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Meet M.R. Snell: Model railroading is a multi-faceted hobby

By Rene Schweitzer | August 8, 2022

Try it all, have fun, and go with what works for you

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man inside red diesel locomotive cab

Model railroading is a multi-faceted hobby

What was your first train set (or locomotive)?

My first true model train piece was an Athearn Chessie System GP35. Oversized and clunky, that was the acceptable standard back in the early 1980s, much as model railroading then was less about prototype practice and operation than the trains themselves. For good or bad, looking back at that locomotive and style of manufacturing we have entered a new realm of scale fidelity and improved quality while the hobby has become more operation oriented than just “having model trains.”

Describe your model railroading philosophy in 6 words.

Functioning Miniature Transportation System.

As a longtime railfan photographer, I consider my modeling just an extension of my 1:1 scale hobby. I’ve never strived to have a “layout;” instead I’ve always wanted a railroad in miniature. Something that operates as the prototype, where movements occur for a reason and operating rules are followed, an operational railroad just in a smaller format. Thus my “railroad” does just that, following NORAC rules complete with signals, blue flags, Form Ds for MW authority and the like, all the while moving freight within beyond the basement.

two model locomotives in a scene on a model railroad
Conrail freight OIPI (Oak Island-Pittsburgh) passes Columbus Park in the New Market section of Piscataway Township. The lines of trees are prototypical, and they help hide points where tracks penetrate the backdrop. Photo by Lou Sassi

What has been your biggest modeling success?

Modeling Conrail’s Office Car Train (OCS) in conjunction with Wes Reminder. This was a multi-year endeavor that involved using laser cut sides and piecing each car of the train together by converting conventional RTR cars and kits to match the Conrail cars. Not only was this a modeling challenge, it was also a learning experience when doing the research on each car.

weathered yellow model boxcar
M.R. Snell has written many how-to articles that have appeared in Model Railroader’s pages. In the August 2018 issue, he turned a factory-decorated Roundhouse Railbox model into a secondhand CSX boxcar using decal trim film to patchout the reporting marks and number. Photo by M.R. Snell

Find more of the author’s projects in our store:

What was your biggest modeling mistake?

Possibly my biggest modeling mistake was more philosophical than practical, and that is choosing a specific prototype to follow. While this may sound like heresy to those who know me as a die-hard Conrail modeler, the proto-freelance arena offers a lot of options for any modeler. One can run whatever scenic plan they choose using whatever equipment they choose, including those factory decorated for roads that may not otherwise be suitable. Just make them secondhand purchases by the railroad then change the reporting marks and maybe a detail here or there. This can open up endless possibilities for creativity and is perfect for those with restricted time or budgets.

What’s your least favorite modeling task?

The one we never talk about: cleaning. While all the focus is on planning and building, once it is finished it must be maintained and the dirty little secret is cleaning. The more track, the more rail to clean. Meanwhile, more locomotives equal more wheels to polish, and more scenery means more dust to combat!

What project(s) have you been working on recently?

Having a finished and operational railroad, I don’t have a lot of ongoing projects right now other than adding an occasional locomotive and car from time to time. Currently, I spend a lot of time pursuing my 1:1 scale hobby and since I model present day operations, I am culling new project ideas from things I see trackside.

Click here to watch a video of the author’s layout.

diesel train passing by city
Model railroading is a multi-faceted hobby: The author enjoys railroad photography, and his modeling is often inspired by the scenes he photographs. Here, CSX engine no. 400 pulls a train out of Cincinnati, Ohio in 2018. Photo by M.R. Snell

What advice would you give to a new hobbyist?

At the end of the day this is a hobby; there is no right or wrong. This hobby is multi-faceted so try not to get hung up on any single area or project. Try it all, have fun, and go with what works for you. And one more thing – don’t wait for that day “down the road.” It may never come.

man inside red diesel locomotive cab
The author poses from the cab of CP’s no. 8150.

2 thoughts on “Meet M.R. Snell: Model railroading is a multi-faceted hobby

  1. Many years ago, I believe it was Mr. Snell who had an article in MR about using polypropylene pipe to provide gradual elevation changes to roadbed and track. Although it worked well, I don’t think I would use it again. Besides the cost of material, it was time consuming to use this method. I have enjoyed many of his articles in MR although. Thank you

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