Model Railroad Club:  
How to Get Started


Starting a Model Railroad Club

One of the more enjoyable aspects of the hobby is the ability to share our experiences and talents with others who have similar interests.  A great way to do this is to join a model railroad club.  Unfortunately, not every location in the country has one.  If that's the case in your area, you may be thinking about getting one started.  One of my readers asked me this in an email recently.  Although I belong to the Mid Eastern Regional and the Tidewater Division of the NMRA, I never actually started a club myself.  So I did some research online, in forums and visited a local C&O club to learn more about it.  Hopefully the following information may be helpful for those of you thinking about starting a model railroad club.


Gather Your Fellow Model Railroaders

First, you have to get together a group of people who are really interested in the project of forming a model railroad club, and who are willing to donate some time - at least 2-3 hours once a week.  They don’t all have to be master model railroaders but at least one person needs to know the basics, and hopefully the rest should be willing and somewhat excited about learning some new skills.  You'll have to talk to friends, neighbors, parents of your kids' friends, PTA members, church-goers, friends at work - basically anyone who will listen.  You should start with a core group of at least 4 people, if possible, to get started.

You need at least one person in your model railroad club who knows how to do some basic carpentry and one person who can solder and who knows about wiring and electrical work.  Scenery is not as critical as the track work, bench work and wiring - at least not at first.  

The people in the club have to be able to get along with each other.  Every member needs to have the same goal and be willing and able to work together.  Everyone should be willing to learn from each other, and no one should be chastised for making mistakes - it's part of the learning and building process.  

It’s also helpful to establish certain officers to help organize the work.  There may be certain members of the club who are interested in different facets of the hobby.  These could be called foremen who head up different departments such as scenery, track, bridges, electrical work, signals, benchwork, etc. 


Rules

You could have a really informal model railroad club with no rules - just show up if you feel like it and mostly have fun.  If you get a railroad out of it, all the better.  If you don't, at least some people made new friends and had some fun.  

I think most people would be more satisfied if they actually accomplished something really great while they were also having fun.  In order to do this, you will probably have to have some rules, called bylaws.  If your group decides to have rules, then they need to apply to everyone without exception.  I think the rules should be simple and reasonable.  Otherwise, if they are too strict, your membership will drop off pretty fast.    

If you don't want to develop your own rules from scratch, consider using the bylaws that have already been drawn up for other model railroad clubs and use them as a template.  The model train club at MIT, for example, has a set of standard model railroad club bylaws (http://tmrc.mit.edu/const/bylaws.html) that others may use for their own clubs.  Once you have the basic set, your group can go through each item and either agree to it, change it or delete it, so that, in the end, they become your bylaws, specific for your club.

It may help to establish a certain scale, theme, era and locale for your model railroad club layout that everybody will agree to.  It may be possible to have two different scales, for example HO in the front and N-scale in the background to establish forced perspective, but the theme, etc. should ideally be the same through the layout so that it doesn't become a hodgepodge of scenes that don't really flow together.  If one member would like to create a certain scene, he should design it, draw it up the best he can and present it to the group for approval and/or suggestions, so that it will fit into the major theme of the layout.


Finances

Your group will need a location where the members can meet and build their model railroad.  This could be in back of a store or hobby shop, which the owner may rent to you for a low fee, since the presence of a layout and a club in the back of his store may improve business.  It could be an unoccupied building that you may be able to rent or even buy for a very low price.  You may be able to use space inside a church, school or library for free.  You could make it a civic project or historical project that would be nice for the community to have.  People could visit for a fee that your club could split with the city as payment for being able to use the space.

Your model railroad club members will likely have to pay some dues, at least in the beginning if not on a continuing basis.  If you can get your layout up and running quickly - at least a portion of it - you can start having train shows for the public and collect fees, or donations.  If you can do this often enough, you may get enough income to be able to dispense with membership dues. 

You should have someone in the group, or perhaps one of the spouses serve as treasurer - to keep track of the income and expenses and report this at the meetings.

See if you can get non-profit tax-exempt status for your club - such as 502(c)3, non-profit status, in which case everything that is bought for the club is not taxed; and it allows for donations, or other income that won't have to be taxed.  If possible, try to get the club incorporated within the state which allows for some legal protection for individual members.  That way, if the building caves in and someone gets hurt, the corporation may be liable, but not the individual members.  

If possible, have the entire club own the building where the layout will be located, rather than having one person own the building who then could quit and ruin the entire club.  Never allow the whole organization to be dependent on the presence or absence, or the whims of one person.


Other Considerations

It takes a fair amount of time and effort to get it going and keep it going.  It will take about 2-3 years for any organization like this to mature and get off the ground.  Try to be patient, but always try to make some progress, even small amounts, at each meeting.  Eventually everyone will get to where they want to be - having a great layout to enjoy, operate, enrich and expand.  Also, the side benefit of making great friends may even turn out to be the major benefit!

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