model train set on track

The Eyes of a Child

e*Train Issue: Aug 2002   |   Posted in:

By Bill Laughlin

How well are we transmitting the model railroad hobby to the next generation of children, ages one through fifteen?

I specified ages on this for a reason: It used to be that you started a child playing with electric trains at about ages five to seven. (Cars and ladies intrude at sixteen.) It has been my direct experience, working with my own children, their friends, and my young grandson, that, if you wait until the fifth birthday, these days, you probably WON’T get them “hooked” on the hobby.

Recognize the difference between “hooked” and a “passing interest”, please. Let’s stop deluding ourselves: the statistics speak for themselves. The May issue of “Playthings” magazine listed “Vehicles” as a significant toy-market growth area at 15.4%, yet of that market, ELECTRIC TRAINS make up .1%, yes, LESS THAN ONE PERCENT of the toy “vehicles” market!!!

Lionel, MTH, and the rest are down at the bottom of the same category as Hot Wheels, Matchbox, Road Champs, radio-controlled planes, boats, and even battery-powered cars that kids ride in! In fact, this is the SMALLEST percentage of that entire market!

Maybe we should look at model trains through the eyes of a child. I don’t know of any small children that aren’t thoroughly fascinated by the sight and sounds of a Lionel steam engine puffing out white smoke in sync with some sort of “choo-choo” sound. They’ll watch it for hours, until Mom or Dad pulls them away.

How do they get exposed to this sight? Maybe they’re lucky enough to go to a train show or hobby shop with an operating layout. But that presupposes that a parent or grandparent either had an interest themselves, or thought enough to take some time to go see trains somewhere. This doesn’t happen as often in 2002 as it might have, fifty years earlier. Needless to say, there are fewer places to see operating trains, especially O-gauge ones with all the features you and I take for granted.

Maybe they see a Thomas the Tank Engine video, or an “I Love Toy Trains” video, or something similar. Again, this generally presupposes an environment at least partially created by a parent or grandparent. Not something you can count on in 2002.

In 1951, older kids (ages 7-12) often had friends who had trains in their basement. Maybe the child himself didn’t own any, but it really was one of the “in” toys to own in that decade, and for several previous decades, as well. How many kids get this type of exposure today? Relatively few.

Today’s fathers are obviously lacking this background. Many of them grew up with road race sets, Hot Wheels, Star Wars and other “action” figures, and the like. As for me, I prefer the “action” of a Hudson thundering down the rails, but that’s another story.

I started my grandson, Riley Winn (who’s 2 ½ now) by watching “Thomas” and McComas videos, him in my lap, at ten months! While this may seem ludicrous, he “graduated” from a passion for Thomas last year into being much more “sophisticated” by wanting to see the terrific “I Love Lionel” and the rest of the “I Love Toy Trains” series (Mr. McComas is up to number 11, at last check.) Riley is so fixated on trains that all of his cousins (2-1/2 years old, on down to less than a year old) have prevailed on their parents to buy THEM “Thomas” wooden railway systems, too.

So EXAMPLE is how it’s done. And don’t forget, small children LOVE repetition.

Riley has moved on, now, to “real” ELECTRIC trains on the carpet, at least at Grandpa’s House. “Accidents” aren’t ever serious if the engine can only “fall” half an inch to a soft landing. The transition from wooden railway systems to electrics MUST be done carefully, before too extensive of an investment is made into non-powered brio toys, plastic Lego sets, or even (horror of horrors) HO or G-scale cheap starter sets.

Please consider constructing stair step platforms for small-fry viewing of modular layouts! Why rely on Dad or Mom to indefinitely shoulder the little tyke? Some of these tykes aren’t so little. They ALWAYS want to stay longer than the parent does. Never fails! Contact Jim Herron or any of the great guys at the Houston HTOS club. They’ve built several, and the children LINE UP and fight over “time on the bridge.” This is the kind of attention we really should want to foster.

And speaking of modular layouts, how many of us, when running trains at our mall runs, train suites, or shows, GET OUT from inside or behind the layout to thrust a Command Control unit into a youngster’s hand to give them a hands-on opportunity to blow the whistle, or change the direction? This is critically important!!!! When we were five years old, were WE content with watching dad or granddad operate the ZW throttle? I doubt it!

SURROUND in “5.1” irresistible environments these young fathers! The smell of scented smoke, the heft of a nice black steam engine, the iconic colors of an F3 Santa Fe or Daylight, the crisp clear Railsounds announcements and diesel revs, the sight of perfect synchronized Proto 2.0 smoke puff and engine chuff! Aren’t WE proud of how well today’s engines perform? Don’t WE thrill to see how well our new trains are built? How well do we communicate our passion? This is really the key to it all.

Mike Wolf, or someone under his direction, has written a brilliant summation of the wonderful BENEFITS the toy train hobby can transmit to our children, located inside the first two pages of the orange 2001 RailKing “Ready-to-Run” catalog. Please make an effort to locate one for yourself, and read it. Sure, all fifteen of these items are second nature to US, but what about making an effort to show this 2-page spread to parents you come in contact with? Who cares if they end up buying a different brand than what YOU own? Get them started any way you can, and the sooner, the better.