During World War II, Lionel’s model train production was curtailed, and they made defense items, along with many U.S. companies during the war. The May after the war ended, Charles Rose found his seven-year-old son, Charles Rose Jr., a Lionel train set and set it aside for Christmas. That July, before he ever had the chance to see his son open the set, Rose passed away. The train set was the last gift Charles Jr. ever opened from his father. Since then, model trains have become a life long passion for Charles Jr., who helped repair them in his mother’s repair shop, too.
Train collecting is a hobby shared among people of all ages – from seven to 97. Like Rose, there are many who received their first train as a gift when they were a child. Others were passed down the love of trains from a long history of railroad workers. But, no matter the reason for starting, once they begin the multi-faceted hobby it becomes a lifelong pursuit.
“The train my father bought me before he passed away is my favorite set. He never saw me run it, but it got me started and I’m still going,” said Rose, who now has boys and grandsons of his own with whom he shares his passion.
“Both my sons collect trains now,” Rose said. “I had a layout in the basement, and we’d bring the trains out and set them up around the Christmas tree every year. They came along and expressed an interest at a young age. I took them to shows throughout the years and it’s become a family affair. My eight-year-old grandson has his own layout now.”
Collecting trains can become a multi-faceted hobby – growing from a young boy’s first train to an entire room dedicated to a layout complete with electrical wiring, towns and landscaping. People operate or display them at home or in the office. Some even create entire rooms dedicated to their layout.
“The size of a layout can vary from folks who live in an apartment and have a corner of their den dedicated to their trains to a project they’ve invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in,” said Billie Mitchie, president of the Virginia Association of Train Collectors. “I know one gentleman in Massachusetts who added an entire room on to his businesses and built a replica of the area he grew up in.”
Many collectors create detailed layouts that take advantage of modern technological advances. Thanks to digitally reproduced sounds and modern control systems, many of today’s toy trains sound like the actual prototype locomotives. They can also hook up lights, traffic signals and other electrical devices to bring their layouts to life.
Some collectors enjoy other train-related pursuits connected to train collecting such as railroad history, period architecture and historic preservation. Some collectors are loyal to a favorite railroad, the line that served their hometown, for example, so they collect model trains exclusively of that railroad. Others are focused on a certain era of railroading—Old Time Railroads, the Steam Era, Electrified Trains, First Generation Diesels or the Modern Era—and plan their model train layout appropriate to the specific technology of that era.
“We have little cliques within the club,” Mitchie said. “People pull for different teams. People like different manufacturers. People enjoy some aspects — like layout versus the trains — more than other aspects. But, we all share the same common interest.”
To accommodate all different facets of train collecting, every year the VATC hosts four to five train swap events in Virginia where vendors and collectors of all ages come to buy, sell and trade trains. A Jan. 24 event at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy drew over 250 people and vendors.
“Folks will come in and just have heard about it,” Mitchie said. “They show up and haven’t had their train out in years, but the bug has bitten them. Depending on what they’ve got and what they’re looking to get into there is something for them.”