How to Find a Quality Model Train

Choose the Perfect Model Train

With so many different model trains on the market, it can be very difficult to know if you are buying a good quality model or a cheap knock-off toy. A good model will last years, if not generations, with proper care and can form the core of a hobby that will last a lifetime. But if you've never looked for a model train before, telling the difference can be quite a challenge. After all, most sets aren't going to say, "This will be broken in a week," or "Good luck getting the extra track" on the box.

Model trains are selected based on their scale and on the quality of their tracks, power supply, wheels, and couplers. Some shops are more likely to sell high-quality hobbyist supplies while others sell toys. These tips will send you in the right direction based on your interests and budget.

  • 01 of 06

    Scale/Gauge

    Model trains come in all sizes
    by Ryan C Kunkle

    Modelers sometimes take liberty with the words "scale" and "gauge" but the two do have different meanings. Most starter sets conform to N or HO scale or O or G gauge. Typically with N and HO, the size of the trains is at least relatively close to a constant proportion to the prototype (the real-world engine it's based on). With O and G, however, manufacturers may make compromises in scale to accommodate sharper curves or other factors despite a consistent track gauge.

    As long as the trains all operate on the same size track (gauge) however, you can usually use equipment from different makers on the same layout. Even some toy trains may be made to conform to a common gauge track, which does allow for a transition to a complete train set.

  • 02 of 06

    Track

    Integrated roadbed tracks and standard tracks can be used together with a little planning and just a few modifications.
    by Ryan C Kunkle

    Most starter sets will come with a track. A circle or oval is most common. If you are buying a quality set, there are a few factors which will help you separate the good from the bad from the best.

    • Gauge. Choose a set that conforms to a common track gauge. Generally, tracks built to a common gauge should be able to work together.
    • Plastic vs. Metal. Cheap toy sets may have a track made of nothing but plastic. Most good sets will have a track made of plastic ties and metal rails. Nickel silver is the best rail for conductivity and will not rust or corrode like steel or brass.
    • Integrated Roadbed Track. Many sets today include a track with the rails and ties mounted in a thicker plastic base molded to look like the ballasted roadbed of the real track. This track has many advantages over traditional tracks, especially for temporary layouts. But unlike traditional track, not all brands will be interchangeable as there are no universal standards for the roadbed designs. You can, however, join traditional and integrated roadbed track or use those traditional pieces as adapters to other brands of track.

    Buying a set with a compatible track is important for expansion later.

  • 03 of 06

    Power

    Power of model trains
    by Ryan C Kunkle

    While some model manufacturers make quality battery powered starter sets to encourage younger children to get into the hobby, most sets on the market are electric and use a transformer which plugs into the wall.

    In general, the power supplies included with most starter sets won't power much more than the set itself. Typically, these packs offer forward and reverse operation and speed control. The sensitivity of that control is not as fine as with better packs.

    It is easy to upgrade to a more substantial power supply, or even a command control system, later on as your railroad expands. The starter set packs remain useful for powering things like lights and accessories.

    Keep in mind if you buy a set from overseas, you may need to also get an adapter to work with your home electrical system.

  • 04 of 06

    Wheels and Couplers

    N scale couplers
    by Ryan C Kunkle

    Sometimes it is the little things that make a big difference. Wheels and couplers may seem like small issues, but since reliable operations hinge on these parts quality makes a big difference.

    Metal wheels are better than plastic both for tracking and for keeping the rails clean. If your set does have plastic wheels, you can buy replacements.

    Model trains have used a variety of couplers over the years. Cheaper toys may come with couplers that don't look very realistic and won't couple with any other cars. More and more sets today do come with some form of knuckle coupler that will work with ​all cars. Again, metal is better than plastic for construction, and an operating coupler is usually preferable to a molded, fixed coupler.

    Continue to 5 of 6 below.
  • 05 of 06

    Where You Buy

    Where to buy
    by Ryan C Kunkle

    Often the best way to ensure you are buying a quality set is to go to the right place to get it. A hobby shop that specializes in trains is much more likely to have a selection of reliable products than department or discount stores that only carry trains at Christmas. There are some exceptions to that rule of course, and there are also lots of good sets available online.

    When you purchase from a local store you will be able to discuss the purchase with somebody who knows what you are buying, see additional items to expand the set, and build a relationship with someone who can advise you if something goes wrong later.

  • 06 of 06

    Price

    Z scale layout
    by Ryan C Kunkle

    It is true that you often get what you pay for. That being said, there are some good quality starter sets that are not much more expensive than some toys.

    Prices vary greatly from one retailer to another and based on the contents of the set but for a good quality set in the most popular scales you should expect to pay in the $150 to $400 range. For that price, you can expect an oval of track, locomotive, three to four cars, and a power supply. Some sets may include some additional track, cars, or accessories like figures, signs, or trees.