Toy Train Size: Electric Train Scales for Children

Choose the Best for Space and Cost

Miniature Locomotives
MACIEJ NOSKOWSKI / Getty Images

When you are looking for the right toy electric train you will need to choose the right size (scale) for your child. Scale is the relationship between the size of a model train and the real-life train it models. Gauge is the width of the track. Not all are ideal for children due to size and cost. You will want a scale that will allow you to have the best layout on a board that can be easily stored. These considerations were reviewed by Vicki Anderson, M.Ed.; Kelly Crockett, M.Ed.; and Glenna W. Tabor, M.Ed.

  • 01 of 08

    It's About Space and Cost

    Children's Toy steam locomotive
    Douglas Sacha / Getty Images

    The main criteria for evaluating electric train sets for children are space and cost. The trade-off when selecting a scale in electric trains for children is size for space or space for size. Adult modelers factor in the level of detail, but this won't be as important to a child and increases the cost of model trains.

    The space issue is largely governed by the size of the track curves your child will need to make a layout to run their trains on. This in itself can be an introduction to geometry for your child. If you have minimal available space, consider these examples using a 32-by-48-inch train board.

    Be sure the set you buy for your child includes an integrated roadbed track. Also, if you are buying a TT or N scale train set for your child, be sure it includes a railer. If it doesn't, buy one separately. Railers are also available for HO trains, though perhaps not as necessary.

  • 02 of 08

    TT Scale

    Layout diagram by the author.

    The best scale for younger children's electric trains is TT scale. However, no major American manufacturer offers TT scale trains. The German Tillig TT scale Startset is one of the best deals. Unfortunately, Euro Train Hobby is the only source for Tillig in North America.

    The advantages for TT scale are:

    • TT scale is comparable in size to most push toy trains children already have.
    • Tillig's German engineering is comparable in quality the best American and Japanese trains.
    • Tillig sets are priced competitively with lesser quality train sets offered in many toy stores.
  • 03 of 08

    N Scale

    Layout diagram by the author.

    As space is a primary consideration, then N scale would be the best alternative to TT. If your child is using an under-the-bed train board, then N would be the first choice after TT Scale. N scale "feels" small, but remember that children have smaller hands.

    N scale is the only scale other than TT which will fit more than one concentric oval on most children's' train boards or tables. In N scale a Kato set would be a top choice, followed by either a set from Athearn or Walthers. Stick to inexpensive trains—they're good tools for teaching responsibility without undue financial risk.

  • 04 of 08

    HO Scale

    Layout diagram by the author.

    HO scale would be the third best choice. If you don't choose TT or N scales, you're not going to have much flexibility in layouts for a small train board or bunk bed train table. The minimum curve radius is too big. For bed-sized layouts in HO, a single oval or figure eight is about all you'll be able to do. Experienced modelers build small "switching layouts," but these aren't suitable for younger children.

    For quality HO trains, choose one of the Atlas Trainman HO sets. If the Atlas set is a little too expensive, then look at sets from Bachmann or Walthers.

    Continue to 5 of 8 below.
  • 05 of 08

    OO Scale

    Model trains
    Models at (left to right) TT, Z and T gauges

    OO scale/gauge in the U.K. is a practical option for children's train sets. For parents in the U.K., OO gauge considerations will be the same as those listed for HO scale.

  • 06 of 08

    Three Reasons to Avoid O Scale for Children

    O scale train
    O scale train. By A1AA1A (Own work) [ CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

    There are three issues with O scale that make them less suitable for children. These are size, strength required for setting them up, and AC transformer power While O scale is good for adults, it's not a good choice for children.

  • 07 of 08

    On30 Scale

    Bachman On30 train
    Bachmann Spectrum Rail Truck. Detail image of a private model railway layout in 0n30 scale. By Schönegg (Own work) [ CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

    If your child is interested old-fashioned trains, take a look at Bachmann's On30 train sets. These are narrow gauge O scale trains, which means that they have the size of O scale but they run on HO scale track. You can make layouts with tighter turns, requiring less space. The tradeoff is that these sets don't come cheap. But if Victorian-era trains are something you enjoy, then perhaps you'll find sharing them with your child a worthwhile expense.

  • 08 of 08

    Making the Best Choice

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

    Children may have their own ideas, but they're not in a position to understand your budget or why they can't cover their entire floor with train tracks permanently. Making the choice based on your child's whims may make them happy in the moment, but might only serve to frustrate them in the long term.

    One sad example was a father and son overheard in a train shop. The father had made an under-the-bed board for his son's O scale train set. But every piece of track the son chose wouldn't fit on the board. Avoid this situation by choosing the appropriate scale.