It is, of course, the real trains and railway systems of this world which inspire people to want to recreate them in model form. However, there are many ways and many channels through which the incentive spark may catch on. Here are some sources of inspiration which had an impact on me.




There are many interesting websites created by modellers of all scales and gauges, but when I came across David K. Smith's Z Scale James River Branch layout whilst idly browsing the web in late 2011, I was completely fascinated - not only by his superb modelling efforts but also by the approach (you might even say philosophy) to modelling in Z Scale which he formulated.
I was so taken by the simplicity of its trackplan and the complexity of its visuals and how it all came together that I felt this to be the almost perfect layout concept for me. If imitation is indeed the highest form of flattery, as 19th century English author Charles Caleb Colton put it, then my subsequent trackplan doodling was nothing else but paying the highest respects to David K. Smith and his layout.

In the end my planning diverged, into an urban setting double track layout which ultimately never got built. But it was the James River Branch which set the wheels in motion again for me with regard to Z Scale modelling (which I had dabbled in a bit during the 1990s and early 2000s).

The layout was destroyed in a shipping mishap in May 2012, and when the companion website (which had documented construction of the layout in great detail) went offline sometime in 2013, a great source of modelling inspiration disappeared from the web. For a while, some of the content could still be accessed through the Internet Archive, but as of 2016 even that partial access was no longer available.


(c) David K. Smith

Apart from specific modelling "clinics" which came with a lot of friendly and sound advice, the website also provided a number of trackplans which Smith had adapted to Z Scale, complete with parts lists for Märklin, Micro-Track and Rokuhan.
  Beautifully rendered and enhanced with a portrayal of their respective main characteristics and layout building challenges and rewards, they were in themselves a treasure trove of inspiration. At first primarily dedicated to documenting the concept and progress of the James River Branch layout, it ultimately grew to be a hub of information - and inspiration - on Z Scale modelling. Smith's efforts were miles above what I will ever be capable of doing (such as scale handlaid track) but that never bothered me for a second.  
Because what stuck from his layout and his website and what inspired me was the realization that one of the prime qualities of Z Scale is, quite simply, the ability to have a lot of creative fun thanks to its reduced size.

And so, a couple of years of accidental modelling later, my Z Scale model railroading may not bear much outward resemblance to David K. Smith's James River Branch, yet most of what is there goes back, in one way or another, to that small layout and that big website.

Since the website has vanished without a trace, there is possibly only one way left to get a glimpse of the James River Branch: an article on the layout which Ztrack Magazine featured in its January/February 2013 issue.


Along with layouts, books and websites it is, of course, the prototype itself which inspired me to want to plan and build and run a Z Scale US prototype layout - and seeing the actual trains in 1:1 scale trackside also helped define the "how".

Three Norfolk Southern diesels (SD70ACu #7258, SD60E #6945 and SD70M-2 #2649) pass by the Virginia Museum of Transportation
Roanoke Va, 20 October 2016

The initial inspirational rush came from watching CSX trains blast through Wildwood in Central Florida, and it changed my perspective on what a Z Scale layout could look like.
Previously focused on minimum space continuous run layouts, the trackside experience at Wildwood made me reconsider this format. It struck me that Z Scale was ideal to replicate precisely what I was seeing here - trains speeding by or trundling by or awaiting their turn to get back on their way from A to B. Continuous running yes, but in a more linear orientation - just like the yard layout at Wildwood.

The ideas of "modular" and "not necessarily permanently set up" followed almost by way of sheer logic - inspired by the James River Branch's philosophy to make the smallness of Z Scale work in your favour.


A CSX mixed freight blasts through Wildwood Fl
15 November 2014

There's more on how the prototype provides inspiration here.  


There is, of course, a wealth of information and inspiration related to railroads and modelling to be found on the internet, but apart from the fact that some of this can be rather volatile (cf. the James River Branch) it's really hard to beat good old-fashioned books both as a source of inspiration and a toolbox for modelling.

  Two books which actually predate internet days by a long run (and which I bought in the early 1990s) have proven to be nothing less than definitive sources of inspiration: The Train-Watcher's Guide to North American Railroads and The Historical Guide to North American Railroads - two general reference books which I have regularly taken from the shelf and perused over many years - as their slightly battered condition, seen in the scan, bears witness of.

Strangely enough, for a work of reference data, the Guide i's a book that's very easy to pick up (not the least thanks to its handy format) but extremely hard to put down: it has provided me with countless hours of reading fun, just like the best of crime novels.

As the years went by, the Train-Watcher's Guide somewhat took second place to the Historical Guide to North American Railroads, maybe because the Train-Watcher's Guide became increasingly outdated (the 3rd printing, which I have, was published in 1991), but maybe also because I gradually became aware of just how much of a treasure trove The Historical Guide is.

Whilst you could get lost for hours in the Train-Watcher's Guide, you can easily spend entire days perusing the Historical Guide. After more than twenty years, it is still hands down the book on North American railroads that I take down from the shelf most often - and regularly, as the many dog ears prove conclusively.

Somewhere in time I started to take note more and more of the man who compiled and wrote these books, and the name George H. Drury began to stuck with me as I kept re-reading the biographical information given under the heading of "ABOUT THE AUTHOR". And over the years, that picture of a man wearing glasses and a tie became an integral part of The Train-Watcher's Guide to North American Railroads and The Historical Guide to North American Railroads. And the keyboard he is seen using, well, that just got more and more amusing as it showed how quickly state of the art technology becomes a museum piece.

One might think that just as that keyboard shows signs of a long gone time, the internet may well have rendered both of George H. Drury's Guides cumbersome and obsolete. Nothing could be further from the truth - and it's all due to the author and how he chose to arrange and present the information contained in both Guides.

Below is an example page showing the entry for the Louisiana & North West Railroad, taken from the Train-Watcher's Guide to North American Railroads. Incidentally, this railroad still exists, but even if the content may have become utterly out of date since it was compiled in April 1983, you'll be hard pressed to find a portrait of similar clarity and comprehensive nature. The formula was a winner: text (concise but to the point), map, tabled data, picture.

The result was all you needed to know almost at a glance.

None of the pages of both Guides feels cramped, yet you always come away with enough information to satisfy an initial interest. If you wanted more, further reading was generally suggested and indicated. It certainly was a winning formula, but someone had to come up with it, and that someone was George H. Drury.
It took me a few years to come to truly appreciate this. Today, both The Train-Watcher's Guide to North American Railroads and The Historical Guide to North American Railroads are books I simply keep on browsing and reading again and again. You'd think I'd know them by heart now, and some pages I probably do, but there's always something new to be found or rediscovered.

A newly developed interest in the Norfolk & Western or the Seaboard Air Line? No problem. George H. Drury will instantly provide sufficient information to put you in the picture - along with, in my case, lots of modelling inspiration. And with every additional time I thumb through these books, I value the work of George H. Drury more; sadly, he passed away on 21 June 2013.

I am not quite sure how familiar the name is to rail enthusiasts today; his Guides have now long been out of print, but both new and used copies are still available through various book stores. In 2014, Kalmbach published a 3rd edition of The Historical Guide to North American Railroads which effectively combines this with The Train-Watcher's Guide to North American Railroads - the result is a fine book, using Drury's concept and most of his maps whilst adding some colour and updated information, but the enlarged (now coffee table book size) format somehow loses much of the original appeal along with, unfortunately, some of the content of the original publication.
  In the same vein as George Drury's Guides are an excellent general overview introduction to North American railroading and railroads, Tony Koester's Model Railroader's Guide to Coal Railroading provides the same for this specific aspect of freight transportation by rail.

Compiled in a concise yet very readable presentation, Koester (of Model Railroader magazine fame) provides the reader with just about all the essentials regarding coal (how it was formed and where it can be found in North America), the coal industry (its history and its way of operating), coal trains, company towns, and coal customers. The added bonus is reflected in the book's title: Koester is a prolific modeller and therefore seamlessly combines the real world facts with the perspective of replicating some of this in model railroad form, including operating tips.

First published in 2006, the result is an amazing amount of facts and inspiration supported by 130 colour and 70 black and white photographs along with 20 illustrations. Just like Drury's two Guides, this is a book that gets thumbed through a lot, simply because it transports the unique qualities which railroads have so well and provides those sparks of inspiration without fail, again and again.

The Model Railroader's Guide to Coal Railroading was compiled at a time when coal still was what it always had been: a solid and reliable backbone for traffic and hence income for North American railroads.
The Appalachian coalfields and the railroading in the area are covered in quite a few books, published in various formats and by various publishers over the years. An example of the more recent publications is Stephen M. Timko's Appalachian Coal Mines and Railroads - Volume 2: Virginia. The second in a series of three, this book is spot on in terms of the region and the railroad which are the focus of my attempts at railroad modelling - and it is just as spot on in being a seemingly endless source of inspiration.

Published in 2014 by Morning Sun Books it is also a typical example of this publisher's in color line of books, featuring a wide variety of locomotives in action as well as the infrastructure used by the railroads and coal industry alike. Black locomotives (Norfolk & Western at the time, Norfolk Southern today) or their grey (Clinchfield) and then blue (CSX) counterparts are all shown in colour, true to its series' name.

The selection of books at hand and readily available really is quite big, and all of these books are brilliant browsing material and a treasure trove of inspiration.


Amongst the numerous other souces of inspiration pictures would seem to rank high in a natural way - frozen in one moment of time, the atmosphere of real trains is sometimes so concentrated that one picture alone captures it all. Naturally (as with all sources of inspiration, no matter what the subject) personal tastes prevail, but to me Wiley Bryan's shot of Seaboard E7 #3019 with the Silver Meteor starting its trip to Florida out of Richmond Va in a flurry of snow on January 9th 1966 is a perfect example of a photograph depicting a scene simply crying out to be modelled. It also serves as a good example to show that sometimes it takes only very few elements to create a railroad vignette - in this case, the heavy blanket of East Coast snow maximizes the focus on the train.  

Wiley Bryan (ATW collection)

  Inspiration can also come from the model: it can be a scene, a track setup - many things, in any scale.

In my case, American Z Line's December 2016 release of their EMD SD70ACe model in Norfolk Southern's heritage paint scheme of the Virginian Railroad pushed another inspirational button.

DVDs can be a great source of inspiration as well, transporting the prototype into the comfort of your home.

Again, the area is well covered and there are numerous DVDs and blu-rays from a number of sources, ranging overall back to the 1990s right up to the present time.


All graphics and prototype images are (c) A. T. Wymann unless labelled otherwise

(c) 2014-2017



page created 30 November 2014
page updated 19 April 2019