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Creating Reality From Fiction

Creating Reality From Fiction

Creating Reality From Fiction

by Patrick Harris


Never heard the term Protolancing before? It’s applying “prototype” to “freelancing”. In model railroading, the concept of Protolancing is to create your own railroad based on prototype standards. The key is the level of “believability”. My proposition to myself always is “How likely is anyone drawn from the ranks of railfans and model railroaders to buy this as realistic, even if not real?”


Here’s an example: If you were going to protolance a railroad in the New Orleans area, it would probably look a lot like the New Orleans Public Belt. You’d have a couple of switch engines, maybe an older second-hand road, switcher, handling cars for the bigger lines like Illinois Central, KCS and so forth. The name would be based on a geographic feature (Vigrinian and Ohio, Allegheny Midland, Charleston and West Virginia) or a geographic relationship and a concept (Utah Belt, Penn Gulf, Coal Belt). This is because it sounds more plausible as an actual entity.


Now you’ve got the broad concept of what protolancing a railroad is. But for some of us it gets a lot more involved.


My own line is the Pennsylvania Gulf, which originates in Easton, Pennsylvania, and terminates in western Mississippi immediately south of Vicksburg. The builders had intended to extend the original line to New York as well as south, but never made it to the Big Apple. Much like the Southern System, it came together as smaller lines were accumulated into a larger entity by the beginning of the 1920’s. Unlike the Penn Central, which tended to think East-West, the PG thought North/South and West.


Traffic from New England is routed down via the L&HR (now under control of the PG) to the PG and eventually to L.A. via the MP and SP connections of the PG. During the 70s meltdown the B&O decided to let the CNJ sink, but the PG saw an opportunity to get an Atlantic Gateway for its TOFC/COFC traffic and pick up the CNJ route to Elizabethport and the CNJ container port there. The PG competes with Southern, SCL, and to a degree, Chessie for traffic from New England, the Northeast the South to the West, and reverse routing. The PG pre-blocks traffic at its rural Mississippi yard (south of Vicksburg, but having trackage rights across the ICG bridge there) before moving it east, and turns over pre-blocked traffic to the West.


The traffic on the PG emphasizes TOFC/COFC traffic, chemical, plastics, western fruit products to eastern markets, soy/peanuts, time sensitive high-value loads like auto parts and auto racks, and of course TONS of wood product traffic from both New England and the South. The only southern market largely missed by the PG was coal–the NW, Virginian and the C&O got there first–which turned out to be fortunate because the decline of the eastern coal traffic had little impact on the PG. (A shot of Don Dellman’s Milwaukee Northern yard. Photo by Don Dellman.)


Why bother creating my own railroad when there are hundreds of real ones I could model? I want to have my own road, with its own history and identity wound and bound up in that of the existing, flesh and blood roads. There is fun and challenge in protolancing , but I seek to create a unique and yet realistic line that COULD have existed under the right circumstances.


What makes for a good protolanced line? I generally break down “concepts” into the following categories: Prototype, Protolanced, and Freelanced.


For it to be prototype, a line must follow the locomotive, rolling stock, structure and even track types employed by an existing line, whether it be the Chehalis Western (a logging line) or the New York Central. There can be no variation from realistic practices of the time/place modeled.


For it to be protolanced, all the above are true, but those restrictions apply strictly to the “road” created by the modeler, such as the V&O or Utah Belt. It is a “created” road, but it is consistent within itself/place/setting/time frame. If you have not yet read “The V&O Story” published by Carstens, it is a must-read for anyone who wishes to protolance.


For it to be freelanced, the restrictions of the protolancer are relaxed. There is a sort of blurring of eras and equipment on freelanced lines, as well as inconsistent structure and setting mixes. NOTE: This categorization is not to be construed as negative, just a summary description.


“To me the concept of protolancing makes real sense. It is my opinion that there is no such thing as a prototypical model as the only thing that could be prototypical is the prototype itself.” explains Bruce R. Branter Sr. “Any kind of a model in any scale less the 1:1 can not be 100% accurate. When it comes to running our “to scale locomotives and cars” on our layouts we put them into an environment that is nowhere near the measured environment of the prototype. ‘Selective compression’ rules the layout.” (Part of the Crescent City Model Railroad Club’s Crescent Lines runs through bayou country as seen in photo to left)


Offering a similar view is Ryan Harris (no relation) who operates the Colorado-based Pine Valley Railroad.


“I like the challenge (and the resulting believability) of rooting my imagined railroad’s history in prototype reasoning. Sure, I could just pretend anything I choose and take as many liberties as I see fit. The fun for me is the research and retracing the details. I want to take as few liberties as possible. But, I also want to see big time railroading in these beautiful mountains, not just a tourist train. Justifying this divide within an acceptable range of reason is up to each of us. Follow your instinct. If your instinct tells you to justify your fiction using reality as a guide, you’re probably on the right track.”


Like Ryan, I also use my instinct constantly asking myself “Could it have existed?” I’m actually VERY strict in what prototype equipment will operate on my own Penn Gulf due to its time frame/setting. I consult Railway Equipment Registers to see if certain equipment was still in service at the time designated for my operation, in order to create a believable road–the key to protolancing. (Roger Kujawa’s protolanced Atlantic Great Western at a crossing seen below. Photo by Roger Kujawa.)


That said, I still believe that even within the parameters of what I have defined as “protolancing” there is wide room for variation. If all of your equipment is time/setting appropriate, operations realistic and properly executed, then you are very definitely a protolancer—and just a whisker away from being a prototype modeler


Herewith, a synopsis of what I consider the definition of a protolanced road:



    • is a fictional road or a fictional segment of an actual former/existing line


    • is consistent in equipment/location/era relative to a particular time frame


    • is built with high standards for correct markings of prototype equipment


    • is built with high standards for rolling stock and motive power that is correct for era/time frame


    • places realism/believability as a very high priority


    • has a consistent, rational roster and paint scheme for both rolling stock and motive power


  • is built with high standards for buildings and scenery consistent with setting and era/time frame


 Some modelers stretch the location aspect. Demetre Argirode has created a new state for his Gulf Central Railroad, a protolanced railroad that represents a Florida to California Class 1 with branches and subsidiary companies.


“The Gulf Central is a composite of the Seaboard, L&N and SP. The part of the Gulf Central that I am modeling is a composite of the Alabama and Louisiana lines that started life in the 1840s. At the center of my line is Acadia, located between Mobile and New Orleans,” explains Argirode


Within that context he still uses equipment that is consistent with the time/setting and is modeling interchange with roads that would logically connect with the location he has designated for his line to serve.


“Protolance modelers want something that following a specific prototype will not give us. Because we cannot get what we want from any single, or sometimes any multiple, source, we have elected to create a set of conditions that will allow us to do that which interests us,” he continues. “We don’t do unrealistic things. We are not caricaturists or cartoonists; we are modelers. We want an environment that is believable, yet flexible; prototypical in philosophy, yet moldable to our interests.”


Mike Rose’s protolanced railroad is the Erin & Sandy Hook. It is a shortline that runs with his Conrail mainline.


“My purpose in having a protolanced shortline on my Conrail division main railroad is to free me up to own and run things Conrail didn’t have or doesn’t have any more. My railroad is set in Pennsylvania, and the state is lousy with shortlines – all over the place – and all interesting to me. To say that they have an eclectic assortment of power would be an understatement!” according to Rose.


“The Erin & Sandy Hook RR represents a fairly old shortline that fell on hard times for awhile, but has experienced a rebirth with changing traffic patterns and Conrail line abandonments. They have taken over a lot of the local switching duties, with Conrail keeping only the choice, larger ones, and doing a lot of through trains. ” (Erin & Shandy Hook RR photo by Mike Rose.)


“Why I do it is that it’s a lot of fun! I enjoy my serious modeling, but I also enjoy the absolute freedom to do what I want with the E&SH. But the only way I enjoy it is if I do it prototypically. So anything I do with it has to be at least possible, and preferably make some sense.”


Offering another reason as to why modelers protolance is Jeff Howell. “While my primary focus will remain on model building and prototype modeling, primarily of the GN and SP, I truly enjoy the freedom from constraints that my own personal prototype (Intermountain Pacific) allows me. Sometimes I really want to run something that the GN never did, or build a model without worrying whether the real thing had a 3 chime Leslie, or a five chime Nathan, much less where the thing was mounted. While all IP models are built to the same exacting standards as are my prototype units, and photo-realism is the ultimate goal, protolancing provides me with the space to have a little fun too!”


The Virginia Southern Railway (VSR) is the creation of Mike Garber. He also mixes fact with fiction. His inspiration is taken from the Clinchfield located about 75 miles west of his imaginary line.


“I’m modeling the northern end of my “fictitious” north south coal hauling bridge line that runs from Mt. Airy, NC (connecting with the Southern) north through VA and into southern WV where it connects with the C&O at Ronceverte, WV. This railroad is/was known as the Virginia Southern Railway (VSR), built in the early 1900’s.”


“In the late 1950’s, the SRR was looking at acquiring more coal load generating possibilities as more and more coal fired power plants were being built in the southern US. Fact or fiction? As we know, they merged the Interstate into the SRR system for these reasons. Well, they also merged the Virginia Southern Railway into the SRR system for the same reasons PLUS the bridge line traffic possibilities for reaching the Midwestern US via C&O interchange. Fact or fiction?”


“My railroad is for now being referred to as the Virginia Southern Division of the Southern Railway set in 1963. Most motive power will be SRR modeled as prototypically as my skills/time will allow with a few VSR locos still running around in helper service and local mine runs. Rolling stock will be the expected mix for a bridge line in this time period and local with a good number of VSR coal hoppers still yet to be re-painted into the SRR colors and numbering system.


This gives me the satisfaction I am after with a little “fact AND fiction” which will provide a great deal of opportunity in creating a believable and plausible model railroad to share operations with.”


Jim Six, former publisher of Prototype Modeler, offers this opinion: ” Applying a logical definition to the term “prototype freelanced” implies that such a model railroad is a freelanced variation of a real railroad – the prototype. As such, those that invent fictitious branches, divisions or other parts of real railroads are prototype freelancers. For instance: If I would model a secondary route of the Atlantic Coast Line that extended from the mainline at Florence SC running north and west into the mountains around Pilot Mountain NC and on up to Norton VA, this would be prototype freelancing. All of the motive power would be ACL power as would be the cabooses and rolling stock. This conceptual railroad includes “freelancing” since no line of the ACL ever existed.” (Two trains passing on Roger Kujawa’s AGW. Photo by Roger Kujawa.)


“So then, why not just model the Atlantic Coast Line? Why bother creating a freelanced route? Because then I can connect with the L&N and the N&W and the CRR in the Norton VA area. I could have long coal trains that either never existed or were very rare on the “real” ACL. The sight of black ACL hoppers behind black and yellow ACL F-units gets my blood pumping. I could also have CRR, N&W, and L&N run-through power onto “my” ACL.”


“I have little interest in a “made up” model railroad. On the other hand, re-writing the history of real railroads to accommodate my personal desires has considerable interest to me. That is “prototype freelancing” to me,” continues Six.


Jim makes a valid point; however, if I wanted to model the Seaboard Coast Line, I would have modeled it. I also would have been bound by the precise equipment SCL used and the connections it made. Even a protolanced, fictional branch of the SCL would be modeling the SCL.


What Jim does is protolancing, and so is what the V&O, Maumee, Utah Belt and others have done: create an alternate reality that is believable in its context for us to express ourselves. For me, the escape is complete if I can build my own line free from the absolute constraints of an existing line. It comes down to self-expression and the creation of an alternate and believable reality.


But I do know this: there are different kinds of protolancing, and they all require discipline, believability, and consistency.


Photos not credited in text of story taken by Phil Novak