we attract young people to the hobby, or should we care?
As I have remarked before, there are an awful
lot of older blokes at model railway exhibitions. Of course there are young
kids, brought along by parents and a smattering of younger men but there are
very few teenagers indeed.
Is the hobby of model railways fast becoming the
pastime of grumpy old men, just waiting to die or is there another generation
waiting to fill their shoes?
It is probably true to say that railway
modelling is hardly regarded as 'cool' by the general public. 'Playing
trains', and 'trainsets' are terms one still often hears. There is also a
great deal of confusion between what is a 'trainspotter' and a railway
Some celebrities have kept their interest a dark
secret for years for fear of losing street cred.. Who, for instance would
have dreamt that Rod Stewart has actually TWO model railways and that his
singing career started because his Mum thought he should go out and 'get a
life'. Pete Waterman (who started out as a train spotter) of the Stock Aitken
Waterman music production team is also a keen railway modeller. Two other
modellers are Michael Palin and Jools Holland.
But four swallows a summer does not make. Some
model railway clubs are experiencing an alarming decline in numbers due to the
attrition of old age. As the
average age in clubs creeps up and up, it must become less and less
attractive to young blood. After all, who wants to spend that much time with
a bunch of old fogies?
It is true that a few clubs are still thriving but
they are probably in the minority these days.
Being an old fogey myself, I blame it on
and the like.
When I was a boy, very few toys were available indeed and if I wanted one, I
would have to, often as not, make it myself. Nowadays, you can buy a
wonderful model of just about anything. The only skill you need to learn is
how to open the packaging! Thanks to immediate post war shortages, I gained a
lot of skills which has put me in good stead for the rest of my life.
Rather surprisingly, Thomas the Tank Engine, Ivor the engine, Jack the Station Cat,
and more recently Teddy Mac and the Railway Bears are still very popular
with small children. However there seems to be a large gap once more mature
interests take over. Some sons
follow their father into the hobby early on, in adult life but as the number
of younger middle aged involved in the hobby falls, so naturally the
offspring has no parenting mentor to follow.
The interest in the opposite sex takes paramount place
quite naturally in the teenage years. There is nothing new in this though,
But does the drop in club membership prove that
interest in the hobby is dying or is it that the hobby is just changing?
Looking at the continuing plethora of wonderful RTR models entering the
market place, nothing would appear further from the truth. Only a handful of
people can better or equal modern RTR equipment by scratch building and for
the most part, why bother at all when you can have perfect model of a Schools
class in a heartbeat?
For the more obscure needs, the 'garage
enterprise' has become an integral part of the hobby and it is possible to
buy just about anything as a kit.
This may explain in part why the current
emphasis is on ultra realistic scenery and dioramas. This may be the
last bastion of manual skill and creativity. Us old folk maintain our
interest driven by the nostalgia of childhood memories. The
inaccessible and sterile modern railway, (preserved lines excepted), is
rather unlikely to stir similar passions in the young heart but the need to
capture a 'special' part of the landscape will remain as strong as ever.
The home computer explosion has changed many
things forever. These days, you can be in touch with other modellers who
share your interest at the touch of a button. They may very well live in OZ,
Colorado, Brazil, France or the UK. It really doesn't matter. Close and
lasting relationships are formed in this way, even though you may never
actually meet. People even get married after romancing on the internet so
this is not at all surprising.
In the early days, most people were thrilled
just to see a train, any train, running through a tunnel and perhaps some
rudimentary scenery. We have all become much more sophisticated and
demanding. Thanks to the internet and a huge range of published books, we can
accurately research almost any railway subject we choose. Armed with a simple
'point and shoot' digital camera and some basic IT skills, you can share your
interest with the world.
Perhaps this has led to a specialisation of
interest. I know one modeller whose only interest is the Tollesbury Kelvedon
line, the Crab and Winkle. Any other railway subject leaves him cold. His
interest is far from solitary however, thanks to the internet.
Then there is the 'scale explosion'. From garden
railways to T scale, the range of scales in use these days is staggering.
Enthusiasts may group together by sharing a specific railway interest, a
scale or indeed both.
Computers are not just for staying in touch and
sourcing material. You can also operate and even build your own digital
railway. Let's face it....'train sim.' is not going to go away and we may lose
more and more to the digital world. The fact is that as graphics become
better and better, some may prefer to drive their own digital loco on the
Lynton & Barnstaple Railway rather than actually take part in rebuilding the
So can the model railway club still fulfil a
role in the future?
Many clubs gather around one large model
railway. If it is the wrong scale, gauge or prototype it is unlikely to
appeal to a newcomer. Other clubs offer a much broader range of layouts and
will support members layouts as part of the experience. The Falmouth Model
Railway club, for instance, supports six diverse layouts.
Many people simply just do not have the room or
finance to build a model railway and the current rash of pizza layouts and
mini dioramas supports this. Let's face it, how long will it be before one is
bored to tears running a loco on twelve inches of track! Where better to keep
your layout than at the clubhouse?
The model railway club would seem to be the most
obvious place that could solve many of the problems faced by the person
starting out. The only initial outlay is the membership fee. Skills in
any aspect of the hobby can be learnt whilst using the club’s equipment and
most members will be happy allow others to operate their stock where it is
not owned by the club.
Taking a club layout to a model railway
exhibition can be a wonderful opportunity to socialise and have some fun for
the members. At many exhibitions, one is often preaching to the converted but
they can attract many people off the street. Another possibility is to have
club open days.
The old Jesuit saying, "Give me a child until he
is seven, and I will give you the man" has a ring of truth to it. Most
layouts are not in the least bit interactive and it is rare to see someone
explaining to the visitors what is going on. These days, unless the exhibit
is interactive, young folks will have hardly any interest in it at all.
A young visitor is invited to operate the harbour shuttle - photo Mick
Quite often, I have allowed a young person to
operate a railcar service between County Gate and the harbour. This always
results in a clamouring queue and from some of these kids, new enthusiasts
may be born. One club operates an O gauge layout which is nothing but a lot
of loops. On each track is a beautiful train which can be operated by a kid.
'Rug Rat' heaven!
Sadly, a number of layouts at exhibitions are
now displayed too high for kids to see. To me, this seems an utterly dumb
thing to do.
So much more could be done to 'get em young'.
These days, care is of course needed when dealing with minors but a well
organised 'junior section' in a model railway club could be the key to the
club's survival. Exhibition managers could also help by inviting a club to
bring their junior section layout as well as the 'grown up model'. Let the
kids run it at exhibitions and maybe give a prize to the best.
Perhaps joint projects could be developed with
local youth groups and community youth workers. Sadly, some clubs are still
very cliquey and much needs to be done to make them more inclusive.
sadly, some clubs are still
Many quite large model railway clubs have just
not kept up with the internet revolution. A good example of an IT aware club
is the Chester Model Railway Club which has a comprehensive and updated
website. Remember, it is no good just having a website. It has to be easily
found, using search engines like Google. How else will you coax the
solitary modeller away from his PC? A regular newsletter is also a plus,
published both on paper and on the net. Some clubs even run an online forum.
Apart from being able to "Play Trains" on a club
layout, a MRC can offer valuable social skills, and education, learning about
electrics, carpentry, DIY, photography, digital systems for the brave,
history of railways etc etc also valuable modelling help and advice.
Above all that, a model railway club can offer friendship and the feeling of being wanted among like-minded
people. The 'club experience' however, will only be as good as those in it.
They can also be a place where bullying and unpleasantness is commonplace.
Sadly, a number of clubs are still run by testosterone rather than common