‘A Perfect World’ Around Every Miniature Bend

The pandemic has helped Märklin, a 162-year-old company that makes model trains, discover a new audience.

Märklin, the 162-year-old German maker of model trains, produces nearly all of its components in two European factories.Credit…Photographs and Video by Felix Schmitt

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By Christopher F. Schuetze

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.

“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’s “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 over 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.

Mr. 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 super-detailed 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 25 miles 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. Ms. Huta and her colleagues often use a microscope to attach tiny details like bells or handrails. The company employs about 1,170 full-time employees in its two locations in Göppingen and 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 collector’s item), although lower-cost locomotives, composed of about 300 parts, sell for about one-tenth of the price. Märklin also makes 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.

“For our customers, it’s less about saying it comes just from this one factory in Germany and more about the Märklin signature,” said Mr. Tastl, noting that some of the electronics in the modern trains might come from Asia.

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Although the trains that leave the factory floor might resemble the models produced here decades ago, they hide features that were unavailable back then. They now include tiny speakers that reproduce scores of digital chugging noises and whistles (recorded, if possible, from the original), and interior and exterior lights that can be controlled separately. Another feature simulates how actual trains leave the station (very slowly, then gradually gathering speed) and later slowly decelerate to a stop.

A new feature is the remote-controlled raising and lowering of electric pantographs, the apparatus atop a train that connects with overhead wires. Real steam coming out of the steam locomotives has been a feature for years.

“What’s really changed during the last 20 years is the focus on truly replicating the original,” said Mr. Sieber, the director.

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 little model train as though 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, the Simba Dickie group, a privately owned German toymaker, bought the company, trying to salvage what it saw as an important brand.

Mr. Sieber, whose father founded Simba Dickie in 1982 and who is now co-chief executive of the group, said it took a few years to sort out Märklin’s finances. But he said the workers were a critical resource.

“When we first had a very serious look at them, we were so surprised at what we found — the technical know-how of the staff was just unique in the industry,” said Mr. Sieber, 35, who fondly remembers playing on a Märklin set as a child with his grandfather.

By 2015, things were looking up. Orders were coming in again and the new management had sought and won new customers with social media outreach campaigns. (The Märklin Insider club, which counts more than 50,000 members worldwide, helps the company keep track of its customers.)

“I have to admit, things are looking better now than they did years ago,” said Ms. Huta. She is part of a board representing the workers in negotiations with the factory owners, and remembers vividly when many of her colleagues were let go when the company’s future seemed unclear.

The boom in sales from the pandemic has led to shortages of some parts, like rails. Certain special models have sold out, like 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, the company is training new apprentices to join the roughly 700-strong work force 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,” Mr. Sieber said.

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