The latest issue of Model Railway Journal arrived today. I'm not usually the type of person to enter into correspondence in magazines, but I'm quite tempted to do so after reading this month's editorial by Tim Shackleton. In it, he says that he believes finescale railway modelling is in terminal decline and will almost certainly die out with the current ageing generation of modellers.
Whether this will turn out to be true or not I don't know, but I disagree strongly with his conclusion that those currently left in the hobby should therefore abandon all efforts to expand and recruit new members and instead simply focus on their own survival for what little future there is left. In effect, retreat into a corner, lock the doors and wait for the end to come!
Now I would be the first to admit that railway modelling has a fairly poor reputation these days (albeit undeserved in relation to the hobby itself). It is clearly not the most popular hobby out there, and the majority of those who pursue it fall into the 'older' category. (I'm one of the exceptions!)
However, I do think that the railway modelling fraternity are at least in part to blame for the poor image of the hobby these days. The negative stereotypes associated with railway (real or model) enthusiasts are largely true - as borne out when I attended the Warley exhibition in December! There is a serious image problem here, and it is little wonder that young people are not attracted to the hobby, or at least, don't stay with it beyond the Thomas the Tank Engine phase!
Of course, it is difficult to 'market' a hobby like ours convincingly to the up-and-coming generation when we're competing with computer games, television, club culture, football, etc. Not that these are necessarily incompatible with railway modelling, but they do seem to represent a rather different approach to entertainment that typifies today's society - at least at the younger end. There is definitely a general trend away from traditional hobbies, and railway modelling is just one among many casualties I suspect.
Another big factor is that the railways that once inspired new generations of modellers now lack much at all in the way of interest or inspiration. I know some will disagree, but personally I find today's railways pretty dull and uninteresting. Even 15 years ago when I was growing up there was a good deal more of interest on the railways than there is today. How much more so for those of the older generations who remember the days of steam!
However, I'm not sure that Tim Shackleton's summary of the current situation extends across the hobby as a whole. I suspect it is more closely related to the situation with what I would call the 'traditional' finescale end of the hobby. In the past, ready-to-run models where much less accurate than they are today, hence there was a big difference between someone with a Hornby Dublo trainset and someone who, in the pursuit of greater realism, scratchbuilt or kitbuilt their own locomotives and rolling stock etc. But today I think things have changed quite a bit. Many RTR models that have been released in the last few years are probably better than many of the scratchbuilt ones of several decades ago. The divide between finescale modelling and 'the rest' is gradually becoming less clear.
I suspect that many of the old-school finescale modellers find this hard to accept, as with many institutions in society, believing that they represent the 'real' hobby. For example, I've read plenty of articles that have suggested, with varying degrees of pompousness, that if you don't scratchbuild all your own stock, fit suspension to everything, or model in P4, then you're somehow not a 'proper' modeller. There's also a lot of 'shop talk' - you have to be part of the 'in' crowd to understand what's being said, whether its reference to certain manufacturers, products, aspects of prototypical railway practise, or even the oft-seen throwaway line such as "This was covered in the Janurary 1970 edition of Model Railway Constructor so I won't go into details here..."! All very well if you were alive in 1970!!
I'm not suggesting here that anyone should compromise their own modelling standards. What I am suggesting is that we should be prepared to accept that the hobby is changing and that the old distinctions don't necessarily hold true in the way they once did. I've never scratchbuilt a locomotive and don't suppose I ever will. I'll probably have a go at locomotive kit building one day (I've already done some wagon kit building which I quite enjoy and I think the quality is far better than most RTR wagons), but for the time being at least, I'm happy enough with RTR locos provided they have a bit of detailing and weathering to take away that factory finish. While I can appreciate the improved appearance of EM /P4 track (I really can't tell enough a difference between the two of them to bother me) over 00, yet I'm prepared to live with slightly under-gauge track simply to make my life easier and to save some time (I don't have the luxury - if that's what it is! - of being able to devote 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, to my hobby. To be honest, I don't want to... I have a life!!)