Copyright 2000 T. Sheil & A. Sheil  All rights reserved

The information here is only a generic guide.  Use it at your own risk.  Neither the authors nor publishers of this site assume responsibility for consequences of your use of this material.  

Toy Trains for Children

Getting the right train for your child

This is a very general guide for parents and gift-givers.  It is intended to make you aware of the products and other factors involved in buying trains.  We recommend that you do some research of your own before buying.  Always check the age recommendations on packaging of any item you are thinking of buying. The final decision is up to you.

Not All Trains are Made Equally

And price has nothing to do with it!

One woman's experience typifies the problem of finding the right train for your child.  A woman went to a large toy outlet in search of trains for her boys, ages 5 and 6.  She had always loved here grandfather's set, but it had been passed down to her brother.  Her hope was to find one like it.  What she selected was a large set that had two trains.  It was priced reasonably, and seemed to be perfect for her boys.

Imagine her dismay when the boys had rendered it inoperable in just four days!

These weren't particularly destructive children.  They were typical of their age.   When their mother wrote, she was rather indignant about the whole episode.  After all, the grandfather's set had endured generations of young hands.  Why couldn't the new set do the same?

I asked her key questions.  (Never ask if the train is O or HO or 'Lionel' - many get them confused.  You'd be surprised how many thing HO and Lionel are one and the same!)  I asked her how long the straight track was, and what the distance was between the rails.  Then I inquired about the box and brand.  Since that had been discarded, it was simple to have her look under the cars.  A description of the cars was a help, too.

The problem was obvious: she had bought the wrong type train for children ages 4 and 6.  it was not her fault.  The people working in large toy outlets know very little of anything on the shelves, never mind trains.  The box art and price doubtlessly caught her attention.  Nonetheless, she did not know, and had no reliable source to inform her.

All trains are not made to the same standard of durability.  "Quality" is a matter of those for whom a train is intended.  For a scale modeler, quality involves delicate details.  A parent buying for a child wants durability and the ability to withstand hard use.  What makes for a better product for the scale modeler probably makes a very poor product for children.

Ah, but how would you know that?  Unless you are involved in the hobby or have a reliable source of information, it all looks like six of one thing and half a dozen of the other.  That's why I am here and this article is posted for you: to aid you in selecting the best train for your child.

Toy versus Model Trains

When Marklin, Ives and Lionel started producing electric trains at the turn of the 20th Century, the product was intended as a toy.  It was an expensive toy.  The original toy trains had metal chassis, heavy motors and body shells made of tin-plated sheet steel.  Details were of ferrous metal or brass, and they were riveted on.  The original electric trains were massive things that could withstand tremendous punishment.  That is why so many remain to be collected by hobbyists today.

Those original trains looked real enough for children.  Indeed, since the average person had more contact with the railroad than we do today, "realism" was a matter of odd details and accessories.  Adults saw trains as a potential hobby, but they wanted something more.  The adult train runner wanted more realism, and if that meant sacrificing durability, so be it!  Since the hobbyists' trains were for adults, there was no need to sacrifice detail for durability.  

Here came the conflict of "quality."  Toy makers wanted to produce a toy that was made to withstand the rigors of children.  They wanted to make them last.  That meant more "play value" and less realism.  Adult hobbyists wanted scale miniatures with the correct detailing.  Their models were for adult hands only, and would not need to endure rough handling.  Durability could be ceded in favor of realism.  Thus, the quality of the toy maker was play value, while that of the modeler was realism.

The odds favor your grandfather's train set being of the toy variety.  If it lasted several generations, it was because the durability of the old days meant a toy could last for generations.  Though scale sets had been available since the 1930s, they only became popular in the late 1950s.  At that time, the customers were mainly adult hobbyists.

Now here's the kicker: many of the train sets sold via toy outlets are not of the toy type, but are the cheapest range of scale models.  They don't tell you this on the box.  Sure, it might list the appropriate ages....and it might have one of those letters to describe the train (O, O27, G, HO, N).  But it's not necessarily a toy.

What does it mean to you?

When you go shopping for trains as gifts, it could mean plenty!  Children generally do not do well with scale models unless they are involved in some other kind of model building.

Let's look at factors which determine which train is the best train:

Age: naturally, a child's age will be large factor.  It is not only the size of the hands, but the dexterity and the maturity which automatically exclude certain kinds of toy and model trains.  This goes triple where small parts are involved.

Skill level: if your child has experience building models, he might be able to handle a scale set .  Might.  If he's awkward with small things or inexperienced with any miniature making, the scale model would not be a good choice.

Temperament: there are children who are fastidious in how they handle their playthings.  (I have a cousin who was like that - handled toys well, and made sure they were all put away after playtime.)  They are more careful with toys.  On the opposite extreme are children who are horribly rough on playthings.  You could give a more realistic item to a fastidious child, but not a rough-handed one.  For the latter, you need the sturdiest toy going!

Land or air: most children will play with toys on the ground.  A few like to throw things, either for fun or as a means of expressing anger.  A child who is a "thrower" is very hard, indeed.  He would wreck a detailed piece in nothing flat.  Though he would take a while to wreck a sturdy piece, its use as a projectile would damage furniture, appliances, windows, other children....  you don't want to give a thrower any piece that is heavy, predominantly metal or sharp!

Other kids: trains are magnetic.  Give one to a twelve-year-old, and his younger siblings will be drawn to it like magic.  The set might be safe for a boy of 12, but what happens when the little ones get into it?  There's the small parts problem, not to mention damage done by siblings.  Think of the impact of the younger ones when buying a train.  Opting for sturdier would assure that the 12 year old continues to enjoy his train, long after a scale model would have been shattered by baby brother.

Pets: animals are attracted to trains (just look at the galleries of photos of our cats - they love to be there when trains run).  Kitty can usually be shooed away, but not always.  If you're running trains under the Yule tree, Kitty might decide to go hunting.  Likewise, a rambunctious puppy or larger dog can be havoc.  Think of this:

The average N scale car or locomotive is the size of a mouse.

The average HO scale car or locomotive is the size of a rat.

The average O27 or O gauge car or locomotive is the size of a rabbit.

The average G gauge car or locomotive is the size of a half-grown beagle dog.

So now, can you see a potential problem with pets of an unruly temperament?

Usage: will the train be used only during the holidays?  Will it be set up on a layout, or set up and taken down with each use?  O / O27 track is made to be used again and again, but N, Z, and most HO track is best used affixed to a layout table.

Space: how much room is there for trains?  Does it have to be taken down after each use, or can there be a permanent layout?  And how much room is there for a layout?

Be blunt with yourself about your child's abilities.  Some parents have trouble accepting any implied shortcoming in their children.  That's unfair to the child.  Be boldly honest with yourself about your child before choosing his train.  This way, he has a better toy for himself, and you avoid the headaches caused from giving a child the wrong toy.  When in doubt, err on the side of safety!

Trains and Trains

Now you're know the factors involved.  Let's look at the train and the kids best suited to them:

Wooden floor and wood-track trains:  Fisher price and Brio make all kinds of floor pull toys for small children.  Brio makes the famous wood train sets with wood track, made to fit into a building-block world.  Some Thomas the Tank engines work with Brio (I believe these are the wooden Thomas ones).  There has to be some parental assistance when first using Brio-type trains.  You have to show the little tyke how the tracks fit together.  In no time, he will be doing it himself.  The wooden trains are fine for small children, for whom they are made.  And the wood is light enough to thwart all but the most determined throwers. Under 5?  Great!  Your little ones can have a railroad, with minimum headaches on your part.

Diecast toys: The Thomas the Tank Engine diecast trains are very popular.  These are sturdy little metal trains painted in bright colors. They are fine for children 5 and up.  (In super-fine print on one box, it read 'Not suitable for children under the age of 36 months')  One warning: there are about 60 different cars and locos out there.  They are normally sold individually.  Once your little one starts, he will eventually want them all.  Of course, if your child likes to throw things hard, the diecast trains might be a poor choice.

Battery-operated sets: most battery sets are imported from China, and they usually have a locomotive, cars and plastic track.  Batteries go into the locomotive.  A few have a "transformer" which is actually a battery pack hooked to metal rail.  Battery-operated sets are cheap, as a rule.  Most are aimed at small children, perhaps 4 and up.  They are relatively light, and most won't work with electric trains.  The battery-operated sets are a nice, cheap toy for kids who aren't up to handling electric sets.

Electric Trains: these trains use wall current, which goes to a transformer.  The transformer is also a controller.  It converts 120VAC wall current to 6 - 18 Volts of current to run the trains.  Electric trains include both scale and toy.  Additional accessories, switches and the like mean more wiring.  Electric trains need to be set up under parental supervision for smaller children - I'd say under the age of 10.  These are electrical toys, after all!

The classic toy train is O or O27 gauge.  Popular makers include MTH, Lionel and  K-Line.  Starter sets range from $100 to $275, depending on quality.  Lionel made some kid-oriented train playsets with Jungle and Construction themes.  The trains in those playsets were very cheap.  Most O/ O27 sets are quite durable, and contain a locomotive, three to five cars, a loop of track, transformer, lock-on and wire.  The lock-on is how power is transferred to track.  Kids 6 and under can run them under adult supervision.  Usually, an eight-year-old of normal ability can set up and run an O set, after having been shown by an adult.  Most feel that 10 is the safe age.  Is your child old enough and safe enough to plug items into the wall socket?  

The sets with steam-type locomotives deserve added attention.  Most are die-cast, which means the engine has a metal shell.  They are heavy, and can careen off track and dent the floor, with a sufficient drop from a table.  Though sturdy, their weight can be a liability.  O / O27, handled wisely, can last for generations.  In the case of diecast locos, the biggest threat is to floors and furniture, should it be thrown or dropped.

HO - There's a German company claiming to make HO trains just for kids, but.....  HO can be a challenge.  Little hands can easily set an O27 train on the tracks, but will have trouble with HO and smaller trains.  though most HO sets have a "rerailer," it still thwarts small hands.  HO is good for the average child 10 and over, and 8 or 9 only if there is model building experience and parental supervision.  The problem with HO is that it is not up to rough handling.  A four-foot drop can easily dislodge details and even damage the motor.  Give HO to a child who is good with toys, careful, and capable of handling small items.  Anything less, and you're better off with O/O27 or G

N scale is very small, but great for places with very little room.  Our N layout is a mere 32 by 40 inches, with three tracks.  These are more delicate than HO.  Great for a very dextrous child 12 or over, but sure to be damaged by anyone younger.  Not good for those who are clumsy and those with poor eyesight.  The trains can easily be damaged.

G, a.k.a Large Scale, is a huge train made of plastic.  Most are quite durable, and some are specifically intended for play.  You need a LOT of room for G, as it has a minimum curve of 48 inches (4 foot diameter circle).  Most G track can be set down and taken up again.  G trains are big, and yet are light enough that a child of 6 or older can at least lift them and easily put them on track.  As with O/O27, supervise children under 8.  Note that most G trains can be run outdoors.  

You may hear of other trains, such as Standard Gauge, S, OO, TT and Z.  These are trains that do not have a large following, and thus are not conveniently supported.  You cannot find parts or equipment at most hobby shops.  When buying a starter train set as a gift, pick one that is widely-supported.  You can easily find O, O27, HO, N and G trains, track and accessories.  They are very popular, having the support of several major manufacturers.  Should you need information, service, repairs, replacements, or wish to buy additional trains, track and accessories, it will be readily available for O, O27, HO, N and G.

Here are companies who make trains for kids:

O / O27

MTH Railking, Lionel and K-Line made nice starter sets.  Lionel uses traditional tubular rail - it has some sharp edges.  MTH and K-Line starter sets tend to be more attractive.

HO and N

I would avoid the cheapest ranges of HO sets.  Expect to spend a bit more.  LifeLike, Bachmann, Athearn and Atlas make moderately-priced, middle to high grade sets with nickel silver rail.  Most of the HO and N sets you see in toy outlets are of the lesser quality.  You're better off checking out the manufacturer links (on our links page) to see sets, and then order via a local hobby shop or phone order / Internet seller.  A rule of thumb: cheap sets have steel rail.  Better sets have nickel silver.

G / Large Scale

Aristocraft and Bachmann make a nice variety of sets in several ranges.  Hartland Locomotive Works produces some entry level set/playset packages aimed at children.  (Note that Hartland's regular steam locomotives are for grown-ups - too big and too complex for small hands.)  in our tests, both Aristo and Bachmann track went together easily.  Aristo has also been used outdoors, with good effect. Bachmann's track is great indoors, but in our tests it rusted badly outside.  Lionel makes a Christmas-colored set, which makes it of limited play value.

Links to these companies are on our site's Links Page - click here

Cool trains or pansy models?

Back in the 1950s, Lionel decided to invite girls into the train hobby.  They offered a pink locomotive with pastel colored cars.  It was a bomb.  Girls already had trains and they preferred them colored the same as the boys'.  

The one thing that's always left over on store shelves are "special" Christmas trains, decked out in holiday livery.  The biggest buyers are storekeepers who run Yule displays.  Kids lose interest in them after December 27th.  You might think they are "cute", but will your children?   Odds are the "cute" wears off long before January 1.

Children over 5 prefer trains that look like....trains.  So if you think "Oh, how cute," don't buy it!  Look for something that looks like a train, even if you think it's ugly.  

The one paint scheme that has been a guaranteed winner for 50 years is the Santa Fe 'Warbonnet' - a silver locomotive with a red nose.  Another cool scheme, but more recent, is the BNSF "pumpkin" orange.  Write it down, because if you're buying diesel, these two are winners.  For steamers, a black boiler is popular.  Avoid kiddie colors.

And mothers, remember: little boys don't like "cute."  Tell a kid that a puppy is "cute," and he'll purposely ask you to get him a python, alligator, snapping turtle or toad instead, just to refute that awful word.  Try it with a train , and he'll ask for a brutal-looking army tank bristling with weapons or the ugliest action figure possible.  'Cute' is Kryptonite to little boys!

Families and Trains

I am always amazed at how easily trains can become a family hobby.  Maybe my awareness is more acute, since my own family heartily discouraged hobbies.  (Trains had been set up a very few times at the holidays, but that was it.)  Since then, I have had the pleasure of helping many others with trains and other hobbies.  What always strikes me is just how much trains can become a family hobby.  The process varies.  Sometimes the father's old trains come out one holiday, the children show a real interest, and the trains end up a permanent thing.  Always, the father gets involved, and it becomes a family hobby.  The other case is when the children are bought a train set, and the father opts to "help them" set it up.  Next thing you know, the man of the house is leading a foray to the hobby shop, and that train set turns into a miniature railroad. He will claim it's "for the kids," but how much is for the "big kid" of the house?  Whether the children continue the hobby or move on to other things, the lasting result is that the family is brought closer together.

It isn't just the boys.  You would be amazed how many little girls are enjoying trains.  (In fact, at least 50% of garden railroaders are wives.)  The mothers often find themselves involved, too. Even if they don't run trains, they often spend time with the scenery.  Usually, the mother has more input than that.  

And here's something to think about: when major train makers produce sets, they purposely include colorful cars.  The reason is to attract mothers, since the moms are usually the ones buying trains as gifts.  

The train hobby is unique in its ability to span generations, get parents and childrens working together, and becoming a true family activity.  

Adding to existing Trains

You might already have trains.  Many families get old sets.  Perhaps they find Grandpa's old set in the attic, or get the trains that belonged to an older cousin.  If you have them, how do you know if parts are missing or what type they are?

Here are simple tips.  All you need is a standard ruler:

See if the track has two or three rails.  If three, it is either O, O27 or Standard gauge.  Measure the distance between the outer rails.  If 1 1/4", it's O or O27.  A little over 2 inches is Standard.  To tell O from O27, take up a straight section.  O27 straights are 8 3/4 to 8 7/8 inches long.  O straights are 10 inches.  If the track has three ties (cross pieces), no problem.  If it has ties like real track, it might be Super O.  (Some modern brands also have ties, but they are recent enough that you won't find them in the attic!)

If the track has two rails, measure between them.  If rails are 1 3/4" apart, you have #1 Gauge track.  If the track only has a few metal crosspieces, you might have a valuable antique.  If the ties are plastic, well, you found a G gauge set.  Rails that are 1 1/4 inch apart are O scale.  O scale trains made to run on 2-rail track are incompatible with those running on 3 rails.  2-rail O is a specialty, and you might want to check one of the model railroad magazines to find people who understand it.  Track that is roughly 1 inch apart is S gauge, likely American Flyer brand.  Track that's roughly 7/8 inches apart is HO. If it is 3/8 inch, it is N.  1/2 inch is another rare thing: TT. once you know the size of your trains, you can go to resources for that gauge.  They are listed in our links page.

The transformers for three-rail trains are incompatible for 2-rail trains. You cannot use an HO transformer with O27.  When in doubt, ask.  You can check with resources in our website, ask the folks listed in our links page, or visit your local hobby shop.

For more information on trains as gifts, read 'Starting with Trains' - click here

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