How to Choose the Right Model Train Set

New Options Make the Decision Tougher

Railway modelling train outdoors on a sunny day
Stefan Rotter / Getty Images

With so many train sets out there today, how do you know which one is right for you or the train-loving person in your life? While some sets are better than others, the best set is the one that meets all of your needs. Before you start shopping, here are a few tips to help you narrow your search.

  • 01 of 05

    What Scale Is Best?

    Model train scales

    Ryan C Kunkle

    All model trains are made to one of the several common scales designed in proportion to real trains. For example, HO scale models are 1/87th the size of the real thing, while the much larger G scale models are 1/25th the size of an actual train and tiny N gauge models are just 160/th the size of an actual train. If you buy a model train set at a particular gauge, everything in the set—trains, tracks, and accessories—are all made on the same scale.

    In general, hobby standards mean that trains of the same scale will work together without problems. So if you buy an HO scale set from Athearn, you can buy an extra freight car from Atlas and add it to your train with no problems.

    Determining which scale is best for you is, in part, a matter of taste. Some people are drawn to smaller scales like "N" for its potential in smaller layouts. Others like the easier handling that comes with larger "O" scale trains, or the outdoor potential of "G." Of course, a G gauge set would be overwhelming in a small apartment, while an N or Z gauge would be invisible in a large garden. In addition, small children are unlikely to do well with tiny models that require a lot of fine motor finesse.

    If you are buying a set as a gift for somebody else, it is helpful to know which scale they use. If you're just getting started, you'll want to read a little more about all of the scales before you head to the store.

  • 02 of 05

    What's in a Name?

    Athearn and Atlas have produced models of all four special locomotives painted in honor of Desert Storm servicemen

    Ryan C Kunkle

    Model trains have been decorated for just about every railroad imaginable. From Santa Fe steam engines to Delaware and Hudson diesel - there is sure to be something out there that catches your eye. Obviously, there is no single "best" railroad to model, and just because your first set is decorated for the Union Pacific doesn't mean you are stuck with that railroad for life.

    Many modelers choose trains that they remember from their youth, or trains they see nearby. Others just go with what tickles their fancy. There's nothing wrong with buying on looks and doing a little more research about the prototype later.

    You'll also find train sets decorated with other popular collectibles, including patriotic and holiday themes. These sets often have great appeal to collectors and modelers whose real interest lies in something beyond the train itself. If you're looking for a train as a gift for someone who likes trains, you are probably better off avoiding the "Winterland Express."

  • 03 of 05

    Power Packs

    Model train

    Ryan C Kunkle

    Until recently, train sets generally came with a basic power pack. These transformers typically provide enough power for one train and a few accessories. You can control the direction and the speed of your train, but speed control is often not very precise.

    Today, however, there are more options. Some of the higher-end sets from Bachmann, Athearn, and Atlas include a larger and more reliable power supply. Lionel now includes only a basic power supply but a radio control with multiple sound controls in even their most basic sets.

    The better power supplies will provide reliable operation for years and can support larger layouts. But with conventional control, they'll still only run one train at a time.

    Recently, Bachmann has introduced HO sets with DCC (Digital Command Control) which offers independent control of multiple locomotives with a minimum of layout wiring. It is one of the fastest-growing segments of the hobby and has opened the door to better sounds, speed control, and above all, operations.

    While the DCC systems included in starter sets are not the most advanced, upgrades are possible and you won't have to re-equip the decoder in the locomotive. DCC availability is definitely something to consider if you see your set leading to a larger layout and growing interest in the hobby.

    MTH offers something similar with their DCS system in O Gauge. While it provides command control like DCC, DCS will only work with MTH locomotives.

  • 04 of 05

    What Type of Track Is Best?

    Close-up of a plastic toy train track
    Douglas Sacha / Getty Images

    Conventional tracks have long been built to standards developed by the National Model Railroad Association which ensured they would work with each other. Today, however, most N, HO and O-train sets include "integrated roadbed track." This is a track with a raised molded plastic base that represents the ties and ballast. Each manufacturer has developed their own line and calls this type of track by their own trade name.

    This newer type of track is well suited for beginners, especially younger modelers and temporary layouts, even on carpeted floors. In addition to providing a more realistic base, the roadbed elevates the track above the flooring and provides an additional locking mechanism to hold the sections together.

    The only disadvantage of these track systems over conventional track pieces is that they are not universally compatible. Because of patents with the new style, each manufacturer has had to make their own track system, and they are not compatible with each other.

    This is something to consider if you plan to expand your track later. Some manufacturers have very extensive track lines that make building a large layout possible, others only offer a few basic pieces. Atlas HO track is actually designed with a removable base so you can easily convert it to match conventional tracks. You can also use cork roadbed to make transitions to other brands.

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    How Much to Spend on a Train Set

    Father and sons playing with train set
    Robert Houser / Getty Images

    Train sets are available at prices ranging from $25 to $500. You don't have to spend the maximum to get a good set, but in general, you do get what you pay for. Different scales, prototypes, and the size of the set certainly have a lot to do with the pricing. You would expect to pay a little more for a set that has a "Figure-8" track, steam locomotive and 6 cars than you would for a circle, diesel and 3 cars. But quality is also an important consideration.

    If you aren't familiar with model railroad brands and their reputation, how do you know if you're getting a great deal? Start with the locomotive. The outer shell of any model is a significant portion of its cost, so it is also often a fair measure of the quality on the inside as well. Is it well painted? Is the lettering crisp and sharp? Does the model have extra details applied? It may be hard to see some of these things through all the packaging, but even a beginner can spot something that is well-built.

    Other things to look for include metal wheels and knuckle couplers on the cars, nickel silver track, the overall weight of the set, and track and power pack features as listed above. One final factor is where the set is sold. The better sets are normally only sold in hobby shops and model train distributors online. Be wary of discount sets at low-end retailers. Also, by purchasing from a hobby shop, you'll have the opportunity to speak directly with an expert on the products at hand.