Realistic Freelancing: Make Your Fictional Railroad Believably Real

Realistic Freelancing: Make Your Fictional Railroad Believably Real

Many model railroaders pick their favorite railroad – the one that ran through their town when they were a kid, or the one they work for or a family member worked for, etc. – and model it. But many more choose to create their own fictional railroad, with lines running through places and towns no real railroad did, and sometimes with completely fictional towns in those places. This is generally known as “freelancing” or “proto-freelancing”.

But if you choose to model a fictional railroad, how can you make it believable? How can you make the model seem like it could be a real railroad? Attention to detail, knowledge of real railroad operations, and patience. It is entirely possible to create a freelanced model railroad that is believable, and do so in a way that some people are shocked to learn there is no prototype. I know model railroaders who aren’t big prototype railfans and who were surprised to learn that Eric Brooman’s Utah Belt and Allen McClelland’s Virginian & Ohio were not actual railroads. The V&O is so popular that it has its own historical society and you can purchase ready-to-run model locomotives in V&O paint. Brooman’s Utah Belt is so popular that people pay as much as $800 for his used locomotives when he sells them on eBay!

Fox Valley Models V&O ES44AC in N Scale

Fox Valley Models V&O ES44AC in N Scale

So how do you make a freelance railroad so real that people will think it is modeled on a real railroad? Here’s some detailed tips!

  1. Base it on a real railroad or two.
  2. Create a believable paint scheme based on prototype schemes.
  3. Pay attention to the type of freight (or passengers) the prototype railroads haul in the region you are setting your layout in.
  4. Maintain realistic operating procedures.
A Utah Belt SD40 that recently sold for over $500 on eBay

A Utah Belt SD40 that recently sold for over $500 on eBay

Base it on a Real Railroad or Two

When creating a freelance, fictional railroad to model, base your fictional railroad on one or two real world railroads. Your freelance railroad will operate in some of the same areas or regions, has similar operating procedures, has similar types of locomotives and rolling stock, and may have a similar paint scheme. For example, the aforementioned Utah Belt was based on a combination of the Southern Pacific and the Denver & Rio Grande Western. While Brooman devised an entirely original gray and yellow paint scheme for his railroad, one can tell by the multiple headlights and the red Gyralight the heavy influence of the SP and D&RGW.

SP style headlights and Gyralight.

SP style headlights and Gyralight.

Create a Believable Paint Scheme

The layout I am planning is my fictional Atlanta, Memphis & Western, which is based on the merger of my original fictional Memphis & Western with my dad’s fictional Atlanta Southern. While I plan for the AMWR to have a brand new look different from its predecessors, both of the fictional railroads it was created from had paint schemes based on other railroads. Dad’s Atlanta Southern was based on both the Central of Georgia Railroad and Southern Railway, and had a paint scheme reminiscent of Southern’s green and gold paint scheme, except dad went with a brighter shade of green. My Memphis & Western was based on the Cotton Belt and the Burlington Route, and had a paint scheme using the same shades of red and white Burlington used, along with the multiple headlights and Gyralights of the SP-owned Cotton Belt.

Atlanta Southern paint scheme, based originally on the Southern Railway green scheme

Atlanta Southern paint scheme, based originally on the Southern Railway green scheme

Pay Attention to the Type of Freight Hauled in Your Region

By paying attention to the type of freight and goods prototype trains move through your region, and having your freelance railroad haul the same types of freight, you can create a more believable freelance. For instance, if you set your model railroad in East Tennessee, you don’t want loaded coal trains moving north, because all coal in the region moved south, from Kentucky to destinations in Georgia, Florida, and Alabama.

When Allen McClelland created the V&O, set in the Appalachian Mountains and based on real railroads ranging from the Chesapeake & Ohio to the Virginian, he knew it would be primarily a coal hauler. He looked at the port destinations of coal leaving the region and found that he could, in fact, have loaded coal trains moving in both directions, because of the location of the mines and the locations of the terminals on the Great Lakes or Atlantic coast. Such research greatly adds to the believability of a freelance model railroad.

Maintain Realistic Operating Procedures

This step ties in with the last one, but goes beyond and can get quite detailed. If you’re modeling the modern day, you will want to make sure to have an idler car on either end of your unit oil tank car trains, which is mandatory on all railroads today. When you build your trains, don’t just put random cars on a train. Instead, develop a switch list, which is the list created by the yardmaster for the switch crew. This list tells the crew what cars will go on the outbound train and what their destinations are. Train cars are assembled in blocks, so that if the train makes a set out itself, it doesn’t have to cut cars more than once or twice.

An A&W switch list created in 1967 based on cars dropped off at an interchange with the GB&W

An A&W switch list created in 1967 based on cars dropped off at an interchange with the GB&W

For example, you want to build a train that will run from Townsville to Burgopolis. The train will stop to set out a few cars at an interchange with another railroad along the way, but is otherwise a through freight. Once at Burgopolis, the train cars will go to a lumber yard, a small coal-fired plant, a sugar refinery, and a grain elevator. Build your train with those ultimate destinations in mind – a block of wood chip cars and centerbeam flatcars for the lumber yard, a block of covered hoppers and tank cars for the sugar refinery, a black of coal hoppers for the energy plant, and a block of covered hoppers for the grain elevator. Put the block of cars for interchange, which could be a mix of different types of cars, at either the beginning or the end of the train to make set out easier.

By following these tips, you can make your fictional railroad believably real. All it takes is a bit of research and a little thought about the fictional history and purpose of your freelance model railroad.

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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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