• Ruffle Thy Feathers - "The Hobby is Dying"

  • Discussion related to everything about model railroading, from layout design and planning, to reviews of related model tools and equipment. Discussion includes O, S, HO, N and Z, as well as narrow gauge topics. Also includes discussion of traditional "toy train" and "collector" topics such as Lionel, American Flyer, Marx, and others. Also includes discussion of outdoor garden railways and live steamers.
Discussion related to everything about model railroading, from layout design and planning, to reviews of related model tools and equipment. Discussion includes O, S, HO, N and Z, as well as narrow gauge topics. Also includes discussion of traditional "toy train" and "collector" topics such as Lionel, American Flyer, Marx, and others. Also includes discussion of outdoor garden railways and live steamers.

Moderators: 3rdrail, stilson4283, Otto Vondrak

  by CNJ999
In regard to Allen's comment upstream that he seemed to recall an MR published graph, circa 1984, indicating an ebb in MR's circulation at some point during the 1950's, I'm afraid that this cannot be confirmed by the published figures. In fact, MR's circulation grew steadily from its inception right up through 1994, reaching a peak of 224,000 copies per month. Only then did it begin a long and uninterrupted decline that continues to this day (MR's circulation figures are published annually in the back of the magazine). Today the figure is down to just 113,000 and the page-count has shrunk by more than 50%.

Far more telling are the MR Readers Surveys concerning the typical hobbyist's age conducted over the years. Back in 1950 and '56 MR reported that the age of the average modeler/reader was 31, that there were 100,000+ hobbyists and of these 20% were teens...only 5% of readers were over 50! By 1974 the number of hobbyists was set at 190,000 with an average age of 33, but only 11% percent were teens then. According the MR in 1984 hobbyist numbers had grown further to 226,000 while the age was up to 40.Peak published copies for the magazine came in 1993 when 224,000+ copies were being sold each month. Hobbyist figures were put at 224,000 but the average age was 47. Circulation for the year 2015 set the number at 113,500 , one half of what it had been 20 years earlier.

I call particular attention to the steadily escalating age toward the end of the listing. It says world's about the hobby's health and advancing hobbyist age. MR never again listed such survey figures, perhaps out of fear that long-time readers and/or newcomers would realize what was happening within the hobby. Nevertheless, when the full available set of MR age figures (13 in all) are analyzed mathematically and extended, the trend would indicate the current average hobbyist's age to be in the mid to late 50's !

  by Allen Hazen
Thanks for the correction! I knew my memory was fallible (in the past few days I have spent a significant time searching back issues of an academic journal for an article I remembered … and eventually discovered had been in a different journal!), but I was surprised at how FAR off base I seem to have been. I doubt I imagined the graph out of the whole cloth, and I'm now wondering where I saw it! (Perhaps in an anniversary issue of another magazine… I'm "sure" -- that is "remember" very clearly -- that it was in SOME railroad interest or model railroading magazine!)
As it happens, I found the 50th Anniversary special of "Model Railroader" (January 1984) in the basement: no graph n it. (I assume you have it too: the figure of 226,000 "serious" model railroaders, with the claim that the "typical" one is "a 40-year-old college graduate, married, has children, and earns approximately $30,000 per year" and has "been a model railroader for 17 years" is from Russ Larson's editorial on p. 99.)
On pp. 166ff. there is a summary of a symposium on the future of model railroading and model railroad publishing. Russ Larson foresaw electronic formats: his talk is illustrated with a cartoon of a man reading "Model Railroader" on what looks like a slightly clunky Kindle. He doesn't however, seem to have foreseen the internet as a mode of distribution: he foresaw otherwise traditional news-stands and hobby shops selling "cartridges" instead of paper copies, with the magazine rack being replaced by a console on which customers can browse the latest electronic copies. As Yogi Berra said, "prediction is hard, especially about the future!"
  by Allen Hazen
Well, maybe my memory isn't hopeless after all! The January 1984 issue of "Model Railroader" was an extra-fat 266 pages (and cost a dollar more than usual at news-stands), and I couldn't find the graph when I looked earlier, but it IS there, on pp. 182-183, illustrating a three page history of the magazine by "Boomer Pete". Circulation ("average monthly circulation") is shown as rising gradually to about(*) 20,000 between the magazine's establishment and Pearl Harbor, then holding steady to about 1947, then rising sharply (post-war prosperity? lots of people owning new houses and willing to devote a room to a hobby?) to a peak of about 110,000 in 1952. Then -- and I think this coincides with widespread television ownership in the U.S. -- falling steadily for several years, to maybe 75,000in 1958, before rising again over the next quarter century: June 1981 is marked as "all-time high average monthly circulation of 185,876."

I don't know why this doesn't agree with your figures from the annual statement to the postal authorities. "Circulation" OUGHT to mean subscriptions + news-stand (etc) sales, but the graph has no caption specifying that this is what is meant. Mysterious.

(*) estimated by eyeball: the graph only has horizontal lines for multiples of 50,000.
  by Backshophoss
The circulation #'s are posted with the US Mail Notice,which is published 1 time a year in the Magazine,in somewhat
fine print,in a column normally used as ad space.
Believe this is a postal requirement.
Shows total copy run,total subscription sales,total newsstand(store)sales,and some misc info for 1 month avg.
  by CNJ999
In response to Allen's interesting post, let me offer the following.

Prior to 1960, apparently the first year when MR officially began publishing yearly circulation figures following USPS regulations, specific circulation numbers are pretty scarce. Although I've admittedly found a few scattered contemporary mentions in the early magazines of numbers of copies sold, what figures there were had suggested a very steady growth from earliest days until into the 1980's. However, I cannot honestly totally refute old Boomer Pete's accuracy in his statement about a lull in the 1950's with published statistics.

When I compiled a listing of MR official circulation numbers about a decade ago to address a discussion on another forum I went strictly on early MR editorials and then the annual figures mandated by the USPS. From the magazine's inception to the mid 1960's the figures went as follows:

1934 ~1000
1939 13500
1945 25000
1949 45000
1960 85243
1961 85540
1962 87256
1963 87507
1964 87674
1965 91955

The dramatic supposed jump of 65000 new readers in the course of just three short years, as claimed by Boomer Pete for between 1949 and 1952, seems very hard to accept. In fact, published circulation figures don't indicate the first 100000 monthly copies occurring until 1968.

Now there was indeed a bit of a stagnation in MR circulation in the early 1980's when the magazine hovered near a steady monthly selling figure of 180000 between 1980 and '87. Thus, the Boomer Pete figure for the June 1981 issue might have been an historical peak in sales of 185000+ for some specific reason and the greatest up to 1984 (I'll have to check and see what the magazine contained that month), but this number was quickly eclipsed just a few years later. and by 1989 MR was selling an average of 191000+ copies monthly and MR was still growing in circulation. In fact, the magazine went on to reach an all-time monthly average high of 224389 copies just four years later. But thereafter began a long and steady downward slide to the current 2015 figure of 113488 copies as a monthly average, hardly one-half of the peak of 1993.

  by Gilbert B Norman
Volks, let it be noted that I simply titled this topic when originating it as "Ruffle Thy Feathers". Since I have never been a modeler or have had a subscription to MR or RMC, who am I to say whether or not the hobby is dying.

I respect the Moderator's prerogative to retitle topics as they develop (I did it enough times when I moderated the Amtrak Forum), but beyond reporting about a Wall Street Journal article; "not my place".
  by Allen Hazen
Re: CNJ999--
Certainly the graph suggests a dramatic-- explosive-- increase in circulation after WW II. Not too surprising if that was the case: a whole cohort of the population (particularly the male population, and model railroading has tended to be predominately a male hobby) had had to put their lives on hold for several years and now had time and disposable income: one would EXPECT hobby activity to increase dramatically. Why it waited until the end of the 1940s to take off, rather than starting at VJ Day, I don't know.

Right now, I think what I was claiming and what CNJ999 was saying are logically consistent with each other: the dip in circulation shown by the graph I referred to (pp. 182-183 of the January 1984 issue of Model Railroader, for anyone just joining the conversation) was in the years BETWEEN two of CNJ999's data points.

It's a bit of a digression form the original point of this string, which raised a worry about the future of model railroading as a hobby. In the 1950s there was a temporary setback, which an plausibly be attributed to a single cause, television. The current aging of the model railroading population and -- at least if we go by the circulation figures for MR -- perhaps has deeper causes than that particular exogenous shock.
  by CNJ999
Troubled by the odd discrepancy between Allen and my own literature search numbers concerning what I had long believed in the way of Model Railroader's post-war circulation figures up to 1960 (when they became yearly public record), this morning I reviewed my copies of the magazine from 1950 to '58. In doing so not only did I uncover a few further figures previously missed, but in perusing the many pages my memories of 1950's hobby events all came rushing back.

Allen's interpretation of Boomer Pete's graph in the 1984 MR anniversary magazine, showing circulation figures and indicating a peak in the early-mid 50's, was indeed accurate. In the June 1954 editorial it states that their January issue had sold 134,342 copies. Likewise, the editorial in the January 1955 issue offers the number of readers as being 100,000 plus without being specific.

Scanning the early 1950's pages of MR reveals a heavy proportion of advertising devoted to Lionel and other tinplate (toy train) manufacturers. During the early post-war years MR had indeed been a publication spanning the hobby's entire range, from tinplate through all the serious scales. Tinplate adult hobbyists and Lionel/Flyer kids made up a large segment of the readership in the early post-war years, particularly since these trains played a huge part in an Americans Family' Christmas during the 1950's. However, tinplate advertising had started to decline by '54 and following the December issue's editorial sidebar which took the Lionel pink "Girl's Train" to task, we see no more tinplate ads or virtually even any mention of tinplate/high-rail in the pages of MR for decades to come.

A further event that my reviewing the early copies of MR brought back to mind was the official total split from the tinplate adults and pre-teen Lionel and Flyer enthusiasts, thereafter devoting the magazine solely to what the editor referred to as, "the adult hobby of scale model railroading." Try as I might, I couldn't locate the precise editorial in which this decision was voiced, but do recall it coming between 1955 and 1958. It was this locking out of the tinplate element that must have resulted in the dramatic decline in MR's circulation over the ensuing year or two and prior to the published circulation figure of 85,243 for 1960.

Thus, it was certainly the split from the tinplate folk that precipitated the dramatic decline in Model Railroad's circulation in the second half of the 50's, not the advent of TV watching or other causes. Just an historical point and not truly related to the original point of this thread.

  by Allen Hazen
Thank you, very much, for doing further research! My initial comment was very much "off the cuff," and you have made the discussion interesting and informative. (Sorry for not responding sooner: I hadn't checked this forum for a while.)
Your observation about how "Model Railroader" in the old days covered both the "Tinplate" and "Scale" … sects … within the hobby is interesting, and certainly complicates any effort to diagnose historical rends from circulation figures. There are, I suspect, more "specialty" magazines within the general model railroading field of interest now than there would have been back when. So perhaps (PERHAPS!) part of what we see is that the proper comparison with 1950s "Model Railroader" readership would be the combination of current "Model Railroader" readership WITH "Classic Toy Trains" etc etc etc.

(But if anyone wants to worry and be pessimistic about the future of the model railroading hobby: note the remark that the Lionel/American Flyer loop around the Christmas tree used to be part of the stereotype of American Christmas. I suspect it is less so now. And (I know,"intuition" is a LOUSY guide in psychology and sociology, but…) it seem intuitively plausible that a (say) 35-year old who remembers playing with toy trains as a child would be more likely to be tempted to take up "adult" model railroading than one who doesn't.)
  by CNJ999
I have found a "letters to the editor" entry in a 1954 Model Railroader the other day that further bolstered the feeling of growing necessity by serious hobbyists to forever separate themselves from their growing tin-plate counterparts of that era. It referred to the expanding efforts of certain toy manufacturers to cheapen and simplify HO equipment to fit within the low-end toy train market. Highly significant was that the letter was penned by Gordon Varney (Varney Model Trains) with the full support of John Tyler (Mantua) voicing their fears of the deterioration of the more serious adult scale model railroading hobby, in which they had long been the leading lights, by this incursion of what Varney refers to as "grandmother toy trains", i.e. cheap "junk" toy trains purchased by older adults for their young children. This high profile letter seems to have struck a note of caution with MR's editorial staff, perhaps fearing for the future direction of their own publication. Unlike today, the editors of MR back in the 1950's were true, longtime, and accomplished HO hobbyists who had guided and encouraged the hobby's growth over the past two decades. I gather that the final necessary wake-up call regarding the growing situation for MR staffers came just months latter with the introduction by Lionel of their Girl's Train, rendered in "Fashion Right (pastel) Colors"! :(

  by riogrande
I'm a bit late to this party but discussed the same "hobby is dying" umpteen times before, and of course the Wall Street Journal article lit a match to the tired old debate yet again. For the record here, I'll add my "grist" for the mill.

The steady announcements and production of many new HO models indicates to me the hobby must be doing well and seems far from dying. The market is responding to consumer demand. Lets look at recent examples:

- Tangent is announcing HQ models left and right in the past year.
- ExactRail has churned out many nice new models a lot of reruns.
- Athearn continues to announce new runs almost monthly - the retooled SD40 is a nice model, SD39 coming, I'm looking forward to and freight cars too.
- Intermountain is still actively producing models including Red Caboose, Centralia etc..
- Wheels of Time is servicing many nice N-scale models and announced some excellent HO SP flat cars and bulkhead flats.
- Fox River produced the new GP60 and numerous freight cars.
- Scale Models is hitting the market with HQ new items and just getting started.
- Rapido has been really producing some top quality models in the past few years, has announced a series of Steam too!
- Atlas isn't quite as active as they were 6 or 7 years ago but are still producing some nice freight cars - I just picked up some nice 50' box cars from them.
- BLMA just shipped the ATSF Bx-166 box cars and is working on the Trinity 5660 Covered hopper.
- American Limited is producing Trinity 3281 covered hoppers.
- Moloco has some lovely 50' box cars out and more announced for next year.
- Trainworx is entering the HO market too with a drop frame trailer in the coming months.

It is argued that there is a lack of young modelers who aren't there because they are playing Xbox etc. or can't afford the nice stuff or whatever. Youngsters have never had lots of money for the hobby anyway - I remember those days! Models are selling its obvious - they must be or all the many companies I listed above wouldn't be producing lots of nice new models. It's because many people like myself for years had more kits than time or desire to build - end of story. Yes, there are still "real modelers" out there who like to build kits, but they are probably a small fraction of the consumers who are spending money on the products being made. The people with money to spend on hobbies only have so much time due to work, honey-do lists, house projects (me), families, spouses and you name it, and what hobby time we do have may go into layout building, track laying and other aspects than just building kits.

I have had jobs where I traveled quite a bit and made it a point to visit 2 or 3 hobby shops in the cities and states where I was visiting for work. I've been watching train shops close during those years. But one of the things that has changed and IMO gives an impression the hobby is dying is the fact that how we do commerce has changed pretty radically in the past 10 years. I heard a series of radio reports last spring which discussed how most major companies are changing to adapt to the electronic world including how they advertise and market to the newer generations, who are the next crop of customers and spenders. Of note in the report was that shopping malls are dying and quickly losing ground to online sales. Many are expected to close up around the country as sales shift from B&M stores to online sales. IMO, this sounds awfully familiar here on the forums - hobby shops closing at an ever faster rate. Companies are now targeting the young buyers where they are - on social media, on computers, on smart phones etc. That's telling in a big way. So some may say the view from the hobby shop is evidence that the hobby is dying? So is the dying of shopping malls killing the need for cloths or other items we used to buy in those stores too? Many in stores around the country could say the demand for many other things is drying up because of the lack of sales.

Times change and methods of buying have been changing over the past 10 years - much is done on-line now. ExactRail has gone 100% on line, and you don't have to go to a hobby shop and see a model in person to be tempted to buy it. Young people buy other products online and live online - it's a natural fit to the younger generations. Heck, Tangent, ExactRail and other companies can photograph and show and market to us their latest models, large in high resolution, in far better light and detail than we could see them in a box in the hobby shop! They look even more gorgeous in high res on your big computer screen.

You could say that about 50 other things that are getting the same treatment in recent years and proclaim that is evidence that that line of products proves a dying demand etc. It' now time to look at the world differently - it has changed! Products are still selling and selling quite well as long as people have money to spend. I still buy trains, more than ever as I am able with my modest budget, but now most come in a box from the USPS or UPS, and from shows also. B&M hobby shops ceased being my primarily outlet for trains by necessity 15 or more years ago. Young people aren't dumb or naïve, they can shop just like we do, in fact I think they are more skillful at it. Give them a website and they are long past us! Ignoring the changes in commerce give an unbalanced view of many things including our hobby. Same goes for print media - it's undergone a more radical change than our hobby. We now have a 100% online train magazine, MRH. Just like many things, change comes and its adapt or ... but model railroading still goes on. It may be pre-mature to say the hobby is dying, and not really constructive either if it matters.

Looking back at my own life, I wasn't buying lots of trains when young because I didn't have much money to spend on trains, but I did have interest and I think there are other boys like me out there. And oh, btw, I had many of the same distractions as kids do today. Yes, I played video games all throughout the 1980's and 1990's (even online MMORPGS) but it didn't foil my interest in trains.

The reality is that you end up with college, girls, jobs, and other things so the spark that starts at a young age doesn't develop into REAL money until you are older, like 30's or 40's at least. So I'll agree with you that young people aren't spending scads of money on the hobby but guess what? Neither did I when I was that age, cause I couldn't afford to. No surprise there so the "stealth" kids in hobby shops - which don't exist anymore anyway, probably wouldn't be keeping Athearn and ExactRail afloat - we all know that. That's not rocket science, but in another 20, or 30 or 40 years when they have good paying jobs and a place to run trains, some of them might just be part of that customer pool, which is buying most of their trains like I do, online or at the train show.

The customers who are patronizing Athearn, ExactRail, Tangent, Intermountain etc came from somewhere, not from under a toadstool. They started out as youngsters who couldn't afford to buy much of anything at one time. I know people in this area who are involving young people in the hobby, boy scout leaders etc. who regularly are involving them in the hobby. I've seen at the library where they set up big modular layouts so I don't believe trains are just for grandpa but it's something young people are being interested in and some will find they are infected like I was since I was little. Sure, there is lots of competition, but for anyone who is like me, who from a young age find trains are in their blood, they will come back to it like I did when they are older and have some cash in their pocket, and maybe a house with some space.

Those are some of my thoughts on why I don't think the hobby is dying and why my feathers aren't ruffled.

Cheers, Jim Fitch
  by FLRailFan1
CNJ999 wrote:While I would agree that the recent WSJ article lacks needed citation of facts, it nevertheless voices the present state of the hobby quite accurately. For anyone thinking that our hobby is healthy and doing very well these days I suggest reading the thread further down this page concerning model railroading in the 1970's vs. currently as a little wake-up call.

Honestly, the topic of the hobby's vitality has been dealt with from time to time in a vast number of posts to be found scattered across this and other forums. However, without exception those voicing the idea that everything is just rosy always do so based strictly on their own unsubstantiated personal opinion, or simple hear-say. Never have I seen even one of them offer any verifiable facts or figures in support of their contention. On the rare occasion when actual facts and figures are present by someone - and they are always on the negative side - those folks in support of the Polly Anna vision of the hobby will immediately claim that the facts must lie or be drastic distortions!

Folks need to accept and enjoy the hobby for what it is today. There is no need for any self delusion concerning whether it is growing or shrinking as long as we are willing to acknowledge the actual situation and not lie to ourselves, or to others. Fear not...the model railroad hobby is likely to survive in some form as long as most of its current practitioners live...albeit at an ever growing cost and with decreasing new product availability.

I know the hobby is not growing. In Tampa, there were two major model railroad stores in 2005, both are gone. A friend was a model railroader, but when his house had a fire and his layout was lost, he can't afford replacing it. He is on SS, because he is almost blind.

Youth are still trying the hobby, but with demographics changing, it is slowly growing. Also, where can you see a 100+ car train of general freight in the USA. Unit trains are fine, but general freight trains are exciting, IMHO.
  by ApproachMedium
Just because shops went away doesnt mean the hobby is dying. People are buying more and more crap online anymore. Such a terrible argument. And with some shops charging damn near Walthers MSRP for stuff you can catch at the online shops and ebay for 10% over cost, people are going for it. People like to save their money no matter how much they have or dont have.

If you have a large railroad collection you need to inventory it and make sure its covered under home insurance. Every piece i own is cataloged in Excel with a value and is listed under my renters insurance. Anything ever happens they can cut me a check. Its some 10 grand worth of trains.
  by CNJ999
Jim's (riogrande) post above, where he takes today's constant introduction of new models by a number of companies as evidence of the hobby's continuing health, interested me. It is an example of a very common mistake by today's hobbyists, particularly newer members without a truly long association with model railroading, of taking proliferation for product quantity. I attempted to point out this common error upstream in one of my earlier postings. Each of these new, often fairly expensive, models is typically just the result of a quite limited single run and not example of any ongoing production/availability. It demonstrates the limited customer base demography that the manufacturer is considering exists for his product. Miss a new model's introduction date by more than a month and it is usually no longer available directly from the manufacturers and must be searched for, sometimes fruitlessly, on the Internet. Some items are actually so limited in production numbers that they are completely sold out even before their arrival dates, forcing hobbyists into the pre-order cycle, which is still no certainty you will receive one (I've been skunked this way).

Recall that manufacturers of the past like Athearn, MDC, et al, produced a relative limited line of locomotives and rollingstock, but kept each in more-or-less continuous production for decades. This was possible without saturating the market because the market was so large at the time. Certainly Athearn in a single year back in the 60's, 70's and 80's was producing far more units in its runs than all the manufacturers cited by Jim combined! The simple fact is that today's manufacturers must introduce new models on a very regular, short-term, basis to allow for rapid turnover of cash simply to stay in business! It is a totally new business model for the hobby, one necessitated by a steadily shrinking customer base.

Another interesting and associated facet is that, although survey after survey indicates that the so-called Transition Era, roughly the late 1940's to early 1950's, consistently remains the most popular era for modelers, the great majority of newly introduced HO models are of equipment dating from after this period. Once again this can only be taken to appeal to the limited numbers of folks, largely newcomers to the hobby, unfamiliar with either the steam or Transition Era, not the old-timers which make up the bulk of the hobby. To be representative of operation during the Transition Era the majority of the rollingstock would need to have new/built dates from the late 1930's and post-war 1940's, but they are largely lacking in the plethora of newly introduced models. The catch here is that traditional modelers are more likely to be tighter and more selective with their modeling funds, whereas I see many posts from newcomers on various forums indicating they have, or very soon will, purchase 6, 8 or a dozen of the latest cars, or perhaps 2 or 3 of the latest $300 diesel locos. The only company still offering a broad range of basic kits at reasonable prices for Transition Era car, and on a largely continuous availability basis as well, that comes to mind is Accurail. Likewise, Accurail cars tend to appeal to many long-time model railroaders because they are easily modified and superdetailed to any level the modeler may desire...the hobby's traditional approach.

  by riogrande
today's constant introduction of new models by a number of companies as evidence of the hobby's continuing health, interested me. It is an example of a very common mistake by today's hobbyists, particularly newer members without a truly long association with model railroading, of taking proliferation for product quantity.
"common mistakes" hmm.. Alluded to some of them as well in my earlier post without being so direct. Sure, you've been in the hobby since Dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Haven't most of us I wager being that the hobby and forums are mostly old men? ... and watching products come and go over the past 45 or 50 years? Me too - been there done that.

I personally think the market and many new products over the past 10-15 years are still notable and combined with other factors I mentioned earlier presents an argument that the death of our hobby may have been greatly exaggerated. Others have rightly pointed out that sales are migrating online and away from brick and mortar stores. People use the anecdotal evidence that shops are closing up all over and kids are playing video games instead of trains; what, that's all be going on through out the last 30-35 years since Atari and Commodore 64 were popular. People tend to bring to the table evidence that supports there side of things and we go back and forth with "my evidence trumps yours and visa versa until our foreheads are flat and we feel fully justified. I'll say this however, I don't think there is much "constructive" in trying to build a case for the hobby is dying unless people get some sort of grim satisfaction on being a bringer of gloom about the hobby. Okie dokie. If I'm wrong, I'd rather go out happier and enjoying my "false delusion" :P

As far as survey's go, I've seen some myself and it does seem to indicate that the popular time fames are, predictably, moving forward as the older generation age out. Steam/diesel transition era is slowly falling out of favor to be replaced by 1960's and 1970's, and of course, the last 20 years is getting ever more popular too.