Nostalgic baby-boomers keep Hornby on track

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The Independent Online

They live in a shadowy world of loft conversions, making trees from sponge and debating obscure locomotive liveries. But together these model railway enthusiasts have helped revitalise a hobby that many thought had been shunted into the sidings of yesteryear.

They live in a shadowy world of loft conversions, making trees from sponge and debating obscure locomotive liveries. But together these model railway enthusiasts have helped revitalise a hobby that many thought had been shunted into the sidings of yesteryear.

Yesterday, Hornby, the Kent-based toy company that has made a living from childrens' enthusiasm for miniature trains since 1920, announced a 52 per cent rise in its half-year profits with sales of £10.6m.

In sharp contrast to the fortunes of the slightly larger scale operator, Railtrack, the replica manufacturer reported a surge in demand to bring profits in the six months to September to £794,000.

From miniature Eurostars to the little-known Princess Pacific, modellers have emerged in their thousands to turn toy trains into a recession-busting business. But where Hornby's mainstay customers were once eight-year-olds in shorts, the renaissance is being spearheaded by long-trousered baby boomers fuelled by nostalgia, a zeal for detail and the financial muscle to, at last, own the whole train set.

The company, which less than two years ago was widely perceived as failing and on the brink of a takeover, now sells about 70 per cent of its model trains and accessories to grown-upenthusiasts.

Frank Martin, the chief executive of the Margate-based company, said: "We still sell most of our boxed sets to children but it is the adult collectors who are the new and growing market. We are talking about 40 and 50-year-olds who perhaps didn't get the large-size train set they wanted as children and now find themselves with the time and the money to fulfil their dreams."

David Brown, managing editor of British Railway Modelling magazine, which sells 30,000 copies a month, said: "Trains and railways are always in the public eye at the moment, if not for the right reasons.

"But model railways are one of those hobbies that have never really gone away – for a small outlay you can create your own world to get away from it all. At least when nothing seems to go right with the real thing, you can have a functioning railway at home."

There are estimated to be 500,000 enthusiasts in Britain, building expansive sets in converted attics and out-houses, benefiting from an infrastructure of societies, magazines and web chatrooms.

Hornby sells about 80,000 of its traditional boxed sets a year. Shops are already selling out of its special-edition Hogwarts Express, produced as part of the Harry Potter film merchandising spree.

But it is the 80,000 replica locomotives and carriages, aimed at collectors and costing about £75 to £80 each, that have been the most spectacular and lucrative success. Hornby expects growth of about 10 per cent a year in the sector to continue.

But whereas youngsters might not be too worried about the minutiae of a Eurostar coupling, the new generation of collectors are nothing if not hard taskmasters when it comes to the nitty-gritty of gauges, micro-connectors, trackside buildings and traction units. Hornby completed the transfer of production to China this year to allow greater "quality, detail and authenticity".

Mr Brown said: "Today's modeller is a demanding customer – a locomotive can't be just near to scale, it must be to proper scale. The wheels have to match the original, not just a uniform moulding." This is a fraternity where the sticker on a tanker used to convey hazardous chemicals has to have the same codes used in real life.

But for all their pedantry, this new generation of locomotive junkies bristles at any comparison with the rail enthusiasts to be found collecting train numbers. Mr Brown said: "We're not trainspotters or anoraks – I've never owned an anorak in my life. Modellers come from all ages and levels of society. We're just easy targets. Actually, we're fairly easy-going people."

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