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All Aboard for Tracks, Ties and Videotape

Talk about steamy--a love of trains that spans generations is fueling a new craze among enthusiasts.

August 04, 1996|Susan King | Susan King is a Times staff writer

Most people would find a 92-minute video following trains as they choo-choo through West Virginia about as exciting as watching paint dry. But the fact of the matter is "Along the Pocahontas District: Coal Trains & Time Freights" is part of the booming train video market.

Pentrex, Goldhil Home Media, Brentwood Home Video, Acorn Media and A&E Home Video are just some of the companies currently releasing train videos. The tapes are available in stores, via catalog and, in some cases, through toll-free telephone numbers.

"We can't make these tapes fast enough," said Mike Clayton, president of the Pasadena-based Pentrex, the leader in train video production. "There's a huge market. We have over 500 titles now."

Not to mention more than 100,000 customers around the world, who range in age from 4 to 104, with an average of 1,000 newcomers climbing aboard each week, Clayton said.

"It's mainly a male-oriented thing, and it tends to be across the board, white-collar, blue-collar," he said. " . . . People get [a tape] for the first time and write in for a free catalog."

So, what's with the continuing love affair with trains?

"It's a fascination of just watching moving things," Clayton said. "Older people can remember the day of either the train that went around the Christmas tree or they had a relative who worked for the railroad. There is the travel romance [relationship]. We have some people who just enjoy the big mechanical aspect, the technical aspect of it."

Goldhil President Gary Goldman, producer of the popular nine-volume series "America's Greatest Steam Railroads," said the love of trains has been passed down from generation to generation.

"I also think it's a unique way to truly take in the countryside," Goldman said. "I think it's important to people from a travel standpoint. You are bringing in three distinct groups: the historian, the train enthusiast and the destination/armchair traveler who gets to experience all three concepts in one program."

Pentrex was started in 1984 on a lark. Train buff Clayton had friends who worked for the railroads.

"We made a train tape just for fun," he said. "I always explain this company as home movies that got out of control."

Besides producing videos, Pentrex publishes four slick magazines: Vintage Rails, Passenger Train Journal, Pacific RailNews and Locomotive & Railway Preservation. Each, of course, features numerous ads for Pentrex products.

Goldhil, which also releases historical documentaries and special-interest videos, made its first train video three years ago.

"We used to represent other product lines when we were responsible for merchandising catalogs," Goldman said. "We were always amazed at the number of train titles we were able to sell."

So Goldhil asked some investors to back "America's Greatest Steam Railroads."

"Nobody understood it," Goldman said, "so we decided to produce our first show, 'The Georgetown Loop.' The tape was so successful we were able to finance the next program and so forth. We now have nine programs in the series. We have collectively sold over half a million units."

Next up for Goldhil is a two-volume set scheduled for mid-August, "National Parks of the West by Train."

Pentrex releases about three new videos a month.

"Some people just want to see steam locomotives, some want to see diesels, and some want to see streetcars. So we try to satisfy all of those demands," Clayton said.

Among the company's recent big sellers, he said, are "Today's Steam Across America" ("a big collection of steam locomotives that you can still go out and see") and a series of four videos, "Great American Train Rides," which has sold close to 400,000 copies.

Right now three Pentrex camera crews are traveling the country tracking trains. (Goldhil hires independent crews.) Pentrex has an in-house facility that Clayton describes as state of the art and "the world's largest collection of railroad footage on film and video."

Shoots last about four to six weeks "depending on the scope of the railroad," Clayton said.

"It's a big variable. You don't know what the weather is going to be like. But our camera guys are all basically news camera people from [TV] stations who are also into trains, so these guys are pretty creative."

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Train Spotting

Here are some of the newest train videos:

Pentrex, (800) 950-9333: "SP's Geeps and Cadillacs--Vintage Workhorses" ($30), "Early Baldwin Diesels on the Southern Pacific" ($20), "The Milwaukee Road" ($20 each, $50 for the set), "Along the Pocahontas District--Coal Trains & Time Freights" ($30), "Amtrak Across America 25th Anniversary" ($20).

Acorn Media, (800) 999-0212: "British Rail Journeys" ($19 each; $80 for the set).

A&E Home Video, (800) 423-1212: "Modern Marvels: The Transcontinental Railroad" ($20).

Goldhil Home Media, available from video dealers: "America's Historic Steam Railroads" ($30 each), "Railroading in America" ($20).

Brentwood Home Video, from video dealers: "Flying Scotsman: Preserving the Legend" ($20).

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