Pandemic impacts on model railroading -- and other notes

Hello all,

First, let me note that for many people, there are currently more important concerns than the model railroad supply chain. Being on the plus side of 70 myself, I am being extra careful in a number of areas -- and staying home as much as possible. But, for those of us stuck at home, working on model railroad projects helps keep us occupied and sane -- and helps take our minds off depressing news that we can do little about.

On the other hand, as someone who has had a lifelong interest in transportation and logistics -- as a (now retired) journalist, I covered many aspects of travel and transportation, not just railroads -- I've also gained a few insights that might be of interest and useful to others.

For the most part, the model railroad industry continues to muddle along during the current pandemic, but with some fairly substantial impacts on supply lines. Most retail hobby shops, not just in the U.S., are closed to in-store shopping but continue to offer mail-order business.

Roco, the one company that I follow most closely, has missed some already postponed delivery deadlines. One example is the 74094 set of three blue and ivory two-axle Austrian branchline coaches. (I assume that these models, based on now updated toolings from the defunct Klein Modellbahn company, are being produced by a Roco plant outside of Austria.) But, Roco notes on its website that it is continuing to ship in-stock items.

The one most important note, however, is that you need to be very careful about ordering any items from Europe (and probably the rest of the world), whether from individuals on Ebay or from dealers or directly from manufacturers -- without first verifying the method of shipment. The seller may have the item in stock and be willing to ship it, but it may not get to you for a loooong, loooong time.

The U.S. Postal Service reports -- you have to dig down somewhat on the USPS Web site -- that the postal systems of most EU countries are now refusing any new air mail, particularly air mail parcels, for any destinations outside the EU. The reason is a huge backlog of unshipped international mail in most of these countries. That backlog, in turn, is due to the fact that most international passenger flights have been cancelled and that there is very little cargo space available on the few remaining flights.

For those of you who have not given any thought to this subject: Most international mail travels in air cargo containers in the cargo holds of regular passenger aircraft on scheduled flights.

On the other hand, carriers such as FedEx and UPS operate their own cargo aircraft. International shipments sent by one of these carriers would likely still go through without substantial delays. DHL, which is affiliated with the German Postal Service, uses some of its own aircraft, but also uses space on commercial passenger aircraft, so DHL shipments may face some of the same problems as regular mail. Most DHL parcels from Germany to the U.S. become regular mail after dispatch from Germany, being delivered by the U.S. Postal Service.

Walthers: I ordered some generic supplies (styrene plastic, paints, small files, etc.) directly from Walthers within the past week. The order went in at the end of last week and was shipped Tuesday -- reasonable, as this was over the Easter weekend. The parcel arrived Thursday -- two days! What's interesting is that because the paints are considered hazardous material, the only shipping option was "surface only." Walthers sent the shipment by FedEx surface. Getting the shipment from Wisconsin to North Carolina in two days was an achievement. (Of course, FedEx could have moved the parcel part of the way by air on one of its own cargo aircraft. The "surface only" specification for shipments only means that it cannot go in regular mail which, as noted above, travels on passenger aircraft. Hazmat items, properly declared as such, can still travel on freight aircraft. (FedEx tracking only shows locations; it does not show the actual means of transportation between points.)

Plastruct: There is currently a major national shortage of Plastruct items, particularly the more common/popular items -- for reasons that are only partially related to the current pandemic.

(For those not familiar with Plastruct -- this company produces hundreds of plastic shapes (styrene, ABS, etc.) that are used by scratch-builders and kitbashers in all scales. For example, Plastruct rectangular shapes provide one of the easiest means of raising train platform kits to match the higher level of rail for track supplied with roadbed. And if you modify existing structure kits, Plastruct shapes can play an important part in this process. Most generic hobby shops have long carried a wide assortment of Plastruct products.)

Plastruct changed hands earlier this year, something that has been noted by a pop-up on the firm's Web site for over two months. The note says that Plastruct is moving production to a new location. This move and the resumption of production were probably affected by the pandemic.

One source told me that Plastruct may have been bought by the company that owns the Evergreen brand. Evergreen was Plastruct's main competitor, and the two produced many similar items. My impression was that Evergreen was aimed more at the makers of professional architectural models, while Plastruct aimed more at the hobby modeler market. There is, of course, an overlap of the two markets, and many hobby shops carried both Plastruct and Evergreen items. (I've used both.) I have not been able to verify the link with Evergreen.

Model Master paints: It appears that Testors (now part of the Rustoleum group of companies) is phasing out its line of Model Master paints in 3 oz. spray cans. Walthers shows most of these as either discontinued or discontinued when remaining stock is sold out. Again, these paints have been a staple at many hobbys hops for years and, while particularly popular with military modelers, the paints have many general modeling applications. If you are using these for an ongoing modeling project, stock up while you can find supplies of the paints you need. The same paints in small jars for airbrush or brush application are apparently still being produced.

All of the above reflects my observations as of the middle of April, 2020. The usual disclaimers, such as your mileage may vary, apply.

Hope that this is useful information.

-- Ernest



  • I do hope my new Bemo Allegra ABe 8/12 set isn't held up somewhere along the way.

    It is being processed trough Flughafen Frankfurt according to the latest update. Unfortunately, it is being handled by DHL and shortly, the USPS. No telling when I will see it.

    I didn't have a choice of shippers.

  • RailwriterRailwriter Durham, NC
    edited April 18


    If it has made it to FRA, it is at least in the pipeline.

    One small correction, if I may -- and I hope you are not offended by this: You did not have a choice of carriers.

    The shipper is the person or organization that causes the shipment to take place -- in this case the seller. The carrier is the organization that moves the shipment. This is terminology that is frequently gotten wrong by people outside the transporttion industry. I hear this from TV reporters all the time, including network reporters who specialize in business reporting and who should know better.

    The shipper usually coincides with the origin of the shipment -- but does not have to. For example, if I hire a trucking company to pick up some items at another location and bring them to my home, I am still the shipper. This is why legal transportation documents specify the shipper and consignee separate from the origin and destination of the shipment. (The consignee is the person or organization that takes ownership of the shipment once it is delivered. Again, the consignee does not have to be located at the destination of the shipment.

    Probably a lot more than you wanted to know -- but part of my crusade for the use of correct transportation terminology.

    -- Ernest

    P.S.: And, just to make things interesting, a carrier can also be a shipper when it buys transportation services from another carrier. For example, UPS routinely moves trailers and containers full of parcels cross-country by rail. So,_ to the railroad_, UPS is a shipper, because it is buying transportation services -- though, in most cases we think of UPS as being a carrier.

  • No offence taken.

    I also was expecting a vintage near-mint computer via Fed-Up today and they screwed up the shipment. It has now sat in Champaign, Illinois for 19 hours when it was supposed to be in my hands no later than 7 minutes ago. I knew this would happen. I don't know how I knew, but I knew it would.

    In case you were wondering it is an IBM A31p laptop very well spec'ed out. Top of the line actually.

  • RailwriterRailwriter Durham, NC

    Somewhere I probably still have my old Zenith laptop, which weighed a ton. Actually, my first laptop was a Radio Shack Model 100 -- which, with its small LCD display, is super primitive by today;s standards, but which worked fine as the first computer that allowed writing out in the field. The text was then uploaded to my Radio Shack Model III, which was also primitive (NO hard drive), but which I used to work on two commercially published books. (Don't have any of those early Radio Shack computers any more, though they probably have collector's value now. I do have photos of myself using them, though.)

    To get back to model railroading, today's locomotive decoders have more computing power than either of those early Radio Shack models.

    -- Ernest

  • Oh, the famous Radio Shack TSR-80. I was an RS store manager for a number of years after my Air Force career.

  • BR42BR42 Auburn

    I ordered something from Georgia, and it came two days earlier than announced. It appears to me that some domestic shipping has actually improved with the crisis, some has become slow. Go figure. I had ordered a car from Germany, and the seller suggested cancelling the order, which I did. A car I ordered from England is sitting somewhere.


  • RailwriterRailwriter Durham, NC

    The April issue of the Austrian model train magazine Modellbahnwelt (MBW), arrived today -- with a reasonable transit time. Copies of the magazine -- always much anticipated -- normally arrive in the middle of even numbered months.

    Because of high Austrian postage rates for international (outside the EU) mailing of magazines, non-EU subscription copies have been mailed from the Czech Republic for the last few years. This time, I noticed my copy was mailed from Budapest, Hungary. Apparently, there is still a cost saving of shipping the international subscription copies to another country and mailing them from there.

    And, yes there is mention of Covid-19. There are several prominent notices that descriptions of events listed in the issue -- and store hours included in advertisements -- may no longer apply due to current conditions. So, the editor recommends going to your model railroad bunker in your basement and waiting out the crisis there.

    -- Ernest

  • My new Bemo Allegra ABe 8/12 set is still sitting in Customs in Chicago. Three days now in Customs.

  • BR42BR42 Auburn

    I ordered a car on Ebay from the UK, it arrived in London on 04/16 and took 12 days to NYC. Still sitting there.


  • RailwriterRailwriter Durham, NC

    I just received (May 20, 2020) a message from an Austrian Ebay seller confirming that as of May 15, the Austrian Postal Service is officially no longer accepting any packages bound for the U.S. -- until further notice.

    -- Ernest

  • My Bemo Allegra is still sitting in Customs. :#

  • BR42BR42 Auburn

    Heard the same about Germany. A package from Great Britain took 3 weeks.


  • RailwriterRailwriter Durham, NC

    It was only a matter of time: You will soon be able to model Covid-19 -- or at least some of its visible effects -- on your model layout!

    I saw on a European Web site that Busch, known not only for its landscape materials but also for some of its mini-scenes (sometimes humorous), has announced a series of -- so far three -- mini scenes in HO reflecting modern times. These feature:

    • Two shoppers in front of empty shelves fighting over the last giant package of toilet paper,
    • A shopper with a shopping cart piled high with giant packages of toilet paper heading for the family vehicle;
    • Figures wearing face masks
    • Posters (in German) promoting hand-washing, social distancing and other newly important behaviors.

    I did not find these on the main Busch factory site yet.

    Of course, given the current state of affairs, it may be a long time before these newly topical scenes make it to the other side of the Atlantic.

    -- Ernest

  • My Bemo Allegra is now 60 days with USPS. It cleared Customs weeks ago. Reddit participants report the same long USPS delays on any overseas shipments in USPS custody passing through ISC Chicago.

    Could be any day now, or another month. No one knows anything, and ever agency contacted passes the buck.

  • BR42BR42 Auburn

    I got a letter from Germany in about two weeks. I contained a set of spare springs for the couplers of my 282mm cars. After an accident, one of them had disappeared. My May MIBA arrived at its usual time too. Customs is slow. USPS seems to have actually sped up somewhat in certain aspects.


  • RailwriterRailwriter Durham, NC
    edited June 24


    There is hope. At the beginning of May, I bought a Roco freight car (my 12th Falns-x, all with different operating numbers, for my Austrian unit hopper train) from an Ebay seller in Graz, Austria.

    The package, which also included a couple of other small items, shipped on May 6. It took three days to get to the airport in Vienna, where it then sat for about a week in the backlog of outbound packages -- due to the decreased number of international flights. But, within 10 days it managed to get to U.S. Customs in Chicago, where it then sat for about a month.

    Sunday, it cleared customs and resumed its travels, arriving at my front door this morning (June 24), a reasonable USPS transit time from Chicago. Yes, it arrived in good condition, with no signs of having been opened by customs.

    I have already installed Roco close couplers (used on the entire unit train), oiled the axles, and test run it. For what it's worth, over the past two-plus decades, Roco has produced about 20 (that I know of) different versions of the Falns-x standard Austrian hopper car. However, some of these were produced in very small numbers and sold only in Austria. So, for a number of yearsI I have been accumulating these as I found used ones on the market. (I bought two sets of three cars each new.)

    I even compiled a table on the Roco Austrian Falns-x cars, with Roco catalog number and operating number, so that I could keep track of what I had and what might still be out there. For now, I think I will stop at 12 of these cars.

    Having the package sit in customs in Chicago for a month is -- as Mr. Spock would say -- illogical. From my understanding, customs passes about 99 per cent of packages without taking any action on them, especially if the declared value is under $400. A tiny percentage are X-rayed, and an even smaller percentage actually inspected.

    My June issue of the Austrian magazine Modellbahnwelt arrived on June 16, about average for this magazine. (It usually arrives in the middle of even-numbered months.)

    -- Ernest

  • I check tracking at least ten times a day hoping for an update. I don't understand why my package is taking so long when others that arrived after mine are now being delivered.

  • BR42BR42 Auburn

    Just four letters: USPS
    When I was in grad school in 1980, I heard the joke: USPS is the best deal for a first class letter, less than a penny a day...
    In Germany, the postal service used to be great. You posted a letter before 6:00pm anywhere, it got to its destination in Germany the next day. Of course, now they are privatized, and much slower. By the way, till 1997 they used trains and postal cars to facilitate reliable and fast delivery. Now they have trucks....


  • RailwriterRailwriter Durham, NC


    While the USPS certainly has issues -- and I have encountered some of them -- the problem here is with U.S. Customs.

    The USPS has no control over how long a package sits in Customs or when Customs releases the package back to the postal service.

    One of the problems here appears to be that with the reduced number of international flights, more packages ended up being routed through Customs in Chicago, which overwhelmed that location. More typically, packages from Europe have come through customs in New York.

    While my own order was not that urgent, and I was willing to wait, I feel very badly for businesses that have packages caught up in the Chicago backlog.

    -- Ernest

  • US Customs sent me an email weeks ago stating that my package had been released to USPS and had cleared US Customs. They did not have my package. Even though the tracking (until it disappeared yesterday) indicated "Inbound to US Customs" it stays in that status until USPS gets around to processing the bin even after receiving it out of Customs.

  • well, look at the positive side , at least if delayed then it will be virus free after all it dies after 74 hours i believe , but then again do you know your local postie ? maybe sit the package for a further 74 hours. :P

  • edited August 6

    Modellbahn Union, my bank, and DHL are now involved but I haven't heard anything from either for two weeks now. I'm going to email both again today.

  • from in australia i did see part of a news story stating that some parcels were going missing from DHL , maybe stolen ? i do not know , but when parcels first ordered is there the option of placing insurance on them ? we have au post insurance here start the value of $100

  • Overseas DHL Global Paket includes up to €500 automatically, but they did not insure it for the balance of cost which was about another €120.
    DHL did fulfil their obligation of getting it to this country but I don't know where their responsibility ends under German law.
    It was scanned by USPS and so they had it in their possession before it was lost or more likely stolen.
    I received an email from USPS the other day admitting to losing my package and apologizing for "any inconvenience this may have caused..." blah, blah, blah. They offered no reimbursement though they admitted fault.

  • BR42BR42 Auburn

    Just received two small letters/packages from Germany with some Fleischmann wheels and a few Sommerfeldt masts for ending the catenary on a siding. No problem, however USPS lost a letter I mailed to California on 08/04. I think the postal service is a disaster.


  • It really is.
    I emailed Modelbahnshoppe-Lippe just to ask if they still used UPS Global Express to the States. They wrote back and assured me they did. I told them I did not want USPS at any time to get their hands on my package.

  • I received an email from Union Modellbahn the other day.
    They said they found my order with the morning post. USPS returned it to Germany with no explanation why.
    More incompetence by the USPS. My bank refunded $728.20 to my account. I guess they will now go after UM for their money.
    I've since ordered different RhB equipment from Modellbahnshopp-Lippe.
    An ABe 4/4 III, an open air coach with Peiser figures, and a 1st/2nd class coach. Hopefully they will get it out the door tomorrow via UPS.

  • BR42BR42 Auburn


    At least you got your money back! The lost letter I had sent to California arrived today. 22 days to California, they must have sent it via Pony Express.


  • I think Pony Express was faster.

  • RailwriterRailwriter Durham, NC

    While I have had issues with the USPS myself in the past, lately I have gotten packages not only from the western part of North Carolina but also from the Atlanta, Ga., area in ONE day -- yes, via USPS. Other packages from several states further away have often arrived in two days -- apparently catching good airplane connections.

    On the other hand, FedEx could not be bothered to put a package on either my front steps or front porch. They left it on the sidewalk next to the parking lot, just as a downpour was starting. Though I got to the package within minutes, it was a soggy mess. Fortunately, it contained only plastic (Plastruct) parts, so those were not damaged.

    -- Ernest

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