LIKE MOST BOYS GROWING UP IN THE ’70s, Jim Humphrey loved to play with trains. Unlike most boys, he never abandoned them.
“I was interested in trains almost from birth,” said Humphrey, 58. “It just seemed to be the toy I gravitated towards.”
From high school days spent repairing the ride-on train at Wasena Park in Roanoke, Virginia, to his side hustle as a Virginia Tech student building models out of the back of his car, Humphrey’s enthusiasm for trains—along with the size of the models—has continued to grow. Today, he is quite literally a titan in the industry.
As the founder and president of Titan Trains in Boones Mill, Virginia, Humphrey has built a niche business that ranks No. 1 in the U.S. in the manufacture of large, one-eighth scale ride-on trains, with customers in all 50 states and several countries. From a standard rail car to a 16-horsepower V-Twin gas motor locomotive powering a hydraulic drive system, Titan Trains caters to a broad spectrum of train enthusiasts.
Humphrey’s mechanical aptitude led him to pursue engineering when he arrived at Virginia Tech in 1981, following the track laid by his father, who had been a member of the Corps of Cadets in the 1950s. “It pretty quickly became obvious I wasn’t great at math on an engineering level, so I changed course to study management in the [Pamplin] College of Business,” he said.
Before Humphrey graduated, he put his business classes to use by founding Mountain Car Co., where he oversaw design, development, manufacturing, marketing, and sales of model railcars. In the pre-Internet and cell phone era, he relied on rail magazine ads, mailed flyers to rail clubs, nationwide cold calls, and word-of-mouth.
Humphrey debated switching tracks upon his 1986 graduation from Virginia Tech to pursue “a regular job.” But in the end, he chose to keep chugging along.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Humphrey took on side jobs performing machine work to generate additional funds, a strategy he would not recommend to aspiring entrepreneurs. “[Many] people would say that you need to diversify, but I would say you need to head in a direction you're good at,” he said. “Don’t spread yourself thin in too many different directions.”
Eventually Humphrey focused exclusively on growing his line of rail cars, locomotives, and accessories, as well as a loyal customer base. In 2016, Humphrey rebranded to Titan Trains (Mountain Car Co. was often confused as an automotive dealership) and a year later moved his now 12-employee company to Boones Mill.
“I’ve just always stuck with it and been tenacious, but it has not been easy,” Humphrey said.
According to B.T. Fitzpatrick, town manager of Boones Mill, having the headquarters for Titan Trains across the street from the old train depot that Boones Mill saved from demolition fits perfectly with the railroad heritage that the town seeks to foster.
“Not only has [Humphrey] produced a lot over the years, but he’s helped a lot in the town,” Fitzpatrick said. Humphrey’s acts of service, which align with Virginia Tech’s tradition of Ut Prosim, include fabricating the steel letters for a new LOVE sign, part of the statewide “Virginia is for Lovers” campaign, and also setting up trains for free rides during local model train shows. Humphrey also never hesitates to give visitors a tour of his factory—one that wasn’t always assured of success.