Remember how magical it was to watch that model train go around the track when you were a child? Remember how you dreamed that you were the conductor? Well, some people never stop dreaming, nor do they want to. The model train industry is a multimillion dollar business in which the average customer is actually an adult. And Lee Riley, who's been an industry designer and is presently VP of product development for Bachmann Trains, Philadelphia, PA, which puts out the "Thomas the Tank Engine" line of electric trains, points out that the workings of a set are intricate, not something hobbyists think of as a toy.
"The Beep" train model has gone through design enhancements since the early 1950s and is still providing wonder. Image: Ready Made Trains
"These are actual scale models. Many of the trains in the industry are exact to the actual train, down to every nut, bolt, and rivet," Riley says. "The mechanical drive sits inside but you need to have special motors that perform in scale in speed: fast, slow, maximum speed. And they have to sit just right in every detail. We have to get all the gear towers up inside, along with figural technology and digital sound. With how advanced it gets, many toolmakers look at us and go, 'I can't believe it!'"
Walter Matuch, President and CEO of Ready Made Trains, Bloomsbury, NJ, says many popular trains are a retooling of past models. Take his most popular one, "The Beep." "It's diesel and the tooling for that was originally developed in the early 1950s and ran with two D batteries," he says. "It has gone through a succession of upgrades. It has two DC motors, metal wheels, a circuit board, reversible lighting. But, again, still 1950s tooling. It's almost like automobiles over the years. If you look at a General Motors automobile, between the Chevy, Cadillac, and Buick, there are many interchangeable parts.
Meticulous detail goes into designing a train model with their parts being built exactly to the specs of actual trains. Image: Bachmann Trains
And, to create a new design, Matuch is quick to caution that it isn't an overnight endeavor. "After you find the locomotive you want to make, you have to decide if it's even feasible," he says. "I'm talking to my engineers, we're figuring out if the motor and circuit board situation will fit and then, if it does, you have your [manual] drawing and then a CAD drawing. Then you get an estimate on the tooling cost. There are also paint schemes to consider. In the end, it takes anywhere from six to twelve months to go from conception to production."
The electronics also have their limitations. "If it's wired wrong, it won't work," Matuch says. "You have the circuit boards, the values of the bolts and LEDs, and we're only working within constraints of 18 volts. It's also making sure motors don't take too much [power] so that there isn't anything left for the lights. It's not as simple as it sounds — but not as hard either!"
But when it works, says Matuch, who proudly sports a 21-ton caboose outside his home, they can ride the rails forever. "There are still model trains that were made 100 years ago that work today," he says. "It's like what makes a car last a long time. Take care of it and it will bring years of fun."
Eric Butterman is an independent writer.
There are still model trains that were made 100 years ago that work today. It’s like what makes a car last a long time. Take care of it and it will bring years of fun.
Walter Matuch, President and CEO, Ready Made Trains
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