Steve Studley Interview: NMRA National Convention, July 2016

Steve Studley Interview: NMRA National Convention, July 2016

On the heels of last week’s interview with Carl Nordberg about the upcoming N-Scale convention, we now have an interview with Steve Studely, the 2016 National Model Railroad Association Convention Chair. We’re talking about the upcoming NMRA national convention, Highball to Indy, which runs July 3-10, 2016. I asked Steve many of the same – or similar – questions that I asked Carl. With both interviews so close, I thought it would be good to have different view points on similar subjects. Steve does point out that the answers provided to these questions are based on the personal experiences of an NMRA member. Steve is not an official spokesperson for the NMRA.

Robert: You’ve been holding the national convention annually since 1935. That’s 81 years, which is pretty amazing. How is the hobby of model railroading doing after 81 years?

Steve: Although I can’t personally speak to all those 81 years, I can say that, during my modeling lifetime, the hobby continues to be enjoyed by a large number, and wide age-range, of participants. Products for today’s model railroaders have certainly changed over the years.  More ready-to-run items are available and many of them are more detailed than previous offerings.  Electronics (DCC and computers) have also added to our hobby enjoyment.

My early exposure to prototype railroads in our hometown and a Lionel train set at home got me interested in both railroads and model railroading.  Today’s youngsters don’t have the same exposure to the prototype as we did, but having “Thomas and Friends” can provide that early spark for kids to desire to learn about and enjoy railroading.  There’s no denying there are more distractions for youngsters these days with videos, electronic games, and organized sports.  Hopefully, the youth of today remember their early enjoyment of model railroading and will return to it as they age.  We hope there will be a day when time, family commitments, and available money allow them to, once again, enjoy this hobby.

It is safe to say that those who are attending – and participating in – NMRA meets, conferences, and conventions at the Division, Region, or National level are enjoying their hobby.  If you are one of those persons, you would say the hobby is continuing to do well.

R: This is the first time the National convention is in Indianapolis since 1963. What’s special about returning to Indy?

NMRA-2016S: Many large cities have gone through changes in the last 40 years or so.  There was a time when the downtown area was the center of shopping and housing.  Then shopping moved to the suburbs and was followed by housing, often leaving the center of the city as a depressed area.  Fortunately, that has changed and those cities that have reconstructed their downtown area are once again a viable and enjoyable place to live.  Indianapolis is one of those cities.  A major reason to have the convention in Indy is because of the modern, walkable downtown area that contains many interesting sites to visit, sports facilities, and museums.  Add to that the modern convention center directly across the street from the convention hotel and you have a great location to hold both the NMRA National Convention and National Train Show®.

R: There are a lot of options in the clinics available this year. Can you highlight two or three of them for us? Is it possible to only highlight two or three?

S: It would be very easy to highlight two or three clinics, then two or three more, then…  So rather than highlighting a few, consider what the clinic program has to offer to you.  Attending clinics provides a great way to gather information, tips, and techniques to add to your personal model railroading skill set.  Attending clinics is my favorite thing to do at a convention – closely followed by dining and visiting with friends.

There are over 200 clinics being offered at Indy. These include clinics that discuss the history of a railroad or location, tell you what tools to get and how to use them, produce your own decals, learn about operating your railroad, produce the paperwork for operating your railroad, learn about electronics and put them to work on your layout, and for those who are considering building a layout, you should attend clinics on layout design.  All this is offered at Indy – and more.  You can check out the listing of the clinics at Highball to Indy 2016 on the convention website:  nmra2016.org   Click on the Program tab to get to the clinic list.

R: Several prototype tours are offered this year. Tell us a little about them.

S: Tours to visit prototype facilities in the area have proven to be very popular.  Several of them have sold out.  These facilities tours include visits to Indiana Rail Road’s Intermodal Terminal and Locomotive Maintenance Facility, four tours to Amtrak’s Beech Grove Maintenance Facility, and a visit to Nucor Steel’s sheet mill facility.  Of these tours, there are a few seats left for the Saturday, July 9, tour to Amtrak.  There are also tours and/or rides on several museum railroads in the area.  These include the French Lick Scenic Railroad, the Whitewater Valley Railroad, and the Indiana Transportation Museum.  There is also a tour to the Monon Connection Museum.  For more information about these tours, check the convention website, nmra2016.org and click on the Registration Packet.

R: There’s more layout tours than we could list in this interview, but can you highlight a couple of them for us?

S: Several of the layouts on the tours have been featured recently in the model railroad press – in both print and digital forms.  These include Matt Hewitt’s HO Shadowton Ridge Northern RR Appalachian coal hauler, Tom Fitzsimmons’ HOn3 Red Mountain Northern Colorado narrow gauge, Jim Munns’ HO Chicago & North Western set in Wisconsin, and Jack Simpson’s HO Monon modeling from Bloomington to Lafayette.  Montford Switzer’s, who is well known for his Monon modeling, will have his Monon railroad open on the tour.  There is also a Super Tour to visit five award-winning and published layouts in the Cincinnati area.  Photos and short descriptions of many of these layouts are available on the convention website.  Click on the Layouts tab and enjoy.

R: What can you tell us about the operating sessions available at the convention?

S: The operations sessions are being handled by the Operations Special Interest Group, OPSIG.  You can find more information about the available operations opportunities on our convention website, nmra2016.org.  Click on the Operations tab and then choose OPSIG. For a listing of the layouts available, click on Operations Layouts.

The Operations Road Show layout will also be at the convention.  There are multiple three-hour sessions during the convention where you can learn about or practice your Timetable and Train Order operation skills.  For more information, click on Operations and then Opers Road Show.  Sign up for a session and learn about operations.

R: About how many people attend the annual convention? Where do they come from?

S: Recent conventions have drawn in the 1000-1500+ range.  Obviously, there are many who attend from the local area, but there are many who attend from throughout the United States and Canada.  There are many from the Australia/New Zealand area and also from the United Kingdom.  It is truly an international hobby.

R: Is model railroading as popular now as it has always been? What is the state of the hobby these days?nmralogo

S: Model railroading is still as popular with me as it ever was.  Our NMRA Division, Central Indiana, sponsors an information booth at local train shows including Great Train Shows, and World’s Greatest Hobby on Tour.  Like The National Train Show®, these shows are open to the public and the public does attend.  Over the past several years we have noticed not just hard-core model railroaders at these shows.  The attendees include many families with young children visiting and enjoying the trains.  Thomas the Tank Engine continues to be a draw for the younger railroaders.  Along with the scale model railroads to view, there is also interest in the LEGO railroad displays.

As stated in a previous answer, the hobby seems to be moving toward more highly-detailed, ready-to-run models and locomotives.  The electronics aspect of model railroad control continues to advance.  There are many more scenery materials currently available.

From my perspective, the hobby seems to be doing well.  With the advent of the Internet, there have been changes in how sales are made, but people are still buying and manufacturers are continuing to produce new products.

R: A recent article in the Wall Street Journal suggested that model railroading is an aging hobby, with the average modeler being a retiree. They suggested that fewer and fewer younger folks are getting involved in the hobby. We did an informal poll on our Facebook group and found that 78% of those who responded were 46 years old or older, and 25% were 61 or older. Less than 25% were under age 46 and only 10% were under 31 years of age. What are your thoughts on model railroading being an aging hobby?

S: I’d have to agree that the hobby is aging.  The average age of model railroaders (and NMRA members) is increasing.  One only needs to attend a regional or national convention to note that the attendees are an older group.

The numbers from the stated informal Facebook (FB) poll may be skewed by the ages of those who are FB users.  FB users seem to be old enough to be parents or grandparents, sharing information about their children or grandchildren.  Many younger people I follow have moved to Instagram and/or Snapchat, effectively increasing the age of FB users.

Although this hobby is aging, there does seem to be continued interest for youngsters enjoying trains during their early years.  We can hope that that will provide an interest in later years when they are more able to find the time to once again participate.

R: When I first started in the hobby, I was a kid in the mid-1970s. A series of moves and housing with limited space took me out of the hobby for several years. As I got back into it in recent years, I found that retail prices had greatly increased. Do you think the cost of model railroading might be one thing keeping younger people from getting into the hobby?

S: Prices have increased over the years.  In that regard, this hobby is no different than any other hobby activity.  And although the cost of very nicely detailed cars and locomotives has increased, there are manufacturers that continue to provide a lower cost, entry-level product that would allow younger modelers with limited funds, a means to enjoy the hobby

The growth of the electronics industry (computers, gaming devices, and videos) has undoubtedly taken interest away from model railroading.  It may be not only cost, but the space requirements for gaming versus model railroading is quite a bit different.

R: Something else I noticed when I came back to the hobby a few years ago was that the quality of just about everything has improved dramatically. On a personal level, I think this improved quality justifies the increased retail prices. What are your thoughts on the quality today vs. the quality 30 or more years ago?

S: Certainly there are increased numbers of quality products on the shelves today than there were 30 or 40 years ago.  If the modeler wanted a more realistic looking model, cast grab irons would be removed from the models and wire grab irons purchased separately were applied by the modeler.  Often locomotives were offered as a generic model.  If the modeler wanted to model a specific railroad’s engine, inappropriate parts would be removed from the model and correct parts would be added.  This took time and money to accomplish.  Often, today’s models are offered, directly from the manufacturer, in an as-built, railroad specific configuration.  This saves quite a bit of time over the older way of readying a car for the railroad.  The trade off is saving time by spending money.

R: How long have you been model railroading, Steve?

S: 60+ years.

R: What scale or scales do you model in?

S: HO.

R: Do you do prototype or proto-freelance modeling? Tell us about your model railroad.

S: I’m a proto-freelance modeler.  The Midwest Central Railroad provides a bridge route through southwest Indiana, from Vincennes to Indianapolis.  The time setting on the railroad is current day with large diesels, unit trains, and an Amtrak train or two.

R: What got you into the hobby?

S: A Lionel train set as a Christmas present when I was 2-1/2 years old got me started in the hobby.  Of course, I was too young to run the train, so Dad and the neighbor were the ones who were the engineers that year.  When I was in junior high school, I learned about HO scale.  Again, Dad came to the rescue with another Christmas gift – a Tyco train set.  This time, though, I was old enough to run my own train.

R: Finally, what advice would you have for someone wanting to get into the hobby today?

S: Find out what it is that interests you in the hobby.  Do you like to see trains running?  Does the idea of switching a yard or set of industries intrigue you?  Are you interested in electronics?  Make a note of your wants.

Find out what is available to help you get started.  This can be accomplished by visiting and asking questions at local hobby shops (LHS), and train shows.  Read the monthly model railroad publications – both print and digital – to get an idea of what the hobby is about.

Then, find an active local group or club (ask at your LHS or any other modelers you might meet) and attend meetings and activities.  Joining the NMRA is a good way to get involved with your local NMRA Division.

Regardless of the route you take, it’s important to participate.  Make friends, share your experiences with them.  I firmly believe model railroading is a great hobby for all.

Thanks to Steve Studley for that fantastic interview.

If you are an NMRA member, or want to be, and are curious about the national convention, it begins in just under a month, July 3, 2016 and runs through July 10,in Indianapolis, Indiana. You can find out about joining the NMRA on their website, and more on the convention at the convention website.

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Robert Thomson

Robert W. Thomson is a life-long railfan, the son of a former L&N Railroad B&B gang foreman, and an amateur photographer. He was born and raised in southeast Tennessee but now lives in Butte, Montana with his wife, Connie and cat, Charlie. Robert has worked as a park ranger, underground mine tour guide, freelance roleplaying game writer, and ran his own roleplaying game publishing company until selling it in 2012.

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