The subject of this post is pretty broad, and I don’t want to address every ramification of it. I just want to comment about a couple of aspects. I would start by saying that what I see among modelers I’ve known, as well as my own orientation, is a strong collecting instinct, regardless of the degree of interest in model operation. This isn’t meant as a criticism, just a description.
The collecting part, I believe, is that wish to have, for example, a model of each wheel arrangement of your favorite railroad’s steam power in the era you model. Those locomotives may not have all operated in the place or region you are modeling, and some might have been quite rare, but your collecting side would be happy to have at least one of each. The operator side of you wants a group of locomotives that is representative of the time and place you model, and is suited to whether you emphasize freight or passenger trains, whether or not such a group would be a good collection in any other sense.
I have a friend who has assembled passenger trains of quite different eras so that they can operate over his 1950s layout, just because he finds all of them interesting, and wants to have those trains in his collection. He doesn’t attempt to operate other aspects of any of those “other” eras, but simply runs the various passenger trains over the layout when the impulse strikes. That’s the collecting instinct.
In my own case, I often find myself thinking about freight cars from a collecting perspective rather than operations. I may wish to acquire a particular “signature” freight car of a railroad, whether or not it is likely to have been seen in my California layout’s time and place. Or I may wish to have one of each of three large box car classes of some railroad, just to have one of each. That’s my collecting side, and I certainly don’t feel there’s anything wrong with it.
I balance the collecting side, however, with an effort to think about operating needs. That’s where actual train data, for example from conductor time books, comes into play, and where ideas like Tim Gilbert and Dave Nelson’s hypothesis about distribution of free-running cars become important. So on this side of the fence, so to speak, I might forego that “signature” box car in favor of a more mundane but much more numerous box car owned by the same railroad.
I certainly don’t mean to suggest that either one of these two instincts is somehow wrong, only that I personally try to maintain a balance between them. Collecting is fun, and the research to know what a “good” collection would include is fun too. But I’m still striving toward the goal of fun operation, which for me has to mean realistic operations, and thus a realistic fleet of locomotives and freight cars.
I became aware once again of the tension between collecting and operation recently when analyzing my freight car fleet on a railroad-by-railroad basis. I realized that in a number of cases, the freight cars I had, or wanted to have, were definitely in part the realization of a collection for each railroad. Again, it’s not that such a situation is bad, only that I want to separate clearly in my mind which instinct is coming to the fore when I decide whether to retain (or to acquire) some particular car.
Of course, as is true of any hobby, the goal is to have fun, however one does it, and I am unquestionably having fun. I just want the fun to remain balanced between collecting and operating.