BRM Meets: Ben Jones of Heljan

29 April 2020
As part of the RMweb Members Day 2020 in aid of NHS Charities Together last Sunday, Andy York had a chat with Ben Jones of Heljan about the current situation.

Our big prize in the draw is an O gauge Heljan 43xx loco which we are hugely grateful to Heljan for. I asked Ben Jones about the current situation.

AY: Thanks for supporting the event and the fundraising Ben; you obviously value the input of our health services at this time?

BJ: Happy to be involved and to help raise some money for frontline health service staff. The NHS is one of this country’s greatest achievements and most valuable assets. At one time or another we’ve all needed it, so it’s good to put something back when they need us. 

AY: How much of an impact did the initial stages of the crisis in China have upon production?

BJ: At HELJAN we were fortunate that quite a large batch of new models arrived between November and March, which meant they left China before the worst of the outbreak. We weren’t expecting any further new releases for 2-3 months after that, so deliveries haven’t been affected yet. However, despite the best efforts of the designers and engineers in China, who continued to work from home during the lockdown, it is inevitable that there will be some delays to products still in development. Disruption to factories and shipping routes will continue to have an effect on deliveries for some months.

AY: So, what is the current situation on production and what will be the first products we see coming into the UK?

BJ: Our next release should be the new OO gauge Class 33/0s with HI headlights in a few weeks - we expect to get confirmation of this shortly. After that should be the new run of O gauge unrefurbished Class 31/1s. Factories are slowly returning to normal, and we are pressing ahead as usual with the development of all our products in OO9, OO and O. 

AY: How are you are looking to support the retail network over the next few months?

BJ: Despite the lockdown restrictions in both Denmark and the UK, we remain open for business and retailers can top up their HELJAN stocks as usual. Our new partnership with Gaugemaster also opens up our products to a much larger number of model shops, even if they don’t have a direct HELJAN trade account. Any retailer with a Gaugemaster trade account can now obtain HELJAN products too. 

AY: What lessons may there be to be learnt for the industry from the situation?

BJ: Every company is different, so each will draw its own conclusions from this crisis and, hopefully, take the opportunity to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses. Retailers, manufacturers and publishers that are well organised, professional and strong should weather the crisis and some may even do well out of it. Those that are already weak may find it harder to survive. However, the last few weeks have highlighted our industry’s dependence on Chinese factories and, for retailers, the importance of providing a good quality mail order service. For the former, I don’t see any viable alternative - China has the skills and the facilities to produce the models we want at a price we can afford. On the second point, anecdotal evidence suggests that modellers have been using their newfound spare time to make progress with their modelling projects and layouts, taking advantage of mail order services to obtain what they need. 

Finally, as a magazine man, I think the crisis may accelerate the (so far) gradual switch from print to digital issues, and from newsstand sales to subscriptions, as publishers look to reduce costs and ensure their titles survive. I understand that many hobby magazines have seen significant increases in subscriptions and digital sales in recent weeks, which is extremely encouraging, although advertising revenue looks likely to be affected for some time. 

AY: What have you been able to progress with during the lockdown at home?

BJ: In recent weeks we’ve received the latest samples of our GWR diesel railcars in OO and O, L&BR ‘Lyn’, the North Eastern Railway Autocar and gas turbine 18000 for Rails of Sheffield, as well as the initial decorated bodies of the AL6-Class 86/0. We’ve also approved the CAD for our O gauge Mk2/Mk2a coaches, which look superb both inside and out. Expected very soon are the decorated samples of both the Class 86/0s and the OO gauge Class 25s. Both of the latter models have unfortunately been stuck in a logjam behind a long-delayed O gauge project, but this situation is now clearing. We know that there’s great interest in both the ’86’ and the ’25’, so we hope to make rapid progress now and get them into shops as quickly as we can. Other projects that have made progress in recent weeks are the new O gauge Class 47s and Class 117/121/122 diesel railcars and several exciting new products for O and OO that will be revealed later. 

AY: Are you getting some time for modelling on your own layout at the moment? 

BJ: For the first time in about three years I have actually been able to do some work on my own layout over the last few weeks. I’ve been finishing off the electrics and have finally started to add the first of the scenery. I’m also working to complete a double track truss bridge that will be one of the layout’s most prominent features and spent a therapeutic few hours collecting and cutting twigs to size for my HO log wagons!

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