Sunday, April 06, 2014

Model Railways: A New Level of Total History?

Railway modellers are a strange and varied bunch, ranging from those who find it fun and a form of artistic expression (like me) to those who count every rivet and seem to never find any fun in it at all. The hobby is often branded as pedantic, but what if it was in fact a new horizon for total history?

Total history emerged in the early 20th century as the preferred historical method of the Annales School, a group of French historians who valued detailed analyses of change over time. These accounts often included microscopic detail, most notably seen in Fernand Braudel's multi-volume history of the Mediterranean, which examines everything from politics to crops. The link between total history and model railways may not be immediately apparent, but I think it is worth discussing.

I first thought of this comparison while browsing through back issues of British Railway Modelling at the National Railway Museum the other day. The cover story in the February 2014 issue featured the latest layout from the Luton Model Railway Club, a detailed and accurate representation of the "Great Train Robbery" in O Scale.

In August 1963, a group of robbers tampered with the lineside signalling near Ledmore in Buckinghamshire. With the broken signal showing danger, an approaching Royal Mail Train stopped at Bridego Bridge, where the gang was waiting. Overpowering the crew (some of whom were seriously injured), the gang made off with over £2.6 million (1963 money). The crime was well-planned and included extensive research of railway operations. After the heist, the gang split up, with members scattering around the world. Most famously, Ronnie Biggs eluded British police by hiding in South America until he returned to the UK for medical treatment in 2001. The "Great Train Robbery" shocked Britain, largely because it was an attack on the Royal Mail - a national institution - and because the train crew had been hurt. The gang's years of evading the law afterwards remain raw to this day.

With the 50th anniversary in mind, the Luton Club decided to build a diorama of the scene that was as accurate as possible. Their attention to detail is indeed incredible. For instance, their research showed that the modernization of the West Coast Main Line had seen the up fast line redone with concrete sleepers. On the layout, all the other tracks retain the wooden ones. Similarly, the partially-installed overhead electrification is accurate for August 1963. Virtually every other detail has also been carefully researched to match the night in question. The locomotive emits exhaust in a pattern accurately representing an idling diesel. The road vehicles are correct - down to both Land Rovers having the same registration plates. The Royal Mail coaches are also accurately detailed (including a great deal of interior detail), no mean feat given that the original one carrying the money was destroyed under police guard decades ago. The Robbery has become the stuff of legend and for the Club to spend a great deal of time cutting through the myth to get to the actual events is exemplary.

Is it total history? In a sense yes. The careful attention to detail would have made the Annales School proud. However, this diorama does not show change over time or have an argument. It is instead a carefully-crafted attempt to set the record straight, which is a core principle of the conscientious historian.

Railway modellers are a very picky bunch and tend to be very self-righteous (there is only one right way to do something - and naturally theirs is the right way). However, the level of controversy that this layout has generated is quite surprising. In the March 2014 issue's letters to the editor, one reader described the layout as shameful and tasteless, concluding by announcing that he had cancelled his subscription to the magazine in protest. In April 2014, other letters appeared, supporting this view, advising British Railway Modelling to never feature such layouts again and calling for a boycott of all model railway shows where the layout is on display. It's hard to tell whether this is the majority view or simply a very vocal minority, but is slightly worrying coming from a hobby which is often associated with historical research. Do these views suggest that it is somehow immoral to revisit and analyze past events? Would an accurately researched model of last summer's Lac-M├ęgantic derailment garner similar comments, even if it helped explain what the scene actually looked like? Is every battlefield reconstruction wrong? Does every museum displaying a photograph of a less-than-savoury scene no longer merit our patronage?

Why do people object to this model? I don't believe it glorifies the events and in our 24/7 news culture, surely it is nice to find a carefully-researched account of a crime? I honestly cannot comprehend why anyone would boycott the layout.

For those of you interesting in reading the article and seeing the accompanying photographs, you can purchase a digital back-issue of the February 2014 magazine here.

*I should probably make a distinction (and massive generalization) here between British railway modellers and North American model railroaders. In my experience, the hobby in North America is much more relaxed and more open to multiple ideas. The British fraternity tends to be far more exacting and prickly.