville thrown in) or my Memphis and Western (based on the actual Chicago, Burlington and Quincey and the Cotton Belt, with a dash of Santa Fe thrown in). In our fictional histories, our railroads ran alongside and competed with or sometimes cooperated with real world railroads like the L&N, Southern, Kansas City Southern, and so on.

Another way of freelancing that has become more popular in recent years is to model modern versions of railroads that no longer exist. The basic premise could be, “what if the Burlington Northern did not merge with Santa Fe and stayed independent?” or “what if the Chessie System was still around?”

Some model trains manufacturers have even jumped onboard and are producing modern locomotives in authentic or updated “heritage” paint schemes. You could model this sort of freelance project with very little or no effort in painting/repainting locomotives.

Lionel’s fictional Burlington Northern paint on a modern EMD SD70ACe

Intermountain’s fictional C&O Chessie paint on a modern GE ES44AC

When it comes to freelanced model railroad layouts, there are several famous layouts that have had numerous articles in various model railroad publications and even entire books written about them. Here are three videos of three of the most famous among them.

Allen McClelland’s Virginian and Ohio is probably the single most famous freelance model railroad. The sheer number of articles and books about the railroad is astounding. Model railroad manufacturers have even licensed the V&O likeness and produced engines and cars for sale, in V&O paint and lettering. The V&O was originally started in 1962 and set in the 1950s. Over time, McClelland updated the layout to various time periods – the 60s, 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. Sadly, the V&O is no more, and video footage of any of its eras is hard to come by. Here is one of the few V&O videos on YouTube.


If you want to include a V&O diesel engine on your layout – maybe it’s on loan or lease, or it’s on a run through train – or a few train cars, they are available, like this V&O ES44AC from Intermountain.

Intermountain V&O GE ES44AC

Eric Brooman’s Utah Belt is almost as famous as the Virginian and Ohio. Like with the V&O, there has been numerous articles and a few books about the Utah Belt. Also similar to the V&O, Eric updates his railroad frequently to keep up with modern times. When he does update, he often sells his old engines and cars to fund the purchase of new (much like a real railroad does). While there is nothing listed now, watch Eric’s Ebay page for the occasional item for sale. Video footage of Eric’s actual layout is rare on YouTube, there is a nice short video of a Utah Belt SD45 on a different model railroad.


Eric occasional opens his layout to tours, such as he did in 2014 when Mike Sosalla snapped a number of great photos of the Utah Belt layout.

Model Railroader magazine’s club layout Milwaukee, Racine & Troy is another famous freelance model railroad. The layout was started in the 1970s then was built anew after Kalmbach publishing moved their headquarters building. Like the Utah Belt and the V&O, the MR&T would update its time period and rolling stock over the years. Most video of the model railroad are for Model Railroader subscribers only, but there are a few on YouTube, including this one:


And should you desire, you can include MR&T equipment on your own model railroad, like this four-axle GE produced by Atlas.

MR&T GE B40-8W

Before closing out, I’ll leave you with a link to one last freelance model railroad, and this one is about as freelance as you can get! Brother Elias Thienpont, a monk at Assumption Abbey in Richardton, North Dakota, has built a model railroad layout at the abbey, which is set in the fictional world of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. It is a future look at the land of hobbits and dwarves and how they eventually developed a railroad system called the Eregion Railroad.

Final Thoughts

Whether you choose to do solely prototype modeling or freelance and create your own railroad, the point is to have fun. I have run across a few nay-sayers in my time that are very much against freelancing model railroads. Don’t let them stop you if that’s what you want to do.

Model the modern Union Pacific in Wyoming, the French Riviera line in the 1960s, or Australian ore hauler BHP if your preference leans towards prototype modeling. Model a railroad of your own creation or a modern version of the L&N Railroad if freelancing is what draws you. Or set your railroad in Middle-Earth or some other fictional world if that’s your interest.

When it comes to prototype vs. freelance, there is no “better” or “best”, there is only what you prefer and where your heart and imagination lie.

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Robert Thomson

Robert W. Thomson is a life-long railfan, the son of a former L&N Railroad B&B gang foreman, and an amateur photographer. He was born and raised in southeast Tennessee but now lives in Butte, Montana with his wife, Connie and cat, Charlie. Robert has worked as a park ranger, underground mine tour guide, freelance roleplaying game writer, and ran his own roleplaying game publishing company until selling it in 2012.

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About The Author

Robert Thomson

Robert W. Thomson is a life-long railfan, the son of a former L&N Railroad B&B gang foreman, and an amateur photographer. He was born and raised in southeast Tennessee but now lives in Butte, Montana with his wife, Connie and cat, Charlie. Robert has worked as a park ranger, underground mine tour guide, freelance roleplaying game writer, and ran his own roleplaying game publishing company until selling it in 2012.