Pandemic impacts on model railroading -- and other notes
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.