By Rich Bockmann
The MTA’s A line was not the only train heading through Howard Beach over the weekend.
On Saturday, the Metropolitan Division of the Train Collectors Association held its fourth-annual train show at the Saint Helen School on 157th Avenue, where enthusiasts came together to buy and sell model trains as well as paraphernalia and to try to breathe new life into a hobby some believe may be getting toward the end of its line.
Show Chairman Bob Amling said there are two kinds of model train enthusiasts: collectors and operators.
“A collector needs to have every version of a box car ever made, and in the six different shades it came in,” said Amling, who prefers to build and operate his own scale models of trains and scenery. “An operator would be happy if he had one to look nice in his layout.”
About 40 vendors filled the rows of tables with trains ranging from the original and much-sought-after Lionel tin cars from the early 1900s to the plastic cars made during and after World War II to the Model Products Corp. sets built in the ’70s, after that company acquired the Lionel name.
Another popular brand, Mike’s Train House, was founded by Mike Wolf, who started out producing reproductions of the original Lionel sets for the Williams Electric Trains Co., and would eventually come full circle when MTH, through an out-of-court settlement, acquired the rights to produce Lionel vintage reproductions.
Amling said that nowadays, most model trains are made overseas. “We joke that the factory makes Lionel in the morning and MTH in the afternoon,” he said.
In addition to the seasoned enthusiasts, a few youngsters enjoyed going head-to-head on a specialized drag-racing track that had been laid out.
The owner of Ike’s Train Shoppe in central New Jersey traveled from the Garden State with a number of train sets, including a brand new, Lionel QJ to Jamaica’s 168th Street subway set.
“It’s all electronic; it even announces the stop,” Ike said. “What really makes it unique is that the electronic doors open and close.”
The four-car set had a price tag of $695.
Lionel last listed the set in its 2009 catalog, and the models depict the R30 subway cars that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority retired in 1993 after 30-plus years of service. The R30s, known as Redbirds, were originally dressed in kale green, and were repainted red in the late 1960s.
“MTH used to be licensed to make the MTA subway sets, but they decided they wanted to do a graffiti set. This was back in the ’70s and ’80s and the MTA was like, ‘We don’t think so, this is a bad time for us,’” he said. “So MTH went ahead and made them, just without the MTA on them, and that’s why Lionel has the license now.”
Sam Constan said that 10 years ago, the 408E tin car Lionel set he was selling for $1,175 could have fetched upward of $6,000.
“Over the last 10 or 20 years, the business has gone dramatically down,” the 75-year-old from Long Island said.
“The real issue we all face is that our hobby happens to appeal to older people who come from an era when the railroad was a key part of transportation, and our toys reflected that. Today, if you ask a 10-year-old to take a trip to Boston on a train, he asks if you’re nuts,” he said.
Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4574.