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New Blood In An Old Hobby

By Lou Palumbo, Published in Classic Toy Trains, December 2007 

I've been collecting and selling trains for more than 30 years. I've watched preschool-age kids come into my Underground Railroad Shoppe in New Castle, PA, with their parents. Now I see some of these same kids bringing their own children to see the trains. I guess time does fly when you're having fun. 

O and S gauge toy trains are a great family tradition, especially around the holidays. I thnk we will have toy trains as long as there is the Christmas season. However, the outlook for the train collecting hobby is another story.  

The hobby was reborn in the early 1970s just about the time that middle-age baby boomers started to collect the trains they had as kids in the 1950s. You know what happened then. Over the next 30 years there has been a great desire among these men to own toy trains.  

New manufacturing companies, such as MTH Electric Trains and Williams Reproductions, were formed. Hobby clubs, led by the Train Collectors Association and the Toy Train Operating Society were overrun with members. The train market was great! To keep this market alive it needs new blood. Many of the older collectors have gone, and more are sure to follow. Some of their collections are being sold, so plenty of vintage trains are available. Meanwhile, Lionel, MTH and other manufacturers keep on churning out new products for the market. It seems like the law of supply and demand is working against the collecting hobby.  

Two good things have happend to help the industry. First is Thomas the Tank engine. This character, featured in books and television programs, is responsible for developing thousands and thousands of new train lovers. The award-winning Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends series of videos has introduced many children to trains. These are kids who would never have been exposed to the love of trains. They start with the wooden trains, get a starter set, and become train enthusiasts at a young age. A "really useful engine" indeed!  

Another shot in the arm was given to the toy train hobby by the popular movie, The Polar Express. Lionel seized the moment on this one. It made a great O gauge replica of the train that was in the movie, and it became the all-time best-selling train set in Lionel history, beating the Blue Comet, the Scout and everything in between. The Lionel Polar Express is still going strong and will be good as long as the movie remains a favorite for every holiday season.  

Other companies are bringing out commercial trains to entice collectors into the hobby. MTH is doing a great job with its sports team trains as well as the new Coors Silver Bullet set.  

I see another development in my store. Baby boomers are now grandparents. Many of them are building train layouts for their grandkids in their homes. Papa is spending some of his retirement money to make a nice train layout in his house so that the grandkids can have something to play with when they visit. This way grandma won't object to some of their nest egg being spent at the train shop.  

Television appearances by toy toy trains also benefit our hobby. Poor Bobby Bacala of The Sopranos never got to run his O gauge Blue Comet, but the whack job at the train store on that HBO series reached more people than any toy train advertisement in history.  

All of us who admire Joshua Lionel Cowen and A.C. Gilbert, toy train promoters of the past, owe thanks to David Chase. He's the creator of The Sopranos.  

Keep searchin'!  


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