how can 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 modeller.

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, believe me!

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 actual line!

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 Thornton

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 very cliquey

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 sense.