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why are model railways so expensive

A question I get asked a lot is 'Why are model railways so expensive?', and in this article I will explain the factors that contribute to the cost of model railways.

I have been building model railways since the 1970's when my parents bought me my first model railway set from Hornby. Since then I have bought countless locomotives and other items for my model railway layouts.

Every now and then I have sold the layouts and restarted the process, perhaps with a different gauge or a different layout for a new house. Each time the costs have been different.

By the end of this article we will have covered the following topics:

  • A brief history of model railways
  • How do 1970's prices compare to todays prices
  • What factors increase the cost of model railways
  • Some of the benefits of model railways
  • The value offered by a model railway


A brief history of model railways


The first recorded model railway was in 1859 by Napoleon III for his son and powered by Clockwork.

Marklin made commercial railway toys from 1891 based at Göppingen.

Bassett Lowke manufactured model railways based in Northampton from 1899

Hornby railways was born from Frank Hornby's Meccano company. The 'Hornby Clockwork Trainset' was popular  from 1901 to 1937. This system built in tinplate to 'O' gauge or 32mm is still collected today.

Photo of an old Hornby Clockwork Loco
A surviving Hornby Clockwork loco circa 1923

Hornby's #1 clockwork goods set included this locomotive and cost 10 shillings in 1923. In todays money that is over £60.

Hornby released their Dublo range in 1938 with cast metal bodies and three rail pickups. By 1964 the models were running on two rails only.
Photo of 1939 vintage old Hornby Dublo Loco
A surviving 1939 vintage old Hornby Dublo N2 Tank Loco

Hornby's 3-rail N2 locomotive would never have had GWR colours in real life. It would have cost £70 in todays money.

In the 1970's, Triang-Hornby were using moulded plastic bodies. Their factory was at Margate in Kent.  My first train set in 1975 was a Flying Scotsman set which then would have cost £21. In todays money that would be equal to £187.44

Photo of 1975 Triang-Hornby Flying Scotsman
A Photo of 1975 Triang-Hornby Flying Scotsman
Hornby's modern Flying Scotsman set is available for £219. The new set has much greater detail and precision

Photo of 2021 Hornby Flying Scotsman from the current train set
A Photo of 2021 Hornby Flying Scotsman from the current train set equal to my 1975 version

Today the model railway items closest to the toy trainsets of the 1970's are the Hornby Railroad range. Even these have more accurate measurements and added details such as wire handrails.

The Hornby Railroad range and starter sets are great ways to begin a model railway or play trains.

Companies like Hornby, Bachmann, RapidoHeljan, and Dapol can now make models with greater detail

Todays enthusiasts modelling real locomotives and railways expect accuracy and detail.

With the added levels of realism and detail comes an increase in the cost of these models.

The factors that affect model railway prices


Research

Model designers used to work from measurements and photographs  of real locomotives . This meant that the models could not be super accurate and were more of an approximation of the real thing.

With modern laser scanning and design techniques you can make  super accurate models. 

Researchers can take many months to investigate the real prototype locomotives.

Including:
  • where they ran
  • what modifications happened over time
  • what running numbers existed
  • variations that existed

Design


If you watched the recent TV series 'Hornby a model world' you will have seen a glimpse of how the designers work. 

They produce a computer 3D model to create real prototype models. These prototypes check that the computer designs produce lifelike models. The parts have to be robust enough to withstand daily use.

The design includes the choice of materials used in the final models. Authentic liveries need to look right to the human eye in  on the models. The models weight, power, and speed also need to be right.

Complex designs can take many months to get right.

Tooling

The methods used to make completed models are not the same as those used to make prototypes.

Special moulds need to created to make plastic or diecast parts. Each mould has a specific lifespan after which a new mould is  created. These moulds can cost many tens of thousands of pounds
Photo of a model railway wheel mould
Photo courtesy of Rapido Trains showing the wheel mould for Lion

Once you have all the parts, you then need to set up a production line to assemble, paint and finish each model. The factories give production slots for each model, so delays can be costly.

Materials

Costs and availability of materials have a major impact on the production of each model. Unpredicted world events can mean manufactures have to put up their prices. Unfortunately this is very true for model railways too.

Transport

Many model manufacturers rely on overseas production facilities. In the past this has helped reduce the costs of their operations.

In 2022 this is no longer the case due to higher transport costs.

MPB Model Supplies import NCE DCC systems from America. In 2022 our shipping costs have trebled,  with the last shipment costing £800 to bring in.

Are todays models value for money?

When you buy a detailed model from any of the model railway manufacturers you are also buying the time. That is the time you have saved by purchasing a completed model rather than buying a kit.

Finding details from photographs and building the kit would take months of your time.

You also have peace of mind knowing that if the model you buy has a fault you can send it back.

If you bought a kit spent time and money finishing it then found it didn't work you have no one to turn to to fix it for you.

The prices of model railways today are similar to the 1970's allowing for inflation . You also get a much better finished model.

Starter sets offer good value as they include:
  • The locomotive
  • Rolling stock to go behind it
  • Track
  • Usually a printed mat to go under the track to simulate scenery
  • A basic controller.

A model railway can give a lifetime of enjoyment.

They offer a break from the stresses of modern living

You can save time by buying completed models

They do represent excellent value for money.

Are todays model railways expensive?

That depends on your personal life circumstances and what you compare their costs to.

For example:

I think paying £629 for an apple iPhone is expensive. In 5 years it will be obsolete, but the phone companies hide that cost in 36 monthly payments of £26.99

The cost of a locomotive at £180 with a lifetime of 30 years offers value for money as a gift to a loved one or personal treat.

They are not a lot more expensive than their 1970's counterparts would be in todays money.
  • Are they a luxury item? - possibly
  • Do they offer value for money - Yes
  • Can they unite different generations - Yes
  • Can building model railways improve mental health - I think so
  • Are they expensive? - that depends on how you value the benefits

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