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Keep It Simple!
Views from the Underground
Winter 2002-2003

It seems we have lost the real reason that toy trains were invented. It is my feeling that the toy train was invented for children and adults to enjoy as a toy. Trains contributed greatly to the building of America and played a major role in everyone's life up through the fifties. So naturally, toys would follow. Daddy rides on a train and Junior plays with a train. In the sixties, toy trains became a toy collectible and continued to be a toy enjoyed by children and adults. A nationwide subculture of enthusiasts was formed who fueled a new industry of collector books, videos, aftermarket items and parts.

For years Lionel was the only game in town, but starting in the late seventies, new manufacturers started producing trains. These new kids on the block took advantage of cheap labor, aggressive marketing, and modern manufacturing processes to bring out an incredible number of sophisticated toy trains in a short period of time. So many in fact, that the entire hobby of collecting toy trains has been diluted and is becoming highly suspect.

The old law of supply and demand is finally catching up to this hobby. For the first time, supply is greater than demand. Too many trains. Too few buyers. Nobody cares if they miss an item. Someone else will make it. They can get it later (if they still want it). How many trains can one guy buy? Even the most rabid lover of trains (the guy who bought everything) is beginning to lose interest. It's like driving through the Rockies for the first time. The first 20 snow-capped mountains you see, you're in awe. After about 50, you don't even look.

Today the only reason to buy a train is to enjoy it. That's what trains should be for anyway. And you don't have to run trains to enjoy them. You can get enjoyment out of just displaying these beauties. But that brings me to another problem. Most of the trains being produced today are really directed towards realism, both in appearance and operations.

Obviously the manufacturers are trying to lure both those who just want to display their trains as well as those who want to run the trains. These sophisticated electronic features are really nice when they work. All of the sounds, remote functions, forward and reverse units - all have been neatly incorporated in electronic boards inside of each engine.

However, the failure of these parts leaves the operator helpless. Take the cab off: It's like looking at the motor of a new car. In the old days, trains were easy to fix. Today, they have to go back to the manufacturer or be fixed by your dealer. When one of these electronic gizmos bites the dust, the train just sits. Dead on the track. Nothing you can do. Very frustrating, especially when you want to proudly show off your new $1200 engine to a room full of guests. And even when these new trains are functioning well the programming of each engine is very challenging for many of us old timers.

Service stations are also frustrated. Parts to fix all of these new electronic wonders are just not available, and when they are the cost is absurd. Most replacement boards start at $150.

Some manufacturers claim they will fix an item free for 12 months after purchase. After that it's the owner's responsibility. You don't fix these babies cheap, and even if you are wiling to spend the money, it's tough to find anyone who can do it.

There's a big opportunity here for someone to produce an inexpensive reverse unit, horn, whistle and sound board that will fit all these new trains. Not only will he make a fortune, but he will make a lot of people happy. Otherwise, we are going to have a ton of pretty expensive doorstops.

Remember the side vent windows and the fresh-air vent cars used to have? Those were great. On nice days, that's all you needed. Fresh air. I think a car manufacturer that comes out with a "new-old car" will be a good seller. Same thing with trains. Listen up train manufacturers. Time for tips from Lou. Keep it simple. You shouldn't have to watch a video before you run a toy train. Guys like on and off switches - not clinks and clanks. Cut down on the fancy stuff. Stick to the basics - reverse, forward, whistle, smoke - and make it available for under $200. And, most important of all, make sure it works. What a concept!

Don't get me wrong. I am completely floored by some of these new trains. They are fine models of the real thing right down to the smallest detail. I give the manufacturers credit for that. It's just that we need entry-level sets that are easy-to-operate and sell for under $200. The market for the expensive full-scale trains is too small to grow the hobby.

It used to be there were lots of collectors and few operators. Now it's the other way around. Most new guys enter the hobby as operators. That's a good thing because you'd better love the train you buy and not worry about selling it (and totally forget about selling it later for a profit). Those days are over. And that's not good for the older enthusiasts who had grown accustomed to watching their trains increase in value, even as they ran them. It was kind of reassuring and helped justify the purchase - both to himself and his wife. "But, honey. I know it's a lot of money but it will be worth more in a year. And if we need the money, I can always sell my trains for more than I paid for them."

The guy who says that today is delusional, misguided, or both. Investments are directly linked to supply and demand. There are simply too many new trains being produced to make them more valuable than their initial cost. But so what. Train collectors have been spoiled. What other commodity increases in value? Buy a computer. It's worth a third in a year. Buy a car, a camera, a watch - nothing goes up.

The selection of trains is so great that if a buyer misses out, he need only to wait for someone else to make the item. There's no urgency to buy anything. And since all trains are made in the Far East - in many cases by the same factory - what difference does it make who makes it?

All these new trains have not affected Postwar and Prewar trains in excellent or better condition (with the box). Those trains are bringing more than ever. But medium quality Postwar (without boxes) is suffering because they are only good as "runners." But, if you are going to run trains, most guys want the new electronics. Why pay $1500 for a very good Lionel F3 from the fifties (even if it's rare) when you can buy a brand new F3 with all the electronic gadgets for less than half (along with the potential electronic nightmares). The new trains are great - when they work. And most work pretty well. It's just that no one knows for how long.

The only sure bet for a guy who wants to buy trains as an investment is Like New boxed Prewar of Postwar. Why? Because the supply is fixed. It's like buying land. There is no more. Another positive about these trains is that they were all made in the U.S.A., and that means a lot to many people. They like to see "Made in the USA" on their boxes.

Give me all the clean Postwar and Prewar trains that you have and I'll show you a good investment. And you know what else? I can repair those babies.

Thanks for visiting my website at www.undergroundrrshop.com.

T.M. Books and videos have been real good friends and we are sharing information so I will try to keep you folks up to "snuff" with all of the new train B.S. that I can get from time to time. So keep the T.M. website on your list of regular visits to read the latest "Views from the Underground".

See you at York in the Purple Hall.

    Lou Palumbo

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