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Artillery Row

Death of the model railway?

Not so fast — this is one railway network Beeching can’t cut, and its built of life long fascination

The last model train has departed, and in the attics and spare bedrooms of Britain, closure notices the size of thumbnails are being glued to cardboard stations. OO gauge track is being torn up; weeds made from lichen and flock shoot up where once there were busy miniature main lines. It’s Beeching all over again, just tiny. And in a desolate parade, once-cherished model locos trundle off to 4mm scale scrapyards, to stand lifeless and forgotten until, like their real-life forebears, they are broken up to be recycled as…oh, I don’t know. iPhones. Xboxes. Something modern, anyway. Something cool. 

And let’s face it, a dig at railway enthusiasts is always good for a laugh, isn’t it?

Well, I read it in the Telegraph, so it must be true. “Death of the Model Railway” proclaimed the headline last weekend, and the same story duly popped up all over the media, usually with some variant of “running out of steam”, or “going off the rails”. I was a bit late coming to the news because it was Saturday and I’d spent the afternoon building a model goods wagon from a plywood kit. I’d just added the lettering, and it came as a jolt to learn that the hobby no longer existed. Gingerly, I poked at the varnish I’d just applied — damn, still sticky, and now there was a socking great out-of-scale thumbprint spoiling the look of the thing. That seemed real enough. 

But why did those headlines seem so familiar — and ring so false? True, 2024 has begun badly in the railway modelling world. Last week the organisers of the annual Warley National Model Railway Exhibition — a giant show held at the NEC in Birmingham, and a highlight of the hobby’s annual calendar — called it quits. A few days previously, the venerable model railway shop Hattons had announced that it was closing down after 78 years. Taken together, you can see why a journo from outside this particular subculture might link unrelated events into a bigger, juicier story. And let’s face it, a dig at railway enthusiasts is always good for a laugh, isn’t it?

I won’t deny that both events stung me. As a kid in the 80s I used to visit Hattons at its original Liverpool location. Even then, it felt old-school: a gloomy, musty terraced shop, piled to the ceiling with boxes and display cases. But a Saturday visit was like entering Aladdin’s cave and we’d always leave with some new treasure, wrapped in brown paper. Hattons has long since moved to newer, brighter premises and refocused on its mail-order business. I realise with a pang of shame that I’ve never used either. 

As for the Warley Exhibition; well, I was there with my dad in November. It’s a regular father and son fixture a few weeks before Christmas, and if we’re honest we probably look forward to it rather more. It was rammed — 80-odd layouts (please, never “train sets”) from the UK, Europe and America, with crowds jostling four deep, and trade stands offering everything from antique clockwork models to the latest digital tech. My 12-year old eyes would have popped out of my head at the quantity and quality of products available. One stall was using airport-stye scanners to produce miniaturised replicas of its customers, so they could ride their model trains in person. If this is a hobby in decline, I’m not seeing it.

A century later, classical music is still with us, and so are model railways

I’m going to stick my neck out here: correlation does not imply causation, and railway modelling is actually thriving. What the headlines describe is a collision of two familiar, but separate, 21st century trends the death of the high street, and the decline of old-style social clubs. Hattons never went bust: it read the runes and decided to get out in good order. As for Warley; well, if anything, the Exhibition seems to have been a victim of its own success. Like many leisure pursuits, railway modelling in the 20th century revolved around clubs, with all the paraphernalia of committees and tea rotas. People don’t do that quite so much nowadays.

The Warley Model Railway Club, which organises the famous show, has concluded that it no longer has the organisational muscle to run an event on an international scale. The truly extraordinary thing is that it was managed for so long, and so well, by volunteers. It’s as if, for the last three decades, the Eurovision Song Contest had been organised by the Danebury Metal Detecting Club. Fair play: the members have decided — like most of us — that they’d rather be running trains.

But the hobby endures, with online communities taking the place of the old clubs and small, innovative cottage industries springing up alongside the big legacy firms like Hornby. The possibilities, for those with the skills and an entrepreneurial spirit, are boundless. I know people who’ll make you a 3D-printed replica of a Romanian tank engine or who will painstakingly research and reproduce 19th century railway heraldry to order. Meanwhile, the prophesies of doom have a familiar tone. My day job involves classical music, where evolution occurs at a glacial pace to the accompaniment of relentless pessimism. I’ve seen newspaper clippings dating from the 1920s lamenting the greying of classical concert audiences. Where are the kids, the audiences of tomorrow? They’re more interested in jazz and the Talkies! 

A century later, classical music is still with us, and so are model railways. Certain interests do lend themselves to particular stages of life. Audiences overwhelmingly turn to live classical music in middle age, when concertgoing fits more easily into their lifestyle. With railway modelling, a childhood passion often takes a back seat in the teens and 20s, only to resurface later on, when the consolations it offers — craftsmanship, creativity, and enthusiasms quietly shared — acquire a new appeal. Think Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing, but with fewer traumatised trout. 

Aristotle noted that the instinct to imitate life — to build models, if you like — is part of what makes us human

My own trajectory is a common one. I left my childhood OO scale electric railway behind when I went to university and moved away. Decades later, Lockdown offered time to rekindle the old spark. I’ve built a layout in my back garden and any lingering fears about mockery (the taunts of the cool kids at school never quite leave you) go up in smoke whenever we have visitors. Their faces light up. One neighbour — a distinguished literary scholar, who’s just published a monograph on Dr Johnson — went home, logged on and ordered his own steam loco. It’s that seductive, and that easy: I realise now that I built my entire railway from products purchased online. (Sorry, Hattons). 

And when the engines have returned to their sheds for the day, we log onto social media and share photos and tips with fellow enthusiasts — or arrange to get together to run trains on each other’s railways. In the social media age, the trainspotter is no longer a lonely figure of fun. It’s never been easier to find your tribe, and our particular tribe has never been more inventive or inclusive (it’s younger than you think, too). The impulse that drives us is timeless. As far back as 335 BC, Aristotle noted that the instinct to imitate life — to build models, if you like — is part of what makes us human. 

But with model railways it doesn’t end at imitation. It’s a staggeringly multifaceted pursuit: if you enjoy carpentry, electronics, photography, metalworking, painting, sculpture, architecture, industrial design, landscape archaeology, social history, Lego, gardening or Thomas the Tank Engine there’s a corner of railway modelling for you. I’ve seen layouts inspired by Eric Ravilious, Terry Pratchett, Vermeer, Rowland Emett and the Battle of the Somme. Not just in the UK, either — the hobby is huge in the US, Europe and Japan. With 1.3 million visitors per year, Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg — a colossal, breathtakingly-detailed model railway with 15 kilometres of track — is Germany’s seventh biggest tourist attraction. 

Anyway, you get the picture. The world changes but the trains have not been cancelled yet. Railway modelling has never been livelier, more creative or more diverse — and since there’s about an hour of daylight left, I’ll leave it at that. If I start raising steam now, I can get a quick session in before dinner. It’s not that messing about with little trains is more fun than writing. It’s just that it’s more fun than practically anything. 

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