In the 19th century, the railroad was the biggest thing going. Like the internet, it connected people across long distances, promoted exploration of new places, and captured the popular imagination. The fascination with trains gave birth to the craze for model trains and the worlds they traveled. Whether they came pre-assembled or you built your own, it was a hobby that reigned for around 100 years. But times have changed.
In recent decades, selling model trains to children of either gender has been equally challenging, as author and self-described “recovering model railroader” Gerry Souter explained to me recently. He and his wife, Janet, have written a half-dozen or so books on the hobby. “I have breakfast every Tuesday with some friends of mine who run trains,” he says, “and I still have all the kits I built. I love model trains, and I enjoy going to conventions to sell our books.”
Unfortunately, Souter doesn’t see a lot of children at those events. “The average age of a model railroader is 40-plus,” Souter says with a sigh. That may be optimistic: According to a “Wall Street Journal” article published just last year, the average age of the National Model Railroad Association’s 19,000 or so members is 64, up alarmingly from 39 in the mid-1970s.
That’s too bad, because today’s analog model trains have plenty to offer 21st century’s digital kids. Though many trains are sold pre-assembled, there are still a lot of do-it-yourself kits out there, making them a good fit for those inspired by Maker and DIY culture. In addition, despite the historic image of locomotives belching black smoke everywhere they go, real trains are surprisingly efficient in terms of their energy consumption, making them one of the greenest modes of transportation going. As for train layouts, they can be as traditional or as far-fetched as a child’s imagination will allow, snaking through everything from forests of living dwarf conifers to cityscapes constructed entirely of LEGOs.
Read about the rise and fall of model trains at Collectors Weekly.