Pentrex as the Railfan Video Standard

With a history dating to 1984, Pentrex began at the very dawn of the railfan home video revolution. They grew through the years to become the top producer of railfan home video. During the heyday of railfan home video, in the 1980s and 1990s, they were producing a new show nearly every month. New shows were coming out so fast that it was difficult for even the most dedicated railfan home video viewer to keep up.

The Pentrex Advantage

While there were other producers creating railfan videos for the home market, Pentrex brought something new to the game: technical quality and broadcast standards. It was able to do so because founder (and steam fan) Mike Clayton had experience in the broadcast industry. He knew what equipment was needed to create good quality video. He knew people in the industry and could get a project professionally edited and voiced. Pentrex combined this technical quality with good marketing to become the leader in railfan video.

Quality and professionalism became the hallmarks of a Pentrex show. While several narrators were used over the years, many railfans recognize the voice of Dave Drui as the voice of railfan home video. Dave Drui voiced some 200 shows for Pentrex. While he is still in broadcasting, at a Seattle radio station, he is no longer voicing railfan home video.

In the same way, Pentrex, based in Pasadena, in Los Angeles and near Hollywood, could find and avail itself of local editing talent. People with extensive experience editing video tape, which was not an easy task in the early analog/linear days, could be persuaded to work on railfan programs. These professional editors turned out programs that were tight and fast-paced.

The Early Days

The topic for the first program issued by Pentrex was on a 1984 trip with Southern Pacific 4449. You can still get that video here. From that single video, Pentrex went on to produce some 300 different shows.

Almost all of those shows were initially available on VHS video tape. While Pentrex was on top of the quality issue, the rapid consumer switch from VHS to DVDs in the mid 2000s caught them unawares. To this day, roughly 100 of their shows have not been transferred to DVD. (More on that later in this article.)

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s and into the new century Pentrex was the 800-pound gorilla in the railfan video market. They typically had the inside front cover, or the inside back cover of Trains Magazine nearly every month during this period. They were a new program and advertising juggernaut. During this time they expanded through not only new programs but also by buying up competitors. The largest competitor to be purchased by Pentrex during this time was the producer Video Rails. Video Rails was well-regarded for its steam-related shows and historical footage.

From VHS to DVD to YouTube

With the advent of DVD technology (allowing longer programs still at good video quality) Pentrex combined several of the Video Rails shows into “combo programs”. These remain some of the  most-purchased Pentrex programs. Two that are favorites are Southern Pacific Classic Collectors’ Series combo and Union Pacific Classic Collectors’ Series combo.

Pentrex at WinterRail

As they pushed into distribution of their shows via DVD, Pentrex did not put out as many new programs but concentrated their time, effort and money into converting some of the better shows that railfans clamored for in this new format. Pentrex did continue the produce new shows, such as the Southern California Rail Journal series and the program on Heritage Units.

Pentrex, like every other producer, was hit hard by the success of YouTube. While YouTube cannot hold a candle to the quality, historic details, and length of the traditional Pentrex program… It does satiate the desire for a quick train video fix. That caused sales to fall and with that the production of new shows slowed.

New owners at Pentrex

Pentrex has now entered into a new phase of its corporate life with the acquisition of all company video assets by Highball Productions. Started by videographer Peter Crook, Highball Productions also began railfan video production in the mid-80s. Peter helmed the company until selling to new owners in 2014. Three years later, those new owners in turn acquired the Pentrex railfan video business. Both Highball Productions and Pentrex were moved to Indianapolis, Indiana. In fact, they are neighbors to us here at RailfanDepot!

Bringing Older Programs Back

The new owners of Pentrex are making an effort to round up the older shows that were not ported over to DVD. Once those older show masters are obtained, they are put through a rigorous process: They are re-edited, color corrected, and generally whipped into better technical shape so that they can then be put onto DVD. The first example of this is the older show on the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad.

While these programs will look better on your television then they did when brought you on VHS, the original video was still taken with equipment that is no longer considered to be of professional quality and so you should not expect the quality that we’ve come to expect from new programs. It’s just great to see some of these older programs seeing the light of day again!

The process of porting over older technology masters and then digitizing them and then putting them through the above process is a lengthy one. Pentrex says they’re only going to be able to do 5 to 10 of these a year. Here at RailfanDepot we will carry those new shows, really newly-available shows, as soon as they are released.

Pentrex King? Who is the Heir-Apparent?

So if Pentrex, with rave reviews, can be called the once and future king of the railroad and railfan video market – what is next? With the merger of Highball Productions and Pentrex, the combined companies have purchased other smaller producers. That makes more shows available to dealers like RailfanDepot, and keeps older shows from disappearing entirely. We are happy at RailfanDepot to carry the entire range of  over 700 railfan shows now owned and produced by Pentrex.

So if Pentrex is king… who is the prince of railfan videos producers? Who is the heir-apparent? At RailfanDepot we think the answer is 7idea Productions.

Fan Favorite Pentrex Products

When fans think of the Pentrex brand, they think of variety and quality, but these are the fan favorites that have stood the test of time. For instance, the all-time best seller for Pentrex is the “Big Boy Collection“. This DVD features all 25 if the Big Boys made! What about those funny lookin’ Cab Forwards? There is no doubt that the “Southern Pacific Cab Forward Collection” is the final word on this subject! And, when you think steam, many from the West Coast think of the Southern Pacific Daylight trains. See all about them in the “Daylight Collection“. The ultimate look at Tehachapi on DVD, is, the appropriately named “Ultimate Tehachapi“. Same with Cajon: “Ultimate Cajon” features four discs!

For cab ride aficionados, the “At the Throttle” series is a must see. Six great, multi-camera cab rides through California. These shows were made with the permission and help of BNSF. Steam fans seem to really love “Huntington Steam Combo“. Is it the excellent camera work and narration…or the excellent subjects: N&W 1218, NKP 765 and PM 1225? If big steam in your thing, fans have loved “N&W 1218“. For a quirkier vintage railroad, look at “California Western” with its steam locomotive and “Skunk” train.

If  Big Blue is your thing, Pentrex has two excellent Conrail Hot Spots shows, “Conrail Hot Spots East” and “Conrail Hot Spots West“. They also cover Pittsburgh and Conrail with “Pittsburgh Line Blues, Farewell to Conrail“.

And, if you are north of the border, “Canadian Trio” and “BC Rail Collection” have been long-time favorites.  Both are excellent, and varied, shows. Pentrex has really covered railroading well!!