Model Train Company Makes Comeback In Quarantine

Dec 27, 2020
Originally published on December 27, 2020 12:54 pm

The model train company Hornby has seen a big increase of sales because families are spending more time at home. Prior to the pandemic, it was described as a "company in chaos."

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The pandemic has damaged countless businesses, but in the U.K...

(SOUNDBITE OF MODEL TRAIN CHUGGING)

MCCAMMON: ...It's helping to revive a storied brand.

(SOUNDBITE OF MODEL TRAIN WHISTLE)

MCCAMMON: The company is called Hornby Hobbies, and it's been making model trains for a century. From Wales, NPR's Frank Langfitt sends this report.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Wales is in its third coronavirus lockdown. But for Dale Gamble, the enforced isolation this year has had one unexpected benefit - free time at home to share his childhood love of model trains with his young sons, Ollie and Theo. Here he is with 3-year-old Ollie, discussing the track signals on their train set.

OLLIE: Its green.

DALE GAMBLE: It's green. Off we go, then.

OLLIE: It's red again.

GAMBLE: Oh, stop.

LANGFITT: Ollie is messing with his dad as Dale helps him to drive a steam engine through a series of interlocking oval tracks on a plywood platform he built in the family garage.

GAMBLE: Will you do me a favor? Can you press number two, please, for the whistle? Press it (unintelligible). Now hold it down.

(SOUNDBITE OF MODEL TRAIN WHISTLE)

GAMBLE: Good boy. And what's this called again - the red thing? What was it called?

OLLIE: The breakdown train.

GAMBLE: The breakdown train.

LANGFITT: When the first lockdown began in March, Dale, who's 36 and teaches chemistry, dug out his old trains. He hadn't played with them since he was a teenager.

GAMBLE: A lot of it was in boxes, so it's a few bits and bobs that I'd kept. Some of these coal trucks here are actually coal trucks that Grandpa made, and they're all actual companies that would've had coal running up and down the line behind the house here.

LANGFITT: This isn't just a way to share a treasured hobby with his young sons. It's also a distraction from working from home and the pandemic.

GAMBLE: When you're focusing on whether that curve looks right or whether this bit of soldering is working or testing the track or even building the engine shed like I've got here, you don't think about anything else. So it gives you that sense of escapism.

LANGFITT: Most of Dale's old train equipment was out of date, so he invested in new tracks, digital controllers and locomotives. Simon Kohler's head of marketing and development at Hornby, and he's showing me around the company's visitor center in the English town of Margate. Kohler says customers like Dale, who returned to the brand in lockdown, have made a difference.

SIMON KOHLER: This half year, we've shown a modest profit for the first time in six years.

LANGFITT: That's a big deal. Not long ago, Hornby was in deep trouble.

KOHLER: It was pretty close to the company actually closing - consistently losing millions - millions.

LANGFITT: Kohler says investing in craftsmanship and targeting customers who are passionate about trains helped turn the company around after previous management misread the market. But lockdown also helped a lot.

KOHLER: People were finding that, really, there's only so much television they can watch, and they looked, if you like, to the more traditional things. So jigsaws, for example - you know, the demand for those went through the roof.

LANGFITT: He's talking about jigsaw puzzles. With toy shops shuttered during lockdown, Hornby's Internet sales boomed. In the first half of this year, the company sold more online than all of last year, and Hornby pushed social media as never before, encouraging photo contests.

KOHLER: They ran who's got the dustiest Scalextric set 'cause people were getting them out from the loft.

LANGFITT: Now, remind me what a Scalextric is.

KOHLER: Scalextric is slot racing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOT CARS RACING)

LANGFITT: Scalextrix (ph) is Hornby's slot car racing brand. The winning online photo - 18 boxes filled with vintage racing tracks. Meanwhile, back in Wales, Dale is helping his 18-month-old son Theo drive the train.

(SOUNDBITE OF MODEL TRAIN WHISTLE)

LANGFITT: The boys' grandfather, Peter, is watching from the side and considers one of the pandemic's few silver linings.

PETER: It's the doing stuff together - is the big thing. It's not something you could always have done, you know? And so I think Dale is actually grabbing an - the opportunity, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, you get with your children and making the most of it.

LANGFITT: Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Cardiff. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.