It Isn’t The Young Who Are Killing Railfan Clubs

A friend pointed me in the direction of a discussion on Facebook that he initiated asking why younger railroad enthusiasts aren’t joining railfan groups and railroad historical societies or getting involved in railroad museums.

The question was aimed at millennial railfans and evoked a number of responses that could be boiled down to one theme: Lack of interest.

A number of reasons were given for that including boring programs, a perception of being looked down upon by older members, and the belief that sitting in a dark room to watch a slide show is obsolete in an era when railroad photographs are widely available online.

The question of where are the younger members is interesting yet a more relevant question might be where are your existing members?

I served as president of the Akron Railroad Club for 14 years and also belonged to the Forest City Division of the Railroad Enthusiasts in Cleveland.

During that time I witnessed the demise of the Cleveland Railroad Club and the Midwest Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society. I saw the closing of a traction museum in Cleveland that had evolved from Trolleyville USA in Olmsted Township.

I saw a steady although not necessarily dramatic or unexpected decline in the membership in the ARRC and RRE.

It does not bother me that younger generations (note the plural) of railfans have little to no interest in joining railfan clubs or getting involved with railroad museums and historical societies.

I see it as neither a positive or a negative. It is what it is. Younger railfans are more oriented toward social media. That’s fine. Things change, including how railfans share their photographs and experiences with others.

I learned during my time as ARRC president that the decline of railfan organizations is not entirely a generational divide issue even if it’s often framed that way. That younger generations are not joining railfan clubs is not the sole or necessarily primary reason why these organizations are faltering.

I saw many guys who had long been fixtures at meetings stopped coming to those meetings or their attendance became sporadic.

Some of these guys might give a program once a year but otherwise you seldom see them at meetings or club outings.

I never asked any of them why they stopped coming. I really didn’t need to.

They stopped coming because the railroad club meetings were no longer important to them.

Life has a way of changing your priorities. Maybe your work hours changed. Maybe you had an elderly parent to take care of. Maybe you had a medical issue crop up.

Or maybe you just found the railroad club meetings to be not so interesting anymore because you had become blasé about it.

Social media presents opportunities to stay in touch with guys who in another time you might only have seen at the monthly railroad club meeting.

Guys stop coming to railroad club meetings because they don’t need the club. If you think about it that’s the same reason why younger railfans don’t join these clubs.

Having been in charge of programming I understand how “boring” programs come to be. I sat through a number of them and understand how they might drive away some younger guys.

But there are plenty of older fellows who also have found the “boring” programs not worth it. For that matter, they no longer find the more interesting programs worth it either.

Turnover among the membership is a reality of every organization. Not everyone is going to have a lifelong passion for railroads. Something else might interest them and they become focused on that.

I learned during my time as ARRC president that for many members the club was at best a sometimes thing in their life.

There is a core of members who show up for every or nearly every meeting. But there are far more members who only show up here and there if they show up at all.

Can a railfan organization take steps to get the wayward members of the flock to return to the fold and start attending meetings again?

Maybe, but that raises the question of whether the group’s leadership has the skills and resources, including time, to do that. And would the realistic gain to be had be worth the effort?

I came to see the demise of railfan clubs as inevitable because of the demographics of the membership. I saw the organization’s challenge as managing that decline rather than stopping it.

Medical professionals understand that there comes a point in the life of the super elderly when they stop trying to understand and address the causes of their illnesses and instead focus on making their remaining days, months or years of those individuals as comfortable as possible. Everything has a life cycle and it will some day reach its end.

This analogy might not be a perfect fit with railfan clubs yet I don’t know that there is much that those railroad oriented organizations that I saw die could have done to have reversed their demise.

So long as there are members willing to gather regularly to enjoy each other’s company and share photographs these “dying” railfan organizations will continue to exist.

At some point it becomes a matter of serving the needs of those who want to be there and not worrying so much about those who don’t.

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