Modeling After History: Guide To Building Your Model Railway Based On History


With nearly 200 years of history from which to seek inspiration, it can be challenging to know where to start when modeling historic railroads.

While many model railroaders love modeling a specific era, going even further and modeling a particular railroad is also hugely popular. This is driven by two things: model railroaders with a considerable passion for the history of American railroads and the sheer volume of trains and buildings available that make modeling a specific railroad in detail relatively easy.

But which railroads should you model, and what features should you try to include?

Here’s a look at four of our favorites when it comes to modeling after history.

New York Central Railroad

While the New York Central Railroad doesn’t exist by name today, most of its old network remains in use within local and national railroad networks. In addition, Grand Central Terminal, perhaps the most iconic building associated with rail travel on the planet, remains a jewel in the crown of what NYC achieved at the height of its success.

Black and white photo of the historic New York Central Railroad

The beauty – or challenge! – of modeling the NYC railroad, and indeed many railroads, is that its period of success stretched over such a long period that you have a choice between steam and diesel era locomotives and carriages.

If you’re going to build your layout around a replica of New York City itself, maybe start with what era of the city you want to model and then choose your trains from there! Of course, if you do that, then building your own version of Grand Central is a must!

Here is a look at all of our New York Central Railroad model trains.

If you’re looking to incorporate a specific era within your NYC modeling, remember that it merged with the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1968, becoming Penn Central. So why not add some Penn Central locomotives and carriages to your layout to create an authentic crossover feel within your scene?

Santa Fe Railroad

Perhaps the most exciting thing about the Santa Fe Railroad is that it’s still in operation today. Its current iteration, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, is the United States’ largest single class one railroad. One of the most distinctive characteristics of today’s railroad, which will look great in your layout, is how the locomotives pay homage to its history with heritage-driven paint schemes and designs. Of course, you can also choose to include the old school locomotives from the railroad’s days as the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe railroad.

BNSF train traveling on the Santa Fe Railroad

If you’re opting for a modern layout, one thing to remember is that the BNSF is exclusively a freight service these days. You’ll need to base yours off of the old-school Santa Fe Railroad if you plan to include passenger services in your layout. Of course, if you don’t mind having different eras of the same railroad within your layout, there’s nothing to stop you from mixing it up!

Explore all of our Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe trains and Burlington Northern Santa Fe trains.

If you’re just getting started with your railroad, our Santa Fe model train sets are ideal for getting started.

Chesapeake and Ohio Railway

The Chesapeake and Ohio Railway lines are today part of the CSX network alongside significant portions of the New York Central Railroad.

Model train in a layout inspired by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad

The C&O was a giant of the 20th century, and at its height, it was somewhat unique for its focus on freight services. It did, however, famously offer some luxurious passenger services marketed by the iconic Chessie Cat.

Whether you want to model the railroad at the height of its powers, or later iterations that came before the creation of CSX, like the Chessie System brand, you have a wealth of possibilities. You could even create your own C&O “through the ages” and include a locomotive from every era. C&O’s passenger services were long-distance and will be a brilliant, authentic addition to a vast layout or one that includes differing landscapes or towns.

Browse all of our Chesapeake and Ohio Railway and Chessie System model trains.

Erie Railroad

While the Erie Railroad wasn’t anywhere near the size of some of North America’s more extensive railroads, it’s difficult to argue against it being one of the most influential and iconic in terms of how the Northeastern United States developed from the late 19th to the mid-20th century.

Orange and black train traveling on the historic Erie Railroad

The centerpiece of the Erie, and its main legacy today, is the Starcurra Viaduct. With that in mind, a multi-level railroad that incorporates the viaduct is a must if you’re going to model this one! Given the significance of the Erie around the turn of the century, it’s a great option if you’re modeling the early railroading or pioneer era.

Explore all of our Erie and Erie Lackawanna model trains.

Modeling After History: Which Direction Will You Go?

When it comes to choosing a railroad for modeling after history, the possibilities are almost endless, with dozens of options when it comes to selecting a significant historic railroad.

As well as clicking the links we’ve provided here, you can check out our full range of model trains – scroll down to “Roadname” on the left-hand side of the page to go through and check out the various railroads you can model.

Whether you opt for a specific railroad or find it easier to stick to a more general era of railroading, remember to tag us on Instagram with your layout and what ModelTrainStuff products you have featured!