Which Era Should You Model?

With more than 190 years of history, it can be difficult to decide which period to base your layout on. Do you yearn for that lonesome whistle in the night? Are you a history buff fascinated with the civil war? Are you enthralled by the power and technology of modern locomotives? In this article, we’re going to explore the hallmarks and advantages of modeling the five eras of railroad history.

Early Railroading (1827-1860)

In 1827, the Baltimore and Ohio became the first common carrier rail company to operate in the United States. Barley fifty years had passed since the Declaration of Independence was signed, and America was still very much in it’s infancy. This was the era of experimental railroading. Basing operations on European designs, this period saw a wide variety of primitive steam locomotives developed, such as the Tom Thumb, and Lafayette, replicas of which still exist today.

For modelers, this can be a challenging era to replicate, as the choice for readily available models is limited. Most modern railroading hallmarks didn’t exist yet, meaning that much of what was seen has to be scratch built, including infrastructure and track types. Several sets recreating well known trains from this era have however been produced by manufacturers such as Bachmann.


The Pioneer Era (1860-1910)

The Pioneer Era was one of the most exciting periods in railroading history; beginning with the Civil War, transcending the era of the Wild West, and ending in the early 2oth century. This was the era where railroading found it’s stride, breaking from previous parallels with horse and cart transportation. It was also the era which helped to define America as we know it, with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, and the introduction of standardized time zones. Railroading transformed commerce and the movement of people during this time, cementing itself as an integral part of American life.

While still enjoying a lesser following than more recent eras, the Pioneer Era can be an enticing period to model. A wide selection of rolling stock and locomotives are available in all scales, and the major historical events which took place during this period will make setting a theme and location for your layout both fun and rewarding.

The Golden Era (1910-1940)

In the early 20th Century, America hit it’s peak of 254,000 miles of railroad. Trains were now the primary means of transportation, serving both small industries and large populations in every town and city across the country. This was the era of the great long distance luxury trains, marketed as the most civilized way to cross America. Freight railroading was steadily growing, and new, powerful locomotives meant longer trains and less maintenance stops. This was also the era where rail travel met it’s first competition for short haul travel – the automobile. For a brief period during WW1, the railroads were temporarily nationalized to help with the war effort.

For steam fans, this era is the crème de la crème to model. While diesel and electric power was starting to enter the market, big steam was king, and could be seen everywhere from dockyards to mountain grades. This period is well covered by manufactures in all scales, and includes some fascinating locomotive types. First time modelers should find it relatively easy to enter into replicating this unique era.

The Transitional Era (1940-1970)

Although remembered as somewhat of an extension of the golden era, this period was arguably the toughest in railroad history. Following an upturn in both freight and passenger numbers during the second world war, railroads would face increasing competition from both the interstate highway network and commercial air travel in the years that followed. Passenger numbers dropped, and much of the local freight business was lost to trucking companies. This caused lines to close, and once strong railroad companies to declare bankruptcy. Despite these hardships however, this was a fascinating era. In an effort to draw passengers, railroads were launching revolutionary new trains, the likes of which had never been seen before. New diesel locomotives were fast replacing steam, and companies were consolidating to create mega-systems.

The Transitional Era is by far the most heavily replicated era in the modeling world. The simple reason being that it offers a little of everything. Steam and diesel worked side by side, and many traditional practices were still being used, while elements of modern railroading were developing. Being heavily modeled, there is no shortage of equipment available for this era, and anyone modeling it will find themselves in good company.

The Modern Era (1970-2019)

Following the Transitional Era, railroads were no longer the primary method for moving people and goods; they now had to adapt to being a component of a much larger multimodal system. Working with trucking companies, railroads developed trailer trains. These would eventually evolve into intermodal trains, carrying containers transportable on trains, ships, and trucks. Intermodal operations are now the most prevalent form of freight on mainline rails, followed by bulk “unit” trains. On the passenger side of things, the network was taken into public ownership in 1971 to protect integral routes from being closed by the already suffering Transitional Era freight companies. Passenger railroading is today experiencing a revival, with a network of long distance routes connecting regional lines across the country. These are primarily operated by Amtrak, with local routes being run by public commuter agencies.

Following the Transitional Era, the Modern Era is the second most popular era currently modeled. Replicating today is a challenge of it’s own if you wish to stay up to date with changing railroading technology and trends, however again, you’ll be in good company. One unique advantage to modeling modern railroading is the advent of tourist operations, which gained traction in the 1970s. Incorporating these on your layout allows for greater flexibility, as you can use them as an excuse to run equipment from any era.

No matter the complexity it involves, the choice of era comes down to which appeals to you the most. Model railroading has the unique ability to tangibly transport you to any time or place, even if that time or place never actually existed. As we in the business say, do what makes you happy, and it’ll probably turn out right.

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