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Oh Shay!

There's something really nuts going on in the brass locomotive market right now. I mean, really nuts.

What used to be the high end, high performance product in days gone by has turned into a collector's commodity, with all the impact in price that entails. Steve at Gunnings Hobbies, a well-known purveyor of brass, tells me that some collector has even come in to look at inventory brandishing white gloves (and I don't think it was to keep the lubrication off his fingers! ;-)

Anyway, it's gotten to be quite nuts, like I said. For giggles, I started watching what's going on by checking out Ebay's listings. One thing I've noticed: anything geared (Shays, Heislers, Climaxes, etc.) are selling for disproportionately high prices. Granted that there are quite a few logging short lines being modeled nowadays, but I can't explain the disparities in price any other way than "collector frenzy."

Tiny Shay versus the monsterous AC-8 Cab Forward. Which one is $750?

For example, I saw an articulated AC-8 Cab Forward—a monster of a locomotive—beautifully detailed with all the valve and rod work, sell for around $450. At the same time, a three-truck shay went for over $750 (see the photo at right for examples of a cab-forward and a shay.) Tight supply? Not really. There are literally dozens of listings for geared locomotives each week, and months go by between AC-8 listings. There's just a frenzy. Lemmings.

Somebody speculated that part of the demand is from the casual, non-railroading investor. Steam trains aren't a part of every-day life (at that rate, trains aren't...) with the exception of scenic railroads, and most of those are running the old geared locomotives. So Johnny Pinstripes takes the wife and kids up into the hills to ride a train one weekend, has a blast, remembers "playing with trains" as a kid, and with some change in his pocket, goes out to buy some of that nostalgia. Voila: a trophy Shay.

Good for brass sellers. Lousy for the hobby in general, as inventory is being slurped out of it to sit on a shelf. Collectors are on the verge of taking over the brass locomotive market, insisting on minutia like the condition of the box, whether the foam and packing is original or not, and how much wear the wheels have. The last point is the only one of any real concern to a true model railroader, as it's a measure of the running condition of the thing, and how long before parts need to be replaced. But with collectors, it's like a finger-print on a trading card: it's a smirch on the provenance that drives down the value.

I figure the only way we can take the market back from the white-gloved types is to buy the things, and run them. Show with great pride the many scale miles of running enjoyment—as evidenced by the wheel wear, the lost original box, the impromptu tissue packaging—we've had with them. A collector won't have any interest in these, and more of us will be able to afford them.

Or maybe just toss our hands up in defeat and cede the brass market to those collectors. Rumor has it plastic is getting quite good nowadays, too...