A small rant for the model train companies: stop thinking and acting local!

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The model train continents

Although we live in a connected world, where we live tints the way we do model railroading, there is no way around it.
Sure, you can order a US-model for your EU Layout, or have a Kato Japanese locomotive running in your Houston garage. But when it comes to electronic systems, decoders, central stations and other technical solutions, where you live matters.

The 3 main continents in the model train world seem to be:

  • North America
  • Europe (Germany and the UK with some regional differences)
  • Japan

Update 2015/03: as a reader pointed out, the UK is also a specific market, with products and scales not popular elsewhere.

There are many differences in how people “play with trains” in those places. For example Japan is still a very “analog” place, DCC systems are less of a thing. But the most important difference is who we buy from.
Digitrax, Athearn? If you’re in Europe, chances are you have never heard of them.
Doehler & Haass? Only “connaisseurs” outside Germany know those decoders (despite the fact that D&H ist behind the Trix/Minitrix digital system and decoders).
Tomix? In N-Scale outside Japan, mostly known only for their track-cleaning car…

In the end, the few “global” model trains brands are usually German (Märklin, Fleischmann…). Germany is still the beating heart of the model railroading world. And there is nothing wrong with that, except when the German brands don’t cooperate…

You no understand?

I wanted LocGeek.com to be (at least) in English and French.
It still is, although frankly it’s a hassle to maintain a bilingual blog. There is a reason for that: I wanted to (modestly) bridge some model train worlds together. Too few websites do. Speaking and understanding German is also a big advantage, allowing me to publish model railroading news quicker.

Language is a common barrier in the model train world.
There is no common language in model railroading, 2 languages are fighting for the crown: English (the de-facto international language), and German (the most important model railroading language).
One additional issue is that many model railroaders in Europe are from generations for which English was not a prerequisite at school (looking at you dear French and former East-German readers!).
The other problem is that so many brands are German or Austrian. They often end up talking with each others and not with the rest of the world (other brands or other customers).

Because model railroading is a niche, many model train companies are too small to have real international strategies. Most hobbyists (even in North America) have already been facing a German-only instruction manual or website.

An engineer’s world

This is a common complaint I have about model trains. Some, as myself, love to DIY. Soldering, building from scratch is part of the fun… but it should only be optional. I have already said this several times: you don’t attract new customers with pictures of diodes and soldering irons.
People (and especially kids) want to start with easy to use layouts, engines and command stations. All the better if they learn to have fun with DIY-ing later! This is why I am enthusiastic every time a brand uses modern marketing with nice visuals, and markets innovative products for younger generations (smartphone control…).

Too many products are developed by engineers with no idea how to sell. Those products may be excellent, but if you need a 4-page leaflet to just explain what they do, there is a problem.
The following is part prejudice, part truth (and I speak as business person with lots of multicultural experience): it is a very German thing  to focus on a goal A, and then get lost on the way writing pages of technical requirements. In the end, you get a product that does B, which is kind of close to what A was, and only requires you to make sure you’ve got C & D, and works only if you solder E with C on a full-moon night during an eclipse.

Bottom line: one should not need to be an MIT engineer to understand a model train manual. Never. Even advanced products, not designed for beginners, could be made much easier to use.

The winners and losers

Here is list of the brands (yes, most are German or Austrian) that I personally like or dislike for their overall strategy.

The winners

Those brands have clear international strategies, good websites (available at least in English) and a modern approach to the model train business.

  • ESU (www.esu.eu)
    On of the leaders in the digital model train world. Although German, everything is available in English, and even French through their Belgian distributor. They try to develop sound products for all markets, with US or French sounds for example.
  • Märklin (www.maerklin.com)
    Love it or hate it, Märklin is the model train brand. They have done a great job developing kid friendly products, while still providing connaisseurs with fine models from all countries.
  • Roco & Fleischmann (www.fleischmann.de)
    Those 2 brands (one single company) have made plenty of efforts lately. Modern, multilingual websites, a new Z21 command station made specifically for tablet and smartphones owners. They are looking to the future.

The loosers

Those brands are not “loosers” because they make bad products. On the contrary, all brands listed below make many excellent products. In my opinion, they are just extremely bad at marketing them.

  • Uhlenbrock (www.uhlenbrock.de)
    Ugly website only in German. Manuals in English are available but hard to find. Catalogs obviously prepared without the help of a good graphic designer.
  • Zimo (www.zimo.at)
    An Austrian brand, a reference for excellent quality DCC decoders. Sadly their website looks straight from 1995, plus it is messy and impractical. At least they provide an English version. Seriously Zimo, please fire just one engineer and replace him with a talented marketing person…
  • Tams-Elektronik (www.tams-online.de)
    A German model trains electronics company. So many great products that would deserve to be much more popular, but so little attention to detail. Simplistic website in German only. Manuals are actually available in 4 languages, but you need to email the company because the international download pages on the website are 7 years old (!!!).
  • Digitrax (www.digitrax.com)
    The only American brand in this list. This is marketing gone awry. As opposed to the German brands, they do try and “sell”… but it ends up being messy. There are so many products with fancy names, that you don’t care anymore. Sadly, it seems like their design engineers all passed away in the 70s and haven’t been replaced since then, and the explanations are too technical.

*All comments based on portfolios and websites at time of writing. If you read this article later, things may have changed for the better!

Tear down these walls

Continents, languages and overly complicated products. As long as those walls are not at least partially torn down, model railroading will remain a collection of micro-niches… the worst kind of niche.

Fair enough, there are also many market-related problems. For example each brand develops its own technical standards and doesn’t care about compatibility (see here). However, the “real world” has shown that compatibility isn’t always the best way to conquer markets (see Apple computers), as long as you build excellent products and make them appealing.

The model train world is not drowning in money right now. Because (and not in spite) of that: if model train companies, especially the small and middle-sized ones, don’t realise customer-friendly designs, marketing and translations are not optional, the model train business won’t get any better.

In the meantime, don’t forget to learn foreign languages (any foreign language). And as a model railroader, focus on English and German first 😉