Has model railroading punched its last ticket?


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By Matthew Le Blanc

Out of all the hobbies a kid could have one in particular took the world by steam. Boys, and perhaps a few girls, across America have been fascinated by model trains and their life-sized counterparts for over 90 years. With a new train engine the size of your finger commanding, on average, a $200 price tag, this past time has burned more holes in a hobbyists pocket than coal in a furnace. Unfortunately, as time moves on, so do tastes in entertainment. Video games and the Internet have become major players in competing for a child’s and hobbyist’s time, pulling them away from the more traditional and productive hobbies. With all the distractions of the digital age is something as classic as model trains still relevant or is it a hobby that is slowly being derailed?

“The simple answer is yes, railroad modelling is still relevant,” says George Ziemer, a model train enthusiast and employee at Modeller’s Choice, a local hobby shop. “Model railroading might not be something the youngsters are into, but there’s still a huge group of us older folk that have been doing it for years. Some of us try to pass it down to our families, and sometimes it sticks, but most of the time kids just want to see the train’s crash into each other.”

Ziemer has been building model train layouts for nearly 20 years and says most of the people that end up taking on this hobby are retired or just love trains. He says older people have the time and money to invest into a hobby that requires “patience and an eye for the little things.”

“Kids these days don’t seem to have the attention span for a hobby that requires such a high level of attention to detail,” Ziemer says. “It’s easier, and maybe cheaper for parents, to play one of those video games that don’t require any setup time. When I was a child, everyone had a train set they would play with for hours on the floor, setting up new track layouts and watching them ride around. You felt like you were creating something.”

Model railroading dates back nearly 90 years, when Lionel (a model train manufacturer) first introduced its electric-powered train. The business enjoyed a golden age during the 1920’s, when heavy metal locomotives and cars could be found in every home.

U.S. model train production briefly stopped during the Second World War, but the industry boomed again in the 1950’s when trains once again became the number one toy for boys. To put it into perspective with today’s generation, Model Railroader magazine’s circulation has dropped to 138,034 from 272,000 since 1993. Interestingly enough, the average train hobbyist will spend an estimated $1,555 a year on their hobby, almost twice as much as they did in the early 1990’s.

Rodney Hill is a retired steel worker and has been into train modelling for over 30 years. He admits to having too many hobbies for one person, but says model railroading encompasses much more than simply driving a toy around a track.

“It’s not just about the trains. You get to design the track layout, which is actually a lot of math, and you build every detail around the track. You place the trees, paint the scenery and trains, construct the houses and train stations. You can sit here for hours gluing the grass and stone into place to build a complete landscape. It sounds boring doesn’t it, but you’re really creating a little working city of your own.”

Hill says his current layout has taken him about a year to setup so far and could potentially take another ten before it’s complete.

“I like to hunt, fish and those types of things,” says Hill. “Doing this gives me some quiet time away from everything else.  The sense of accomplishment is a great feeling as well. I’ll show my kids and grandchildren and they’re like ‘Oh geez. Dad likes to go play with his trains. Just how old are you?’ and then they get to the door and all of a sudden there’s bright eyes and ‘You did that?’”

Hill believes hobbies like model railroading will always have a place on the living room floor, or in his case, rigged up on particle board in his son’s old bedroom.

“As far as dying out, I would say no, because there are quite a few clubs even around this city and in the bigger cities even that are quite extensive. If you look beyond the home, big production movies still use models to stage things like a train wreck or a city falling apart. So there are people out there that have made a career out of building miniature cities and small scale versions of things.”

Many stores, like Modeller’s Choice, still dedicate a section to railroading supplies and kits. Ziemer says even though the hobby’s biggest fans are growing older, business is still pretty steady.

“We do sell quite a bit of railroading stock at [Modeller’s Choice],” Ziemer says. “It’s not as popular as it used to be or as popular as some of the other hobbies like remote control planes and what not, but once and a while we get a young one in here who’s eyes light up when they see a train chugging along.”

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