Thursday, May 04, 2017

Lessons from York: What We Saw (Part 1) - Operators Welcome

Sure, it's great as a display piece -- but this 1925
American Flyer set probably doesn't have that many
spins around the layout left in it.
Dad and I recently returned from our semi-annual trip to the Train Collectors Association (TCA) Eastern Division toy train meet in York, PA. This is the largest such show in the United States and provides an interesting snapshot of the state of the hobby.

It can also hint at the current state of collecting in general. As is our tradition, we spent a lot of time discussing what we saw a lot of (and what we didn't) -- and more importantly, the reasons behind them.

Changes in the wind

There's a major change happening in the toy train world, spurred in part by the changing age demographic. The older collector who accumulated vintage trains to proudly display on shelves is being replaced by a younger collector who prefers to run their trains.

Both are reconnecting with the toys of their youth (the essence of any type of toy collecting, I think). But there's a big difference. The toys of the first and second generation TCA member's youth date from the 1920s and 1930s -- and are too fragile to be run regularly without restoration work. But for the early collectors, that was fine. The toy was a trophy, not a, well, toy to be played with.

For current enthusiasts, the goal is not necessarily to get that toy train Santa never brought but to build that dream layout they never got around to. There are several professional layout building companies ready to serve this market. Classic Toy Trains, one of the premier magazines of the hobbies, features two or three operating layouts every issue and offers tips for DIY modelers.

The toy trains of these collectors date from the 1950s and 1960s and still run fairly well. But not as well as the current crop of locomotives. Digital electronic sounds and wireless commands are now standard equipment on Lionel trains. For the modern operator/collector, the reliability of the new products has resulted (I believe) in a declining interest in older trains.

Out with the Old?

For the first time, the York train meet was open to the public. It was only open for a limited time, and only for the halls that dealers and manufacturers of new products were. The goal was to reverse the slow decline in membership by showing potential members first-hand what TCA was all about.

As you can see from the above video, the public areas of the show were all about operating trains. In addition to layouts operated by Lionel, Mike's Train House, and Atlas displaying their latest offerings, there were smaller demo layouts for various accessories and products. There were also three large modular layouts for visitors to enjoy.
Unlike the example at the beginning of the post,  this reproduction of a classic Lionel 1930s train set runs just fine.
And MTH has built-in the modern electronic sound and control features that operators are looking for.
So what happens when people move from static to active displays of their collections? I think the answer can be found in what we saw (which I'll explain in Part 2) -- what we didn't see.

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