The future of the model railway hobby is definitely on everyone's mind and a very frequent topic of discussion - as we look around, grey hair certainly predominates among the practitioners of our passion. Most clubs are struggling with declining memberships, and hobby stores hedge their bets with model planes, boats and games.
Many reasons have been advanced for this state of affairs - the disappearance of railways from our daily lives as the principal means of travel - the competition of the wonders of the electronic age - the hectic pace of modern life where many have to work at more than one job, or where one's work is no longer nine to five, and the Blackberry™ demands to be answered day and night just to stay on top, so that one's daily bread doesn't become outsourced to some place half way round the world.
A commonly touted saviour is Thomas the Tank Engine™, and very definitely something that began as a series of stories for children has captured the imagination of successive generations of post-WWII youngsters. We all hope that this stimulus will somehow translate into young adults who after their education, mating and successful career initiation will pick up the adult equivalent of this railway icon and become serious model railway enthusiasts. And well some of them may, despite the fact that in North America at least, they may never have had the chance to ride a real train.
However, there is a new trend afoot. It's not a new concept by any means, but one that is gathering considerable momentum. These are model railways that are faithful miniature replicas of a railway that may still exist - or more likely, has vanished into history.Traditionally, the vast number of model railways have been "freelance", in other words have more or less imaginary settings.
More and more layouts however, while still essentially freelance, have started to include reproduced prototypical features, such as a station building or other objects that are recognizably reproductions of somewhere or something in the actual past or, with a bit of luck, still existing but likely destined for history.
Even more compellingly there are now more and more layouts that are rivetting cameo reproductions of an entire length of railway as the focal point of a scene that is recognizable to visitors as a museum-quality (if that is a good description) miniature of a real piece of our heritage past.
Such railways and scenes are not easy to build. They require consummate modelling skills that are an art form no different from the ability to paint or sculpt or carve or mold or blow. They are skills that have to be honed as any other, and innate creativity is a crucial talent. Aside from that, prototypical railway modelling requires patience for the creation of perfection, and the willingness to perform countless hours of archival research to discover what existed and what it looked like.
So why may this art form be a key to the survival of our hobby?
Simply because it moves the hobby to a higher platform that speaks to the universal fascination with our past. Despite (or because of?) the frenetic age in which we live, we continue to be drawn towards our heritage of what there was that went before us, we hunger to know how our antecedents lived, and perhaps equally importantly because we can see something where we can take momentary refuge and indulge in the solace in our past. These things remain important to the human soul - witness the countless number of amateur genealogists who search for roots. Some would say - it's all about the memories.
In this universal search for our past, our hobby has a powerful drawing card - the deep-seated fascination for, an invention that has arguably fired the human imagination as has no other - the railway.
In summary, the model railway hobby has something very important to offer to respond to this need - and that indeed may be the key to its survival.