Gifts that chug and toot

Fun: Toy trains are tootling into the hearts of young and old alike.

December 27, 2000|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

In many American homes, it is no surprise to find a train chugging and puffing under the tree on Christmas morning. But more often these days, the train is not for junior, it's for dad.

Toy trains are growing more popular among baby boomers who remember having the model trains in their youths, and one local toy-train company is capitalizing on the trend.

Mike's Train House, or MTH Trains, has been slowly growing its line of old-fashioned, die-cast locomotives and highly detailed cargo trains to cater to the aging boomers and to stiffen competition with the nation's best-known toy-train maker, Lionel.

Mike Wolf, owner and founder of MTH Trains, said he's looking forward to taking Lionel's place in the market. "The market for a train set under the tree is huge - it's an American tradition," said Wolf, sitting in his office in Columbia surrounded by train models and framed Dan Marino jerseys.

"I believe the majority of people don't know that trains are still made like this."

Lionel became the largest toy-train manufacturer in the world in 1953, with $32.9 million in train sales, according to Ron Hollander, author of "All Aboard! The Story of Joshua Lionel Cowen & His Lionel Train Company." The trains were hefty, shiny and heavily detailed with rivets, handrails and stairways. They puffed smoke, hauled cargo and tugged at the imaginations of millions of children and their fathers.

In the 1960s, after the company left family hands, a series of poor managers almost ran the toy-train company out of business.

Children of the television generation lost interest in trains. Lionel began using plastic instead of metal, and the company barely managed to stay afloat, according to industry experts.

Today, the toy-train industry is being revived by the very lads who wanted to see a whistle-blowing train set underneath the tree nearly 50 years ago. It's an industry standard that the average toy-train hobbyist is a 52-year-old man - a baby boomer with lots of disposable income and memories to re-create, willing to spend cash on trains that not only chug and puff, but also play music, announce rail line stops in local accents and can be operated by remote control.

Even Microsoft Corp. is hoping to capitalize on the renewed interest in trains. In the spring, the technology giant will launch its Train Simulator, a computer game in which players operate high-speed trains.

"It's growing, definitely," said Walter C. Throne, president of the National Retail Hobby Stores Association, of the toy-train industry. "Our sales have been going up every year in trains. They're making better product, there's more of it, and they have better packaging."

While manufacturers are eager to cling to the quality and attention to detail of old, toy trains are moving into a more technologically advanced age, what with CD-quality recordings coming out of train speakers and remotes that can operate up to 99 trains at once.

"We keep having more and more train exhibitors of every gauge showing their new goods at the show every year," said Darwin P. Bromley, assistant executive director of the Radio Control Hobby Trade Association, which every year plays host to the International Model & Hobby Expo in Chicago, the largest trade show for hobbyists. "I see in the store an availability of new products, a competitive environment that shows a really vital hobby industry," he said. "You only get these things happening on the shelves if you get good sales."

And both Lionel and MTH, the two privately held companies that own a lion's share of the original or O-gauge segment of the market, are reporting strong growth.

Lionel executives have said they expect 15 percent sales growth this year and next. Wolf said he expects $57 million in sales, compared with $52 million last year and $40 million in 1998.

Industry surveys estimate the model train market in the United States at $312 million to $1 billion a year. Of that, O-gauge trains make up about 12 percent.

Although Lionel, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, has rolled out 24 new models of locomotives in two years, Wolf has broadened the market in the past seven years alone with 62 new steam engines and 77 locomotives. He sells only to hobby shops and selected Sears, Roebuck and Co. stores. Starter train sets are available online at www.mthtrains.com.

"The next three years is the biggest part [of the baby-boom generation], and we're in the best place," Wolf said.

In addition to making new trains, MTH has focused on improving the trains with technology. Its top-of-the-line train models, which reproduce actual trains at a quarter-inch to foot scale and sell for $400 to $1,400, also coordinate the chug of the wheels and the puffs of smoke to simulate those of the real trains.

With new microchips that play back music and voices, Wolf said, he wants to sell trains to jewelry stores and other shops for use as a marketing tool.

The trains would run in shop windows, touting the virtues of the product displayed in the cargo beds.

Wolf is also investing in the future of model trains with every $199 starter kit he sells, and he hopes to snag a youngster's imagination and future dollars. He expects to have sold 35,000 from February 2000 through the end of next month, up from 20,000 sold the previous 12 months. New models roll out in February.

"A train under every Christmas tree," Wolf said. "That's my goal."

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