‘A perfect world’ around every miniature bend

A worker examines a model train casing after it was painted and prints were added to it, at Märklin's facility in Göppingen, Germany, on Febrauary 11, 2021. (Photo: NYTimes)
BERLIN — Last spring, the managers at Märklin, the 162-year-old maker of model trains in Germany, were surprised by something unexpected in the sales reports.اضافة اعلان

“We started to notice a serious uptick in orders,” said Florian Sieber, a director at Märklin. The jump continued into summer — a further surprise, he said, because that is “when people don’t usually buy indoor train sets.”

But buy they did. In November, Märklin’s monthly orders were up 70 percent over the previous year. The company’s video introducing its new trains and accessories, posted in January, has been viewed more than 165,000 times.

Along with baking and jigsaw puzzles earlier in the pandemic, model trains are among the passions being rediscovered while people are cooped up indoors. Several companies that make trains are reporting jumps in sales. For many people, the chance to create a separate, better world in the living room — with stunning mountains, tiny chugging locomotives and communities of inch-high people where no one needs a mask — is hard to resist.

“Outside, there is total chaos, but inside, around my little train set, it is quiet, it is picturesque,” said Magnus Hellstrom, 48, a high school teacher in Sweden who has indulged in his hobby while working from home during lockdowns.

“It’s a little piece of a perfect world,” he said.

Hellstrom is one of many Märklin enthusiasts. The company, which filed for bankruptcy protection over a decade ago, is now for the first time in years hiring new apprentices to learn the precise work of making superdetailed tiny trains.

“We’re booming so much, it’s hard to keep up,” said Maria Huta, 64, who has assembled trains for 38 years at the company’s main facility in Göppingen, a town 40km southeast of Stuttgart, where the company was founded.

The factory building is more than a century old, and touring the facility is a trip back in time: a factory floor with skilled manual laborers toiling over workbenches. Huta and her colleagues often use a microscope to attach tiny details such as bells or handrails. The company employs about 1,170 full-time employees at its two locations. (The other location is in Gyor, Hungary.)

“We used to contract some of our parts abroad, but we found mostly it was not worth it; the filigree of some of our parts was so fine that we often had to return things,” said Gerhard Tastl, the plant’s production manager, during a factory tour conducted over video.

The Märklin trains come in three scales, with H0-gauge models the most popular. A high-end Gauge 1 locomotive, made up of several thousand individual parts, can cost up to $4,200 new (and much more if the train becomes a collectors’ item), although lower-cost locomotives, composed of about 300 parts, sell for about one-tenth of the price. Märklin also makes Lehmann Gross Bahn (LGB) trains, which are larger and designed to be set up outdoors.

Most H0-gauge trains are built from scratch out of basic elements — zinc alloy, steel, plastic pellets and paint — in the Göppingen plant, allowing Märklin to mark these models “Made in Germany.” Parts for other models are made in Göppingen and then assembled in the Hungarian plant.

The trains can be controlled by computer console or by a phone app, with different trains on the same track going different speeds or traveling different circuits. Märklin even added the option of controlling the trains via train engineer simulator software, allowing devotees to control their model train as if they were sitting in the engineer’s chair.

“It is a traditional toy that through digital functions, like sound and light, has become more and more like a real train,” said Uwe Müller, who was a product manager at Märklin for 15 years and now runs the Märklineum, the company’s museum.

Founded in 1859 by Theodor Friedrich Wilhelm Märklin, the company first sold doll accessories. After the founder’s death seven years later, the company grew under his young widow, Caroline Märklin, who was one of the company’s first traveling saleswomen, covering territories in the south of Germany and Switzerland.

The company started producing windup model trains in 1891 and continued to be owned by different branches of the family until 2006, when it was sold to Kingsbridge Capital, an investment firm. But the company was losing money and had to lay off many hundreds of employees, and in 2009 it filed for bankruptcy protection. Then, in 2013, a privately owned German toymaker named Simba Dickie bought the company, trying to salvage what it saw as an important brand.

The boom in sales from the pandemic has led to shortages of some parts, including rails. Certain special models have sold out, such as a model of the 078 series, a steam locomotive used by the West German national rail in the 1960s and 1970s. In a first since Simba Dickie took over, the company is training new apprentices to join the roughly 700-strong workforce in Hungary.

The company is betting that many of the people drawn to Märklin trains during the pandemic stick with model trains afterward. “Because it really is not the kind of hobby that you do for two weeks and then abandon,” Sieber said.