Jonathan: I totally agree with your question that you posed! :-)
Reading the posts it shows how perspective is influenced by when/where we grew up. Those who grew up in the postwar period of Lionel, for example, remember it as such, they remember when Lionel was a mass market toy, that was commonly given as birthday, christmas gifts, and say "that was the day". And while Lionel of course put out a lot of product, if you look at their catalogs from the period, the range of products wasn't all that huge , there were only a given number of engines and cars and accessories produced any year, and something would be produced a couple of years and then it would no longer be produced, other items , as talked about in CTT, would be produced, then a new varient of it would show up. Some items they produced a lot of, others relatively few.
Where nostalgia might blanket the eyes a bit is back even at its height, how many of those trains were holiday only? How many, when the tree came down, were put in storage until next year? (Nothing wrong with that). How many of those kids got trains sets, used them a couple of years, and then they lost interest? It was a golden age because Lionel was uniquitous, seemed popular, but it was like a lot of toys I suspect, for many kids it was a passing acquaintance. And as far as cost goes, as has been said many times, people are looking at those prices relative to today without looking at the real cost, many of those engines and sets from the golden age were not cheap relative to salaries. Bought new, those engines that were 50,60 bucks, were the equivalent of mid to upper 100's today, like 500 or so, the infamous 700e in 2020 dollars would be 2500 bucks with a 75 buck price tag. So kids who had those trains didn't have shelves full of trains and huge layouts, they had by today's standards a relatively small collection for the most part, amassed over years.
And yes, 1000 bucks for an engine is expensive, even to me (just a lot to lay out for a discretionary spend), but that thousand bucks is an engine you couldn't get in the 1950's, and is aimed, like the 700e, at a high end purchaser. Kids today can get sets for a couple of hundred bucks (equivalent value in the 1950's, prob 30-40 bucks or so, my numbers are rough), and some of that, like the lionchief plus sets, give you a lot more value than the 1950's models, they are better detailed, offer remote control, sounds, etc you couldn't get back then. Railking is semi scale but probably is more realistic than anything in the 50's......so the cost was always there, for a product that does less. Not to mention that 1000 buck engine is a fully detailed scale engine with all the bells and whistles, how much are railking or lionchief level units? To give you an idea of relative value, in an article in 'that other magazine' there is a story about a guy in 1947 (as a kid) wanting this Lionel set that went for 70 bucks back then (and back then, also remember, there were discounters like there are today, you paid MSRP), which depending on which calculator you look at, is anywhere from 800 bucks to 900 bucks (relative values are difficult, using core inflation isn't always accurate and somehow always seems to come up with roughly a factor of 10, whether we are talking 70 years or 20 years, it is amazing. Anyway, 800 to 900 bucks is not chump change these days, even assuming you could get that at a discount today, so it would be 700, still a lot to lay out...and there are some nice lionchief sets that to me would be a lot better than that 1947 set and cost in real terms a lot less.....
In one sense, a golden age happened when the market for toy trains kind of collapsed in the late 60's, when Lionel went over to General Mills, you could pick up literally a huge box of postwar stuff for like 50 bucks, my dad picked up for my brother a haul that had a KW in it, several engines, a burro crane, a lot of track and switches, you name it (and yes, 50 bucks back then was not 50 bucks today, but it was a lot for the money even back then). When the collector mania hit, some people who had postwar stuff in decent shape could make a pretty good killing, they prob said that was a golden age.
Then we had what I call the scale/modern era, that kind of offered something for everyone. For post war people they reintroduced new versions of old favorites, but they also introduced scale stuff and even semi scale stuff of much better quality. TMCC brought sophisticated command control, MTH came in with DCS, Atlas got into 3 rail with some neat equipment, and funny part is it was a different market. Most of the people getting into it were older, but they were taking a page from the scale market, building layouts that were up all year, many of them doing the kind of scale modelling you only saw in HO or N (or O 2 rail scale, of course). It is a different market and I kind of wonder if you factored out the holiday only market back in the day, if the hobby in some ways isn't healthier today in that it is a full time one (and I am not negating the fun and reality of holiday layouts, might be only time they have space for something, or it is what they like, which is fine).
Sure, the market lost a lot with Kline going under, Weaver, and now MTH, it is sad when a market contracts. But for example, there is something to ponder here (leaving out that MTH might still in the end be bought by someone else, or someone else takes over some of the MTH product line). Losing MTH is a blow, but for example, could the DCS team be preparing enhanced DCS to allow it to be attractive to a third party manufacturer like Atlas or Golden Gate looking for features more advanced then TMCC? Enhancing something implies going beyond simply supporting current MTH users with upgraded firmware and replacement TIU/AIU units.....
And even if MTH is pretty much dead, there still is a lot out there of higher quality than we saw back in the good old days, so it will move forward, albeit in changed fashion. I suspect there is more to this than meets the eye, not just because of DCS going on (Mike Wolf could have said DCS support would be available through the new company, but he didn't, he said enhanced products) but also because there was a market for these trains....or at least I hope so.
The trope about kids not seeing trains is problematic, for older guys where trains were a major part of their lives, the way cars and planes became later on, is true, but by the time many of us 'younger old farts', people in our 50's, 40's, by the time we became aware, passenger trains were pretty much commuter rail (or Amtrak, then hanging by a thread), we never saw steam trains in service, likely never really saw trains in action, so how come we ended up falling in love with trains? The answer is we did see them, in movies and tv shows, when the Big Boy went on its tour, you saw little kids sitting there in awe of it.......and while we didn't have smart phones and game consoles, people my age had game consoles, we had tv, we had cable tv, we had slot cars and radio control cars, too, yet we ended up with trains, and most of us grew up in an era where not only real trains were marginalized, but toy trains were way in the background, too. Lot of people in their 30,40's and 50's in this hobby never had trains as a kid....and yet came to them.
There is another criteria for golden age, having the internet, having this forum, means we have access to others who are like us, we can complain about the cost of trains , we can complain about the old guys in scooters crop dusting and running over the feet of people at York, we can complain about York being available to non members of the true blue rail club, we can complain there is no high speed rail/there is high speed rail (key word, complain, like in most things is very popular, it is why the NY Jets have a fan base at all, we all love to complain and be miserable), a community that even if we live in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan or Bayonne, NJ (equally isolated communities *lol*), we have community. Can be annoying as heck but want to see how other people do layouts? Go on you tube, you can see some amazing layouts, get ideas, learn how to do something. You only had this in the past if you happened to live close to other train people, or belonged to a club, now you don't have to be isolated unless you want to.
The answer to this question is nothing more than one's personal opinion.
For me, the 'Golden Age' of model trains began the day I fell in love with this hobby as a toddler, watching the 2026 steam freight set, The General set, UP silver ALCo's with matching passenger cars and our #60 trolley gliding around the 5'X9' layout on Super O track every Christmas season. Now I have future big layout plans for those sets and all the modern trains I've acquired over the last 30 years.
And it will continue until I sell all of my trains when I turn 99 years old. I'm having more fun in this hobby than should be legally allowed. Awwwww, what a rush!!!