Lionel says it has run a marketing campaign to appeal to consumers beyond the hard-core hobbyists, creating new lines of train sets and putting them in places like Target, FAO Schwarz and Toys "R'' Us, says Calabrese.
When people see them, they think about being a kid and connecting with their fathers, he said.
Mike Wolf, owner of MTH Electric Trains, says that's what he sees, too. The average age of his manufacturing company's customer is 52; many are Baby Boomers who want to pass the tradition on to their kids and grandkids.
Some train enthusiasts want the magic of a train but can't afford the $200 or so for a complete set.
James Pentifallo, owner and manger of Ridgefield Hobby in Ridgefield, N.J., said more people are bringing in their trains for repairs this holiday season compared with previous years. He had 80 to 100 that needed to be fixed one week this month.
For many people, "there is no real money to buy a brand new train set," he said. "They'll fix the old stuff up and add a little bit to it."
At the other end of the spectrum, Caboose Hobbies in Denver reports similar sales numbers to last year, but more people investing more in the higher-end sets, says owner Duane Miller.
For Boomers, a train under the tree can be as much a part of decorating as ornaments and lights, he said.
Lou Failla, 48, of Fair Lawn, N.J., whose trains were featured in O Gauge Railroading magazine, said he and his friends would go to bed and dream about getting Christmas train sets. He got his first one when he was 5.
Failla, a cop, said his trains make him feel like a kid again. He can sit on the floor and watch them, see the lights and hear the sounds.
"What's nice is to be able to go back to that era, the simplicity of the trains running around the Christmas tree," he said. "It's symbolic. It's almost up there with the Christmas tree and Santa."
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.