We are railing: Britain embraces the joys of the humble train set

James Tapper
·5 min read

It started with a standard Scalextric set: two slot cars, some track, a 10-year-old boy and his enthusiastic father. Six months later, Ben Martin has a 75ft raceway in his loft and a growing collection of cars.

“I went down a rabbit hole with my son,” Martin said. “There was a time when the postman was bringing track every day. He was laughing, ‘What’s all this about?’ But you can never have too many straights. It’s fulfilling a childhood dream. I played with Scalextric with my brother and I always wanted a track in the loft that lived there, that you could use whenever you wanted, not just taking over the living room for a few days before your parents made you pack it up and maybe get it out months later.”

Martin is not alone. Slot cars, model railways and model-making have boomed during the pandemic. Hornby, that stalwart of the British hobbyist industry, said last month it had seen far higher sales between April and August than expected. Peco, which makes tracks and scenery, is struggling to keep up with demand. And hobby shops have seen a huge increase in customers.

Hattons has supplied customers in Widnes and beyond for decades, and Richard Davies, the managing director, said sales had been “a blur”.

Hornby saw sales increase dramatically during lockdown.
Hornby saw sales increase dramatically during lockdown. Photograph: Guy Bell/Alamy

“We’ve been inundated with orders,” he said. “Last year, people were buying three and a half items on average, but in March and April that went up to seven or eight. We were about 50% up.

“The whole crisis has prompted people to take a look at how they use their time – people think they’ve been spending too much time at work, and now they want to make the model railway that’s been on their mind for the last 20 years.”

Some are new model enthusiasts, like the Martin family. Others, such as Chris Chewter in Oxfordshire, are established hobbyists who have had more hours to invest in getting a little closer to perfection.

For the last five years, Chewter and his daughter have been recreating Tetbury station in Gloucestershire, which was a victim of the Beeching railway closures.

The layout is a “small piece of utopia where the sun is always shining and the world is Covid-free”, Chewter said. “I’ve always wanted to take a real location and model it as close to scale as I possibly could. There’s something about making a model when it looks like it’s been shot by a Bond villain’s shrink-ray that captures my imagination.”

Steve Haynes, Peco’s sales and export manager, said: “It appeals to people who have artistic flair, to people who have a technical mind because they like the electronics, to people who have an interest in history. It stimulates the mind.”

Peco had to shut its factory in Devon for five weeks at the start of the pandemic. “Now we’re trading at a much higher level this year than we were last year, even with that disruption,” Haynes said. “We’re recruiting more staff and we’re still behind the curve – the demand is relentless. Some of our retail customers have seen more business than at Christmas.”

It helps that model railways now have a stamp of celebrity approval, and geek culture is not merely tolerated but feted. Rod Stewart was proud to show off his extraordinary reconstruction of an American city to Railway Modeller magazine last year. The sprawling layout of 1940s cars, trains and skyscrapers is 125ft by 23ft, and he is reportedly shipping it back to Essex from Beverly Hills. Musician Jools Holland, another enthusiast, has recreated the Channel tunnel and 1960s London.

Singer Rod Stewart’s amazing American diorama.
Singer Rod Stewart’s amazing American diorama. Photograph: Steve Crise/PA

“There are plenty of people showing off their model railways on Instagram,” Davies said. “When I was 15, I was embarrassed by my model railway. I didn’t want anyone at school to know about it. It seems like we’ve moved forward.”

Hornby, which owns many of the brands in British model shops, had been in the doldrums for some time, but its fortunes turned a corner after Lyndon Davies took over as chief executive three years ago. Stock market rules prevent him from revealing details before its interim results in November, but he is ebullient.

“Whenever there’s a national crisis, people turn inwards and look for things of comfort,” he said. “And we’ve tried to give people more fun.”

Hornby now makes Scalextric models of Batman and Joker cars, and Del Boy’s Reliant van from Only Fools and Horses. The track was more reliable now, Davies said, and customers also liked controlling their trains and cars with mobile phone apps.

“I had a race with my grandson, he had Superman, I had the Reliant Robin,” Davies said. They have a range of Yellow Submarine buses and trains that has launched in time for Christmas.”

“It’s so wholesome and innocent, and there’s absolutely nothing negative about it,” Ben Martin said. “It’s not like screen time. Everyone is interested. We’ve had load of visitors in the loft, from six-year-olds to my uncle in his 70s.

“But I’m done now. I’ve got enough track. We’ve started collecting Star Wars figures.”