Last month, I attended my very first Amherst Railway Society Railroad Hobby Show (January 27 & 28, 2017). Along with more than 22,500 people, I made my way to West Springfield, MA and descended upon The Big E (Eastern States Exposition) to experience this annual 'anything and everything railroady' event.
Over the years, I've attended a number of train shows. These events as well as 'spousal osmosis' and research have exposed me to the world of model railroading.
My spouse of 27 years (George Michaels, Founder of TroveStar) has been collecting n-scale trains for more than 20 years and regularly exhibits n-track and t-track modules at local train shows as a Northeast N-TRAK member. I've bought George a coveted shorty tank car or two and yes, I've helped him load these rolling stock and his Army Base train module into the bed of his pick-up truck.
As head of marketing for the n-scale model train database on TroveStar, I research bathtub gondolas and articulated well container cars. So I do have some experience with model railroading and train shows. However, I've never experienced anything like the Amherst Train Show; this ginormous venue delivers an all-encompassing and unforgettable model railroading experience.
Primed with Prototypes
My Amherst Train Show experience started before I even entered the more than 350,000 square feet of exhibit space. It began when I spotted several 30,000 gallon tank cars standing idle on the tracks adjacent to the show entrance. I thought this was pretty neat especially since this hobby, which has been around for over 100 years, is based on the modeling of real life locomotives, rolling stock, vehicles, structures and other prototypes. (The very first 'model trains' were toy trains made in the 1860s of wood and metal [with no moving parts] and meant to be played with on the floor sans a track.)
While walking with other attendees of all shapes, ages and sizes toward the entrance, something else caught my eye. Little kids were carrying collapsible foot stools. These 3 or 4 year old boys and girls looked determined and on a mission. I had not seen foot stool-toting tykes at other shows. I did not give this much more thought and made my way out of the cold and into one of the four exhibit buildings full of operating layouts (of all gauges) and rows and rows of booths manned by many manufacturers, dealers, collectors, historical societies, supply shops and other model train-related folks.
Have Foot Stool Will See . . . Trains!
It wasn't until I was inside near the train displays that I put two and two together. There are a number of different scale sizes in model railroading. Thanks to the many train clubs who travel from as far north as Montreal and from all over New England and run hundreds and hundreds of cars on many, many feet of track of all gauges/widths, the Amherst show is a great place to see many of them. And that's exactly what these little kids did. They yelled 'trains' and ran up to the layouts, expertly opened the foot stools and once at optimal viewing height, they just took it all in.
History in the Making
So what exactly did they take in? The American railways began in 1830 when Peter Cooper's American-made steam locomotive, dubbed Tom Thumb, steamed along a 13 mile stretch of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad track, one of the oldest U.S. railroads. Many model railroaders create vignettes (stories in time) that began with the Tom Thumb. They depict American railways or choose foreign lands as inspiration. The foot stool-toting tykes had the chance to see many layouts, which replicate past and present eras of a (mostly) American cultural landscape. Some are loosely based on prototypical railroads and locations and others are more exacting in their representations.
It was neat to see adults share this hobby with children and more importantly it was nice to see kids engaged in the process (carrying their own foot stools) to see the train displays. I had read collector profiles in media outlets like the N Scale Enthusiast Magazine and knew the familiar theme or variation of it: "My Dad gave me a such and such train set when I was a kid and I've been hooked ever since." However, seeing dozens and dozens of future generations of train modelers / collectors mesmerized by so many train layouts was more powerful than any magazine article. I couldn't help but wonder if some of these kids would one day in the future make their way back to the Amherst Train Show and participate in the Youth in Model Railroading section.
N-Scale and Winterfest
I was most interested in the n-scale (1:160) layouts and manufacturers or Winterfest, the annual NTRAK convention held in conjunction with the Amherst Train Show. Three clubs -- Northeast T-TRAK, MaiNE Track and Northeast N-TRAK -- participate in Winterfest.
Some of the N-TRAK and T-TRAK layouts / modules I saw were quite impressive and spanned a wide variety of themes, representing different time periods, landscapes and countries. Layouts included: scenic mountains, realistic-looking bridges and canyons, nuclear reactors, fields full of solar panels, a cityscape with a building on fire and firefighters hard at work; a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus complete with tents, elephants and everything needed to bring the circus to town; a bridge running over a waterfall (T-TRAK) and much more.
For some clubs, such as Northeast N-TRAK, Winterfest and other shows represent the only way to meet and socialize and run trains together as a group. This year marked the club's 38th year attending the show!
Continuing Trend: More Realism
After seeing lots of great operating train layouts, I tried to connect with as many n-scale manufacturers as possible. The Amherst Show makes it quite easy to talk with a wide array of companies spanning Athearn to Walthers and learn about new products and features (trends). I chatted with a number of n-scale manufacturers [so far I have written blogs on only a handful of those exchanges ( Atlas/BLMA, InterMountain, ExactRail, and MicroTrains )]. "More realism" (factory-installed DCC-sound, more realistic sound, more lighting features, etc.) thanks to more sophisticated micro-electronics was definitely one of the continuing trends echoed by these and other makers of n-scale inventory.
First Place Goes To . . .
In addition to sharing news of their products, manufacturers also share some of their inventory, which is awarded during the Winterfest Awards Banquet Dinner. During a dinner of steak or chicken shared by over one hundred members (mostly men) of all three n-scale clubs and a smattering of women, train sets, engines, accessories and many other items were given away as raffle items and contest prizes for categories including, Motive Power - Steam; Rolling Stock - Passenger; Structures - On Line; Humorous; Parade of Trains; and Best in Show. This year TroveStar volunteered to help Winterfest organizer Robert (Bob) Fallier tally contest votes. TroveStar also donated a prize.
for his amazing module entitled "Lawnmower Man."
for her mixed-consist double-headed steam Pennsy entry.
Each year Winterfest invites a guest speaker to the banquet. This year Bill Schneider, Product Development, Rapido Trains shared an abbreviated power point presentation that shed light on both the company and the production process of HO and N-scale engines. It was fascinating to learn the involved process -- from the raw idea to the computer-aided drawings to the translation issues with Chinese workers to the actual very hands-on process -- behind the creation of some of these model trains.
Well, there you have it: my very first and most definitely not my last Amherst Train Show. I did not touch on every aspect of the show (would love to learn about the Clinics offered by manufacturers) . . . but that's what next year is for . . . right?
Education and Philanthropy
Kudos to the Amherst Railway Society. For more than 50 years, this organization has been dedicated to educating and informing the public about model railroading and railroads in general. The Society also dons a philanthropic hat and has donated over $750,000 to railroad preservation and restoration projects all over the United States. Thank you!
See you at the 50th Anniversary Show in January 2018!