Tis the Season


’tis the season...to buy toys. And when I stumbled across this one, I had to restrain myself from buying a set “to play with”. That’s a model of the JR East East-i E train (the link is to my page about the prototype, not the toy; I figure you can find a toy store on your own). It’s part of Tomica’s “Hypercity” line of toy buildings and vehicles. Even more impressive, Toys R Us was selling it for US$129, considerably less than the $190 it’s going for on Amazon right now. And some of the other models were showing for half the current Amazon rate. It’s not clear if it’s a sale, or just their usual pricing (I didn’t see any sale signs). If you’re interested you should be able to find them; I found a large stock of these, apparently of little interest to most people, around the corner from the stuffed animals in my local store. I expect yours will be similar.

The same store had a second complete set: a “Bullet Train” (JR East E3 Shinkansen) with track for $30. It also had individual track packs, and two “trains” you could buy separately: a “Freight” with a generic “EF” style locomotive and a couple of freight cars (no track as far as I could tell) for $20, and a model (motorized, 3 cars) of the Keisei Skyliner for $13. These are all Japanese prototypes in current use, which makes them relevant to my modeling, even if they are the wrong size. Oh, temptation...

tomica-bullettrain tomica-ef-freight
Bullet Train (left) and Freight train (right)

Skyliner train

One question I’ve never had a good answer for was “what kind of train can I buy my 6-year old who liked Thomas when she/he was younger?”. And I’ve been asked that more than once, actually, without a really good answer. Clearly, that’s a bit young for HO, much less N. And by then they’re outgrowing the wooden-track BRIO / Thomas and similar toys. LEGO has some trains, aimed at a slightly older age group (6-12, but I think they’d be a challenge for many 6-year olds). At 4+ these fill a slightly older niche than Thomas without the complexity of LEGO or the fine detail (and difficulty of layout assembly) of an HO set. A Lionel set might also work for a 6-year old, assuming you could find a Lionel set (they are a bit pricy, but not as bad as LEGO).

But aside from the seasonal relevance, what impels me to write about this is what it says about the current state of the hobby. When I was a kid, many years ago, you could find HO train sets in any toy store year-round. Not particularly good ones, but my first “model” railroad was based on one of those old Tyco sets, and it provided many hours of fun. It had freight cars with roofwalks (already well obsolete) but a fairly modern (meaning a design only 20 years old) diesel locomotive. More to the point, it reflected what I would see on rare occasions when I saw trains. Our town was on the end of a long branch line, and got about one freight a week to the local feed & grain, and I never saw the actual train, so I only saw trains on family trips. But the toy had a sense that it was “realistic”.

About fifteen years ago I could still find the occasional train set in the toy stores around Christmas, and maybe even mid-year, but it was clear there wasn’t a market there anymore. Trains were rarely seen, and kids had other things to interest them. Then, about ten years ago perhaps, the Thomas craze really started to take off. Then came Harry Potter and the Hogwarts train, and suddenly trains were, if not cool, at least something kids could relate to, even if only from fictional sources. I imagine Ringo Starr (Mr. Conductor) had helped set the stage for that as well.

You’ll note that all three of those are British. Likely because Britain still has trains that people see on a regular basis, unlike the U.S., where trains are rare outside industrial areas, and largely unseen even there. But British or not, they began to infiltrate the imaginations of kids in the U.S., probably leading to the market for things like LEGO trains, and now these (although given how they were tucked away and marked down, perhaps it’s still not much of a market).

The interesting question is: what are these kids going to get when they’re older? A quick search on Amazon for “model train” brings up a couple of Life Like and Bachman HO freights, which look even older than my old Tyco set: freights from the 1940’s (diesel, admittedly, but F units) and a couple of Polar Express steam sets. Yawn. I wouldn’t have been excited by those as a kid (well, maybe the Polar Express). When was the last time an F-unit pulled a freight? Were you even alive? I probably was, but I never saw one.

One thing the Tomica sets have going for them is that they’re “modern”, and they look like something you might expect to see if you looked out your window. They have fantasy trains too, for younger kids (a transforming “mechadock liner”, for example), but the ones I’ve highlighted above are based on real prototypes, and I think that gives them substance that a fantasy train doesn’t have, and a relevance that a seventy year old freight design lacks. Even if they’re real in a country on the other side of the planet.

As a hobby we often decry the lack of young modelers. But we have only ourselves (and the hobby manufacturers we support by buying things) to blame. If all we buy are nostalgic freight trains from our youths (or before them), there’s no pressure to make anything that would attract a younger modeler. And yes, I know Bachman makes an Acela model; it’s not a complete wasteland of wood-sided boxcars out there, even if sometimes it seems like it. And anyway, did you buy one? Me neither, and perhaps that was a mistake.

So get out there and buy Thomas trains for your younger relatives, and think about these or similar for the older ones. And maybe twenty years from now, the hobby will be growing with a new generation modeling our own light rail and “high speed train” lines of the 2030’s. One can dream.