Phila. expo shows model railroading is alive and well

Blake Foster with parents Mark and Megan at the World's Greatest Hobby on Tour show.
Blake Foster with parents Mark and Megan at the World's Greatest Hobby on Tour show. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 21, 2014

The future of model railroading has curly hair, braces, a railroader's cap and, at 13, the size and know-how to duck under train displays and connect the wires to power them correctly. Ross Baer, of Wyndmoor, favors video games that help him design sets for his model trains.

The future of model railroading is 52, has a paunch, and, in 1997, was among the last laid off from Bethlehem Steel. John Forsythe turned a hobby into a Bucks County business that employs 10 who produce digital command controls - the newest technological advance in model railroading.

Given the size of the exhibit - 100,000 square feet at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks - and the 29,500 people attending the World's Greatest Hobby on Tour model railroading show Saturday and Sunday, it's not surprising Baer and Forsythe did not run into each other.

"That is our future, absolutely," said Doug Blaine, a marketing executive with Philadelphia's Bachmann Industries, one of the nation's largest model train firms.

A dozen years ago, industry types like Blaine were looking down the track, and what they saw worried them. It wasn't a wreck, more like a slow train to irrelevance.

"We were competing with children's video games, in terms of computers and electronic games," he said.

To fight back, Bachmann executives joined forces with their competitors to create the World's Greatest Hobby on Tour model railroading show. The show, now in its 10th year, has attracted one million visitors.

It travels to four or five cities a year and was last here in 2009.

"It's been a great success for us," said Blaine, standing at Bachmann's booth at the show as a dozen varieties of model trains zipped along, powered by digital controls manufactured by Forsythe's company, TCS Inc. in Blooming Glen.

"We feel that without the World's Greatest Hobby campaign," Blaine said, model railroading might have fallen into the same decline as related hobbies, including radio-control and plastic and die-cast figures.

Railroading, according to the Hobby Manufacturers Association's 2013 report, was the only one to grow from 2011 to 2012, with an estimated $516.5 million in sales, up from $424.8 million in 2011.

Running the show is Randy Bachmann, no relation to the train company.

In his 40s, he shares many traits with die-hard railroad enthusiasts, including Baer.

As a youngster, he was introduced to the hobby by an uncle. Like Baer, Bachmann joined a model railroading club that took layouts to train shows.

When he turned 18, he got hired by the producer of the shows and then became a producer himself. He met his future wife at a train show. Their first date? A train show.

To him, and to Baer, the appeal is the ability to create one's own world. "You can build up a whole town and do whatever you want," Baer said, but the words just as easily could have come from Bachmann.

Video games, the threat to the hobby, were less prevalent when Bachmann was young.

"I play tons of video games," Baer said. They help him design train sets. But, he said, nothing compares to the hands-on fun of train modeling. "Once kids come out and do this, they'll have a lot more fun than playing by themselves," he said.

Bachmann - the train company and the show producer - are banking on kids like Baer sticking with the hobby and introducing trains to their children.

At the show, about 20 manufacturing companies, including Bachmann, had large displays.

There were exhibits by two dozen local railroad clubs, including Montgomery County's Allegheny West Line club, to which Baer belongs. South Jersey was represented by the Strasburg Model Railroad Club, named after a Pennsylvania rail line but modeled in basements in Evesham and Marlton.

A variety of vendors, 320 in all, including TCS, rented booths to sell their wares. Products included cars and tracks, train model buildings and props, T-shirts, coffee mugs, and antique sets.



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