The black locomotive jumps from its tunnel like a ghost from the past. It’s an O-gauge model, a replica of the 19th-century Acheson Topeka & Santa Fe Line, puffing gray curls down the straightaway.
But before you can fuss over the authentic sound, the visual detail or the surreal charm, it vanishes into another tunnel. And part of you wonders if you’ll see it again.
Model trains of all varieties will steam toward Mesa this weekend as the Desert Division of the Train Collectors Association holds its annual Turkey Meet at the Mesa Convention Center. Once a high-profile hobby, model training has sustained itself under the radar for more than a generation. So who collects model trains these days? Is it a dwindling crop of elder hobbyists who remember the iron horse? Or have they built bridges across to the younger generation?
“In a way, my grandfather got me started,” Gordon Wilson says. “He would take me to the railroad station and we’d sit and watch the Lackawanna trains go by.” The 66-year-old Fountain Hills resident says he caught the bug in the early ’40s but model trains go back much further than that.
“Model trains started in Germany, where the tradition of running a train around the Christmas tree began in the 19th century.” In America, they seized upon a youthful fascination with progress. “When I was growing up, that smoke and whistle were the cat’s meow,” he chuckles. Joshua Lionel Callen began manufacturing Lionel trains around 1900 and — like real-life railroads — they were wildly popular through the middle of the 20th century.
“Their allure is very complex, to be honest,” Wilson says. “Although, in the ’40s, I didn’t think beyond, ‘Gee, these are fun.’ ” Lionel sales reached $33 million in 1953, but the industry began to falter in the ’60s as young fancies turned toward rockets and slot cars.
“Model trains went into a tailspin,” say Chris Allen. “At the beginning of the computer age, (the industry) almost died.”
A Mesa resident and the incoming president of the local division of the Train Collectors, Allen says the hobby is “at a crossroads.” At 55, he considers himself among the younger group of avid collectors. But that is changing. “ ‘Thomas the Train’ (the PBS children’s series) and the movie ‘The Polar Express’ have really rekindled interest in trains.” So, too, has the booming number of retirees with discretionary incomes.
“It has become a hobby, now, that grandparents share with their grandkids,” Allen says. “One of the best parts of these shows is seeing kids run between sets, saying ‘Hey, look at this!’ And the new trains now? They’re unbelievable.”
You know the Pennsylvania Limited is arriving in Chicago, because the model 1920s passenger train tells you so. (“Now arriving on Track One …”) As Steven Palmer brings it in to the station, the owner of Arizona Train Depot describes what a modern model can do: “This one can be command-controlled with 200 features,” he says. His 19thcentury locomotive has 186K memory with downloadable upgrades.
“I can have it talk to the station, loud whistle, medium whistle, I can adjust the ‘chuff rate’ on the smoke.” His “ready-to-run” sets from MTH Electric Trains include locomotive, cars and track for a little more than $300.
“Model trains are pretty big out here,” Palmer says. “Christmas is the big train season. But we only do about 20 percent of our business then. We’ll see a lot of people who got a set over Christmas and now they want more track, or want to dedicate a room to it.”
Palmer is bullish about the future: “Here’s how I know,” he says, nodding toward his Acheson Topeka. “If you see a train like this going down a track and it fascinates you, that never leaves you. It’s there or it’s not. If it’s there, you can go through denial, years of being a teenager, discovering girls, all that … you’ll come back to it after you get older.”