Monday, 24 October 2016

Memorabilia makes modelling better!

It was railway adventurer and TV personality Scott McGregor who once said, "the thing I like about trains is that there's the trains themselves, and then there's all this other cool stuff." For someone who has envied the amazing places that one of my all-time favourite celebrities has traveled to on a train, I couldn't agree with him more. Yet despite not being able to emulate Scott's feat of decking out his property near Mudgee with a private collection of former railway carriages turned sleeping quarters, I haven't let my own space limitations and small model railway layout become a barrier to collecting 'all this other cool stuff'. Soon after delving into the underground world of train timetable collecting, I discovered that railway memorabilia makes modelling better.

By incorporating my small collection of railway memorabilia into my layout, be it station signs, signal lever plaques or timetables and pamphlets displayed to recreate the appearance of a Station Master's desk, I have made my small New South Wales bookshelf layout feel like it is a part of something bigger. It becomes so much easier to picture my HO scale model trains connecting somewhere beyond the layout, when there are signs pointing in all sorts of directions.

So what exactly is the value in collecting all this 'cool stuff'? Well, considering that I've been able to run some Countrylink timetables, incorporate some authentic snacks for operating sessions and create my own Station Master's desk, with what I've collected, I'd say the personal enjoyment value has been fairly high. But seeing just a small sample of my own railway memorabilia collection on display in the photo at the top of this post, most people, whether they are railway enthusiasts or not, become curious as to what dollar value it holds and where do you find such things. So after years of hunting for forgotten railway relics from Australia's yesteryear, I thought I'd share my thoughts of what I've found to be popular items among railway collectors, and what I am prepared to pay for them as my top asking price.

First up, there are more places to look for railway memorabilia than just eBay. For the lazy collector, it is a little too easy to just sit back in the comfort of your own home, search through the railroadiana category and bid on items that ultimately get delivered right to your door. Sure, I've bought my fair share of railway collectibles from eBay over the years, but even on eBay there is an art to browsing categories where you wouldn't think that railway memorabilia exists. To be honest, I've snapped up some absolute bargains on eBay by searching for items listed under some fairly vague descriptions. Old sign is just one search word that springs to mind. Had the items in question used the words railway, station or NSWGR, then I wouldn't have been the only person bidding on them. People also occasionally list items in the wrong category, and a rare railway item may be listed under Home and Garden instead of Transport or Railroadiana. Another favourite trick of mine is checking for misspelled words. Believe me it happens.

Recently I was put onto an online auction site called by a reader of this blog. Invaluable is different to most other online auction sites in that it searches, lists and catalogues hundreds of the world's leading auction houses on the one convenient site. As a result, it is easy to search for railway memorabilia among the huge range of collectibles listed by auction houses such as Sotheby's, NY Auction Gallery and Sydney Rare Book Auctions. Of course there is the added advantage of being able to sort the online auctions by country, depending on where you are prepared to pay the shipping cost from. Auction houses work differently to eBay. Instead of fees being deducted from the final amount that is payable to the seller, the buyer will have to pay on top of the final price what is called a 'buyer's premium', which in the case of the item I am currently looking at on Invaluable is listed as 20%. So you really need to factor that into your price. Just like eBay, you'll need an account before you can bid on a live auction, and just like eBay you'll need to check the shipping terms listed by the auctioneer. In the case of the item I am looking at now, packaging can be arranged by the auctioneer for a small fee and postage is charged at cost. Best of all, Invaluable has an Australian presence with a listed phone number in Sydney that is available to contact 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

If you think that an elite auction house is mainly for rich people auctioning stuffy old paintings worth millions of dollars, think again. I've saved my favourite search words on Invaluable and am emailed every time that auctions matching my description go live. Among a wide variety of railway collectibles are frequent listings from Ardent Auctions in Fyshwick, ACT, that range from station signs, railway chairs, light fittings, locomotive builders plates, signal arms and signal box repeaters. Best of all, Ardent Auctions only use Invaluable's website portal for live internet bidding. Watching a professional auctioneer call the bids streamed live over the internet is a bit of a rush, and hearing your paddle number called out as the winning bidder becomes a bit addictive. So set a budget! The collections will each have a starting bid price and an estimate price of between X and Y dollars for what the item has been professionally valued at. Personally, I find this a lot better than sorting through the over-valued prices being asked for on eBay by people who can easily list an item for free, yet have absolutely no idea of the costs involved in restoring some of these pieces to their former condition.

Some signal box plaques from Sydney that I picked up for a song on eBay. They are now cleaned up and mounted on my model railway layout.

So in the spirit of someone who loves "all this other cool stuff", as Scott McGregor so coolly puts it, I present my own armchair guide to what I have been prepared to pay while amassing a small railway memorabilia collection to accentuate my bookshelf model railway layout. All prices are shown in Australian dollars $AUD. While I am still dreaming of one-day converting a pair of old railway carriages into accommodation on a large block in the country, I have limited the below threads to items that would fit into a traditional model railway room, or man cave as our wives like to refer to it these days.

  • Timetables - a personal favourite of mine. They easily fit into a drawer or look great sitting alongside your model train bench and historically explain when and where the trains we model ran to. As a rule of thumb, anything less than 10 years old is worth only around $2 to $5. After 10 years however, the value can be calculated at around $1 per year, meaning I'd pay $10 for a 10 year-old timetable, and up to $50 for a 50 year-old timetable, depending of course on the condition. My best buy has been a NSW country train timetable from 1956 that I bought online from a bookshop in England of all places for just $38 including postage to Australia. Think a 1997 CityRail timetable is worth nothing? Next year they will be 20 years-old, so this is an area with a lot of potential collecting value.
  • Railway Tickets - unlike timetables, this is an area that you have to know the history of each railway line that the ticket covers. A cardboard ticket stub to a far flung destination on a long closed line is always going to be worth more than a suburban ticket from the same year given the frequencies of trains and the amount of tickets likely issued in that time period. However, cardboard ticket stubs disappeared from Sydney train stations with the advent of Ticket Vending Machines between July 1992 to July 1993. Usually, a cardboard ticket stub from the 1970's to 1980's is worth around $2 to $3 each, with rarer destinations easily reaching $5 to $6. Tickets from the 1940's, 50's and 60's however, especially tickets where the date and destination were handwritten by the station attendant, or the station itself has long disappeared into history become more of a grey area. Expect to pay around $10 or more, depending on how badly you want it. I've seen single war-era tickets sell for upwards of $40. Now, thanks to the top-up ability of the Opal card, even the magnetic strip Ticket Vending Machine tickets are a thing of the past, so expect these to increase in value also. A bundle of magnetic strip City Rail tickets for less than $10 might not be a bad investment.
  • Station signs - such as the aluminium station name signs that existed on the manual platform indicator boards at suburban stations are really cool to collect. A large number of these surfaced on eBay for $10 each in 2015 after the final roll-out of computer destination screens across the Sydney Trains network. I only wish I'd bought more, as these will be impossible to find in the future and will certainly be worth more than $10 each that I paid. Large platform signs are a different matter. In NSW these were either cast iron or made of concrete with cast iron letters. The sheer weight and size of these things make it near impossible to have delivered, and also becomes a matter of where do you put such a thing? Old timber platform signs usually deteriorated to a point of no repair when the railways replaced them with metal signs. Any large cast iron or concrete platform sign will usually sell for anywhere between $300 to $600 depending on the condition and the rarity of the location. Thanks to the large number of custom-made and replica metal signs available on the market today, the original metal railway station signs actually hold a better collector value. Still, expect to pay between $100 and $200 each for an original. The modern Countrylink 'coaches' sign that I made the feature of my staging shelf is actually engraved and painted clear perspex. I picked it up for less than $50. Expect to see more of these types of signs become available when NSW railway stations are refitted with NSWTrainLink signage.
  • Locomotive plates - are genuine one-off collector's items. The heavy cast iron builders plates were attached to the side of steam locomotives, and later diesel locos used more lightweight aluminium builders plates as a way of identifying where and when each particular locomotive was built. As such, genuine locomotive plates only come onto the market when a locomotive is scrapped, and only after a local preservation society or museum passes on the chance to add it to their collection. Many early steam locomotives in Australia were actually built by the North British Locomotive Co. in Glasgow, and these genuine cast iron builders plates will sell for between $600 to $1,000. The aluminium diesel locomotive plates from local builders such as Goodwin-Alco and Clyde-GM will still command between $100 to $200. Diesel locomotives in Australia also had the illuminated number boxes at each end, and the painted fibreglass or perspex numbers also make a great item that can be framed and/or illuminated from behind for a great effect. Usually there were 4 number boards per locomotive, making their value a little less, but still expect to pay around $40 to $100 each.
  • Signal box memorabilia - makes an excellent feature of any model train room. I picked up the engraved black perspex signal frame lever plaques that I have pictured above for less than $5 each, and they are now cleaned up and mounted on my model layout. While I've yet to come across any of these perspex plates again, fibre-glass pull lever plates fetch around $15 each, while brass or cast metal signal frame lever numbers will sell for around $30 to $45 each. I've yet to see an actual full cast iron working signal frame lever for sale, but I imagine that would be a cool talking point of any model train room. Signal box repeaters are valued at around $120 to $150 depending on their condition, while the signal box bells fetch for around $180. A one-off working signal box diagram on the other hand would set you back around $1,000. These were large framed diagrams that hung above the row of signal frame levers and showed the mainline, passing loops and refuge sidings as controlled by that particular signal box, with working lights to indicate the road that was set for the approaching train. However, I've seen plenty of model railroaders who simply chose to build their own working diagram, with LED lights controlled by how each point is set on their own miniature railroad.
  • Railway station memorabilia - includes a vast array of stuff such as former Station Master's desks, chairs, telephones, lamp fittings and other platform signage. Timber railway office chairs can be picked up for around $80 each, which is a bargain considering that they were made by the railway's own workshops and are still a functional piece of furniture. Today they would just put out a contract for office furniture imported cheaply from China that is almost guaranteed to fall apart every 12 months. A NSW guards indicator platform light in good condition is valued at around $170 to $200. Old enameled railway station safety signs are valued at between $80 to $140 depending on condition. Whereas original cast iron station signs ranging from 'No Way Out' to 'Beware of Trains' are bound to fetch upwards of $140 even in the poorest of conditions, and even more if it relates to penalties when the currency in Australia was still measured in pounds. Recently a one-off cast iron sign pertaining to a specific location fetched over $1,000 at auction here in Australia. Although you should beware, there are a flood of reproduction items on the market. More modern metal railway station safety signs such as 'No Smoking' are generally worth between $30 and $50. While at the budget end of the collector's scale, there was a multitude of paper forms, parcels stamps, luggage tags and posters that can all add some nostalgic value to your model train room.
  • Lineside memorabilia - Painted aluminium railway crossing crossbuck signs are actually more plentiful than the average collector cares to admit. The reflective signs need to be highly visible so therefore are replaced when they begin to age. As such, their true value is probably closer to the $90 to $120 range, not the exorbitant prices being asked at times on eBay, and of course postage is going to be out of the question. You're going to have to collect something like this yourself. The 'stop on red signal' and '2 tracks' signs that go beneath them therefore are worth a little less at around $45 to $60 each. The older cast iron mile post numbers and 'W' signs that are found lineside are valued at around $45. As with any cast iron sign the weight is going to significantly increase the cost by the time you pay postage. Modern metal enameled marker post numbers can be picked up for around the same price. Signal blades on their own are valued at upwards of $80 without the coloured lens arm that attaches to the end. The original coloured glass ends on their own are a lot harder to come by and are valued at around $180, making a complete signal arm highly collectable. Steel dog spikes, although a cool item if you are wanting a railway themed coat rack for your train room, are quite heavy and not worth the cost of postage. You're much better looking for a discarded dog spike by the side of the line when you are out railfanning your favourite locations.
  • Railwayman's memorabilia - I have in my collection one of the NSWPTC solid brass TS railway locks, although it is nicely buffed and polished, without the key it is only valued at around $20 to $30. With the key, it could probably fetch up to $70. The NSWSRA Station Assistant badge that can be viewed in the top photo, I picked up for below the $30 it would be valued at. The curved hat badges on their own would be worth around the same. If you could find one of the smart-looking NSW Station Master's hats complete with the badge however, it would be worth anywhere up to $150. Other items such as battery operated lamps once used by guards and shunters are worth around $30 to $70 and for that price can still be picked up in working condition. The older kerosene metal lamps however can fetch up to $150 as they look fantastic when restored and make a great decorative centrepiece on a study table or bookshelf. One item I'm still looking for in great condition is a NSW Railways Gladstone bag, once used by railwaymen to carry their belongings to and from work. The over-sized leather carry bag was unique in shape and similar to the old-fashioned doctor's bag, although you can readily purchase new bags in that same style today.
  • Carriage memorabilia - Old railway carriages evoke strong memories of overnight travel to visit distant relatives, and any items salvaged from a scrapped wooden passenger carriage always attract a considerable price tag. From the solid brass carriage door holders that were floor mounted and operated by foot that fetch around $30 a pair, to original brass overhead luggage racks valued at around $100 to $200 each and everything in between, they are normally the most sought after by railway collectors. An engraved glass N.S.W.T.D. mirror is valued at between $90 to $120 whereas the carriage mirror and wood panel would be worth around $180 to $200. The ornate glass overhead light shades found in older style railway carriages make a great restoration project to turn it into a lamp for your desk. If you can find one that is. Glass was normally one of the first things to be destroyed by vandals when carriages were first withdrawn from service and placed in out-of-the-way railway sidings. Cast iron carriage builders plates are popular too, and like the locomotive builders plates only come onto the market when a carriage is sent to the scrappers. They tell where and when a carriage was manufactured in Australia and can fetch between $70 and $150. Cast alloy signs warning against flushing toilets when train is stationary are always a novelty collector's item. Just be warned that there are more fake reproduction versions of these items on the market than there are originals.

So there you have it. My brief run-through of what I would call small-scale railway collecting. Of course the United Kingdom and United States would both have just as much of their own unique railroadiana to keep a collector occupied online for days. But just as our own railway adventurer Scott McGregor once said, "the thing I like about trains is that there's the trains themselves, and then there's all this other cool stuff." For a writer such as myself, I have to admit that collecting railway memorabilia has indeed made model railroading better.

My small bookshelf HO model railway captures a lot of charm thanks to the memorabilia I have incorporated into its construction.

You can also keep an eye out for my own range of railway designs that I will continue to release online through Redbubble.


  1. Hey Phil.

    I was just wondering if the timetables for the Murwillumbah branch are in that "Northern Region" timetable booklet?

    1. It sure is. N4 Pacific Coast Motorail Express departed Murwillumbah daily at 4.30 pm and arrived in Central Station Sydney the next morning at 9.05 am. N2 departed Casino at 5.33 pm arriving Sydney next morning at 7.00 am. N2 would stop at pretty much the same stations as the Motorail, keeping around 2 hours ahead of its schedule. I rode aboard the Pacific Coast Motorail once as a child on a family vacation, and yes, our car came on the train too! Later, my adult memories of catching the XPT from Murwillumbah on multiple trips to Sydney made the Murwillumbah Line one of my favourites.


Thanks for taking the time to visit Philden. I hope you'll book a return ticket soon. Cheers, Phil