The good ol' Bluebox kit

In the early-1990s I owned and operated a model train shop.  Back in those days there wasn't much you could buy in ready-to-run equipment that was any good. 

Just about every piece of rolling stock came in kit form, and those kits had much more detail, higher-quality paint jobs. These kit-built cars performed way better than ones from companies such as Life-Like and Model Power, where their items came ready-to-run (RTR) right out of the box.

My shop catered to more seasoned modelers, and I didn't stock many of those RTR cars.  Often customers who were new to the hobby would pick up an Athearn or Roundhouse car and say, "What! You mean I have to put it together?"  I assured them that it was a simple task, and all they needed to get one of these cars on the rails was a small screwdriver and a little patience. 

Most people trusted my advice, but for those who just didn't believe me I would offer to put the kit together right in front of them on the counter as long as they agreed to buy it.  In hindsight, I could have had a wonderful career as a worker in a Chinese model train factory!

Nowadays, most of what is on the shelves in hobby shops is ready to run and the quality is better than we could have ever dreamed about 20 years ago.  However, the typical freight car is now at least four times the cost of what it was back then.  Some people wonder how that affects people who are new to the hobby and may not want to invest hundreds of dollars in rolling stock right from the get-go. 

There are lots of unbuilt kits sitting around on shelves in basements (I have several dozen on mine) and with few improvements and a bit of weathering they are still good models, even if they are only on the rails until your budget allows you to replace them with something better.  You can find these unbuilt models at most any train show.

Photo by Gerry Fraiberg

There are still lots of people who have joined the hobby in the last few years who have never put together a freight car kit.  When you don't have a lot of the skills needed to build a layout, the satisfaction of assembling a simple boxcar kit and rolling it down a piece of flextrack is a big deal. 

Every journey begins with a first step, and none of us were born with scratch-building skills.  So March 2014's Backshop Clinic is an introduction to simple freight car kits with guest Bruce Wilson.  Even those of us who have been modeling for years should appreciate watching Bruce assemble an Athearn boxcar, even if just to enjoy a sentimental journey.

And if putting together a boxcar is too elementary for you, have no worries.  We are shooting clinics on extreme freight car weathering and scratch-building with wood, so watch for them!

- Barry Silverthorn


To me half the fun was puting the kit together It was also the time to do modification much easier than a car thats put together for you.

These kits are perfect for testing and developing skills like painting, applying custom decals or weathering. I found three wood sided cars from Athearn, Walthers, and Accurail for $5 each to develop my weathering skills before I try something on a $35 ready-to-run model that will be perfect for my layout.

CN6401's picture

I agree with both of you whole heartedly! 

We keep trying to promote our hobby to the younger generation but we've lost site of the fact that as long as the prices keep rising, the younger generation won't be able to buy anything because the prices are out of site. Plus I don't know how people can afford 20 - 30 of the same car @ $40 +. How can anyone justify paying $75 for a Caboose.

Every time I see a Blue Box kit I scoop it up, alter the details, weather it and place it on my layout. I have the satisfaction of knowing I made the improvements myself. Not some manufacturer that doesn't always get the details right.

Athearn, if you're listening, bring back the the Blue Box kits, if for no other reason then for the young model railroaders.

Ralph Renzetti (CN6401)

While I agree that the cost of many of our MRR products have gotten much more costly than what I had available when I first got into the hobby as a child, the quality, level of detail and accuracy has vastly changed the way many modelers - particularly new, younger members of the hobby - view the cost of a given item, whether its a sturcture, locomotive, rolling stock or any other related item.

A lot of this is just relative to the cost of everything in our lives.

When I was 8 yrs old and working on my basement 4'x12' plywood layout, I could only afford rolling stock or sturctures from Atlas, AHM, Revell, etc. A craftsman kit from Suydam or Campell or a 9.99 Freight Car kit from Athearn was not in the budget at that time and was seen as a luxury my family could not afford. Things cost a lot less back then compared to now but that didn't change the relative affordability factor.

So, given that a new person coming into the hobby has no reference point to compare what 'things cost now' to what they used to cost, has little meaning or relavace because most newer generation modelers are 'conditioned' to what the relative cost of an item is - just is when I was a boy, I knew that when I went to Bill & Walt's Hobby Shop I knew that a Athearn Car Kit or a Revell Farm House Kit cost 'x' dollars and it either was in my parents buget or it wasn't - most of the time I was able to scrape my allowance together and get it.

Just my thoughts

I as well couldnt agree more, recently coming back to this great hobby i am bothered at the price of the rolling stock that is available. Yes the quality is superb but I cannot justify spending that kind of money for rolling stock, if ever the chance came up and a truckload of blue boxes came available I would buy them

I built my first layout in 1958. It was a 4x8 in a unused coal bin in our basement in New Jersey. I built a Casey Jones steamer and etc. Today I'm retired and work one day a week in a hobby shop in Eugene, Oregon. What changes have occurred! I stand at the train counter and watch the kids and parents look at the $130 (and more) locomotives and the $40  (and more) RTR cars. The kids are enthralled by the hobby but the parents drag them down the counters to the RC Hobby area where for the same money they can purchase a complete RC car or plane outfit.

Where do you think the moneys going to go?

The RC car industry is purchaser friendly. When products are announced they are available in a month and pretty much continually for several years after release. The railroad industry announces and you're lucky to see it in nine months (Intermountain, Athearn, etc). Not helpful at all. If you don't reserve in advance, good luck getting it later!

However, not all is gloom & doom... White is the new Blue Box. I refer to Accurail. An American company where products are molded here, I believe. They are the same as the old Athearn kits and cover several different eras and offer UNDEC kits as well. There's also several others out there.

And finally, that expensive RTR car with the beautiful details has to operate on your layout with all the banging around and derailing and 0-5-0'ing going on. How's that detail stand up?

It all comes down to what floats yer boat!

If you have the money and the inclination buy the expensive stuff, I do.

If you want to do the kits, there are choices, build them, I do.

"You can't please everyone, you've got to please yourself." Rickey Nelson.


"The old train guy"



Young people, such as me, are already accustomed to paying $50 or more for one video game so $32 for a nice model is nothing. The value is in the detail and quality in both the gaming and modeling hobbies. I can spend a long time looking at the deail on a ExactRail or Intermountain car, run it on my layout for months, examine it again and discover a detail that I missed from the first time I looked at it. Now maybe I'm working backwards, finding blue box kits and superdetailing them to the level of the BLMA and Walthers models. 

I think we tend to over-focus on "bringing kids into the hobby."  Most of us had a time in our 20s and 30s (and maybe into 40s and 50s) where we didn't do much Model Railroading due to life in general.  Get them interested young and many will return when finances and time allow.  Some won't, but that's reality.

As to the cost, svengazibo makes a great point.  Young folks can buy lots of things more expensive than locos and rolling stock now.  I also do RC, and I can tell you that if you get into the hobby of RC, $500 is about your minimum investment.  Sure, you can get an RTR car or truck for around $250, but that includes one battery (NIMH battery at that with limited  capacity) and an overnight charger, so you can run your truck for 10-15 minutes and then charge it overnight.  Not much fun.  So you buy a quick charger, more batteries, and often better, more expensive batteries, parts that you break, hop up parts to make the car/truck run better, and before you know it, you're at $500.  Then, you think you'd like to try Nitro when you get the hang of electric.  Pretty much looking at $1000 for that.  MRH's $500 layout contest shows that you can do a layout for that price.

And, if we talk about broader hobbies by comparison, restoring cars or having boats, watercraft or motorcycles all cost WAY more money than model railroading will for most people.  With anything, it's all about choices.  Some people choose to go out for supper and/or movies more, or have a golf membership or smoke, or whatever.  Maybe some complain about the costs of these activities, but they still choose to do them.  It is no different with model railroading.  If you get something out of the hobby, you will find dollars to spend on it if you are realistic within your budget.  And if you have little to spend, you will find low-cost materials to help your budget.

I think the whole cost of the hobby thing today compared to 30 or 40 years ago is really overblown.  Compared to inflation and the obvious improvement of models overall, not to mention DCC and sound capabilities, it really isn't more expensive, it's just different.

The blue box and MDC kits is what I cut my teeth on in this hobby.It was enjoyable, and you could always get em to run.I picked them up at train shows for $4 or $5 dollars second hand and KD's fitted which soon got me a fleet. I still have them and they stillrun.                                                                                                                                                                                                      Now you get  so called ready to run and don't. Red Caboose coil cars come to mind at $65AU and couldn't keep em on track and couldn't handle em for fear of breaking details off.On the other hand the 2670 covered hoppers by Athearn are brilliant.I have never touch then since putting them on the layout

I've been in the hobby since 1980 and I'm a big fan of the BB kits.  I just came back from the NTS in Cleveland and picked up a couple of Blue Box kits. I also like the Atlas Trainman series and look for less expensive older releases.

We have to put things in perspective. The blue box may have been 3 bucks but my allowance was $1 a week, today an HO car is $20 and an allowance is $15. Back in the 60's there were a lot of equipment i could not afford. How many freight cars do you really need to operate a 10' x 12' around the room layout? 20-30. Surely not the 1 or2 hundred most of us have. I am in O scale and my layout can run easily with 3 locos, so why do i have 10? Because i chose to. (I did scratch build three of them). My friend has a son in travel baseball, age 16. They are driveing him 1000miles some weeks. Tell me that doesnt cost bucks. Trains are actually good $/hr.




caseyjones1950's picture


I agree with you100% ! What scares me is the prices the "new comers" are having to pay to get started in this hobby, may make them change there minds! Besides, they do not learn the skills to become "Craftsmen" in the hobby.                                  

I still operate with mostly the old Athearn, Roundhouse, Accurail, Bowser, Stewart "kit  built cars". Many of them look very good when weathered with chalks, or paints with an airbrush, even though thay have molded on grab irons, railings, etc.! I've upgraded them to metal wheel sets, which have replaced the original plastic ones, and even upraded some of them from Kadee #5 couplers, to the newer #14 / #148 "Whisker" couplers, which return to center better.

In fact I prefer to continue to operate with these cars, why? Because some operators are clumsy, or all "thumbs" trying to uncouple cars while switching during operating sessions. As you say the newer cars are nicer looking with all those separately applied details added on, and yes 4 to 5 times more expensive! The problem is, I keep finding all those separate details laying all over the tracks, from operators knocking them off!

Yes I still have some of those old kits still in the boxes, some are built,  but still need finishing, when time permits! But what was nice about the undecorated ones is, before you build them, us well seasoned modelers could remove most of those molded on details, then apply separate "wire" grab irons, and brass ladder stock, then paint and decal the car with a prototype Railroad name, or your own RR name! Mine is the "AlleghenyCentral RR".

The point is, that turned us into "Craftsmen", and we had a much more "durable" piece of equipment, and that we learned the "how to's" from them! That went for "Kit Built" Locomotives as well! Even though we spent hours doing it, many of mine, are still at work today on my layout! These "newbies" will never learn these skills, if all they buy is R-T-R models!

Joe Bliss, Plymouth, MI (

I noticed that penny candy is now priced $0.65. My 8 year old daughter has $170 in her savings account. She earns $10 from a neighbor to pick up the mail for a week. So you cannot really complain about costs.  And if you think trains are expensive, driving kids to other hobbies, then maybe you are just too old to actually look at the costs of other hobbies! What grabs kids are experiences, interesting projects, and challenges.

Accurail kits are great. Detail parts and scratch building supplies are more available and varied than ever. Shelf layouts, like those promoted by Ian Rice and Lance Mindheim, and a proliferation of modular railroad clubs offer more opportunities for kids without space than I had growing up in the 60s and 70s!  Yes. It costs more to build a basement empire and fill it with scenery and a fleet of cars today. But with DCC you don't need a huge layout with lots of wire and rotary switches to run multiple locomotives, and with shelf layouts you don't need a basement to have operating fun and you don't have to buy a fleet of cars. With modular clubs, you can run a fleet of cars without having to even own or build a layout. You can spend your money differently than the next and still have a lot of fun. In fact you can focus on the aspect you like rather than having to do it all yourself! 

Complainers only see that it is harder to do what they are familiar doing. The hobby has far more opportunities than it ever did for all kinds of interests and budgets. I prefer Accurail styrene or Westerfield and Yarmouth Model Works resin kits to blue box Athearn kits. You end up with more leisure time having fun putting these newer kits together and they look better, even if they cost more. You can be nostalgic, but don't claim the hobby isn't fit for kids, when your vision of a kid is Dennis the Menace!  Could be that the hobby has passed you by, rather than it doesn't appeal to the youth of today, who may be more like Sheldon or Malcolm than Opie or Dennis!

New to the site...this article is dated back a ways..but I agree I  love the ol blue box kits..

Just a few comments on what has been read above, I too, love what can be created from some of the basic kits and am pleasantly surprised when publications have article on fixing their shortcomings and turning them into highly accurate works of art.  We are willing to fix inaccuracies when the manufacturer lists details about the prototype such a make, model etc.  

Remembering back to when highly detailed RTR ,non-brass, freight cars came out, there was an expectation that these would be correct for the prototype and the manufacturer would have access to information not readily available to the modeler; the Internet has gone a long way in changing this. My personal experience was the decision to spent the triple the cost on one of these cars and after buying an obscure road name and highly detailed car , I found out it was boldly inaccurate. In the 25 years since that purchase, this company has only gleaned a single purchase, and that with plenty of research. The reason is that all of us walk into a hobby shop and are awe-struck by something. Since these types of purchase are largely impulse, If the model was from this company it would not be purchased; this company has missed out on those sales.  I hope companies learn from this or are willing to be frank about what the product is. Bowser is so in telling us if a locomotive is in a fantasy scheme; I have even considered a purchase because they were honest.  There is a place for this somewhere on most modelers layouts.