By Ernest H. Robl 

As a journalist who wrote about and photographed prototype railroads — and told people that’s what I did — I sometimes encountered people who thought that not much had changed in railroading in the past half century.  No, I won’t go into all the technological changes that have affected prototype railroads.  If you follow the changes in Era III, IV, V, and VI equipment, you are already aware of some of them.

But, have you given much thought to how much model railroading has changed in the last 50 years?  Here are some of my reflections on what has changed for the better in model railroading during the last 50 years.

At one time, model railroading was thought to be a dying endeavor.  Economic downturns have hit model railroading businesses hard, because spending on leisure activities is always the first to be cut back when money is tight.  Yet, model railroading has always bounced back when the economy picked up.

Some well-known model railroad manufacturers found themselves way over-extended at the beginning of this century.  They were simply trying to produce too many models for too many market segments and had borrowed too much money to finance these activities.  The market simply could not sustain the fact that multiple manufacturers were producing the same or nearly identical models —when there was only a limited demand for these models.

This led to inevitable mergers and consolidations (and in some cases business closures), particularly for smaller companies that were slow to adopt new technologies or to follow market realities.  But, most of the major brands have survived, even if under new ownership.  In some cases, these manufacturers have reduced the number of scales in which they offer models, which is probably a positive move.

One measure

Consider this:  On many of my trips to Austria, I picked up copies of the Austrian magazine Modellbahnwelt (Model Railroad World).  This specialty publication, appearing six times a year, focuses primarily on Austria, though it does cover neighboring European countries as well.  With more time to devote to model railroading now, I recently paid for a subscription — even though overseas postage is expensive and it sometimes takes between one and two months for issues to arrive in the U.S.

Back in the 1990s, issues of this magazine typically had 54 pages.  Recent issues of this glossy magazine, printed on heavy paper with high production values, have numbered 84 pages.  Does that sound like a publication covering a dying industry?

Yes, sometimes I do go back to look at some of the older issues that I kept from those trips – in part to see what wasn’t there then and that is available now.

Digital and other electrical

The introduction of digital control of model equipment is easily the most visible change.  However, one of the great plus points of most digital equipment is that it is backwards compatible and can be run on analog layouts.

That lets modelers continue to run older analog models while acquiring new models with all the digital features.  (For my new layout, I have come to the conclusion that complete digital operation is the only way to go, even if it will sideline a few models that would be extremely difficult to convert to digital .operation.)

But, it isn’t just the introduction of digital controls that has made a change.  Even today’s analog models have circuit boards inside that improve operation and simplify wiring.  And the same is true of analog controls.

But consider this:  The smallest decoder inside one of our model locomotives has more processing power than the first generation of personal computers, and the number of model functions is only increasing.


This functional HO scale Viessmann model of a small track maintenance vehicle not only has an essentially invisible tiny drive (but so reliable that can even bridge short unpowered track segments) but also has built-in sound functions.  (Viessmann catalog illustration)

Electric motors have become smaller and more precise – in part due to all the research and development that has gone into producing motors for smaller and smaller computer disk drives.  This has made it possible to install motors into smaller and smaller rolling stock, such as track maintenance machines.

 LED lighting

LED lighting has added to models in many ways.  Lights now fit into smaller spaces while producing brighter light – with less heat.  And, unlike regular light bulbs, LEDs don’t have to be replaced frequently when they burn out.

As with many technical advances, LED lights in model applications are now getting less expensive, making them available for an even greater range of applications.

LED lighting can be valuable not only on layouts but also above layouts.

 Plastics and metals

Both plastic and metal technologies have seen major improvements, allowing the molding of much more detailed parts.  At the same time, these detailed parts are both stronger and more flexible, making them less subject to damage.


To me, probably the least appreciated (by most modelers) improvement is printing.  Yes, printing.

No, I am not talking about instruction sheets, the boxes that models come in, nor catalogs.

One of the major factors that sets today’s models apart from those of a few decades ago is the fine lettering that now adorns them.  Decals, once a major factor in model railroading, are almost a thing of the past.

You may not have thought about it, but that fine lettering is printed directly on the model.  It took the development of special printing techniques and equipment to be able to print on curved and other irregular surfaces, in which the Austrian firms of Liliput and Roco were pioneers.

But, it’s not just lettering.  Thin decorative stripes that once would have required careful masking prior to painting are now simply printed on the model.


Detail from a Roco catalog illustration of a  Roco model of the special ÖBB 1216 Wagner-Verdi paint scheme — a great example of printing on curved surfaces.

And, then there are the special commemorative or advertising schemes that are applied to prototype railroad equipment with adhesive plastic wraps.  Reproducing these on models would have been all but impossible 20-30 years ago.  Yes, some of these print jobs require many additional steps once the base coast has been applied to the model.  But these special schemes can now be produced in miniature.

The Internet

Probably the most immediate impact of the Internet on model railroaders, particularly for those with special interests, such as a particular European country, has been increased ease of ordering specialty items.

Paper catalogs are still useful, but a much vaster array of models from many manufacturers, including some discontinued items, is now available from Internet vendors.

But, the Internet also provides instant access to vast amounts of historic and current prototype data, which can help you decide which models may or may not be appropriate for your collection or layout.

One example:  I recently wondered which Austrian Taurus locomotives of the series 1116 were authorized to operate in Switzerland (equipped with Swiss pantographs and compatible with Swiss signal systems).  A few clicks of the mouse provided the answer.

(In case you really care:  It’s 1116 201 through 223, mostly in the Railjet paint scheme.)


I’ve just scratched the surface here.

Yes, I own some 40-year-old models that still run.  And some have important sentimental value to me.

But, I also remember the maze of wiring that was necessary on my two previous layouts to divide a relatively small amount of track into blocks in which locomotives could operate or be stopped independently.

The first time I placed two decoder-equipped locomotives on the same piece of track and was able to operate them independently digitally, including controlling lights, was a moment of real joy.

Technology comes at a price.  But, if you adjust the original prices of some of 40-year-old locomotives to today’s prices, it may turn out that the old locos were actually more expensive —with many fewer features.

Real railroads aren’t going away any time soon, and neither is model railroading.  Both are changing with the times, but with model railroads, you can even select the time period you want to visit – with more and more realism.



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