Time to Model: Isaiah Bradford’s Railfan Journey – ScaleTrains.com Inc.
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Time to Model: Isaiah Bradford’s Railfan Journey

A Story by Drayton Blackgrove

For many of us, the passion for trains begins at a young age. For Isaiah Bradford, this was no exception. At 14, going on 15 years old, Isaiah is still quite young. In fact, he’s so young that he can’t drive to his favorite railfan locations. Even with the limitations surrounding his age, Bradford refuses to let his passion for trains and railroad photography burn out.
“When I was about two years old, I remember watching the Thomas the Tank Engine videos that my parents would buy me to keep me busy,” Bradford said. He continued, “I used to sit in front of the TV for hours, playing with my wooden train set, thinking about how I wanted to  be a locomotive engineer one day.”
Bradford said that his parents first noticed his fascination with trains when they were often stopped at railroad crossings in his hometown of Decatur, Illinois. “Decatur is a railroad town. When I was younger, we had Norfolk Southern, CSX, Canadian National, and a shortline – so there were always plenty of trains around and it was almost certain we’d get stopped either coming to or from school,” he said. Bradford continued, “As I got older, my parents would take me to model railroad shows at the Civic Center where they would buy more Thomas trains, DVDs, and books.”
When Isaiah was in first grade, his parents bought him his very first N Scale train set, complete with a Santa Fe F3 locomotive and matching freight cars. “That’s really where my interest in model railroading – and just trains in general, really became my passion,” said Bradford. He continued, “When my parents were busy working, my grandfather, Keith Warnsley, would pick me up and we’d go driving around town to see trains.
For Isaiah, it means so much to have such support from both of his parents and grandfather. “Without my parents’ support, I wouldn’t be where I am today. They invested so much into my hobby when I was a kid and took a lot of time out of their busy schedules to take me places. The same for my grandfather. We’ve had a lot of great memories together,” he said.
“While on one of my adventures with my grandfather, we ended up finding this great spot called, ‘Wabic Junction.’ We just followed one of the railroads until it met another one and found this beautiful depot there. I remember that we’d often spend entire afternoons watching trains until the sun went down,” Bradford said.
Wabic Junction is where the former Wabash Railroad mainline and the Illinois Central mainlines meet, right in the heart of downtown Decatur. Now a junction between the busy Norfolk Southern and Canadian National, Wabic is a popular train-watching location. Bradford added, “I want to guesstimate about twenty trains per day on NS and maybe four on CN. There used to be a lot more before Precision Scheduled Railroading was implemented, but both railroads have been combining trains so that the actual train count is lower.”

Decatur is home to Norfolk Southern’s largest flat switching yard, known as Brush Yard. Because of this, the yard is always full of incoming and outbound trains going to faraway destinations like Kansas City and Conway, Pennsylvania. “What I love about Decatur is the variety of trains we have. It makes things so much more interesting and NS always knows how to put on a show,” Bradford explained.

A Norfolk Southern Triple Crown train is seen approaching Decatur, Illinois. Photo by Isaiah Bradford.
When Isaiah was around the age of ten, he began to learn more about locomotive spotting features. He commented, “I knew the difference between a Geep and a DASH-9, but not the differences between locomotive classes. Like, I couldn’t tell the difference between a GP40-2 and a GP38-2. I just knew they were Geeps and that they were cool.”
Thanks to his parents, Isaiah was able to learn a lot more about railroads through Tim and Roger Holmes’ railroad videos. “My parents bought DVDs from the Holmes’ – who are two well-known railfans that cover trains in my area of Illinois. Through their videos, I learned a lot about locomotives, certain rail lines, the differences between classes of engines, and so on,’ Bradford said.
Throughout his early teenage years, Isaiah just watched trains, but it wasn’t until August of 2019 that he first started photographing trains. “It pretty much was just shooting anything and everything with my iPhone. That was all I had and all I knew. But while at Wabic, I met some local railfans by the names of Mike Jacobs and Lewis Marien. They pretty much taught me everything I know today.”
He continued, “Through them, I learned about framing, the law of thirds, taking pictures on the bright side and NOT the shadowy side, how to work with the light, and what types of cameras and lenses were good to use,” said Bradford. “William Shaffer was also another big inspiration to me,” he added.
Shane Wilson, President of ScaleTrains.com, can relate to Isaiah, as Wilson had great railfan mentors who took him under their wings at a young age. In a recent interview, Wilson said, “There wouldn’t be a ScaleTrains.com today without the railfan mentors I had as a teenager.” He continued, “As a manufacturer, we often hear that we need to make value-priced model trains for young people, but it’s not value-priced trains that bring youth to the hobby… It’s really the people who share their time and introduce young people to our favorite hobby.”
Isaiah enjoys volunteering in his spare time at the Monticello Railway Museum in Illinois. Here, he is seen at the throttle of a former Illinois Central GP10.
In the mid-1980s, Shane grew up watching trains not far from Isaiah’s hometown in Danville, Illinois. “Out of a school system of 2,000 kids, I was the only one that was really interested in trains. It was really hard to meet people who shared the same interests as I did, but thanks to the mentors I had, I was able to learn a lot more about railroads and get involved in a local club. Today, things are much different thanks to social media,” Shane said.
Social media has been a great way for Isaiah to meet new friends, including Kerry Douglas. “Facebook has allowed me to connect with lots of people who share the same passion I have for railroads. Kerry Douglas has taught me a lot about the hobby, photography, and model railroading. There’s also not a lot of black railfans in this hobby, so I am glad to have that in common with him,” said Bradford.
For Christmas last year, Isaiah’s parents purchased him his very first camera, a Canon T7i. Since then, in his spare time, Isaiah has been photographic trains around Decatur whenever someone is willing and able to take him. “So far, my favorite trip has been to the BNSF Transcon. I was able to shoot all kinds of intermodal, manifest, and local freight trains. As a kid, I always wanted to see the Transcon because of that Santa Fe train set. I’d have to say the Santa Fe is my favorite legacy railroad,” Bradford said.
In his spacetime, when he isn’t taking train pictures, Bradford likes to volunteer at the Monticello Railroad Museum in Monticello, Illinois. For Isaiah, it has been a great way to learn teamwork. He said, “I’ve learned a lot from working with other people on restoration projects. Monticello has shown me what teamwork is all about. Not only that, but they’ve taught me so much about railroad history. I have an entirely new respect for what came before me – and really want to see steam locomotives in action. I’ve never seen a steam engine move under its own power before. I hope that changes soon,” he said.
Bradford has also been getting involved with the Kentucky Steam Heritage Corporation (KSHC), learning more about rail-preservation projects like the Rail Heritage Center in Ravenna, Kentucky. Isaiah attributes his interest in Kentucky Steam to Andy Wartman, a board member at the non-profit. A recent birthday visit to Ravenna afforded Isaiah an opportunity to work on 2716, where he learned how to use a blowtorch under the supervision of Chief Mechanical Officer, Jason Sobczynski. “The guys at Kentucky Steam are great and really made my birthday special,” said Isaiah. He continued, “The icing on the cake was that they bought me a student membership as a gift for my 15th. I really like that they’re all about getting young people involved and want to help the community come back.”
Isaiah Bradford at the throttle of Chesapeake & Ohio 2716.
Isaiah’s interest in steam goes hand-in-hand with his interest in model railroading. “I really love that my favorite model railroad company, ScaleTrains.com, and my favorite railroad group, Kentucky Steam, are working together at bringing 2716 back to life,” he said. “I know that ScaleTrains donates a portion of the sale from each Spirit of Ravenna model to help restore 2716. I think it’s great that a model railroad company supports preservation like that,” said Bradford.
According to Bradford, there’s one locomotive in Kentucky Steam’s collection that he would really like to see ScaleTrains.com produce. “ScaleTrains should totally make SD40-2 no. 6162. For me, that locomotive is a favorite. I actually photographed the locomotive in Decatur, just before it was donated by Norfolk Southern to Kentucky Steam, so I would love to see the model produced in HO,” he said.
NS 6162 at Decatur, Illinois prior to being donated to Kentucky Steam. Photo by Isaiah Bradford.
Although he was first introduced to N Scale as a child, the now teenaged Bradford said he wants to start collecting HO Scale. “I can’t wait to get more involved with model trains and I’m currently helping a friend of mine build a prototype-freelance HO layout in his basement. One day, I want to have my own layout and will probably end up modeling Santa Fe. I’ll never forget my first train set and it’s really why I have pursued this passion since I was a little kid. I’ll definitely be getting some Rivet Counter models in the near future.”
Isaiah hopes to one day combine his passion for both railroads and photography as a career, possibly working for a major railroad’s marketing department in the future. He’s currently building up his portfolio and his main body of work can be found here, on Instagram.
There’s no telling what is on the horizon for the young Isaiah Bradford, but photography and railroads will most-likely always be at the center of his life.
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