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Model Train Online Shopping Fail: Lessons Learned After Buying a Locomotive on eBay


My luck was bound to run out. I had very few problems with ordering trains online, other than a wonky Weaver Dreyfuss Hudson that my mom bought on eBay years ago. Then came Christmas of 2022. I was browsing the internet for Lionel steam engines when I spotted a used 3759 Santa Fe Northern. The seller wasn’t “officially approved,” whatever that means, but I thought it’d be fine since he had plenty of sales and great feedback. So, I asked my mother if the locomotive could be under the tree, and she said yes. Fast forward to Christmas morning, and there it is! Northerns are my second favorite class of steam engines behind the Hudson, and I had never had a Santa Fe Northern so I was stoked. 






Lesson One: Run the engine as soon as you receive it.

My mom and I were living in a small apartment that Christmas, so when I went to run the train, I discovered there were … no tracks! My mom had packed up the tracks and moved them over to our new house. Even worse, the boxes with the tracks were buried under a pile in the garage. There was no way I was going to search through THIS in the dead of an Upstate New York winter.



Image of boxes piled up after moving day.
The tracks were buried somewhere in here. It's worse than it looks.

If I’d been smart, I would have gone to a train store in the area and asked them if I could run the engine on their tracks. But I was writing my college thesis and in mid-season training for the swim team. So I didn’t dig out the tracks until March–well past the return date. I put the engine on the track, hooked everything up … and the thing lit up but didn’t move. I was devastated. I tried multiple ways to get the engine running, but nothing. I even called a model train buddy over, but he couldn’t figure it out, either. We tried flipping the switches on the train, swapping out transformers, and cleaning the track. Then my mom called the seller, but he wasn’t much help. His only suggestion was to return it, and he’d have his repair guy take a look. Since the engine was outside the warranty period, he told us that we’d have to pay for shipping and repairs. 


Lesson Two: Be patient with repairs. 

So we sent it back and waited. Months later, we contacted the seller, who told us that his repair guy had died suddenly, and he was trying to find a new one. A couple of months after that, he said that he couldn’t find a replacement, so he wanted our permission to ship the engine to the Train Doctors in New Jersey. Again, we’d have to pay the shipping and repair costs, and we reluctantly agreed. More months passed, and we got the engine back that summer. Good news: It ran. Bad news: The sound was wonky–it would cut in and out. 


The Train Doctors have a one-year warranty on their work, so my mom called them, and they agreed to take a look at the problem. We paid again to ship the engine off and waited. And waited. And waited. Since we weren’t part of the Christmas repair rush, we didn’t get the engine back until January 2024. If you’re not a patient person, find another hobby. Because when an engine doesn’t work, be prepared to wait months to get it repaired, if ever. And I do mean the “if ever” part.



TV Waiting Sign before computers and streaming
Old TV Waiting Sign


I wasn’t home when the Train Doctors called in January of 2024, but the repair guy told my mom that rail connectors on the tender were warped, and that the issue wasn’t new. If we’d run the engine when we received it, we would have known that it was damaged and could have returned it for a full refund. (Lesson One again for the people in the back.) The following week, we got the engine. Yay! I cheered when it  arrived and immediately ran it on my layout. Good news: The engine ran beautifully, and the sound did not cut in and out. Bad news: something was squeaking. Seriously? Rather than ship it back to the Train Doctors, I took it over to Adirondack Train & Hobby, which is down the road from our new house. Now it’s sitting in another long queue, waiting to get fixed. 


Lesson Three: Consider a hobby where fixing problems is cheaper and easier. 

Why did I fall in love with model trains? This is a hobby with tiny parts that cost a small fortune, if you can find them at all. I got a replacement bell recently that was the size of a fingernail, and it cost $35. I should have started collecting rocks, shells, or chia pets. Or I could have become a master baker and taken up juggling. But no, I love trains. So I waited for the Sante Fe Northern to return like those two guys waited for Godot.


I got so frustrated that I even looked for DIY classes–something like “Model Train Repairs for Dummies.” But those don’t seem to be a thing. In fact, Lionel and MTH don’t even offer classes for people who want to become “certified” techs, much less non-techies like me. I’m a liberal arts kid. If I was remotely good at STEM, I’d have made my parents happy and gone to engineering school. I can still see my dad’s face drop when I said I’d be majoring in history and minoring in art history. But for those handy hobbyists who want to fix their own trains, the online advice seems to boil down to (1) tinker around yourself, (2) watch YouTube videos, and (3) ask a Boomer railfan because those guys know everything. And good luck to you!



Book about how to repair toy trains.
Nope

Lesson Four: Be careful who you buy from online. 

The world of model railroading has changed dramatically because of the internet. Hobby stores across the country are closing as online sites take over the market. I’m talking about sites like Trainworld, Mr. Muffins Trains, and Trainz that have warehouses to hold inventory and offer a wider selection of model trains than you can find at smaller outlets. These larger operations also have their own repair shops that can look at an engine far more quickly than smaller outfits.


For example, in October 2023, I bought a used Lionel O Norfolk & Western locomotive from Trainz. Like the Northern Santa Fe, it wouldn’t run. So I contacted Trainz, and they immediately responded with three options: (1) adjust the price, (2) return for a full refund, or (3) return for repair. I decided to get it repaired, and they sent a label for free shipping. A week later, I got an email saying that the repair folks found “the motor driver board has failed and a replacement is not available.” They gave me a full refund. I’m sure the guy who sold us the Northern Sante Fe would have also refunded our money if we’d contacted him on time, but it took months for him to get any repair person to look at the train. Compare that to Trainz, where I received an answer within a week. Even the hobby shop down the road, which I love visiting, is swamped with trains that need repairs.



Search for trusted sellers
Search for trusted sellers with long track records

There’s a lot of inventory coming on the market these days, especially of used trains. Boomer rail hobbyists are dying and leaving their collections behind to be sold. Websites like eBay are probably as good of a clearinghouse as any for these trains. But the usual caveats apply. Make sure the seller has a great track record. See if there are online forums that discuss experiences with the seller. And just know that even the biggest store around can go bust, both online and off. Case in point: Caboose Hobbies. At one point, it billed itself as the world’s largest model train store. The owner, Duane Miller, took over the store from his father, who started in the model train business in the 1950s. Caboose Hobbies even won a Guinness World Record for its size.


However, like many train stores, business fell for many reasons, including an aging demographic that’s not being replaced by younger rail enthusiasts. So the building closed in 2016, although it made a failed attempt to reopen in 2021. Now, Caboose Hobbies has an eBay store that mostly seems to sell miscellaneous stuff, like tracks and scenery. It looks like store’s inventory comes from the last day of a Going Out Of Business sale.. When I Googled “caboosehobbies.com,” I got a message, “the store will be launching shortly.” The Facebook page references “mycaboose.com,” but that brought up the same message. Who knows? My point is that even the big guys can vanish when you’re talking about the hobby that could be facing a rocky future. But one thing seems clear: If the model train hobby survives, most transactions will take place online. And it looks likelier that we’ll face consolidation among internet sellers as buyers gravitate to stores that can offer repair services.




 I know a lot of people who seem unhappy with the marketplace shift from brick-and-mortar to the Internet. But I’m not particularly sad since this is mostly what I've grown up with. Also, it seems to me that hobby shops can sell more trains online than if they had a physical location that mostly locals would visit. So, even though it’s sad to see in-person stores go, this Gen Zer isn't bothered by digital shopping. 


Lesson Five: If you have a broken train, don’t panic … yet. What’s the future for model train repairs? Probably the same as model trains themselves. Plenty of railfan forum users, including some on trainorders.com, say that many stores selling model railroads–both the brick & mortar and online–are going out of business because younger people aren’t interested in the hobby. As one forum user observed, “No youngster wants to play with trains. It’s an older generations' hobby. Sad to say that but it is the truth.” I know Millenials and Gen Z less interested as Boomers in a hobby that's been around for 130 years.


But some focus for younger generations may be shifting to different versions of the same thing. Anecdotally, I went to the “Great Train Extravaganza'' in Albany in December 2023. The two LEGO train displays (lots of custom trains) were surrounded by a diverse range of ages, from little kids to Gen Z, millennials, and Gen X. But Boomers were far and few between at those tables. The opposite was true of the N, HO and O gauge displays. Plenty of seniors, and that was about it. Which means that it’s very possible in the next decade, there will be a massive supply of used model trains for sale, with far fewer buyers. That’s great news for young train enthusiasts on a budget. There’s only one problem with that scenario. When the trains break, and many will, good luck finding parts and repairmen. If I’m having problems in 2024, I don’t want to know what 2034 will look like. 


Post Script: Just after I finished this blog, I received this email that The Train Doctor sent out to all of its customers explaining the reasons for long turnaround times for repairs. Read it and weep.



Train Doctor Email explaining the reasons for long turnaround times on repairs



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