American Railroads
Shifting Scales

5340 Horseshoe Curve in Pennsylvania is an important historic rail site, and is visited by thousands of railfans every year. Like many famous railway sites, it looks like a model railroad, when seen from above. CLUI photo

RAILROADS WERE THE ORIGINAL MACHINE in America’s garden, capturing the continent from coast to coast, making the local national. With the first transcontinental connection at Promontory, Utah, in 1869, railroad routes became the physical lines on the nation’s full-scale map of itself, a nationwide network web, built by the industrialists of America’s Gilded Age. 
Today the system has more than 150,000 miles of track, where 1.5 million railcars are pulled around by 30,000 locomotives, controlled out of centralized operations facilities primarily by four companies—two in the east, and two in the west—as if the whole system were a giant model railroad layout. Which, in a way, it is. 
Engaging Scale: The Railroad Landscape as Analog Macroscope, which opened at CLUI in Los Angeles last September, looked at famous railroad engineering landmarks, from the Hoosac Tunnel in New England to California’s Tehachapi Loop, following the historic expansion of the country from east to west. In parallel, the exhibit featured depictions of these same monuments as represented on model railroad layouts around the country.
Unlike the massive engineering of the full-scale railroad, which required amalgams of government and corporate syndicates to make, model railroad layout building is a construction process usually pursued at the level of an individual. It involves the compression of railways and the vast landscapes in which they are embedded, in order to bring them into view. Modeling makes things smaller in order to understand them. Like an inverted microscope—a macroscope
5341 The CLUI exhibit showed the full-scale and a small-scale version of selected railroad features like bridges, loops, and tunnels. The full-scale version was presented on a video screen, the small-scale version in an image, both described on an interpretive plaque, set like an overlook, looking up and out, and looking down and in, macro and micro. CLUI photo