Wednesday, January 24, 2007 at 9:39 pm

Model Railroading: Rich Men, Deep Pockets?

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An Associated Press article on model and toy trains generated an outraged letter when it was published in The Record of Bergen, New Jersey last month, reports.

The article’s thesis, and the cause for complaint, is twofold: model railroading, broadly speaking, is a hobby for older men rather than children, and it’s expensive enough that only well-off older men with lots of discretionary income can afford it.

I’ve been giving this some thought, and in the end, I have a hard time disagreeing with the article.

In terms of the old vs. young axis, it’s no surprise that kids’ interest in trains has declined: trains are less visible than they used to be, and kids have other interests competing for their attention. If they are interested in trains, it’s probably because they have an older family member who got them on it. Steve Cox had an interesting post on the subject of bringing kids into the hobby last month:

You can’t make someone love trains, any more than you can make them love sewing or motorcross or painting or a particular type of music. A love of trains starts when kids are very young and by the time you can read, the advertising is almost too late to make a definitive difference. Doesn’t hurt to try though.

My own (limited) experience suggests that despite the existence of starter sets — more on which in a moment — dedicated hobbyists are overwhelmingly (if not exclusively) older men. I’m almost always the youngest model railroader in the room, and I’m 34. Train sets may be bought for a child, but that purchase might not have staying power. If you’re worrying about the future of the hobby — and many appear to be doing the worrying — then that doesn’t accomplish much.

Which brings me to the other point: the deep-pockets point. Sure, as the letter writer argues, “You can get a child started with a quality N or HO setup for $100 to $200,” but a substantial portion of the hobby turns up its nose at beginner sets (even though the newer ones are of considerably better quality), the way that serious amateur astronomers turn up their noses at department-store telescopes. But a $100 train set is not typical of the hobby: I’ve spent considerably more than $100-200 and I don’t even have a working layout yet. Apart from brass, which has all but priced itself out of its own market, things can get very expensive once you move past the starter sets. That nice new Proto heavy 2-10-2 costs more than $400, but it seems expensive all round: $40 for ready-to-roll freight cars, $60 for passenger cars, even $20-30 for a switch. The gradient between starter and mainstream, in other words, is rather steep.

What the article says, in other words, is essentially true — much as many of us would wish it otherwise. But wishing it doesn’t make it so.

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