Robert Thomson: New Guy on the Block

Hello everyone, my name is Robert Thomson and I am the new Chief Content Officer for Model Trains for Beginners. Some of you may have exchanged emails with me, seen a couple of my blog posts, or seen me on the Facebook group, and you might be wondering, “who is this guy?” Well, let me tell you a little about myself!

While my current modeling is limited in scope because of space constraints, I remain active in the hobby and I’m currently working on my plans for a new shelf layout based on the Montana Rail Link. I also have boxes and tubs of HO scale cars, engines, buildings, scenery, and so on in my storage unit, some of which date back to the late 1960s and early 1970s. Hopefully soon I will be able to pull it all out of storage and begin building my ultimate dream layout, modeling the fictional Atlanta, Memphis & Western Railway (AMWR reporting marks).

I grew up with railroads. My dad, Jay, worked for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad on a bridge and building maintenance of way gang based out of Etowah, Tennessee, my hometown. Dad was frequently sent to the far reaches of the L&N network, working anywhere between Hazard, Kentucky and Atlanta, Georgia. During the summers, when school was out, mom and I would frequently go with dad when he was working far enough away that he couldn’t come home each night. More than a few times I got to sleep in a camp car spotted on a stub siding or rip track.

In addition to working for the railroad, dad was also a railfan. He kept his cameras with him at all times, even on the job, and took thousands of photos of trains over the years. On his day’s off, when he went railfanning I almost always went with him, sometimes with mom along, sometimes just me and dad. In the shot below, taken just a few days past my 7th birthday, mom and I are watching an L&N coal train roll by and I’m waving to the crew.

Robert waving to an L&N train crewPhoto by Jay T. Thomson; courtesy of the Robert W. Thomson collection

Today, dad has already given me his entire collection of slides and prints he took himself, bought or traded from others, or received as gifts. I am slowly digitizing them and posting them to Flickr as I go (along with my own train photos), but there are so many it will be years before I am done and I’ve been working on the project in my spare time for several years already.

Dad also had plans to build his own model railroad, the fictional Atlanta Southern Railway. He collected a number of cars and engines over the years, painted some himself and had others painted for him. But, he never got around to building it and a few years ago he gave me all of his stuff, which accompanies much of mine in storage. Several years ago, I digitally colored a drawing of an EMD SD24 in a paint scheme I devised based off of the one dad had envisioned for the Atlanta Southern.

ASouSD241960sPaintOriginal drawing by Michael Eby; colored by Robert Thomson

When I was in my early teens, I conceived my own fictional railroad, which I called the Memphis & Western Railroad. In my plans, my railroad met and interchanged with dad’s in Nashville, Tennessee. As I grew older and as real world railroads merged with one another over and over, I eventually conceived that sometime in the late 1990s the Atlanta Southern and the Memphis & Western merged to form the Atlanta, Memphis & Western. This way, when I build my ultimate dream layout I can honor dad’s legacy and my own vision as well. I am hopeful that I will soon be able to build this dream layout, which will cover just a small portion of what I envision is a large Class I operation, as shown in the route map I made several years ago. The map also shows a fictional Midwestern regional railroad called the Badlands & Missouri Valley Eastern that is a wholly owned, independently operated subsidiary of the AMWR and if I have a large enough space, I intend to model a portion of it, too.


Right now, as I wait for the combination of time, space, and money to collide so that I can build that layout, I content myself with smaller modeling operations and with digital railroading via the Train Simulator game from Dovetail Games. It’s not the same as modeling, no, but I’ve found it’s a very good companion to modeling, and my father has found it a great placeholder or replacement for modeling (he’s logged more hours on it than I have!). It gives me the ability to run different trains of different eras on several routes, which in a way makes it more versatile than an actual model railroad. It’s also a fantastic source for realistic operational methods that can be easily translated to a model railroad. In this screenshot, I’m running a Utah Railroad coal train on the Soldier Summit route in Utah, using a mixture of historical Utah Railroad and fictional Utah Belt power.

Utah Railroad Coal Train on Soldier Summit in Train Simulator

My love of and interest in trains is very well known among my circle of friends, including one of my associates here at MTFB. So, when I went to visit him in Las Vegas in February for a 3-day MTFB planning session, he surprised me with a visit to the Nevada Southern Railway and Nevada State Railroad Museum in Boulder City, Nevada. There, I got to participate in the museum’s “Engineer for an Hour” program. When we arrived at the museum I thought we were just going to get a private tour or something similar and was really surprised to learn what we were actually doing.

For my engine, the museum had selected Nevada Southern NW2 #1000, which is a very historic unit. The engine was a demonstrator unit built in 1939, serving in this capacity on the Union Pacific Railroad for six months before the UP, happy with the unit’s productivity, purchased it outright and numbered it the 1000. It is the first diesel/electric locomotive ever purchased by the Union Pacific.

NSRX NW2 1000Photo by Robert W. Thomson

Over the next hour, under the supervision of a retired brakeman and retired engineer (“the Two Johns” as we called them, as they were both named John), I got to run #1000 down a 4-mile stretch of the Boulder City branch and back again, twice. It was a complete thrill to be at the throttle of such a historic train engine.

Robert Thomson at the controls of NSRX 1000Photo by David M. Kane

Afterwards, the Two Johns posed for a photo with me and then I was presented with a nice certificate memorializing my time as an “Engineer for an Hour”. It is certainly an experience I won’t forget any time soon.

Robert Thomson & "the Two Johns"Photo by David M. Kane

If you find yourself in the Las Vegas-Henderson-Boulder City area and have the time, I strongly encourage you to visit the museum. They have a nice collection of very well maintained rolling stock, steam engines, and diesel/electrics there, plus one of the old passenger cars is actually home to not one, but two model railroads. Their HO scale model railroad is still under constructions but is operational while their O scale layout is complete (but under constant revision, I’m told). Even though the time we were there was not normal hours for the model railroad, they were kind enough to open it up and let us take a look at everything.

Nevada State Railroad Museum HO Scale layoutNevada State Railroad Museum O Scale layoutHO Scale (top) and O Scale (bottom); Photos by David M. Kane

Just as I drove the #1000, just as I drive trains in the simulator, and just as I drive my HO scale model trains, I hope to drive the content of Model Trains for Beginners and to take it to new and better heights. The plan is to bring you more regular blog posts (weekly at a minimum), monthly PDF e-books in the member’s only section, and regular contact on Facebook, Twitter, and the MTFB forums. We also plan to introduce audio interviews with experts in the model railroad world. Not a true podcast – though that idea has been tossed around – just audio interviews on a monthly basis.

So now I hope you know me a little better. Hopefully you’ll come to know me more in the coming years as I answer your emails, Facebook comments, tweets, and website forum posts. I’m very excited at the direction we are planning with Model Trains for Beginners and all of the new projects we have in the pipeline, and I know that you will be as well.

Happy railroading!



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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.