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Belt Lines

The Fascination with Model Railroads Rolls On

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal - End of the Line for Model Trains? Aging Hobbyists Trundle On - hinted at the demise of model railroading. Citing aging modelers and a lack of interest among younger generations, the WSJ article painted a dim picture for the hobby. “No way…” says John Sacerdote, Director of the Amherst Railway Society’s annual Railroad Hobby Show. “The fascination with model railroads endures from generation to generation,” says Sacerdote. “We see it all the time, in the faces of the people who attend our shows - boys, girls, young, old, men, women - makes no difference. It’s there. You can see it. You can hear it in their voices.” And Sacerdote has the numbers to back up his claim. Starting as a small railroad-themed swap meet at the University of Massachusetts in the 1960s, the Railroad Hobby Show is now the second largest event at Eastern States Exposition, occupying four buildings and drawing 25,000 visitors annually, 28% under 15 years old.   Sacerdote’s sentiment is echoed by Clark Huber, who manages the railway society’s model railroad club, the Amherst Belt Lines. “We have a bunch of younger modelers in the Belt Lines who are every bit as enthusiastic about the hobby as the adults who have been modeling for years.” The Amherst Belt Lines is a modular model railroad club. Club members build model railroad sections to track and electrical specifications, then assemble them to form an operating model railroad. “Each year, the Belt Lines attends six or seven shows around New England,” says Huber. “The shows are fund-raisers for other model railroad clubs or railroad historical societies, and operating layouts like the Belt Lines attract audiences for the show sponsors.” Huber goes on to explain another role the Belt Lines plays at shows. “We see ourselves as ambassadors for the hobby. We are there to promote the hobby and engage the audience, not just run trains.” And Belt Lines members do just that, not only answering questions about model railroad construction and operation, but actually putting throttles in the hands of visitors, of all ages, and guiding them as they run trains on the Belt Lines layout. “It’s one thing to watch others run trains. It’s fun. But when you get a chance to actually run your own train - you’re hooked,” says Huber. Technology advances have made this kind of audience participation possible. Belt Lines trains are operated with wireless throttles, and in some cases, even smart phones. "Yup, there is an app for that, too,” says Huber. “When we set up a Belt Lines layout, we also set up a small Internet network for train operation. I love it when someone asks, ‘…are you really running that train with your iPhone?’ Because we really are." Technology has also added to the model railroad fascination. Many model engines are new equipped with sound micro-processors that reproduce horns, bells, air brakes, and the rumble of a real locomotive with stunning realism. And that level of technology has strong appeal for many younger modelers. “Model railroads are much more complex today than they were 20 or 30 years ago,” says Huber. “But that level of complexity is a strong draw for our younger modelers. These are kids that are tech savvy. They love computers, and they like learning how to use computer technology to make things work.” The adult Belt Lines members are good teachers, too. Many have engineering or technical backgrounds, plus years of experience to pass on to younger modelers. “It’s a real thrill for our adult members to show younger members how to do things, then watch as the younger modelers come up with creative ideas for new modules,” says Huber. “We believe model railroading has a bright future,” says John Sacerdote. “…because the fascination is not going away. And, because creative techniques like modular layouts make the hobby possible for a lot of people. You don’t have to have a thousand square feet in your basement to devote to a railroad to enjoy the hobby. If you can build small modules, you’re in.” Sacerdote also points to the renewed interest in science and technology education in the US - the STEM programs - as a real boon to model railroading. “Model railroads embody all the things the STEM programs are promoting - engineering, mathematics, technology - it’s all there. That’s why schools with strong technology and engineering programs have had model railroad clubs for decades - MIT, Rennselaer, Penn State, the list goes on and on.” The Amherst Railway Society is looking for ways to support science and technology education through model railroads. “We’ve had some inquiries from technical high schools interested in starting model railroad clubs,” says Sacerdote. “We are also looking at a home-grown program that would both promote the hobby and support technical education for a lot of students.” So, a glass half-empty, or a glass half-full? At the Amherst Railway Society, the glass is half-full, more than half-full. Because we know that the fascination with model railroads just keeps rolling on.

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