Friday, December 27, 2019

Ye Olde History of Rapido Trains Inc.

Rapido Trains Inc.'s Newsletter issue 119, in addition to the latest product announcements, production schedule, questionable puns and kooky graphics, contained a section entitled 'Looking Back on 15 years of Rapido". I am no fan of staid or stodgy corporate histories, but I found this capsule history interesting because it is a rags-to-bellbottoms story of what it's like to  grow in the Golden Age of Canadian Model Railroading. While I was otherwised engaged hoisting another fruitcake and toasting with another Railway City Brewing Co. beverage, I simply copied and pasted this engaging account into this post then appended my own encounters with Jason over the years. Enjoy:

Last month marked 15 years since Rapido Trains Inc. was incorporated. In that time we've grown from a one-man-show with one resin kit and some decals to one of the larger model train manufacturers in North America.

In 2000 I was about to get married and someone asked me what I was going to do with my life. I remember my answer clearly: "I'm going to go to England, get a degree, and teach art history. But what I really want to do is make model trains all day."

Sidura and I left for Birmingham, England, the next year. I was very unhappy with my career choice. What gave me joy were the stolen moments when I could escape to the sun room to work on my model trains. At one point I told Sidura that model railroading could be a very expensive hobby. She replied, "As long as it pays for itself, it's fine." She meant that I should sell my old stuff on eBay. Instead, I decided to start Rapido. My model railroad in England was on a 7.5" wide shelf in our living room. The two locomotives were old Atlas/Roco FP7s heavily modified into VIA FP9As. 

In 2004 I was 29 years old. We were back in Canada and I had no degree, no job and no money. Sidura and I realized that we had nothing to lose, so we tried to make the model train business work as a proper company. I spent the winter measuring and drawing an ex-VIA coach and sleeping car. In the snow. In -12C weather.

After two trips to China on borrowed money, I had found a factory to work with. It took until late 2006 - and a lot more debt - for our first models to finally arrive. I packaged up a CN "E" series sleeper and mailed it to my PhD supervisor in England. "Here's my thesis," the accompanying letter said. "I'm officially withdrawing from the program."

A number of key milestones allowed Rapido to grow to the successful company it is today. The first was hiring Dan Garcia. With Dan on board I could focus on marketing and product design, because he was handling all of the customer service.

In 2009, Bill Schneider and Janet Golfman joined the team. Janet has since grown in her position to be a first class CFO - a long way from her original role as a part-time bookkeeper. With Bill I had found a guy who really understood how the model train business worked. Bill also introduced Rapido to the American market. I remember one fateful conversation with him, before he even joined the team: "You know, the New Haven has a lot of really devoted fans. I think you might want to think about making some New Haven models."

For several years, Rapido was just Dan, Bill, Janet and me. The company struggled to grow. We had great ideas but we were always short of cash and our factory was very busy with a growing client list so they could not deliver all the models we needed.

In 2013, Bill and I flew to China and convinced our engineer, Huang, to start a new Rapido factory that would just make our stuff. In 2016 our partner, Colin, threw his hat in the ring and started the LRC factory. This solved our supply issues.

Back at home, we surrounded ourselves with some really talented people who have helped Rapido grow into the success it is today. A lot of people still think Rapido is just me in a garage somewhere designing and shipping out model trains. Far from it. Rapido is a team of amazing people, almost all model railroaders. They are lucky enough to have found careers in their hobby, and they love coming to work every day.

Rapido has had its fair share of headaches. The first shipment of passenger cars had wobbly floors. We fixed it pretty quickly, but I bet there are still a few guys out there who swore in 2006 that they would never buy another Rapido passenger car and have remained true to their word. Since then every year has brought new challenges.

The HO scale TurboTrain looked amazing, but ran like a pregnant hippo on crutches. Our Algoma Central coaches somehow migrated from silver to beige. The first run of N scale 1600-series GMD-1s ran THE WRONG WAY on DC track. The first run of mill gondolas had amazing Z channel ribs... which could be found floating around the bottom of the packaging. The list goes on. Today we've got a warranty department staring down an entire bookcase of RS-18 locomotives awaiting motor replacements.

But still, we soldier on. With each new challenge we get stronger. Mohan is in China right now, working with the factories to implement better quality control practices and improve communication with the assembly team there so they don't make production changes - like changing the colours of rooftop beacons - without checking with us first.

I will ask anyone who says our hobby is dying to take a look at Rapido as proof that it isn't. Our sales in 2019 were four times our sales in 2013. This shows that there are a lot of railroad modellers (and bus modellers) out there who are eager to upgrade their fleets. Talking with people at shows, it's clear Rapido has also brought some new people into our hobby - especially Canadian modellers who were never inspired to join the hobby because the selection of Canadian prototypes was too narrow before Rapido arrived on the scene. It's nice to see so many new customers at every show.

Everything I have talked about so far is really just the background to the most important aspect of our 15th anniversary. Rapido's success comes down to one thing: YOU. You, our customers, have shown faith in us and continue to support us. We love that you love our trains, and without you all of this would have just been a pipe dream.

So thank you to everyone who has bought a Rapido model, given us advice and suggestions, contributed research material, kitbashed our models, photographed and videoed our models, hung out with us at shows, and supported our restoration efforts.

You guys - our model railroad community - are what it's all about. Thank you so much. We look forward to a great 2020 and another great 15 years! 

Your humble blogger has had the pleasure of meeting Jason on a few occasions. The first quite by chance - on June 19, 2008 as we headed east to Montreal in VIA1 on VIA train No 52/40. Hearing a conversation ahead of us, a passenger with book in hand was chatting amicably with on-board staff. I put two plus Turbo together and realized it was none other than a certain model train manufacturer doing the kibbitzing. On his way back to his seat up the aisle, it was, "Excuse me, are you Jason Shron?" Surprise! When they were returning from a proto-photo trip to Brockville that November, I met Jason and Dan downtown to talk Kingston Sub modelling.
Three years later, upon the publication of my first book on VIA Rail, Jason was on a barnstorming tour to the Maritimes. Having been kind enough to pen the foreword, I met him at Kingston on his way west aboard VIA No 61 Eng 6437 (above). Also at Kingston, the Rapido Icons of Canadian Steam launch excursion passed through in October, 2015:
It would be another eight years until our paths would cross again, on the Platforum podcast. Jason remarked upon my CN 3120 being the only Rapido RS-18 equipped with X2F couplers, possibly in the entire world! In the post welcoming this plucky pollution-plumed performer, I editorialized about the impact of Rapido on the modelling scene in the Running Extra section. I won't further editorialize here, suffice it to say that where two or three Canadian railway modellers are gathered, Rapido will be part of the discussion.
Sometimes, Rapido is meme-worthy. I find such memes ably encapsulate a long-winded, somewhat-productive back-and-forth social media debate about some recent Rapido-based issue:
Or when there's discussion about who's no longer a 'member of the band', who's president of the company now, or just who is the craziest, nerdiest modeller out there. 

Running extra...

Happy New Year! Speaking of memes, whatever arrived under your tree this Christmas, may you spend several moments, minutes or hours of enjoyment 'getting away from it' all in your layout room, workbench or motel room while laying-over between runs:
People say I use 'air quotes' a lot. What do they mean by 'a lot'?

Speaking of bad jokes, it's time for one more. What did the clock do when he was hungry after his Christmas turkey dinner? He went back four seconds!


Canadian Train Geek said...

You didn't use your wargame map meme when talking about Rapido! I'm disappointed.

Rapido's story is remarkable, and we need more stories like this. They have had their issues but I really appreciate Jason's openness and Rapido doesn't hide their faults or mistakes.

Eric said...

Agreed, Steve. Social media has changed lots of things - it's a communication strategy and communication works both ways. No more hiding behind the Walthers Catalogue or some post office box somewhere. Those that still hide wither and fade, especially when mistakes are made (hey, that rhymes!).

Pushing product on Youtube, Facebook and website means responsiveness, some transparency and a new version of accountability.

You'll find the trench map meme in the 'plucky' post linked to in this post. I hate to use the same photo twice!

Happy New Year!