Train Sets and model railways in Russia

Selection_223Imagine a train set that ran on clockwork around a track, with a platinum locomotive, five gold cars with thin crystal glass windows, that all folded inside a jewelled egg. Such was the ‘Great Trans-Siberian Easter Egg’, designed by Karl Faberge and given to the Russian Royal family in 1900.


Despite such royal induction, model railroading in Russia does not have anything like the long traditions as in the US or Germany. The first train sets for mass consumption appeared only in the 1930s when the Press factory in Serpukhov began making three-rail, 45-mm gauge tin-plate trains. These sets, and those that followed were expensive and experiencing model trains did not become popular in the Soviet Union until the 1960s when East German PIKO train sets began to appear. These were pretty basic sets; an oval-shaped set of rails, an engine and three carriages, and only a limited number of extra parts and items were available. In the 1980s, various more modern Soviet train sets appeared, such as the first Soviet HO gauge set designed by the Bureau of Technological Toys and manufactured at a state factory in Kursk. But production costs during 1983-1986 were higher than the selling price and the project was discontinued. Production was started again in 1991, but because there were so few such sets available, and they lacked somewhat in finished details, enthusiasts ‘kitbashed’ their purchases and spent hours, days, painting wood stacks, or customised their purchases in a thousand different ways. Model making from kits in the Soviet Union was a lot more than sticking or slotting things together. Enter the Russian-model-train-fanatic.

Selection_224Evgeny Shklyarenko is a supremo fanatic. He started as an apprentice at the Soviet ‘All-Union Society of Knowledge’, making models of space ships, and was later employed at the Soviet Union Railways which had an in-house modelling workshop, “My first train model-making work was a model of the American ‘Baldanovsky’ steam engine, which pulled the train that Lenin travelled on from Finland to Petrograd, my father was a railway worker. In those times, we modified and made trains sets for organisations; it was expensive enough just buying a simple mass produced train set from East Germany. After train sets started to appear, societies of model train enthusiasts sprang up, and people began to meet together and exchange parts and so on. We began to subscribe to magazines, and we organised a model railway enthusiasts’ club in 1969 at the Soviet Union of Railways. The state company I had been working was closed down in 1991, because large scale models at exhibitions were no longer required.”

Selection_228After the fall of the Soviet Union, Evgeny and his colleagues started to work for private clients, but such people who had the resources to buy custom made train sets only appeared in the early 2000s. “I remember in the meantime, to feed my family, I made models of Russian churches, which I sold in markets. Eventually with some friends we began to organise a small company, one person was good at electronics and specialised in that, somebody else was a master craftsman and so on. We took part in international exhibitions, and there were one or two places around Moscow where we showed our work. Clients appeared, both private and state, including RZD (Russian Railways), for whom we built large models, which were partly used as training modulators for train drivers. I recently completed a 60-metre set for RZD which is on display at Moscow’s Rizhsky Station. This is complete with cameras mounted onto to some of the engines. When connected to video monitors, the realism you can achieve is amazing, and it is sometimes used as a simulator. Private clients include Russian company owners or senior managers who perhaps like the idea of escaping from reality to the loft or cellar; into a world that they can control.”

Selection_227The boom times for ‘Niko’, the company Evgeny worked for lasted up to about 2011, when other private train modelling companies appeared offering turnkey solutions for wealthy clients. “I would say that it is a bit like a wave, one year we had order after order; mostly by recommendation. The next, hardly any. The last two years, however have been very difficult. However the tide can turn at any moment. I think that there are always a certain number of people who love railways and they will always somehow find the money. But they may not be the same people as they were in the past. I personally have a huge back order of work to get through, and of course I am not the only person in Moscow making train sets” said Evgeny. Ex-Soviet organisations such as RZD which used to have their own model making facilities take up the slack when the private sector is weak.

Nowadays, the whole cult of train sets is increasing; more and more children are getting their hands on Bachmann, Pioneer, Spectrum (to mention but a few) sets and parts. There are specialised shops in Moscow that deal only in train sets. Prices have come down thanks to competition, and many families can afford this hobby, despite the inroads into children’s playing time, being taken by social networks and computer games.

Selection_226Custom made train sets have become a status symbol, along with a Bentley and yacht on the Black Sea. But that is not the only reason that grown men (train modelling hasn’t really caught on amongst wealthy Russian women yet) spend fortunes on model trains. Evgeny said that there is one trait that unites enthusiasts: “When people come up to us at exhibitions, and they are interested in our work, they almost invariably say: ‘When I was a child, I had a train set…’ That’s how it all begins. For the husband, spending lots of money on an adult version of his childhood is natural, but for the wife it isn’t, and she might say to him: ‘It’d be better off you started drinking’, or something like that. The children or grandchildren get involved and that usually saves the day for the father. It’s really quite amazing watching this process over and over again.”

Selection_225Costs vary enormously depending on the amount of detail work put into each square metre of the final installation. Variables include not only the complexity of the scenery, people, buildings and so on, but the electronics. Evgeny explained: “We of course prefer to create sets that the operator becomes engaged in. That he or she can make changes to, perhaps create an emergency situation and then solve it, so that there is a process of play. You can buy an engine for €80, or you can construct the same engine with parts that cost €500. The most expensive set we ever built was for 3 million roubles, this took us several years to build. Then there is servicing which can also be costly, depending of the circumstances.”