News & Reviews News The state of the model railroad industry

The state of the model railroad industry

By Mitch Horner | June 7, 2024

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “Model railroading is dying.”

An adage seemingly as old as the hobby itself, right? That alone belies the truth of the statement. If it held any veracity, model railroading would be long dead, and I wouldn’t be writing this article, and you wouldn’t be reading it. It’s best to clarify this up front: This article is not meant as an obituary, nor as a post-mortem. Consider it as more of a check-in.

That being said, there has been some significant news in the model railroad industry in recent months, news which I would like to take some time to unpack so we can better understand what it means for this hobby.

First, and perhaps most prominently, Hatton Model Railways announced their closure after 77 years of business in January of this year. This in turn brought about the closure of Model Train Stuff, also known as M.B. Klein, in the same month. Model Train Stuff, a US-based subsidiary of Hattons, had previously operated for 111 years, first as a hardware store, eventually evolving into a model train distributor operating out of Maryland, which was acquired by Hattons in 2023.

Let’s pause here: two long-standing legacy brands going out of business surely can’t signal a healthy industry, right? Well, the answer there is complicated, as both brands were shortly thereafter resurrected in some form. Model Train Stuff is set to reopen under the Factory Direct Hobbies family, and Hattons legacy will continue under Rails of Sheffield, although the original brick-and-mortar Hattons store will remain closed.

Two business logos which read factory direct hobbies and model train stuff

Both of these storied brands continuing on under new ownership means there were business entities that saw value in them and customers who wanted to continue to do business with them. This signals a healthier industry than their closures would at first indicate.

But what do people in the industry say?

“The idea that the hobby is dying seems a bit overblown at times” says Curtis Koch, director of marketing and social media at Broadway Limited Imports. “(Y)ounger modelers are getting involved, driven by their enthusiasm for the hobby. This passion often stems from being a member of a model railroad club, volunteering at a museum, working for a Class I or short line railroad, or playing one of the many railroad simulators.”

For rail enthusiasts, there’s no shortage of products on the market that allow them to indulge their interest. As for model rail products? “I feel the hobby is experiencing a ‘golden age’, because products on the market are incredibly detailed and offer a wealth of features” says Curtis.

“I think it’s important to find ways to keep younger audiences involved and interested,” says Curtis. “While younger audiences are getting into the hobby, the key to sustaining it for future generations is keeping them engaged. I think clubs are a great way to keep kids interested.”

The 90th anniversary logo of Model Railroader magazine

As for Model Railroader and It’s business as usual here. As you may have heard, publications including Model Railroader, Trains, Classic Trains, Classic Toy Trains, and, among others, have been sold by Kalmbach Media and acquired by Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Firecrown. You may have wondered in the past weeks what that means for you, our reader. The answer is, nothing. We look forward to continuing to create the same high-quality website content, magazines, books, videos, and everything else you’ve come to expect from us. We’re just as passionate about what we do as we have always been, and we’re not going anywhere. We hope you aren’t either, because we don’t want you to miss out on what we have coming up.

For more on this recent acquisition, Firecrown CEO Craig Fuller and Director David Popp joined “What’s Neat This Week in Model Railroading” recently to discuss. The video is embedded below.

4 thoughts on “The state of the model railroad industry

  1. Well, I’m not looking to “more of the same”, I am looking for MORE. Major improvements to the website, poorly designed and poorly implemented, more content in MR and Trains – e.g., really thorough reviews of new stuff in MR and many more articles on current railroading, not just history. And bigger magazines based on a resurgence of ad content. White River has done amazing things with Model Railroad News and MR Craftsman. I hear that you are moving from your current building, so a new MR & T could be coming. As a long-time modeler (1950), I am very much anticipating your new future.

  2. The biggest problem with Hatton’s that was pointed out by UK YouTuber Jenny Kirk was the business model that the company was based upon was no longer sustainable. They had staked their whole business on the resale market, but as time went on, less and less people used them to resell their old models, thereby cutting into the income and profit that was needed to sustain the company. It had absolutely nothing to do with the state of model railroading hobby itself.

    1. As it goes, businesses rise and businesses fall. No business is permanent, unless government is involved with keeping them permanent.

      I give you Blockbuster, Toys-R-Us, Sears and K-Mart as prime examples of companies who collectively “screwed the pooch” with major management decisions.

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