trains and ship stories in today's Washington Post

The below article on toy trains appeared in the Washington Post, accompanied by 7 color photographs that aren't on the web page. See .
Also on the same page of the paper, appealing to the same readers, is a recommendation for someone craving a little escape from the world's cares."-- any of the 11 "Hornblower" novels by C.S. Forester, most particularly the first in the series, "Beat to Quarters." See
============================The Rail Thing This Isn't Your Dad's Toy Train. (Then Again, It Might Be.)
By Linton Weeks Washington Post Staff Writer Monday, December 26, 2005; C01
A freight train sweeps around snow-covered mountains and past a picturesque village, around snow-covered mountains and past a picturesque village, around snow-covered mountains and . . . oh, you get the picture.
On one of its endless circlings -- in the First Street-side foyer of Union Station -- the little electric locomotive, which drags eight boxcars, moves along the shores of a miniature lake and past a small, crowded skating rink. When it emerges from a long tunnel, 3-year-old Jacob, in blue sweat shirt and pants, stands waiting like a giant in a sci-fi movie. He laughs, claps and points at the petite Norwegian Christmas tableau.
His mother, Nancy Kwon of Takoma Park, sighs at the thought that Jacob could stand here for hours delighting in the model train going round and round and round and round. Ad nauseam.
Electric trains are everywhere -- under the National Christmas Tree at the White House, in the U.S. Botanic Garden near the Capitol, at shopping malls, in restaurants and surely looping around lots of living-room Christmas trees this year. For decades, the toy train has been a symbol of the season.
But what do we really know about this holiday icon? It's a traditional gift for wide-eyed children to play with, right? It's a fading American artifact, fast falling into obsolescence and obscurity, right? It's a reliable relic that stays the same, despite the ever-changing world all around, right?
Wrong. The more we learn about model trains today, the more we discover that our preconceptions are wrong wrong wrong. To get on the right track, here are some myth-busting facts about model trains:
They're for the children. Not! "The dirty little secret," says Jerry Calabrese, CEO of Lionel, "is that most fathers play with trains more than their kids do." Lionel, based in Michigan, is the largest maker of model trains in this country.
"Our average customer is a 52-year-old man," says Mike Wolf, founder of MTH Electric Trains. A multimillion-dollar enterprise in Columbia, MTH is the second-largest model train company in the United States. Wolf says model trains have always been bought by older guys, mostly for themselves.
Men might say they are buying the trains for their children or their grandchildren, but they're not. "Kids are an excuse," Wolf says. Hobbyists, mostly male, spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on model trains and model railroad paraphernalia.
Observe a well-designed train panorama and you will understand the attraction. You are in control of your world. The train runs in an oval or a figure eight, but it always ends up where it began. There is completion, order. The track threads together cities and farms -- blessed be the ties that bind urban and rural in our fractured culture. Men love the same things about model trains that their forebears did about real trains more than a century ago.
Though the idea of model trains harks back to a simpler time, in many ways today's hobby is much simpler. In the old days, electric trains were heavy, bulky things. Track pieces were often bent or broken. You had to build a table and secure the tracks to plywood. The transformer was a quirky thing. Nowadays, track pieces are more stable and snap together and pull apart easily. Transformers are more reliable. Trains are ready to roll right out of the box.
Wolf, who has trafficked in the business for more than 25 years, says the folks who buy his products are the same ones who buy Harley-Davidson motorcycles: middle-aged doctors and lawyers "who are reliving their childhoods."
Train buyers are baby boomers, Wolf says. Their kids are moving out of the house, and they have room to set up elaborate displays. To play to this market, MTH produces Anheuser-Busch and NFL cars.
Wolf estimates that 200,000 people are active in the hobby as collectors, operators or what is known in the trade as "dream operators." Those are the guys who buy train pieces now and then and have every intention of someday putting them on display.
It's an expensive hobby; beggars can't be choo-choosers. Model Railroader magazine reports that an average model train enthusiast spends more than $1,500 a year on equipment. Wolf says his average customer spends considerably more. Some of those trains turn out to be good investments. A Lionel locomotive from the 1910s was selling on eBay recently for $3,400. On the other hand, some train sets wind up as heaps of metal in the attic.
No one cares about trains anymore. There are all kinds of reasons to think that interest in trains is dying. On the large scale, the percentage of folks who travel by train has fallen over the past 20 years. And on the small scale, mom-and-pop hobby shops are being replaced by huge discount stores. Besides, most young boys are hooked on, and to, video games, right?
Wolf says to remember that most of his customers are not young boys. In fact, he says, the model train business is booming. Sales are up in his company, which he says does about $40 million a year.
Competition is fierce in the model railroad world. Lionel was founded in 1900; MTH began in 1992. In the mid-1990s, a consortium including rock-and-roll legend Neil Young bought Lionel. A few years later, MTH filed suit against Lionel for stealing trade secrets and Lionel was forced into bankruptcy. It has re-emerged strong, says Calabrese, who has been with the company about 18 months.
"It's a golden age for model trains," says John Sipple, editor of Model Railroad News. He attributes the enthusiasm not only to middle-agers' mania but also to a burgeoning international market. People all over the world are making trains and buying them. Sipple says models are crafted in Japan, China, Sri Lanka, Bosnia and "who knows where."
Though hobby shops are disappearing, train lovers can find everything they need on the Internet, such as silo container cars from Germany or locomotives with magnetic knuckle couplers from Japan. On the Trainworld Web site, you can buy an MTH Norfolk Southern caboose for $93. Or Lionel's Keystone Super Freight reproduction of the St. Louis-to-New York train for $385.
Model train publications flourish. Model Railroader advertises a monthly circulation of 176,000. Circulation at Sipple's news-driven tabloid has increased from 9,000 to 12,000 since 2002. And the size of the magazine has expanded from 48 to 72 pages.
There is no innovation at the station. Incorrect! New models rely on sophisticated microchips that add sound, acceleration and visual effects. Upgrades are coming at such an exciting rate, says editor Sipple, "people don't know whether to spit or go blind."
Calabrese says Lionel continues to enhance the experience of its starter sets with sound, lights and music. A starter set is the basic kit: an engine, a caboose, several other cars, a transformer and enough track to make an oval. The sets are usually sold for much less than the various components would cost if bought separately.
"That's the fastest-growing part of our business," Calabrese says. The company has joined forces with companies such as Disney, NASCAR and Warner Bros., which produced "The Polar Express," to make kid-friendly kits. Lionel believes that its near-term growth is in starter sets. In 2000, the company sold fewer than 30,000 such sets. This Christmas season, it will sell about 140,000.
Lionel is also unveiling the Acela -- its first new model in 50 years, Calabrese says. The car tilts as it goes around curves and its doors open. Hobbyists have been signing up for the new train for more than two years. The new locomotives will begin to be shipped next month.
MTH, meanwhile, is focusing on its "digital command system." Wolf says his company has spent more than $4 million developing equipment that will allow its trains to provide operators a more interactive experience. New engines, designed with video gamers in mind, play MP3-formatted music, deliver station announcements and synchronize smoke with engine sounds. "The train can even read them a bedtime story as it goes around the room," Wolf says. "We still build trains like they were in the 1950s [but] with the technology of the 21st century."
Believing that starter sets are bait, MTH will sell about 35,000 of them this year, according to Wolf. A starter set that might cost a couple hundred dollars "is like a little bit of free drugs," he says. "A guy gets hooked and he buys lots of trains."
Steve Keys, for instance, has owned a bunch of model railroad equipment in his life. A civilian who works for the Navy, Keys, 56, is standing at the Norwegian model train display in Union Station on a recent weekday morning. He once collected model trains. Now they are stored in his attic. "I will probably get them out someday," he says, "for the grandkids."
In a baseball cap and denim jacket, he's waiting to catch a train home to Woodstown, N.J., in a few minutes. But for now, he pauses, suitcase by his side, and watches, spellbound, the way he used to, as a freight train sweeps around snow-covered mountains and past a picturesque village, around snow-covered mountains and past a picturesque village . . .
2005 The Washington Post Company
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For those readers of this newsgroup who are not residents of the U.S.A., but who might wish to read 'Beat to Quarters' its title as published outside the U.S.A. is 'The Happy Return'. Regards, Bill.
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The item states "Lionel, based in Michigan, is the largest maker of model trains in this country", and later says that MTH is the second largest firm.
Is there any basis in fact for these statements? Not arguing, just curious how large Lionel and MTH might be in the overall scene. Maybe they are the largest in the O scale tinplate business? And they don't actually make anything "in this country' unless they are referring to China!
Bob Boudreau
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