By TIM KELLY
Like many attendees at the annual model railroad show Saturday at the Ocean City Music Pier, 12-year-old Stephen Forgus is a big fan of the hobby and of real trains. It started out when he could barely talk, and it only increased over time.
“I used to call (real trains) ‘ding dings’ and it went from there,” he said.
His mom, Dawn Forgus, is happy to facilitate her son’s interest in a wholesome pastime.
“He brings me for the money,” she said with a chuckle
Mom and son traveled for 90 minutes from Englishtown, N.J., to make it to the show on time.
The small trains and their enduring popularity were on display Saturday at the Music Pier, as hundreds of fans, dealers and hobbyists converged for the annual show.
If you missed Saturday’s festivities, fret not. The show, free and open to the public, will take place again on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Music Pier, Moorlyn Terrace and the Boardwalk.
“The interest spans the generations,” said, Jimi Errico, of Ocean City, a retired police officer and a member of the South Jersey S-Gaugers model railroaders club. “This hobby attracts folks of all ages.”
Model railroading began in Germany in 1891, less than 50 years after the invention of the steam locomotive itself.
Originally too expensive for the masses, technology improvements made train sets more affordable and by the early 1950s, the layouts became the most popular toy for boys, according to websites for the hobbyists.
The title of “most popular” has long been taken over by video games and other toys related to computers and technology. However, as Lindsey Marakovitz of Allentown Pa., demonstrated, toy trains are no longer the exclusive domain of young males.
“I love how fast they go, and all the different displays,” said Lindsey who was attending the show with mom Holly and dad Jason.
She said she likes playing with physical toys “that do something” more than video games, although she does like a particular video game: Train Simulator, which puts the user behind the controls of an “iron horse.”
Regardless, if the toys are played with by girls or boys nowadays, model trains still retain a solid foothold in the toy market, with over 500,000 collectors in the U.S. and Canada alone, according to exactrail.com. And that does not include the more casual fans, many of whom break out their sets over the holidays.
For diehards and casuals alike, Ocean City had something for all to see and enjoy. The Music Pier stage contained several large layouts as did the rear area of the main floor. In between were rows and rows of dealers selling full sets of trains, individual cars and pieces to complete “works in progress.”
The latter is what attracted Mike Dufner, a Northeast Philadelphia native and current Ocean City resident at 52nd street.
“I come every year looking for things I need and usually find them,” Dufner said. “Also, there are things I wasn’t necessarily looking for but help me as I put my set together.”
Dufner said his train set has been set up over the holidays for a long time.
“My kids always liked it,” he said, “and now it’s my kids and my grandkids. The grand kids love it.”
Dufner said he cleared out a room in his house to accommodate the layout, and setting it up can be challenging.
“I’m not a fan of today’s technology, but (model railroading) is something I can usually figure out,” he said. “The wiring and the pieces involved may not work right the first time.”
“If it doesn’t work, it’s a matter of going in a different direction,” Dufner explained. “I don’t like all the modern LED lights and technology. I like the old stuff. When it all comes together, it’s satisfying because I know the kids like it.”
His family’s first train set was owned by Dufner’s older brother. It was a 1948 Lionel outfit “with a 736 engine,” which sat in storage for years, he said. Eventually, his brother gave him the set and Dufner was on his way to building an elaborate display.
Elaborate setups with buildings, mountain landscapes and tunnels or a simple oval under the Christmas tree, there’s something about model trains that brings joy to people’s faces.
Which brings us to young Hero Barnes, who was attending the show with members of his extended family.
Hero summed up the toy trains’ appeal perfectly.
“They’re nice,” he said, simply. “And they’re a lot of fun.”