Picture a poorly lit exhibit hall filled with a sea of tables arranged in rows as tight as space and physical access will allow.

Picture pile upon haphazard pile of the same mind numbing boxes in makeshift displays of scrap wood and plastic crates, devoid of any coherent signage to help make sense of it.

Picture choked aisles barely wide enough for one person to move through, let alone one hundred.

Though that sounds like hell on Earth, or the shopping mall on Black Friday, it’s just your average train show. An inhospitable environment to outsiders, but one where veteran modelers spot that treasured trinket from thirty feet away and navigate with ease. It leads me to ask: Who is the real audience a train show is geared to?

It’s model railroaders, not the public.

Gallons of ink have been spilled and billions of pixels have been pounded on the topic of how to promote this hobby to the public, with getting them to the train shows seen as a first step among others. Yet given what they see at your average train show, why would the public bother?

I’m the first to acknowledge that train shows come in a huge variety of formats, some far better than others. They range from the weekend flea market where 50-70 year old junk gets traded back and forth annually between the same group of people, to the Railroad Prototypes Modeler meets, to week long thoughtfully organized national events with activities for the whole family.

Don’t kill the Golden Goose
This topic generates angst among hobbyists like no other and now I have a clearer understanding of why: Model railroaders don’t want their golden goose taken away.

Why do experienced hobbyists still attend such shows? Two primary reasons: to find that marvelous “thing” they didn’t realize they needed, or to smooze with friends they only see at the shows. Could the dirty unspoken truth be that to some, the uninitiated public just gets in the way of their fun?

I submit the public isn’t served at all by current practice.

We Not The Only Ones
Model railroading as a hobby isn’t alone in wondering how to invest in its future. Museums, symphonies, and groups of all types face the question of how to attract the interest of a culture being driven to mindless distraction. The challenges are significant and the answers aren’t simple.

If we were genuinely serious about the future of the hobby (and indeed, many smart people are working hard on it), we’d consider a different tack. I don’t have any answers but some things do seem clear.

  • We need to accept the fact that our audience isn’t “everyone.” The number of people willing to engage with trains, miniatures, handcrafts and lifetime learning is small and perhaps shrinking further each year.
  • How we present the hobby is critical. People today are exposed to more media than any previous generation and, as a result, they may have more knowledge than we give credit for. Emphasizing how much fun the hobby is or the nostalgia of the steam era won’t sustain the interest of people born thirty and forty years after steam’s demise. They only want to know…
  • What’s in it for them? Why should they invest time and resources in this activity? Can any of us answer that question readily and convincingly?

I suggest that we focus on the broad range of skills and educational opportunities this craft entails. Yes, I know we find railroading endlessly fascinating, but not everyone will care to this degree. There is far more to this craft than our obsession with trains. As a means to teach skills like engineering, science, math, art, and so on, model railroading excels as a tool of engagement. A friend recently shared the story of a single mom who did just that with her daughter via a garden railroad. To quote my friend: “In sharing her story at local events, the women in the crowd love that idea – and the idea that trains in the garden can be an activity that everybody in the family can enjoy.” This is what progressive thinking looks like folks.

  • Understand generational differences. The 1950s are gone. Get over it and move on. Children of the age to take up modeling today are far savvier. Twenty and thirty year olds want lives that matter and are willing to invest in things that make a difference in the world. How does a consumption based hobby fit in to those desires? Short answer, it doesn’t, at least not on the terms as we define them.

Hang on, I Gotta Tweet This
The way we communicate has changed enormously over the last two decades. Images and 140 character tweets now dominate over long-form text based narratives. People are bombarded with input twenty-four hours a day and this floodtide of pictures, videos, and status updates, tweets, likes and more is addictive for many. Good or bad, the ever-increasing challenge is how to be heard through all this digital noise.

First, we need to have something worth hearing.

No Crystal Balls Here
If there is going to be a hobby around models of trains in the future, I suggest it is going to look and act far different from what we’re used to. That scares the hell out of the old guard, who just don’t want to deal with such ideas. But just as they embraced the new technology and ideas of their day, future generations will also embrace new changes and ideas.

For whatever reasons, we, as a generation of hobbyists, have become passive in our thinking, narrow in our focus, and adopted a victim mentality that serves no purpose but to perpetuate learned helplessness.