The Therapeutic Value of Model Railroading

Reading Time: 6 minutes

I’m a model railroader. To me there’s something so wonderfully comforting in recreating the heyday of American railroading—itself an undeniable driving force behind the superpower we eventually became—in miniature. There is no machine made by man quite so alive and possessing of a soul than a fire-breathing, smoke-belching, sweating and panting steam locomotive. And yes, the irony of being a meteorologist concerned with anthropogenic climate change, but obsessed with coal-fired machinery, is not lost on me!

My father got me into the hobby, himself a model railroader since the 1950s, and an encounter with Boys Life magazine’s column on model trains. Trains, both big and small, were a part of my childhood and followed me into adulthood. I built my first true model railroad layout, an HO scale (1:87 scale) 4’ x 8’ Colorado-based railroad, while working night shifts as a brand new Air Force Second Lieutenant.

By 2002 I’d discarded two HO layouts and switched to N scale (1:160 scale) for the sake of portability. I’d built it on a 36” x 80” hollow core door with Styrofoam scenery that made it as close to weightless as possible. Then, in 2006, while working on my PhD, I started the layout that would make me slightly famous in model railroad circles…an N scale hollow core door rendition of the famed Pennsylvania Railroad’s mainline through central Pennsylvania in the 1950s, when both steam, and diesel locomotives worked together as a team. Through my website, Facebook page, train shows, seminars, and magazine articles (culminating in the centerfold article <gulp!> in Model Railroader Magazine’s special annual Great Model Railroads 2014 ), I reached a broad audience with my love of the hobby. My approach was simple… I tried to achieve maximum realism through a cohesive whole. No one individual model would win a contest by itself, but everything on the layout from the people to the rocks, trees, signals, signs, structures, cars, etc. all told a unifying story of an exact time and place.

A Pennsylvania Railroad K4s 4-6-2 brings a westbound mail and express train into Lewistown, PA in July of 1956 on Dave Vollmer’s former N scale Pennsylvania RR Juniata Division model railroad.  Photo credit: Dave Vollmer

Something was changing in me, though, and I didn’t know what it was. After a deployment to Baghdad with an Army-support combat weather team in 2003 at the start of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, I began to suffer from mysterious neurological and digestive problems. I was racked with chronic pain. Whereas I’d been a recreational runner who’d finished a marathon before then, afterward I had to fight through pain and fatigue to maintain my fitness for the Air Force. I began to require some sort of surgery on an almost annual basis to keep healthy enough to continue to serve.

In the last years of my military service, I—like so many of my colleagues—found myself diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and PTSD. It had been going on for many years, but I’d been unable to recognize it for what it was. A diagnosis of trigeminal neuralgia (TN, often called the “suicide disease” for what its unworldly pain often drives its victims toward—look it up if you’ve got a strong stomach) was the last straw. I required surgery on my brain stem. Things went rapidly downhill from there. While the surgery gave me almost complete relief from TN, I would suffer additional mental health effects from it… and a new problem, central sleep apnea.

The writing was on the wall. I had been placed on a number of different medications, some of which worked and others that did far more harm than good. I decided to retire from the Air Force after more than 22 years of service and walk away from tenure at the Air Force Academy so that at least I could leave on my own terms rather than wait for the medical retirement process. I was no longer thriving… I was surviving. Then, in September of 2018, surrounded by my friends, family, and colleagues, I received my certificate of retirement and set about healing.

Now, I know what you’re thinking… up until now I haven’t discussed my wonderful wife (GeekMom editor Patricia Vollmer) and two brilliant sons or the fact that at least outwardly, we had everything a successful family should have. And to be truthful, I would not have made it through without them. But even so, in the throes of depression or PTSD, you often feel like you can’t engage your loved ones because you’re a burden. That’s the sad irony… when you need your loved ones the most, depression pulls you away from them.

But not so with model trains. Nope. They offer the same no matter how you’re feeling… a refuge from the real world that’s often too noisy and chaotic to bear for long. In my basement, a world exists where it’s always midday on a gorgeous late Summer/early Fall day, warm but not hot, where mythical mechanical beasts of yesteryear—long gone in reality—continue to ply the rails as when all was right with the world. I am a sort of god in this world, placing trees and rocks and watercourses where I deem they’ll look the most realistic. I control the timetables, the consists, and the traffic levels on the rails. I can lose myself in a whole other time and place to which I’ve never really been and yet is as familiar as home.

Today I model a somewhat obscure narrow gauge railroad that ran in Southwest Colorado until the Korean War. If you’re familiar with the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, you’d be very close. The Rio Grande Southern—which I model in HOn3—ran 162 miles from Durango north to Ridgway and Telluride…the stuff of western legend. A railroad famed for impossibly tall wooden trestles and 20-foot snow drifts at the rooftop of North America was a perfect subject with which to express my creative energies. I took over a 12 x 14 foot space in our new basement and went to work in earnest as my retirement from the Air Force loomed. All through the winter and spring I worked tirelessly from thousands of photographs and dozens of bridge and building plans from the real railroad to reproduce—in some cases down to the placement of weeds and bushes—scenes familiar to any fan of the RGS.

Rio Grande Southern class C-19 2-8-0 number 40 brings a loaded livestock train down from Lizard Head Pass across Bridge 45A at Ophir, Colorado in September of 1942 on Dave Vollmer’s HOn3 RGS model railroad. Photo credit: Dave Vollmer

But do you know what? I was feeling better. Way better. I was seeing a therapist less frequently. Medication doses were reduced and then eliminated entirely (under medical supervision of course!). Chronic pain was (and still is) very much there, but the way I thought about it was changing. I no longer catastrophized each pain flare. I “reasoned” through each one. I can’t reasonably credit model railroading with all of that, but I’m certain it helped. Retiring and separating myself from the day-to-day of the military was probably helpful, although it was equally important that I maintain strong bonds with my fellow veterans. But all that creative time I spent in relative safety in the model railroad space was pure bliss. Previously I’d have cynically dismissed the idea of a “safe space,” but now I’m certain that’s exactly what the model railroad layout space really is for me. In this space my exact reproductions of the RGS’ diminutive steam locomotives chug dutifully with their rich, digital onboard sound systems recreating the same train movements of their prototype to my everlasting delight. I even have a reproduction 1943 employee’s timetable from the real RGS to enhance my experience of a time and place I was born too late to see firsthand. Unlike the prototype, chronically short on funds but rich in deferred maintenance for whom derailments and delays were ubiquitous, my trains do exactly as they’re told…because I engineered my benchwork, trackwork, and wiring to withstand a direct hit by 500 pound bomb. All is right in this world I’ve made, and the quintessentially American and ambitious endeavor that was the real Rio Grande Southern didn’t suffer the ignominy of a scrapper’s torch but survived, stuck forever in its last “good” decade, serving an America at war against the forces of evil by transporting men and minerals for the war effort. The sun is perennially at high noon (thanks to some 5000K LED lighting) and the aspens have just begun to turn gold on the precipice of autumn in the high country.

Silverton Railroad #100 (the Ouray) and Rio Grande Southern #17 share the Rico, Colorado engine house as the golden aspen herald the coming of a brief autumn and a long winter on Dave Vollmer’s HOn3 RGS model railroad. Photo credit: Dave Vollmer

What I don’t dare suggest is that model railroading—or any hobby for that matter—is in any way a substitute for proper treatment when it comes to mental health. At those times when I needed intense counseling or medications, I needed them, and model railroading was not a substitute. When you’ve forgotten how to sleep, heading down to the workshop to complete a project is not going to put you back on track as I learned. I do think, however, that both rigorous research and anecdotal evidence suggests that hobbies—particularly ones that involve creating something with intrinsic or aesthetic value—can aid in treatment or recovery. I know that PTSD doesn’t really go away and that depression and anxiety will probably be episodic visitors for life. As such I may need medication and counseling again. And that’s okay. But I know I also have a safe space where I can create and control, carved out of a world so rife with destruction and chaos. In my safe space there are no mortar attacks, no convoys, and no survivor guilt…just a world in which iron men and iron horses daily struggle and overcome a vertical terrain as unforgiving as it is stunning in order to aid the nation to victory in the last true good war.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please don’t wait…call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. Veterans have several ways they can contact the Veterans Crisis Line including call, text, or online chat.

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