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.



  1. Trevor

    Hi Mike:
    Great piece.
    The best “train shows” in my mind, are the RPM meets – and for exactly the reasons you state: They are an opportunity to find stuff I didn’t know I needed and an opportunity to catch up with fellow hobbyists. RPM meets are like professional conferences/trade shows: I wouldn’t expect to find the public at, say, a $900 per show pass telecommunications policy conference – and I don’t expect to see them at an RPM meet either.

    We have a local train show that operates in a similar fashion. It’s open to anybody who wants to pay the admission, but it’s only advertised within the hobby community – and the attendance is almost exclusively committed hobbyists. There are very few members of the non-hobby public, looking for a entertaining day with the kids. Again, this makes the show one of my favorites – because I get a chance to catch up with hobbyists I rarely see otherwise.

    I’ve posted a couple of times on my own blog (http://themodelrailwayshow.com/cn1950s) that I’d like to see the best in the hobby brought out of the train show context and taken to unusual venues where the public can discover what we do.

    For instance, I think the hobby could appeal to those who attend Maker Faires – especially if the hobby is presented as a tech-savvy pursuit. For example, start with a DCC-equipped O scale diesel, which has lots of space inside it. Add a BIG speaker for sound so it can be heard over the general noise in a public exhibition hall. Add a camera looking out the front and back of the cab – fed wirelessly to a computer that streams the video to a website so that people at the show – and those not at the show, too – can see what’s going on, from the engineer’s perspective. Use an iPhone to control the locomotive (this can already be done). Add DCC-controlled couplers (ditto). Make it interactive by allowing those viewing it from the web to tweet switching instructions (“ATSF 364247 to track 3, spot 1. #Maker-Rail”). That sort of thing. From this, one can introduce concepts like building a CTC panel with old relays – stuff the Steampunk crowd will love. One can introduce live steam – ditto.

    Another example – one we’ve done here – is take live steam to the local roundhouse, part of which has been converted into a brewery with an events hall. The local live steam group does this as part of the annual Doors Open Toronto festival. Over the weekend, introduce thousands of people – most of them with ZERO connection to the hobby – to the wonders of live steam. One of our members is great at getting families engaged with the live steam. She points out that she used the hobby as a way to teach her daughter about engineering, science, math, gardening, art… all kinds of stuff. The families 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.

    Thoughtful as always, Mike – thanks for sharing!
    – Trevor

  2. rcandamoonpie

    Great post.

    I didn’t have to imagine too much. I recently attended The Model Train Show 2014 in Atlanta with my wife and three kids (8 months, 2 years and 4 years old). The scene was much as you describe – railroad flea market. The show was held in one of the nicer exhibit halls in town, but they crammed everything into one of the smaller halls and we literally had to crawl over people to get through the aisles. Only a few vendors had presentable displays. We were so whipped after two hours that we left to seek out other activities in town.

    A few weeks later, we all went to the Dixie Line Days train show in Wartrace, TN (population 651). This show was AWESOME, taking over the whole town! They probably had a third as many vendors as the Atlanta show, but the same variety was represented. All vendors had tables that were well organized and, except for one small section, spread out well enough for traffic to flow. Literally they had double the aisle space of the Atlanta show. For the non-modeling rail fans, the CSX Nashville-to-Atlanta mainline ran right down the middle of town. CSX was made aware of the festival, so they ran through town slow enough to get good pictures. For the non-railroaders, the organizer had a bluegrass band playing under an outdoor tent, a charcoal artist (who drew pictures of all three kids) and another vendor serving hamburgers, hot dogs and the like. While not organized as part of the show, a local farmer’s market was also set up in the middle of town and the local museums were also open. It was the kind of event that was definitely for the railroader, but I could see my in-laws (non-railroaders) having a great time there too.

    Perhaps the best way to get people to see the hobby as something that the whole family can enjoy is to get them to train shows they can enjoy?

    Rhett Graves
    Madison, AL

  3. Jimbofin

    This is where I think the British experience differs in some respects, but the need to change is still there.

    Most UK exhibitions I go to have a good mix of layouts, specialist traders, and box-shifters. The exact mix varies depending on how specialist the show is. There are quite a few shows aimed primarily at a small audience, usually related to one or more of the scale/gauge specific societies. For instance the other week I went along to the EM Gauge Society show.


    Generally I would say these events are much more civilised than they were 20 or 30 years ago. I stopped going to some of these shows for a period because of the socially challenged behavior of many visitors. We also have the big general railway modelling shows like Warley. Even that doesn’t attract the sort of family crowds that the famous English shows of the 50s and 60s did, the heyday of London, Manchester and York.

    On the other hand they are run with considerable professionalism and the need for wide aisles, seating, disabled access, and decent catering are well understood. No we don’t get hordes of family visitors, but then that is true of just about every sort of hobby event these days. I don’t think the average UK family visitor goes away from an exhibition having had a bad experience, but I also think the issue is getting them through the door, not what they experience once they are inside.



  4. mike

    Hi Rhett,

    The Dixie Line Days sounds like a blast. My hometown used to do something similar but it fizzled out after a few short years. Lack of interest from organizers and attenders killed it.

    I don’t what the answers are, or even if there are any.


  5. mike

    Hi James,

    I’m aware of the cultural differences between us in the hobby. In the US the focus is on selling at most shows. Organizers charge by the table, hence the urge to stuff as many into a venue as fire laws will allow. There is also an entry fee to get in, on top of what you purchase. Tack on travel expenses, overnight lodging for multi-day shows and it all adds up quickly.

    The RPM meets emphasize learning and model building, with many top-notch presentations and model displays. Vendors at these shows tend to be more curated in terms of their products. These come closer to your show experience I think.

    I seldom attend the general come one, come all shows anymore.


  6. Simon

    To the question, I can only offer the answer, “Whoever turns up.”

    The future of the hobby doesn’t worry me. The hobby will continue. It will evolve. New technologies will be adopted by some, and not by others. The hobby can be found on the net. It can be found in most newspaper stores in the UK. Local shows often have local adverts, and road signs pointing the way. Magazines, layouts and, yes, websites exist to cater for a variety of approaches to the hobby.

    The difficulty is not in presenting ourselves to interested parties, it is in keeping the parties interested and helping htm to find a place in the hobby where they feel at home. Too many modellers put down “finescale” and excuse their own sloppiness on the grounds that they don’t take themselves too seriously. Too many good modellers can be off-putting, off-hand and downright arrogant. If an interested newcomer meets either of these sorts of people, we have probably lost a new recruit. Mind you, some may like that.

    There is no magic wand, but I do sometimes wish that a few less exhibitors/traders/visitors improved their personal hygiene and social skills. Beyond that, we run the risk of becoming prescriptive and indeed, proscriptive. Not good.

    I think more interesting questions to ask, when preparing (advertising for) a show/magazine/website/blog/etc. are, “What type of audience am I trying to reach? What do I want to say to them? How do I advertise this?” RPM meets (in North America) and scale Expositions/Forums (UK) are a prime example of this approach.

    I think the hobby might be in better shape than any think!


  7. Simon

    Should say “than many think” at the end.
    And also them” and not “htm” earlier on.

    Dang tablets!


  8. Jimbofin

    Good points Simon. I have to say that in the UK I think both traders and modellers have improved when it comes to their social skills. It feels like a particular kind of British modeller is, hopefully, dying out. In recent years I’ve found both traders and layout exhibitors to be much more communicative. In the case of the latter perhaps because layouts are more reliable and easier to operate, but also because there seems more awareness they are there to put on a show.

    If there is one thing I would like to change in the UK – and change is the wrong word – it would be for the mainstream model railway magazines to occasionally challenge the idea that the only approach a beginner should take is to build a layout as quickly as possible using as many RTR elements as possible. I’m sure many returning to the hobby in adulthood would be open to the idea that they might be better off adopting a finescale approach from day 1 if they were presented with a structured way of doing so.



  9. mike

    Hi James,

    I’m intrigued by the strength of the finescale movement in the UK. In the US the finescale modeling is considered a niche, if not fringe aspect of the hobby. Among the coarse scale crowd, there is an attitude that finescale modelers are elitists who are ruining everyone else’s fun. O scale is especially prone to this due to the gauge difference between coarse standards and P48. Things are changing for the better though, mostly because of an influx of modelers from different scales.

    As I’m certain is the case in UK, there are many misconceptions floating around about finescale operating qualities, most of which are unfounded and tradition bound.


  10. Simon


    The finescale movement is probably larger in the UK, at least proportionately and probably absolutely, due to running 4mm scale toys on 3.5mm scale track.

    Although the attitudes you describe are slowly waning over here as well, the same anti-elitist refrain is played in this country. I typically ignore the comments, if only to avoid a pointless argument. I have tried (briefly, as a teenager) the misapplication of “good enough” thinking, and found it a joyless experience. I get far more fun from doing things right; the satisfaction levels are even higher. But if someone doesn’t want to hear, they won’t listen. My personal take on their claims to have more fun is that they are using fun and “having a laugh” as an excuse for sloppy workmanship and poor modelling.


  11. Jimbofin


    I’m less pessimistic than Simon.

    I think in the UK finescale can arbitrarily be broken into three camps.

    The most basic is the shift towards higher fidelity in off the shelf models. The days when mainstream British modelling was still essentially built around toys are probably gone, although at the very real cost that most models trains sold in the UK ar every much priced at adult levels. Overall this should be a good thing, but the real downside is that accuracy is seen as a problem for the manufacturer, not the individual.

    Scalefour/P4 and S7 show what can be done at the true finescale level. At exhibitions they are probably over represented compare to the number of modellers who are actually active in them. At the best modeling to these standards is superb. There is no doubt they can be made to run well but they do demand working to tight tolerances across the board. It is notable though that many who fall into the third camp are also members of the Scalefour Society but work to more generous standards.

    That middle ground camp tends to work in EM or so called “finescale” OO gauge and is willing to build their own track, to re-wheel rolling stock to finer standards, to avoid obvious anachronisms and to model all elements of a layout to a consistent standard. I suspect in the EM gauge world not everyone fits into this camp, there are some who haven’t yet come to terms with the current art of the possible and think that just using a more accurate track gauge is enough to obtain greater realism.. Possibly you could argue this group falls into the “good enough” category.Mind you, if it was good enough for Peter Denny….

    In the garden railway world a group of us were surprised by the venom,unleashed on us for suggesting 16mm scale models should be built to 16mm scale, which is a a story for another day. In 4mm I think the issue is partly one of ignorance and a lack of high street magazines that promote finescale as “achievable excellence” within reach of the average modeller.

  12. Jimbofin

    Whoops, I pressed send whilst still in the middle of editing.

    I overheard somebody at a finescale orientated show, talking to a trader who specializes in somewhat arcane bits of wagon hardware, say “I can’t see the point of modelling anything beneath the body” Quite why he bothered to say this to someone who quite clearly thinks it does matter I’m not sure.

    I’m man enough to admit though that two or three years ago I would probably have agreed with him. So what has changed? A big element has been my focus on a specific prototype branchline and the desire to model as many aspects of it as possible to a consistent standard. That in turn is linked to consciously seeking out knowledge about aspects of the real railway that aren’t, or weren’t, of intrinsic interest to me. What struck me was how hard it was to come by some of that knowledge via mainstream information sources. The final catalyst for me has undoubtedly been two layouts: Geoff Forster’s Penhydd (and now Llangunllo) and Paul M-P’s Albion Yard. Both oif themn I suspect come close to the Freedomn Layout concept.



  13. mike

    Simon, James and all,

    Let me focus this back to the original topic of train shows and who is the audience.

    Ultimately, we (as individuals) get to decide how to practice the craft and how to present it to others. At various times someone chooses to “break” the rules and go against convention. P48 in the US owes its existence to a group of people who did just that, and who paid a price for doing so.

    As an example from the UK, you have the St Merynn group with their very professional approach to presentation, both in operating and in layout presentation techniques via signage, interacting with viewers and the like.

    From what I have read in the Model Railway Journal of this layout and the display techniques employed, it strikes me they thoroughly understand that first impressions matter. (I’m aware of the book the Scalefour Society has produced about the layout. It’s next on my list.)

    Contrast this with the impression given by undifferentiated layouts with banal signs ( Hey there, we’re the Charleston Choo-Choo Club) or no signage at all, or worse varying degrees of polish and skill as seen in some modular displays, where the viewers are supposed to figure it out for themselves.

    When I present such thinking I get counterarguments that viewers don’t care or know the difference. Indeed, why should they see any difference when we’ve thoroughly conditioned them to the idea these are just expensive but amusing little toys for old men with too much disposable income and time on their hands!

    My point here and as always is this:

    The lowest common denominator mentality will always be present. The choo-choo crowd isn’t going away. However, as individuals, NOTHING is stopping us from presenting this as a craft worthy of one’s time and thoughtful consideration.

    Whether the audience is an uninitiated member of the public, a rank novice or a veteran modeler, not everyone will care. Not everyone will understand why we’re doing it our way. The old guard and choo-choo crowd will be threatened and bellyache and bluster about because we broke their rules and aren’t playing fair.

    Do it anyway. Do it because you want to. Because it matters even if you’re the only one it matters to. Isn’t the craft worth that to you?

    (Edit: the preceding comments apply to me more than anyone. Don’t take any of them personally. -Mike)


  14. Simon

    Do it anyway. Do it because you want to. Because it matters even if you’re the only one it matters to. Isn’t the craft worth that to you?

    Hear! Hear!

    (Nothing taken personally.)

  15. PKelly

    Kids like the running club modular layouts. That is all. And so do I. I’m a very simple man.

    Regionally we have the Great Scale Train Show here in the Mid Atlantic. I’m through the entire embarrassing vendor area within an hour. Spend more time at the Historical Society tables….maps; I want maps. But that’s just me. Acres of CRAP, garbage..same ol fat rude belching closet vendors pushing decades old garbage that didn’t sell then and no one buys it now. What vendors have something interesting I make note and deal with online. Going to train shows is like wandering into a model railroad red light district where you want to spend money to satisfy an emotional desire, capitalistically erect, amidst the flash and emotion-soaked throng, from some stranger off the street and have no idea if your emotional and cash payment satisfaction will be up to expectations. I stopped taking the kids years ago; I see too many toddlers crying and miserable kids dragged/wheeled through the sea of old fat buttocks. I feel dirty when I leave the train show…but maybe that’s just me.

    Pat Kelly in Maryland

  16. mike

    You know, a train show from a child’s height perspective must be a miserable experience. As you noted the view can’t be pleasant! I’ve never thought about it in those terms.

    I seldom attend general interest train shows anymore. They’re geared to HO or N and what there is for quarter-inch is all 3-rail. If I purchase anything at all, it’s books or the odd scenery material I won’t find in the local hobby shop.

    My time is spent at prototype modelers’ meets. These are far more satisfying.


  17. Jimbofin

    John Reith, the founder of the BBC, described its purpose as being to ” inform, educate and entertain” which isn’t a bad mantra for a model railway show, though it is a challenging one.

    Some layouts, and Pendon obviously comes to mind, are themselves arguably akin to a documentary with a story to tell.

    Often though the big crowd pleasers are the big layouts with lots happening on them, but little context.

    The challenge comes, I think, when you try and explain to the viewer what is going on when your layout falls somewhere between the two. If it is based on a historic location there is at least a chance to display some historic photos, perhaps contrasted with the scene today.

    Often attempts to explain what is going on consists of an overview of train movements, either using a flip pad or a computer screen. “The 10.14 Saturdays Only down service from Much Binding in the Marsh runs into the down platform” It is well meaning, and interesting to some people, but not very involving.

    Are there alternatives? Well I suppose you could include some model information as well as details of the train movement.”the loco was built form a XXXXX kit”

    The other thing is to tell a story, or to suggest things the audience could try and spot for themselves, “Look out for the parson on his bicycle heading back for evensong. At this time in England only about 10% of people owned a car”

    Incidentally even a big UK show like Warley includes demonstrations of track building, kit building and scenic work of a high quality which always attract attention and the demonstrators, in my experience, are used to dealing with questions from every level of knowledge.



  18. Simon

    On a lighter note, I was once manning a demonstration stand at a very large general hobby show, where interest in railways was low: how could we compete with a large arena with a display of radio controlled helicopters?

    Anyway, it was very quiet, so I decided to cut .010″ styrene sheet into cubes, and place them on the ironwork of a brake van (caboose!) I was building. I was vaguely aware of someone approaching, but before I could look up I heard a youngish woman calling to her son, “‘Ere, come over and see ow Hornby make their trains!”