Monday, June 2, 2008

Fast train to oblivion

I am almost sixty-eight years old, and I am a retired print newspaper journalist. If that's not enough to make me look positively Precambrian, a small item I encountered yesterday while looking up something else on the Web has started the nails into my coffin:

The monthly circulation of Model Railroader magazine has dropped from a high of 225,000 copies in 1950 to 162,500 today.

Hardly a surprise. The generation born during and just after World War II was the last to truly enjoy toy trains under the holiday tree. As the decades wore on and new kinds of models -- airplanes, slot cars, rockets among them -- had their heyday and were replaced by Wii and its ilk, the average model railroader grew grayer and grayer. Today train shows and hobby shops (if you still can find them) are haunted primarily by grandfathers.

And this despite the inroads high-tech electronics have made into the hobby. Today many if not most model trains are controlled by tiny wireless receivers implanted into locomotives. Grandpa's not necessarily mired in the Industrial Revolution.

Rivers of ink and forests of paper have been expended in efforts to explain why trains still capture the collective imagination of old men. Some of them are simple attempts to recapture the childlike joy of discovering the latest Lionel boxcar on Christmas Day, of playing trains with Dad. Another is the satisfaction of constructing and operating one's own model empire with the greatest possible realism and complexity.

Four years ago a charming book was published that vividly explained why model trains have had such an impact on the inner lives of Baby Boomers: Playing with Trains: A Passion Beyond Scale by Sam Posey, the former Grand Prix auto racer and Emmy-winning sportscaster. It's still selling modestly well on, checking in at a respectable No. 203,830 this morning, and it's one of 125,000 titles available in a Kindle version.

Whether it's a poem to a durable passion or a paean for a disappearing pastime I don't know, but if you ever wanted to understand why your grandfather is so nuts about a hobby with a history as ancient as that of whist, this book is the place to start.

It has been years since I last seriously played with trains, most recently having built a small N scale layout inside a cocktail table with a lift-off top. I still have the locomotives and cars, however, and now and then haul them out to recapture old dreams. Other hobbies have taken up my leisure time over the years -- tropical fish, furniture building and photography among them -- but always I seem to return to first principles, those that begin with flanged wheel on steel rail.

Can't you hear the lonesome whistle in the night, too?


  1. I couldn't agree with you more. I would rather have the children of today use their creative minds to build layouts and play with model trains than sit in front of the TV and let the Game boy take their minds. There is no creativity in todays toy market.
    Give them something that they can touch and dream good dreams about.

  2. >>Can't you hear the lonesome whistle in the night, too?

    Well, yeah, but am surprised to see this phrase from you. Just a cliche, or can you "hear" inside your head?

  3. Of course I can hear inside my head, Pete. It's called imagination.