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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 1970s when my parents bought me my first model railway set from Hornby model railways. In the 1970s, Hornby model railways were the best-known supplier of train sets.

Since then I have bought countless Hornby model locomotives and locomotives from Bachman, together with rolling stock, carriages and other items for my model railway layouts.

Every now and then I have sold the model railway layouts and restarted the process, perhaps with a different gauge model railway or a different style of model railway layout for a new house.

Each time the costs of building a new model railway 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 today's 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

The 'Hornby Clockwork Trainset' was popular from 1901 to 1937. This model railway 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 today's money that is over £60.


Hornby released their Dublo range in 1938 with a full range of cast metal bodies and three rail pickups. By 1964 hornby model railways 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 1970s, Triang-Hornby were using moulded plastic bodies. The Hornby model railways factory was at Margate in Kent.  My first train set in 1975 was a Flying Scotsman Hornby model railways train set which then would have cost £21.


Photo of 1975 Triang-Hornby Flying Scotsman
A Photo of 1975 Triang-Hornby Flying Scotsman

The modern Flying Scotsman Hornby train set is available for £219. The new Hornby train set has much greater detail and precision


Photo of 2021 Hornby Flying Scotsman from the current train set

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


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


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


Companies like HornbyBachmannRapidoHeljan, and Dapol can now make models with greater detail


Today's enthusiasts enjoy a full range of models for almost every railway company that has existed, including rolling stock and other accessories.

Model enthusiasts familiar with the real locomotives and railways expect accuracy and detail in their model replicas.

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


The factors that affect model railway prices


Research of real locomotives

Model designers used to work from hand-drawn plans and manual measurements together with 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 computer models before committing to producing real prototypes for approval before final manufacturing begins.


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 of the models

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.

  • How to represent the fine details

  • The components required to build the replica locomotive

  • The performance of the model, the model's weight, power, and speed also need to be right.

  • Authentic liveries need to look right to the human eye on the models.


Complex designs can take many months to get right.

Precision Tooling

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

Special moulds need to be 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 pay 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 used in the models

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

Transport of the finished products

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.

For example, 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 today's 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 cars and railways today are similar to the 1970's allowing for inflation. You also get a much better-finished model.

Starter sets offer good value and a great introduction to the hobby as they include:

  • The locomotive

  • Rolling stock to go behind it

  • Track

  • Usually, a printed mat goes under the track to simulate the scenery

  • A basic controller.


A model railway can give a lifetime of enjoyment.

Model railways can give you a lifetime of fun and enjoyment. They are an incredibly rewarding hobby, as they require creativity and technical skill when planning, building, and maintaining them. You can be as ambitious as you like with your model railway designs, from creating realistic miniature versions of real-world locations to designing your own entirely new layout. Whether you choose to build the track yourself or purchase it ready-made, a model railway will bring hours of enjoyment for years to come.

They offer a break from the stresses of modern living

Model railways can offer a refreshing break from the stresses of modern living. With their intricate details, immersive landscapes and delightful sense of nostalgia, model railways provide a much-needed escape from the everyday hustle and bustle of life. Whether you are looking to enjoy some quiet contemplation, or an afternoon spent with friends and family building elaborate railway networks, there is something for everyone in the world of model railways. It's a great way to relax and unwind after a long day at work or school, as well as have fun and create something beautiful. So if you're looking for an enjoyable way to unwind in this busy world, look no further than model railways.

So are today's 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 a personal treat.

They are not a lot more expensive than their 1970s market counterparts would be in today's money.

  • Are they luxury items? - 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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