Whittle Shortline Railroad
follows its own track making realistic wooden toys
Marriot, 6, plays with Whittle Shortline trains at the company’s
factory store in Louisiana, Mo. The company’s
two retail stores include large play areas. Christopher’s mother,
Gail Marriot, traveled more than 60 miles from Clark to let her children
play at the store.
The phone rarely
stops ringing at Whittle Shortline Railroad, a manufacturer of wooden
toy trains and trucks in Louisiana, Mo. Some calls come from worried
mothers seeking safe toys for their children. Others are from stores
wanting to carry the company’s products. Often, it’s
reporters looking for a quote.
The surge began in
June when more than a million Thomas the Tank Engine brand train toys
were recalled because of lead paint — the first of several high-profile
toy recalls this summer.
turned to Whittle Shortline, which makes “The Little Engine That
Could,” a relatively unknown challenger
to Thomas, a toy train manufactured in China.
Prior to the recalls,
The Little Engine line had been a slow seller for Whittle Shortline
Railroad, which specializes in realistic toy trains marketed to older
Thomas has gotten his nose bloodied and we can’t make
enough of them,” says company owner Mike Whitworth, who launched
Whittle Shortline Railroad in his garage in 1996.
Engine That Could train earned national attention following a
recall of some Thomas brand toys.
Like the Little Engine
That Could, Whitworth’s company seems to be engaged
in an impossible uphill climb against RC2, an Illinois-based corporate
giant, which also markets Bob the Builder and Winnie the Pooh character
toys as well as John Deere and Ertl farm toys.
The competition between
the two character locomotives is actually less adversarial than it
might seem. Whittle Shortline’s Little Engine toys share the
same table top gauge track as Thomas trains and the two brand’s
cars interchange. Just as important, the “Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends” television
show fuels sales for Whittle Shortline products.
“We love Thomas,” Mike
says. “He builds our market. Without
Thomas, we probably would still be a little, bitty company doing
10,000 toys a year.”
with noses on them — bloody
or not — are not
really what Whittle Shortline Railroad — which sells about a half
million toys each year — is about, though.
|Decals carefully applied
to Whittle Shortline Railroad toys recreate legendary train names.
This mail car recalls the Hannibal & St.
Joseph line, the first mail train to operate in America.
a time period where the little kid figures out that real trains
don’t have faces, and then he’s going to look for
something real. That’s what our niche is,” Mike says.
fact, Whittle Shortline is the only company making wooden toys
that mimic real rolling stock. With its own in-house graphics
department, the company is so good at recreating railroad and
truck logos that many transportation companies hire them to produce
gift items and mementos.
“In our narrow
niche, which is realistic American trucks and trains, we are the only
player,” Mike says. “Whether
you’re in San Francisco
or Saratoga, if you see something that looks real and is
made out of wood, it was made here.”
While the company’s
products are popular with train enthusiasts, they are designed
as toys and meant to be played with by children. The company sells
little track, though, as typical customers already own Thomas or
some other toy train. With individual cars costing $5 to $15 and “engines” averaging
about $20, Whittle Shortline toys are usually added to an existing
train set a piece at a time.
Whitworth, left, owner of Whittle Shortline Railroad examines
a strip of Maine white sap birch after Jerry Conner runs it through
a router. The company, based in Louisiana, Mo., makes a half-million
wooden toys each year.
in trains dates to his childhood, when he used to visit his grandfather’s
workplace at the terminal railroad at St. Louis’ Union
Station. The company traces its origins to an electric
miter saw. Mike’s
wife, Pat, bought him the tool in the mid-1990s in hopes
that he would install crown molding in the couple’s Kirkwood
home. The saw sat unopened for two years before Pat threatened
to throw it out.
“Being a male,
you’re not going
to turn a power tool loose even if you don’t know how
to use it,” recalls Mike, a former Air Force pilot.
he finally did get around to using his saw he didn’t
make molding, but toy trains for the neighborhood children.
Word of Mike’s toy trains
quickly spread to merchants in Kirkwood, a St. Louis
suburb named for a railroad pioneer and a town that ties
its identity to a historic train depot.
Soon, demand for
toys spread far beyond Kirkwood. “A little
company called Amtrak called us up and said, ‘Can
you make toys for us?’”
wooden toy trains are not much more than a block
of wood with oversized wheels. Amtrak required
a toy that looked like its trains. Calling on
his college aeronautical engineering degree, Mike designed
and patented a new type of suspension that allowed
toy trains to move on TT gauge track without
requiring large wheels.
|Whittle Shortline Railroad's retail store in Valley Park is almost
always overflowing with children at play.
“Not only do
our toys look real, they act real,” Mike says. “We
could do things with the other guy’s
track that he couldn’t do. Our
trains perform better than the Thomas toys
on Thomas track.”
smaller wheels allowed him to make toy trains
that were larger, longer and more proportional
to a real train. It wasn’t long before
Mike’s realistic toys caught the eyes
of other railroads. Mike signed licensing
contracts that gave him the right to produce
trains bearing the logos of nearly every
railroad ever to run in America.
Whittle Shortline has branched out into
trucks. The company produces licensed versions of
FedEx and U.S. Postal Service trucks. It
also has designed a toy tractor-trailer
truck and is signing up trucking companies almost
on a daily basis. A new toy school bus
is being touted as a fundraising device for
school districts, which can order buses
bearing their own school name.
By 1999, Whittle
Shortline Railroad outgrew the Whitworth’s garage and
moved to the historic 1880 Frisco Hotel
in Valley Park. In 2005 the company relocated its manufacturing operation
to a former glove factory building in Louisiana, a Mississippi River
town about an hour north of St. Louis.
Parts waiting to be assembled are boxed, waiting to be picked up
by Louisiana-area, "stay-at-home moms." Much of the company's assembly
work is done by part-time employees who work from their homes.
More than 35 employees
work for the company, designing, manufacturing and selling more than
160 different toys. While some assembly is done
in the factory, stay-at-home moms in the Louisiana
area do much of the work of gluing blocks together.
Although Mike says
his company pays well and provides benefits, he manages to compete
against Chinese manufacturers who pay substandard wages. He survives,
he says, by accepting a much lower margin on his toys than the competition.
In fact, recently he actually dropped his prices to eliminate the
price factor from the customer’s buying decision.
Shortline Railroad toy comes with a lifetime warranty. But what really
separates them from the competition is the paint and detailing. Each
toy receives several layers of acrylic paint, depending on its color
scheme. A touch-up artist inspects each product and fixes any blemishes
with a small airbrush. Decal and graphic artists skillfully apply
the names that appeal to parents and grandparents who remember
the railroads of lore.
of our toys gets individually hand-inspected seven times. No one has
ever made this type of toy,” Mike
says as he picks up a caboose and studies the detail. “You
would never find that anywhere else, any time else. We’re making
a very unique toy.”
|Employee April Howland touches up the paint on toy school buses,
which the company can personalize for local schools. One of the reasons
Chinese manufacturers use lead paint is because it covers so easily,
eliminating many quality control steps.
Railroad toys are sold online at the company’s Web site
and through about 200 toy stores
nationwide. The company also operates two retail locations. Both the
factory store in Louisiana and Valley Park store feature large play
tables where parents and grandparents can turn children loose.
can come in. You don’t have to buy anything,” Mike
At the Valley Park
store, a separate play area upstairs
is reserved for birthday parties.
The store hosts seven parties
every weekend, 50 weekends a year. During
monthly “Fun Nights” (or occassional “Fun Sundays” at
Louisiana) children pay
a small fee to hand paint their own toy trains, which receive wheels and couplings
in the factory.
The special events
and the play-friendly stores are reflections
of a company philosophy to
rise above expectations. With
nowhere near the volume of
big toy companies and lacking
the cost advantages of foreign
manufacturing, Whittle Shortline
Railroad has to try harder
to keep up with the competition.
The “I think
I can” analogy
that the national media has latched onto when describing the manufacturer
of The Little Engine that Could toys is a fitting one, Mike says.
to everybody else in the market, we’ve got to be the smallest
guy,” he says. “But
We’re not afraid
to take somebody
Mike says he only
to make the Little
trains after NBC
them in 2006 with promises
of a big promotional
campaign. While toy recalls
have given the Little Engine
and Whittle Shortline an
unexpected boost that produced
at least a 50 percent increase
in sales, Mike doesn’t expect the attention to last.
Cortes wears a "God bless America" shirt while sanding
train cars at the Whittle Shortline factory. Following the recall
of Chinese goods sold by a competitor, the company has received
nationwide attention for being the only major manufacturer of
wooden toy trains in America.
are short and price is always king,” Mike says. “We
will get through
this Christmas season with ‘Buy American,’ but after
that . . . ,” Mike’s
on concerns over
to ensure his
Mike says Whittle
focus on what it does
best: producing high-quality,
realistic toys based on real
trains and trucks. With that
formula, it’s no surprise the phone rings off the wall — even when,
as happened recently, he gets a call from a Chinese company wanting to hire him.
not bragging, but when we say we make the best wooden toy trains in the world,
we do,” Mike says.
For more information,
contact Whittle Shortline Railroad, 600 South Main St., Louisiana,
MO 63353; phone (573) 754-4033, or log onto www.woodentrain.com. The
Valley Park store is located at 24 Front St., near the intersection
of Interstate 44 and Highway 141. For information, call (636) 861-3334.