Popular Train Modeling Eras

  • 01 of 08

    Choosing an Era for Your Model Railroad

    different eras
    The Spruce / Ryan C Kunkle

    Choosing an era to model is often one of the first and most difficult decisions a model railroader has to make. Of course, some of us never do settle on one. Others have built layouts with interchangeable buildings, cars, and other details so that they can switch between eras. And many modelers have completed and operated railroads for years before deciding it was time for a change.

    When choosing an era, some modelers get very specific—right down to a specific date. Most modelers narrow their selection down to a year or even as much as a single decade. Sometimes there is a favorite locomotive that was retired in 1952 and another favorite that arrived in 1954—and you just can't choose between them. 

    There really is no "right" or "wrong" era or range of dates to model. The choices are all up to you. Some are more popular than others, and each has its own advantages and challenges depending on your modeling tastes.

    Let's take a quick overview of some of the options available.

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  • 02 of 08

    The Beginning

    DeWitt Clinton
    The Spruce / Ryan C Kunkle

    The first decades of railroads offer an interesting and seldom-pursued modeling era. These years, roughly 1825 to 1845, were marked with a multitude of experimental designs in both locomotives and rolling stock. Nothing was yet standardized, and few locomotives looked the same in the early years. Each new piece represented a step forward in design and technology.

    A few of the earliest prototypes have survived. Many others have been reproduced in full-scale and are the pride of railroad museums around the world today. These represent only a tiny fraction of the designs tried in these formative years. But fortunately for the modeler, many of these well-known locomotives have been reproduced in several scales.


    Despite the appeal and historic significance of this period, relatively few modelers build extensive layouts depicting it. Here are a few of the best reasons to consider adding yourself to their ranks:

    • Small equipment and small trains. For modelers, tight on space, the small equipment and short trains of the period are a major draw. A typical 1830s steam locomotive is about 1/4 the size of even a modest-sized engine from the more popular eras. And trains of equally-short cars were seldom more than three to five cars. Tight curves, short switches—no problem.
    • Lots of colors. These early machines were a matter of great pride and public attention. Equipment was known for bold color schemes, and often each locomotive on the line had its own look.
    • Research opportunities. A lot has been written about this era, but for every question answered, at least ten more arise. If you like doing historical research, this era is for you!
    • A unique look. Because few modelers dabble in this scale, your layout will certainly stand out from the neighbors'.
    • Kitbashing and scratch building galore. Bachmann makes several early models in HO scale, and Lionel has released a few in O Gauge, but beyond that, models of the period are few and far between. For the rest, kitbashing and scratch building are a must. If this hands-on modeling is for you, then you'll have great fun. Structures, vehicles, and figures are a little easier to come by, but some modifications will still be required.


    Many people stray away from this interesting era for a reason. Here are some of them:

    • Operational reliability. Or rather, a lack thereof. Especially in smaller scales, the tiny equipment makes it difficult to hide motors, pick up shoes, etc. Even couplers and track—if made to realistic designs for the period—become an issue.
    • Historical accuracy. Ironically, the same love of historical research and accuracy that often draws people to this era can become a major frustration as questions go unanswered. Equally challenging are modeling some of the known facts—like strap rail and link and pin couplers.
    • Lack of availability. Likewise, the need to kitbash or scratch build almost everything that can often lead to spending more time thinking and planning and less time building.

    Like any era, choosing the early years is a choice. Do you see scratch building and research as a fun challenge or an unhappy hurdle? The answer is ultimately up to you.

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  • 03 of 08

    Civil War to 1900

    The Spruce / Ryan C Kunkle

    The mid-to-late 19th century was one of the most turbulent and explosive for railroads and the world in general, especially in the United States. This is a broad time frame to lump together, but in terms of available models, there is less produced for this entire century than just about any single year in the next. These years have many of the same modeling characteristics of the formative years of railroads.

    While twice the size or more of the early trains, these locomotives and cars were still relatively small. The equipment remained colorful and named locomotives were still common. By now, most railroads had moved towards tracks that, while lighter in weight, at least resembled more modern rails. Over the decades, many of the other "modern" standards like common gauge, air brakes, knuckle couplers, etc. also began to appear.

    While you still won't find any color photographs from the period, the historical record of the era is greatly improved over the antebellum years. There is still a lot of research to do, but more questions will eventually be answered. Also, there are more overlapping interest groups, like Civil War historians, with whom you can share knowledge and questions.

    Ready to run and kit products remain few and far between, however. Much of what has been made in O Gauge and smaller is relatively toy-like in operating and detail quality by today's standards. Since the size is a greater concern as scale increases, some beautiful period models have been made in G Gauge in recent years. Still, for the truly dedicated modeler, kitbashing and scratch building will be required in any scale.

    It is surprising that more modelers and manufacturers have not embraced this colorful era. The trains are still small and interesting enough for smaller platforms but big enough to be made to reliable. And the broad public interest in the period is certainly there.

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  • 04 of 08

    Early 20th Century

    The Spruce / Ryan C Kunkle

    The era from 1900 through World War II, encompasses several distinctive and important periods in history. From the Roaring 20s to the Great Depression to the ravages of war, each decade brings with it a character all its own. Most modelers will want to narrow their modeling era to a more specific time within this span, but the modeling advantages and challenges of each are the same.

    While these changes had a huge impact on life in general, changes on the rails were more subtle. In the United States, this period brought the first true standard locomotive and railcar designs thanks to governmental controls on the railroads during WWI and saw the transition from wood to steel cars.

    The biggest change to hit the railroads, however, was just starting to emerge in the 1930s when its development would be put on hold by WWII—the diesel. While the "covered wagons" and early switchers of the 1940s have been well covered in all scales for years, the earlier experimental designs are also finally starting to show up on hobby shop shelves.

    This era offers a lot for the modeler who doesn't want to spend a lifetime scratch building each model but still enjoys the challenge of researching and customizing their layout. Much of what you'll need to model most of this period can be found in commercial products in every common scale. Often, however, models are painted and detailed for the more popular post-war transition era. Some simple backdating and selective buying makes an accurate earlier era practical.​

    In addition to the multitude of available models, most of the equipment was still modest in size—Consolidations, Mikados, and Pacifics dominated motive power fleets and 30- to 40-foot freight cars were the standards with both wood and steel being common. Add in classic heavy-weight passenger trains, and the appeal of railroading's golden era is obvious.

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  • 05 of 08

    The Transition Era

    Ready Tracks
    The Spruce / Ryan C Kunkle

    The most popular modeling era remains the decade following World War II. This period is commonly known as "the transition era" among modelers since it saw the phasing out of steam locomotives and the introduction of diesels. Since motive power is one of the biggest draws to modelers, this ability to run both the largest of the steam locomotives and colorful diesels on the same layout is a major attraction.

    Indeed, this period does have a lot to offer. Big steam locomotives, colorful cab units, early road switchers, a huge variety of rolling stock and railroads—but the 1950s also offer a lot beyond the trains, first among them for many modelers being childhood memories.

    In addition to the living record of the era, the written historical record is also strong. The widespread availability of color photography affords contemporary modelers a whole new perspective. There are scores of published books on the era. Then there are the many surviving relics from the period as well, from classic cars to vintage signs. The 1950s are after all widely popular beyond the model railroad hobby.

    You can find a scratch building or kitbashing project for almost any layout. But modelers for this era have the greatest availability of the product in any scale. From trains to structures to cars and scenic details, the hobby supply matches the demand.

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  • 06 of 08

    The 1960s to the 1970s

    The Spruce / Ryan C Kunkle

    The 1960s and 1970s are generally not regarded as great years for railroading in North America. The gradual decline and elimination of passenger service, railroads disappearing into bankruptcy and merger, sinking revenues and deteriorating physical plants are the trademarks of the era.

    There were some bright spots. Piggyback train services and new unit trains for coal, grain and other commodities offered some positive revenue. And the era was nothing if not colorfuleven if rust was an ever-increasing part of the picture.

    For modelers, this era offers a blend of the booming eras of the 1940s and 1950s with the modern era to come. Indeed, much of the older equipment was still in service and sometimes in unusual roles like E7 and E8 diesels on piggyback and express freight trains. Rolling stock was a mix of older vintage cars and new high-capacity designs. While equipment started to grow larger, there were still some 40-foot boxcars rolling with the 86 footers.

    The old and weary do make interesting modeling subjects, so modelers who enjoy weathering can have a blast with this time frame. Equipment patched out and renumbered for new owners, freight cars looking like they should be in a scrap yard, weed-covered rights-of-way, derelict buildings—this era certainly has a gritty character and charm.

    The number of products available for this period is rapidly increasing. Modelers can also often build up fleets by adding a little weathering or even quick repaints to equipment from an earlier era.

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  • 07 of 08

    The 1980s and 1990s

    The Spruce / Ryan C Kunkle

    It wasn't long ago that this was considered the "modern" era. As the railroads climbed out of their worst decades, the 1980s and 1990s brought new growth and optimism to the scene. The success of unit train and intermodal operations coupled with deregulation, abandonment of non-profitable lines and reductions in passenger service created a thriving enterprise.

    While the era seems dominated by just a few major carriers, many of the branch lines these big "Class 1's" spun off become successful short line and regional railroads of their own. So for those who like the style of the equipment but lack the space for a huge layout filled with long mainlines, there are still plenty of modeling opportunities available.

    High horsepower diesels dominated the locomotive scene as General Electric challenged and overtook EMD as the number one locomotive builder. In the 1990s, the wide or comfort cab design created a new look on the rails.

    One challenge for modelers during this period was the growth in the size of rolling stock. Gone were the 40' and even many 50' boxcars. In their place came 89' autoracks and piggyback flatcars and then even longer articulated spine cars and double stacks in intermodal trains. Even where cars remained relatively short, like with coal trains, the average size of the cars went from 55 and 70 ton capacity to 100. Long equipment like this requires broad curves, usually more than what is supplied in the typical starter set on any scale. Those with more confined spaces may want to look for industrial branch lines or similar areas, although even here equipment will be larger than in previous years.

    Perhaps the most notable equipment change in this era wasn't something new, but the loss of something old. It was during this period that the caboose disappeared from nearly all mainline trains in North America.

    The availability of train equipment for this period is very strong—second only to the transition era. Supporting details, structures and accessories are available but nearly in the quantities of the earlier era. Good period automobiles are perhaps the hardest details to find—beyond the exotic models at least.

    Research on this era is not terribly difficult as there are many modelers who remember it well. However, it does currently fall in a bit of a gap between published information on the "historical" periods before it and the incredible volume of information that can be found of the contemporary scene online.

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  • 08 of 08

    Modern Era

    modern era
    The Spruce / Ryan C Kunkle

    The contemporary railroad scene, which for now we'll call anything after the year 2000, offers a chance to do most of your modeling research first hand. Modeling what you see has lots of advantages—but also a few challenges.

    Just how current do you want to be? Although production times have certainly gotten shorter, there is still a lag between when a new locomotive hits the rails and hobby shop shelves. The case is even more true with freight and passenger cars. So there is still plenty of opportunities to scratch build and kitbash in the modern era.

    Staying current also often means making changes along with the prototype, retiring old equipment, even mergers which could wipe your favorite road off the map entirely. Of course, it's your layout and you can stop the clock, alter the past or even the present any way you'd like.​

    As with the previous period, equipment is generally on the big side for what small layouts can handle. But the modern scene is much more than just high-horsepower six-axle diesels and mile-long trains of double stacks. You'll still find an old Alco creeping along weed-covered branch lines toting a single boxcar, or a second-generation Geep switching a local freight. Era isn't the only factor that determines how big your railroad has to be after all.

    One big advantage of modeling modern is just how easy it is to get information. Even if you can't go there yourself, pictures, maps, even satellite images of what you need are often just a click away. Just like any other research, however, you'll have to learn what sources you can trust. Also, unlike a book, what you find online today may be gone tomorrow.

    It won't be long before this period too is part of the past, so get out and enjoy it while you can!