Collecting Antique Model Trains

Collecting model trains can be a profitable hobby. This article outlines the elements to begin collecting today.

Neil Young does it - so do Tom Hanks and Tom Brokaw. Collecting model trains is a classic American pastime, and there are as many different approaches to collecting as there are collectors.

Model railroading is one of the most diverse and varied hobbies around. There are two large categories of collectors: those who collect trains to have them, and those who collect trains to run them. (There is also plenty of overlap between these two groups.) In general, model railroaders who build operating layouts and attempt to recreate real-life railroading with any degree of realism will modify or "kitbash" their equipment as needed, while collectors seek out rare and valuable items and preserve them in as close to their original selling condition as possible.

Model trains come in many different sizes, scales, or "gauges." Here are all of the common gauges, from largest to smallest (excluding the old and collectible "standard" gauge, larger than any available today, which is no longer made): G scale (1:22.5), originally designed for outdoor garden railroads; O scale (1:48), available in 2- or 3-rail formats that are electrically incompatible with each other; 027, a three-rail gauge the same size as O scale but more toy like and less realistic; S scale (1:64), perhaps the least common but regarded as the perfect "medium" size by a dedicated group of fans; HO scale (1:87), by far the most popular due to its compact size; N scale (1:160), small enough for any room and gaining on HO in popularity; and Z scale (1:220), so tiny that an entire layout can fit in a briefcase (but expensive due to its intense miniaturization). HO scale has the largest selection of products available, and the lowest prices due to sales volume. The hobby is serviced by several magazines that publicize and review new products, as well as giving helpful techniques and advice in a thousand areas of modeling.



Modelers that operate layouts follow different philosophies. Some attempt to recreate a time and place (say, the New Haven Railroad in Old Lyme in 1958) very faithfully, choosing only the exact locomotives and rolling stock in use during the period in question; quite often a modeler seeks to bring to life the railroads from his or her own childhood. Some model railroaders are scenery artists with a gift for creating realistic trees, terrain and even bodies of water. Others, called "freelancers," happily combine equipment from many different railroads, eras and types in a mishmash that emphasizes the "toy" aspect of the hobby. Detail fanatics labor for years over a small diorama with a few switching tracks, while others recreate large land areas with long mainlines, mountains, tunnels, bridges, and big railyards.

Collectors have entirely different aims. Some purchase only full sets of trains in the original box, though complete train sets with cars, original working locomotive, track, and accessories are difficult to find (sets that were purchased in limited editions or low numbers are the most valuable). Others, using lists widely available online or in commercially published price guides, recreate vintage train sets by purchasing one piece at a time. Streamline or deco trains, especially period cars such as the "Nuclear Train Car" by Lionel, attract high bids at auctions. Old pieces by American Flyer (which created S scale) and toy like "tinplate" trains made by Marx (a Lionel competitor) are also in high demand. Collectors are generally looking for old O scale, 027, or S scale equipment. HO and N scale, besides lacking the long history of the larger scales, are mass-produced in plastic, and few HO and N items acquire a cachet of collectibility. While starter train sets may be purchased at hobby shops and some toy stores, avid modelers and collectors generally flock to railroad flea markets, called "train shows," where both dirt-cheap used equipment and collectible old trains are on sale. The railroad book and video industry, catering to older folks who enjoy seeing images from their youth and also to any modeler looking for historical accuracy, is booming.

Locomotives and rolling stock handcrafted in brass in any scale, representing the "high end" of model railroading, can easily cost more than $1000 per piece. All of these are made in limited editions and their collectibility begins the moment that any given item sells out.

Model railroading has surged in popularity in recent years. Manufacturers are catering to both the mass toy market and the fussiest detail-oriented modelers, and a greater variety of equipment is available today than at any time in the past. New advancements in electronics have made possible pinpoint control and realistic operation that would have been inconceivable thirty years ago.

While model railroading and train collecting will always be regarded by some people as "playing with toys," it also increasingly offers us a valuable window into our nation's past. Millions of children will never see a steam locomotive, since they vanished almost completely from American rails before 1960, yet they can still enjoy seeing the iron horses operating in miniature. Additionally, model trains can recreate a more colorful era when locomotive design and railroad paint schemes were far more interesting. North American rail traffic today is mainly controlled by just six large railroads, the result of decades of mergers, takeovers and consolidations. Hundreds of regional railroads from the mid-twentieth century, long gone now and referred to as "fallen flags," live on in their distinctive colors and shapes on the shelves of collectors and the layouts of model railroad hobbyists.

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