Robert Forren, manager of The Western Depot in Yuba City, fills an order in February. Forren has worked for the store for 22 years. (Photos by Steve Martarano)

Off the Beaten Track: Staying on Track

The Western Depot nears five decades serving model train enthusiasts

Back Article Apr 7, 2021 By Steve Martarano

This story is part of our April 2021 issue. To subscribe, click here.

The Western Depot in Yuba City, called “an old-fashioned hobby shop” by owner Robert McBratney Jr., has carved out a niche in the model railroad industry for 44 years with its impressive inventory, knowledgeable staff and timeless train decor.

The Western Depot, one of the few remaining brick-and-mortar model train shops in the Capital Region, has been closed to walk-in customers due to the coronavirus pandemic since March 2020. McBratney, who says the store will reopen as soon as he deems it’s safe for customers and employees, says his business nonetheless has thrived through mail-order and internet sales, mainly because of its inventory of 14,000 items.

“We had our best year in 15 years,” says McBratney, whose father, Robert McBratney, started the business in his garage on Jan. 1, 1977, the day after he retired as a U.S. Air Force pilot. Sales grew by 20 percent during 2020, McBratney says, because the store has been selling online since the early days of the internet, with nearly everything in the store available on its website. 

From left, store manager Robert Forren, shipping manager Kevin Shelton, and owners Holly McBratney and Robert McBratney Jr. operate The Western Depot, “an old-fashioned hobby shop,” as Robert McBratney calls it.

Thanks to the internet, the store has customers worldwide, McBratney says. “Even before (the shutdown), the bulk of our business was online,” he says, adding that they regularly ship to countries like New Zealand, Australia and Italy. “We just sent something to Sweden yesterday.”

The store’s biggest seller was an H.K. Porter steam locomotive made by K-Line that sold for $100 and features real steam and an engineer likeness in the cab (the store is out of stock and no more are being made). “We’ve sold thousands of them,” McBratney says. The most expensive items include some Lionel steam engines, which can go for $2,500, McBratney says. Many trains have advanced electronics and realistic sound effects, are operated via app, and are replica-perfect down to the graffiti on the cars.

“The average client that comes into the store is an older person, and our customers like to hang around and talk at length about trains. It’s a real folksy thing. People are very romantic about it.”

Robert McBratney Jr., owner, The Western Depot

Staff members still work in the 7,000-square-foot retail store and warehouse, answering phones, shipping products and providing curbside deliveries for local customers. Closing to walk-in traffic early in the pandemic made sense, McBratney says, because of the way train hobbyists interact. “The average client that comes into the store is an older person, and our customers like to hang around and talk at length about trains,” he says. “It’s a real folksy thing. People are very romantic about it.”

The Western Depot operates out of Sierra Plaza, two buildings totaling 40,000 square feet shared with 15 other tenants that McBratney and his father built in 1991. McBratney, an only child, learned his father’s business but went off on his own, operating telephone companies in Yuba City and Hawaii and a music store in Hawaii. When his father was diagnosed with cancer, McBratney moved back to Yuba City in 2006 to help care for him, taking over the store after he died in 2012.

“I had my thing, my dad had his thing,” McBratney says. “We worked together, but we were our own boys at the same time. When he fell ill, my deal wasn’t that important anymore.”

McBratney is joined in the business by his wife of 40 years, Holly McBratney; shipping manager Kevin Shelton, with the store for 33 years; and manager Robert Forren, who has been there 22 years.

McBratney says while retail stores like The Western Depot are becoming fewer in number, he doesn’t fear the hobby is in danger of disappearing, with more women interested and model train enthusiasts as passionate as ever. “It’s a lifelong hobby,” he says of his customers. “Once they get started, they never stop.” 

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Comments

Steve (not verified)April 11, 2021 - 10:04am

I've been doing business with The Western Depot since my first mail-order experience while stationed overseas many years ago and I've remained a satisfied customer ever since. Looking forward to stopping by again once restrictions are lifted.

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