The On-Line Magazine of Rideable Model Railroading

  NUMBER 181


© February 06, 2012   

 ©Discover Live Steam. This material may not be published, rewritten, or redistributed without written permission.

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The Social Side of the Live Steam Hobby


Written by Philip Schram

If one drops the word “social” in a discussion, most of us relate now to Facebook or other forms of "social media". Does it mean that none of us were “social” prior to the rise of the internet social sites? Of course not! Being social is one the characteristics of the human being. Many of the published live steam articles focus on how to build such and such piece of equipment. And it is fed by the growing needs and wants that we have: more rail cars, more tracks, more buildings, more, more, and more. Let us pause one minute. Isn’t our life steered by our pursuit of happiness?

Today, I want to share some considerations about the social side of our hobby. Each of us, based on experience, DNA, and capabilities have different motivations to be in the hobby...

Some people enjoy the technical side. Without falling into clichés, their background could be toolmakers, engineering, and builders.

Some enjoy the driving side. Gasoline and battery-powered engines are less technical choices to get you started. What is the difference between a 1live steamer and a 2live diesel person? The diesel locomotive driver unloads and gets directly to the track without stopping at the round house, but the live steamer has to start with his engine at the roundhouse where he works until he has coaxed the fire in the boiler to make a head of steam before he can hit the track.  One day, my son commented: “when it is too easy, there is no pleasure”.

Some of us enjoy meeting people through the hobby. Walt Disney was likely part of this group. Many documents show gatherings at his house. These were large social events where each guest was having fun. Walt Disney was often driving his locomotive or sharing the throttle at one of his numerous parties that he was hosting at his Carolwood Pacific Railway.

Do you remember your own first experience with live steam? How was it? Very likely, it was a time of emotions, rather than a technical time. Did you fall in love immediately? Were the live steamers friendly with you? Remember how many times you have discussed your hobby with passion with a friend, a neighbor, a relative. Your heart starts to beat; your voice might be slightly loud. Now we are in full communication mode, sharing our passion and perhaps initiating the infancy of interest/passion with our counterpart.

Union Pacific Live Diesel

Sometimes, I hear live steamers complaining that the hobby is shrinking in the number of members. If that's true, perhaps we need to look at the causes. I have been in the hobby for 35 years. In my early years, it was very difficult to buy an engine, rail cars, and track hardware. Now our hobby is vibrant with plenty of offerings. The internet is facilitating the trades. The ease of access is easier. For $3,000, one can start with an electric or gas locomotive and have fun at the track. So why are we losing members? In England, I remember seeing tracks in the public parks downtown. It seems that the US has many tracks that are difficult to reach (distance from where the families live) or private tracks that are also remote. The ongoing increase in size of the tracks that cannot fit anymore in a 5 acre lot forces the tracks to be more remote. The private owners struggle to convince live steamers to join. A more social track might be in a public park, a back yard track in the middle of a community or village, or a temporary portable track - all easy to reach.

What I see happening at many club tracks:

Clubs display this hobby as a serious activity with highly skilled members with many safety concerns. The general public may be invited but are often kept confined within certain boundaries. I see the average age of the membership on the rise. That is not sustainable. Future members (the children) are often discouraged from participating and often hear “Don’t touch. Stay away (from the fun stuff)”. I suggest saying "That's too hot to touch, but you can do this" (ring the bell, blow the whistle, etc.). Rules are necessary for safety, but it could limit sparking a passion and the recruitment of new live steamers.

Two of my goals with the hobby are: 1) have fun and 2) inspire a passion in the visitors.  When a visitor stops by, it should become an opportunity to attract future hobbyists.  When parents bring  kids along, be aware that some could develop a strong passion for the hobby.  Put yourself in the shoes of a young visitor. This may be the first time they are seeing this. With luck, it could turn into a life-long hobby.  Let the visiting families see you having fun and enjoying the hobby.

A suggestion of mine to help increase interest in the hobby is to host theme events at a track and invite neighbors with kids as well as local enthusiasts. For example

Neighbors lining up for a train ride.

Do you have your ticket?

  • Block party (left):  You will become the star of the day. Everybody likes trains;
    Prepare a ticket system so that each child has a fair share of rides.

  • Halloween haunted train:   Prepare décor elements that are Halloween related, such as a fog generator or animated scenes. I use an electric screw driver for the motion; they have the right speed and torque. You need to decide how scary it needs to be. In general, it needs to be kid-friendly.

  • Christmas lighting:  We all love the Christmas light scenes that we tour with our car. You can do exactly the same along a train track.

  • Polar Express with snow operations (region permitting):
    Snow plow -  Many suppliers sell scale-model snow plows that would fit on the front of your locomotive.  You need to adjust the blade as close to the rail as possible to make it usable. Failing to do so will build a cylinder of ice along the wheels and basically remove the flange. In my first attempts, my rail cars would always derail after so many feet of track.  If you can get some speed momentum and really push the snow with the blade, it offers an incredible show to your visitors.
    Pull a sled in between the two rails with the locomotive.

  • Easter egg hunt:  The idea is to semi-hide objects along the train track and use a bingo style card for the passengers to check mark these objects when they spot them.

  • Labor Day or Memorial Day parties:  Invite your friends and their families.

Here are my suggestions for a "well oiled" steam day: Preparation is key for the success of your event. The weeks prior can be the opportunity to  get the word out and raise interest. Create a logo for the track. Print up tickets on your printer to be used during the event (upper right). Put a sign up in the street (be careful, for legal reasons, you do not want to appear as an amusement park operation to the local authorities). Have enough help to direct the guests and answer questions. Punch tickets like the real railroads did. Have a back up locomotive in case your steamer has a mechanical issue. Ring the bell to signal that the fun is ready to start. Answer all the questions. Invite your closest neighbors (have them on your side).

I wish all of you happy steaming. May all of us inspire the next generation to maintain and develop this wonderful hobby!!!

Other articles by Philip Schram can be seen at

Recently, this thank you drawing from Sam, a 5 year old neighbor, made my day.

1 Live steamer, a person that runs a live steam locomotive.  Live Steam is steam under pressure ready to do work.

2 Live diesel person, someone that runs equipment that looks like a diesel locomotive.  It's often powered by a gasoline engine or battery powered electric motors.



Written by Philip Schram

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