Business Columns & Blogs

Hobbyist fire burns bright in young kids, then fades

Kids aren’t interested in model trains, you say?

Sure couldn’t prove it by the throngs of families pouring into one of the exhibition buildings at the Puyallup fairgrounds last weekend.

There were kids in arms, kids perched on shoulders, kids in strollers, kids in backpacks and front carriers, kids barely able to stand happily sprawled on the floor in one corner of the hall playing with Thomas the Tank Engine track and cars, kids lined up in another corner to take “train rides,” kids bouncing in place with anticipation of ogling trains running on beautifully landscaped and intricately detailed layouts.

An advertising blitz sponsored by the industry group that put on the show helped pump up attendance (more than 14,000 on Saturday, by one count provided to an exhibitor), but the size of the crowd and the enthusiasm displayed by its members can be credited to something deeper. Even though trains haven’t been the dominant mode of passenger transportation for decades, and they don’t figure in popular culture as they once did, the fascination for boys big and small (and many girls too, to judge by the show) with big machines – trains, trucks, planes, boats – is a constant.

Nor is the show an isolated occurrence of the enthusiasm for trains, as evidenced by the crowds lined up at Tacoma Rail’s open house last August for an opportunity to ride a train through the Tideflats.

The weekend’s enthusiasm carried over to Monday, says George Bourcier, owner of Tacoma Trains & Hobbies in the Proctor district. Winter weather is trains season, and the holiday season is trains season, he says, but usually that means lots of weekend activity. Monday, he says, was the best sales day he’s ever had in a store in the month of November.

All of which should produce considerable satisfaction for hobby-shop retailers and manufacturers of model railroading paraphernalia. And it does – to a point.

The problem that model railroading faces could be spotted in that same exhibition hall where two boys, in appearance just on the cusp of double digits in age, sat oblivious to the swarm of activity around them as they pecked and poked and thumbed away at handheld video games.

The enthusiasm for trains nurtured among very young children by Thomas, Legos, Brio, Lionel and other makers and brands eventually dissipates. “By the time they’re 8 or 9 and get into computers, they lose that interest,” said Bourcier, who has operated a storefront model-railroad retailing business since 1992.

It’s not a problem isolated to model railroading. Whether it’s quilting or radio-controlled cars and planes or doll houses and miniatures or dozens of other hobbyist activities, he says, the base of enthusiasts is getting older.

Blame it on the insidious effects of video games and the Internet, what Bourcier calls the lack of patience among many kids to build things like models, changes in retailing (he recalls the day when all the major department stores had their own hobby shops; their disappearance may be both cause and effect), competition from organized sports and other activities or dozens of other societal influences and pressures. They’re all combining to do in the concept of the hobby.

The industry is all too aware of the problem and has been trying to reverse the trend. The World’s Greatest Hobby show tour and accompanying promotional effort is one example. So are attempts to incorporate technology into the hobby. Model railroading now offers digital wireless controls that permit the operator to move around, and allow the independent operation of multiple trains on the same layout simultaneously.

Still, Bourcier says, many older kids “are more interested in running a train on a computer simulator” than a physical model on a self-built layout.

If anyone in the industry had a sure-fire answer to halt the erosion and aging of the hobbyist population, or had figured out a way to keep the enthusiasm alive through adolescence, the teen years and into adulthood, they would have implemented it long ago. Until they do, what once were widespread activities will become smaller and smaller niche pursuits. That’s unhealthy for the businesses. It’s also a sad trend to watch, as the excitement burning in the eyes of kids tugging their parents’ hands toward a train layout is, as the years advance, replaced by the dull glow of a video screen.

Bill Virgin’s column appears Sundays in The News Tribune. He is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at