Michael Williams: Forget fine wines, invest in a limited edition train set

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When my son was born last month, I didn't lay down a case of Chateau Latour, nor did I put his name down for Eton. Instead, I dashed out and bought him a limited edition 00-scale model of a Great Western Railway train, complete with six carriages. If he's lucky, I might even allow him to play with it, one day.

It's people like me, I guess, who are fuelling the new model railway boom. Driven by a mix of nostalgia, disposable income and a soaring market for collectables, the hobby has become popular as never before.

It is a telling fact that only 20 per cent of model trains are bought by children these days. The railway boomers are men of a certain age, but unlike previous generations who tended to be pipe-smoking, cocoa-drinking and shod in carpet slippers, today's man in the model shop is just as likely to be dressed in a Paul Smith suit and to work in the media (Pete Waterman, Mick Jagger and Peter Snow all have their own train sets).

It's a shame that no one has classified the railway modeller in the same meticulous way that he classifies his own trains but some statistics tell the story. The combined readership of the two leading model railway magazines is about 350,000; there are about 700 model railway clubs across Britain, and on any weekend there are between 20 and 30 exhibitions.

"There is no such thing as a typical modeller," says John Brewer, the editor of Railway Modeller magazine. "Only some are interested in the trains; others are more interested in the control systems, which have become far more sophisticated. Others get involved purely in the craft side – making the buildings and scenery."

And of course, there's the money. A world record price for a model locomotive of £105,000 was set at auction recently, and a canny buy could easily outpace that case of Grand Cru claret. A "mint and boxed" locomotive made from one of the old Hornby die-cast moulds, before the company went over to plastic, can fetch £1,000 – about 50 times the price of 15 years ago.

But what of the man in his shed or attic, running trains in circles? Is he the candidate for the psychotherapist that we often suspect he might be? Mr Brewer laughs: "You only need to watch the guys running the layouts at any model railway exhibition. If they're control freaks, all I can say is that they're not very good at it!"