Friday, January 21, 2005

The State of Standard Gauge in 2005

Standard Gauge has never looked better!!! Who'd of thought that standard gauge would be so strong in the 21st century?

When standard gauge was invented electricity was fairly new. Today if we don't have 10 amps of juice on our desk for our computer and printer and 10 amps going to the layout, we need to get our house re-wired.

Speaking of progress, I have a question. Does Moore's law apply to standard gauge? If you are not familiar with Moore's law, in 1965 a guy named Gordon Moore, an engineer at Intel, envisioned that the number of transistors would double in an integrated circuit every three or four years. This has faciliated our "computing revolution" in the last 25 years. More computing bang for your cheaper buck. Hate computers? Most folks could actually care less about them.

Thankfully, I think we are largely exempt from Moore's law, save from Protosound 2 Command and Control hanging around in MTH gear. I kind of like Proto 2 but I also like the analog world of old toy trains.
The reason I ask is that Moore's law seems to be getting applied to everything these days. Cars have global positioning systems, On-Star with people giving you directions and unlocking your car from another state, outsourcing to India (which is just bad any way you look at it) and so on. Everyone sees technology or development as a get out of jail for free card. What they are getting free from (like creativity, invention and learning) in 2005 is something that worries me. I know quite a few of you are older than I am but I still remember tastes of what it was like to grow up in die-hard simplicity. That simplicity forced us to think. Sometimes solving problems is the hard way of doing something. It's what makes toy trains so damn fun. In standard gauge, big trains make for big mistakes. Where else can you make a mistake that's huge and not feel one iota for remorse? The new agenda for our country and society seems to be that we are all having someone else do the work for us. Sorry, the soapbox is now folded up for a minute....

So there are more toy trains out there now than there ever has been. MTH will eventually catch up to Lionel's pre-war production. Is that possible? Well, yes. Consider that Lionel bought some MTH Tinplate production for the Classics line in the early 90's. And ever since Mike Wolf has been emancipated from Lionel, he has produced tinplate every year since then (thanks Mike!!). Also, I know that Jim Cohen and Dick Mayer CRANKED out tinplate in their prime. Believe it or not, one guy with some solid tools could really crank out product. Joe is a little slower, albeit because he is producing and restoring lots of stuff for lots and lots of people.

Essentially, the technology hasn't changed in 100 years of tinplate. Not much at least in the world we like living in. As a matter of fact, as more technology proliferates the toy landscape, the more appealling a 200 series boxcar becomes. Or a #8 or a 400E or an Ives 3241 or whatever color and style tickles your fancy.

Thankfully, Moore's law really has lept right over tinplate and stayed in the realm of early 20th century. Kind of like Andy Rooney's favorite Underwood typewriter (by the way, if you want to read a great book, not a "kind of good one", read "My War" by Andy Rooney, one of the best I have read ever.), a word processor does a great job but the words resonate the same meaning regardless of whether they come out of an Underwood or an HP Laptop. The sounds of tinplate are timeless and as great as Proto 2 is, it can be shut off. The sounds of true tinplate from one of the great companies: Lionel, American Flyer, Ives still sounds magical and strong. Further, if you are one of the very lucky people that has a Voltamp, Bing, Boucher, JAD or Sirius and Varney, McCoy, Cohen, Mania, Marklin, Hoge or a train you made, the sound is even more sweet. That's the sound of a handmade item that will run forever.

So what are the predictions for 2005? Well, the set below (the Mayflower) is getting delivered to MTH next week, so are a ton of new tinplate boxcars. Not exciting? Well, consider that a substantial amount of standard gauge was delivered almost a century ago, that kids don't really buy this stuff at all (eventhough they like it) and that the competition is multi-billion dollar hawkers of laptops, desktops, plasma high definition televisions (at Costco no less) and you see why this might not be such a small achievement. Plus Jim Cohen and Joe Mania are going to produce some truly unusual products this year such as trolley maintenace cars and possibly some tube trains.

One question the new year begs is this: besides MTH, who is really going to produce this stuff for the future? I'd like to see more folks get into this market. MTH is doing some great stuff, like producing the Leland Detroit Monorail, tons of Ives and who knows what else is on the burner for 2005? But the guys that produce this stuff, the individual artists that purvey the art of producing historic and accurate renditions of tinplate are few and far between. Makes me kind of worried in 2005.

There are tons of shows and some great events coming at a fast pace. NETTE has what looks like a great auction coming up and Ted Maurer has quite a few auctions near and long term. I have noticed the local train store has started to sell paintball guns and fireworks. They have some standard gauge but it is all list, list, list price and hasn't moved in almost 5 years. Yet when I call MTH, they bend over backwards to take the order and even give discounts to frequent buyers! Customer service at that company has been excellent (at least in my experience). That's another funny thing, I can wax eloquent all I want about a product but customer service is as potent and important today as it was in 1905.

Then there's York (or Yorks if you have the time and money) and some great big shows like the Amherst show in Mass. I'd recommend going to one of these even if you don't have the cash. There seems to be feast or famine when it comes to tinplate in the marketplace. When I first started collecting, there was a ton of the stuff. When I was a kid and I had a cursory interest in tinplate (I saw it at shows but was more interested in good HO), it was tremendous, especially in the 1970's. When I go to see personal collections getting sold, I am flabbergasted at the breadth some collectors have, especially in boxed sets. I predict we will see some tremendous boxed sets getting sold in 2005. And the displays from old toy and hardware stores seem to come out of nowhere. I wish someone would remake them in 2005 and 2006.

I wish I could say I knew what Lionel was doing in 2005. I purveyed a good chunk of their 2005 catalog and frankly, there is nothing for us standard gauge folks in the catalog. I get kind of depressed when the Lion has nothing to offer me. I don't need postwar remakes. Some new standard gauge to define the next century might be a great way to define the next chapter of Lionel. Is making crap profitable? Well, according to Moore's law, yes. However most of the stuff I saw isn't even a step up, the catalog is chock full of Disney sets, Santa Fe F3 sets and items like the N&W J. Even the O gauge collector in me yawns; been there, done that. Something to consider; inventing new stuff is a lot harder than regurgitating the same pablum someone produced before. Like my Dad always said, "nothing is easy, especially the stuff worth doing." Man, is that true in 2005.

So what can we change in 2005? Well, we can do great things on our layouts! I plan on doing a project with my son on my layout and because I am building it with him, it will have to be great. I'd like to try making some mountains like I saw on that Kughn video from T&M. Or I'll try crinkling the brass and painting it. Oh heck, I need to do some benchwork! And hang more shelving on what little wallspace I have left! Whatever I do to my trains in 2005 is going to require some imagination and planning. Being that I haven't really changed my trackplan in 5 years, that's next. And that Leland Monorail is going to need to pick up passengers soon!

Should I get involved with TCA stuff? Well, hanging around with a bunch of guys discussing fakes, forgeries and standards doesn't sound very fun. I'd like to fire the hobby along and I think the only way I can do that is by taking some trains to my sons school and wow'ing his class. It has to be more fun than discussing reproduction parts (although after a couple of kids get done with my #8 I may need some).

What about eBay in 2005? Well, I think there will continue to be great standard gauge to be found in the 24 hour a day, 7 day a week online flee market. That's really what it is and that's really how it needs to be looked at. If you can handle the volume of stuff, it's like looking at old dishes in a flea market with your wife. Every once and a while, a nice little 215 Tank Car can pop up and bite ya. Actually, I go to at least 10 to 15 flea markets in the summer. I'm kind of looking forward to it this year. Seems like they are getting bigger and I have seen some really nice toys at a few of them. I am really hankering for one of those Buddy L firetrucks (the really old one's with the ladder).

I am going to get out to some museums. Definitely to the Henry Ford Museum where most of the Carrail layout is. I'd love to get out to San Diego to see Tom Sefton's collection and I am going to wander around Connecticut and document some train history as well (Ives, Lionel, Flyer, etc.).

Speaking of documentation, check out the Tinplate Times. Fire up those cameras and take pictures of your trains, your hobby shops, your layouts, your train yards (I know, not everyone lives near a trolley museum but almost everyone lives near some kind of train). We need to chronicle who we are and what we love. I have several thousand shots of my kids, and diddly of my trains. Send your pics to me or to the Jim Kelly or someone. Every one of these things is a rare find and a gem, especially when you put part of yourself into it (this is one of the reasons I don't discourage restoration). There's no shame in manual labor, especially when it equates to art.
Fortunately, we are fossils still stuck in the last century. The gear of 2005 is the same tech 0f 1905. Fortunately for us, 2005 looks every bit as good as 1905. I hope our noise lasts forever.



Anonymous said...

"We need to chronicle who we are and what we love." - Marc

Here, here!

I enjoyed reading your essay on the state of standard gauge. You made a lot of excellent points and covered many aspects of our particular little branch of the toy train hobby.

I'm really not sure where we're at or where we're headed - those of us who love standard gauge. As you pointed out, Lionel has seemingly abandoned us, while MTH is making stunningly beautiful standard gauge, more and more of it all the time.

A few weeks ago at a meet I picked up a copy of the Tinplate Traditions 2004 catalog. I don't own even one MTH standard gauge piece (YET!), but I was blown away by what I saw in the catalog. I had no idea MTH was making so much standard gauge - everything from State, Mayflower, and Prosperity sets through a full line of magnificent rolling stock and accessories in standard gauge. This combined with the production of those all-important smaller jobbers bodes well indeed for the future of standard gauge.

As for the TCA, I think they do a bit more than just discuss standards, fakes and the like. The shows that the TCA sponsors are very enjoyable to attend - not only York, but the local TCA meets in my area are fun. I enjoy the TCA Quarterly. I am looking forward someday to visiting the TCA museum and library. And I did order my very first MTH standard gauge car, the really interesting 2005 TCA Convention motorized 219 crane car billed as the first piece of motorized standard gauge rolling stock ever produced. That should be fantastic!

Thank you Marc, for the nice comments and the link to Tinplate Times. A big part of the mission there is to do as you wrote: to chronicle who we are and what we love. In that connection I welcome articles and photos of standard gauge and standard gauge collectors and operators. We're special people and I just want to add to the information available online about standard gauge and the people interested in it.

Well, back to work on the layout!

Jim Kelly

Standard Gauge Blogger said...

I have to agree with you Jim. The TCA does do more. The museum is world class, there is truly nothing like it anywhere. It is one place where I am awe struck by how beautiful the trains are and how they are displayed. It is absolutely worth visiting. And I agree 100% with you on the shows as well, they are quite good, much better than some of the shows I have seen advertised for months that have Barbies and huge lots of toy cars, etc.. The TCA does a great job of weeding out the junk and focusing on trains.

However, in every magazine I seem to get now from the TCA there is some wrinkle in it about reproduction parts or standards or the like. The articles are very negative and usually gravitate around the threat of the "standards committee". Truthfully, the standards committee can do nothing more than toss you out of the TCA. And I familiar (especially in NY) of a couple of often repeat offenders, people that really do sell heavily modified trains as originals that somehow find their way back into the TCA or back into meets.

I guess the point is that I'd like to see the TCA return to it's roots and not try to be a big governing body. Toy trains are a joy and the focus should be on the joy, not on the mediation skills and assessment skills of the club (it's one of the reasons I am a big fan of Bruce Manson, the late Lou Redman and late Ward Kimball).

Let me put it this way; do you attract bees with honey or a standards committee? There aren't a ton of folks anxious to join a committee. Lots of folks want to collect trains!

Thomas Deater Jr said...

I agree. As a die hard MTHer (its what us younger can easily afford AND pay over time), Mikie is going a wonderful job for the $. Will they hold up 100 years like the originals, unknown.

But I will say, while parents throw away 200-400 on video consoles for the kids, or 1 grand on a computer, that money will liquify in 4 years and it will be time for a new computer. Result- a loss of 300+ a year with nothing to show for it.

Granted, our "hobby" may lose some value once you run a new engine, but hey, AND I HAVE FAITHFULLY TOLD THE LITTLE WIFIE, our kids will get better or equal value to what I'm spending now.

Just my thoughts.

Anonymous said...

On the TCA, I pretty much try to ignore the political stuff, committee's, etc. I've had my disagrements with the organization over policy, and I've written letters, etc. You're right about not letting that stuff take away from the enjoyment of the hobby. As for standards, etc. again to the extent that the TCA tries to play policeman and enforce standards, they're unable to guarantee anything to any of us. Each of us is responsible for what we purchase. We make good decisions about authenticity by learning about our trains, reading books, observing online toy train related activities such as auctions, and talking to other enthusiasts, not by depending on the TCA standards police.

Jim Kelly

Anonymous said...

Great post Marc!

I think Moore’s law does apply here but the problem is that it hasn’t produced the benefits it usually does: lower cost for items that aren’t the cutting edge. Williams is managing to produce high quality, low cost reproductions of Lionel’s postwar trains. Why hasn’t someone really been able to reproduce pre-war trains at a lower cost?

The manufacturing process and materials have improved so the answer isn’t there. Labor costs have risen but can be, painfully to some, overcome through overseas production. Is the market too small to support lower cost that comes with higher numbers? I’m not sure I have the answer but it is worth nothing.

I would love to know more about how Joe and Dick make/made their engines. I’m starting to read more and more about it and can feel the bug biting me hard. I think some of this is rubbing off on my father in law as well.

I think Lionel hasn’t learned from its failures or its successes. MTH clearly has and that’s why they are sitting in the driving seat right now as far as Standard Gauge goes.

Standard Gauge seems to have “buzz” right now. Certainly more and more people mention it in passing than they did 5 years ago. It doesn’t seem to be that way locally yet but maybe that’s a good thing. (First pick at tables?) I agree we need to post more pictures and make more of our community “known” to all. An OGR style forum would be great but a headache to manage.

Thanks for starting one of the sites I visit every day Marc. It’s a great read.

Jim (aka Yojimbo)