Starting with Trains

A collection of information that can help you get a better start with model trains.


Some advantages and disadvantages of the most popular scales


Advantages: small size, low price, great detail, tons of support, resources, availability, variety

Disadvantages: wide radius, difficult for children under 7, unusual DC wiring, breakability, few operating accessories


Advantages: very small size allows more elaborate layouts, moderate cost, good detail and resources, good support and availability of trains, nice variety

Disadvantages: fragile, can be hard to see, difficult for children under 12, extremely few operating accessories, hard to rerail

O / O27

Advantages: nice healthy size, power, operating features, detail, loads of operating accessories, durability, great for kids 5 and up, easier to wire, sturdy, can be set up and taken down quickly, narrow radius curves allow running indoors

Disadvantages: expensive, sometimes off-scale, good variety, collectible-type pricing on some items, needs more room to store, needs room to run well on a layout.

Train Sets

A train set is often the way to go to get started, but before you buy, there are a few things you should know. First and foremost is scale - the size train you want. Look over the page on Scale and Gauge to get an idea of what is out there. Then, look at what is available to you. If you are considering trains as a serious, ongoing hobby, the availability of supplies in your area will be more important than if this is a temporary, seasonal or one-shot thing.

Consider the following:

Who's it for? An adult will have different needs than a child. Things like vision, dexterity. space and maturity have their place. If you see well and can handle small parts, and have limited room for a layout, N scale would be fine. However, if the train is intended for a seven year old child, N would be disastrous. Likewise, it would be unsatisfying for an adult with poor vision, extreme nearsightedness or lack of dexterity in the hands.

Consider also the personality. Is this someone who would prefer more realism or more play? An individual with an historical bent would prefer more accuracy than one who just wants a good time.

Space: how much room is there to run trains, and more important, would a permanent layout be in order? Or a temporary layout that can be stored? Or no layout at all? HO and N trains need some kind of fixed layout, even if it is a modular rig. O gauge can go without a fixed layout, as O track is meant to be set up and taken down easily. The new E-Z Track for HO makes it simpler to run the smaller trains without a layout, but it is not as easy as O track. If a layout is in order and there's less than 4' by 6', you have to go with N. HO can use a 4' by 6' or larger; O needs 4' by 8' or larger for a layout. (Keep in mind that O can be set up on the floor, run all day, and taken up at night quickly and easily. You can't do that with N or HO!) Of course, and N layout on a 45' by 6' will be much more elaborate and have much more action than an HO layout in the same space.

O and O27 have the advantage of being stored easily, set up on the floor, and taken down when the train running is done. If there's no room for a layout, there's always floor space for an impromptu run.

Expense: how much do you want to spend? O / O27 is usually much more expensive than HO or N train sets. Figure about $150 for O, as opposed to $40 or so for HO or N. Likewise, adding to the set will have differing expenses. HO can be bought at the cheapest prices and is easiest to find. You can get some freight cars for as low as $4.00, and locomotives for under $20.00. They won't be the highest quality or detail, but they'll run. O locomotives run from $50 on up, the average being $100 or more. O freight cars run from $25 on up. N locomotives, bought individually, average about $25 and up, while freight cars run $5.00 and up for decent quality.

If you intend on building a layout, there's also wiring, scenery, switches, and other added expenses. Take a look at the whole thing before you buy.

Keep in mind - O / O27 doesn't need a layout table - it can run on the floor!

Ability: can the intended user assemble track, do the wiring, etc.? Consider this before you start!

Quality: you get what you pay for. Though name-brand O / O27 train sets tend to be very sturdy, even if their cars aren't as detailed as those sold separately, HO and N varies. "Train set trains" are different because they're generic, less detailed and of a lower quality, generally, than individually-marketed items.

The loco in the average HO or N train set is a generic model with less pulling power, fewer details and fewer features. It is normally from the maker's lowest grade product, and individually would sell for $25 or less. Sure, it will run, but it won't hold up like them ore expensive engines.

Train set cars are generally lighter and have fewer details than the more expensive lines of freight and passenger cars. Once again, they're generic. The freight cars in a typical set by Bachmann or LifeLike look okay, but would pale when compared by comparable cars by Athearn, Atlas or LifeLike's Proto 2000 line. Of course, the lack of detail can be a good thing if the set is for a child. There is less to break.

Some train sets have steel track. Steel is okay, but nowhere near as good as nickel silver. We've found that the track included in most HO and N sets is steel.

There are better train sets out there and they cost more. They include better track, better cars and locos, and better all-around quality. The cost is the difference between $30 or $40 for a cheap set to $80 to $100 for a good set. Cheap is fine if all you intend to do is run them around the Yule tree. Better HO and N sets are available from LifeLike, Atlas and Athearn.

A personal observation: LifeLike's train sets trains tend to be better than those by Bachmann, in HO and especially in N scale. LifeLike uses its second-string locomotives in its N sets, and these are good, reliable little locos. Bachmann's third-string N locos are not as good. However, we've been very disappointed with the generic-grade N locos by Model Power, as they often have inadequate power when compared with LifeLike or Bachmann.

A train set gives you the basic stuff: track, transformer, loco and cars. It can be an okay start, and better sets are a definite boost.

O / O27 train sets are a different bird entirely. We've compared starter sets by Lionel and k-Line and found that both include good locomotives and a handful of O27 cars. Lionel's cars are closer to scale; K-line's are slightly smaller. These cars are all lighter than the individually-sold cars and tend to have less detail. Still and all, they're sturdy and they're a start.

Most Lionel sets have the unbeatable 4-4-2 Atlantic diecast steam locomotive, a cheap but amazing little locomotive. I've seen these things since the late 1950s. Nothing fancy, as trains go. They have an operating headlight and operating smoke maker. The cab detail is okay, and they have a shrill whistle in the tender. The thing is that for such a cheap locomotive, you can't kill them. I've seen them with the paint chipped off and every kind of ding and dent, but they still run. So if you want an O27 train set and opt for Lionel, look for that 4-4-2 loco.

(Note - Lionel has issued some new very cheap sets that have a watered-down 4-4-2 which can only travel in one direction. Avoid it. Spend the extra $20 or so dollars and get one with the locomotive that smokes and changes direction)

K-Line sets vary, but many come with their "standard issue" MP15 switcher engine. This switcher is a good, reliable locomotive that has working lights, good pulling power and decent detail. Like the Lionel 4-4-2, it's a sturdy little beast. Unlike the 4-4-2, the K-Line MP15 has scale detail. Their generic versions of the MP15 don't have a working horn. (No loss- the diesel horn never sounded too good on these things).

K-Line's freight cars are another thing entirely. They're small and they lack a lot of detail. Though doors open on boxcars, some details just aren't there. The brake wheel is molded onto most generic Kline cars, trucks are plastic and the cars are very light. Where did the cars come from? K-line still uses the Marx molds, from the days when Marx decided to make 3/16 scale cars to run on O track. Put them beside a scale car and you can see a difference in size and weight.

Both Lionel and K-Line include basic transformers. Lionel's includes a built-in whistle control, but K-Line's doesn't. Track is pretty much the same. Some sets have little accessories, like freight (boxes and barrels), phone poles, billboards or trucks. Lionel's accessories in its slightly more expensive starter sets include a diecast tractor trailer, grade crossings and freight. Kline tends toward phone poles and railroad signs, with occasional billboards.

The upshot is that the O / O27 sets, with a couple of exceptions, include good locomotives and freight cars. The freight cars tend to be lighter and less detailed, but are worth keeping.

Toward a Better Railroad

Train sets have another outstanding flaw: you only get a circle, oval or figure 8 of track. How much can you watch one train go in circles? A model railroad ought to offer much more! There are options you can employ to add excitement, interest and realism to your railroad. Let's examine a few of them:

More track! A loop or figure-8 is nice, but is it the only shape? Extra track means a more complex and therefore more interesting layout.

Switches!! Also known as "turnouts," switches allow trains to move in different directions, transfer to other tracks, and generally run more realistically. The right use of switches along with extra track allows for multi-train operations, more varied train operation and even realistic freight and passenger activities.

Trestles and Bridges!! Changing elevation with trestles and bridges makes for a truly "3D" operation. You can enjoy multi-train, multi-level operations that increase realism, interest and appeal.

Tunnels!!! Tunnels remain one of the most popular scenery items for model railroads. Combined with trestles and bridges, a tunnel brings that extra spark of life to train running. Why? Well, we're not sure of the psychology behind it, but we know that tunnels make train running that much more fun.

Stations and Depots!!! Real railroads do not continuously loop the loop. They transport cargo from one station to another. Having stations along your right-of-way means that you can simulate the way real trains work. You can find model stations for almost any scale. In larger scales, you can even buy operating stations that have interior lighting and special effects.

Signals and Lights!! From crossing gates to bridge signals, you can add light action to your railway. There are many signals available, and in the larger scales (HO and up) they light, change, and operate realistically. Try using crossing flashers, crossing gates, and various other lights and signals to give that added spark of life!

Operating Accessories!!! There are so many, from operating cars to a variety of operating stations, facilities, signals, etc. Choose from coal and log loaders, cranes, barrel loaders, cattle stations, milk stops and dumpers to fill your trains. On the sidelines, try everything from fueling stations to operating gatemen to switch towers. Operating accessories are fun. (Keep in mind that Lionel's success is largely due to its many operating cars and accessories.)

Scenery!!! If you build a permanent layout, remember the scenery. Make realistic scenery to showcase your railroad. Makers offer vast assortments of buildings, structures, vehicles, miniature people, trees, boats, etc. Get scenery in your railroad's scale and use it to make your layout come alive.

More trains! Add to your railroad. There are many different kinds of locomotives, freight and passenger cars available. You can select by era, a specific railroad, or just by what appeals to you. For example, our N railroad's locomotives are from 3 specific railroads during a certain era. Our O gauge currently has six locomotives selected because we like how they look, regardless of era or roadname. How about you?


We have included a load of layouts on our site. What we haven't included are specifics about wiring and accessories. Besides, ours are meant for train-running on the floor. You might prefer something different. There are hundreds of layouts already pre-planned for you, right down to specific track pieces and wiring.

Atlas offers a free booklet to help you choose and HO or N scale layout. It shows diagrams of various track plans, from simple loops to large, complex systems. You can choose the layout you like, then order the book with that specific track plan from Atlas. The plan lists everything you need, shows exactly how to position it, and includes complete wiring information and suggestions for scenery, etc.

Lionel, the oldest O gauge maker, also has a large selection of layouts. You can check their website. Layout books are available through ----, or from other manufacturers.

Collecting???? Investment???

Most people buy trains to run. A few buy as an investment or collectible. Older trains by certain manufacturers are considered "collectible" and command a very high price today. Others that are just as old are virtually worthless. It's all in the whims of the collector market.

If you're new to this, you might be surprised that even the boxes trains came in are considered collectible! Even more amazing, some items gain in value only a short time after their production run is over. Others remain the same. Today, many buyers are collecting as an investment. They hope that certain trains will accrue greater value as time goes on. In effect, trains become collectible long before they are antique.

For the person who only wants to run trains, it can be vexing to vie with collectors. Some items that you might want could be snapped up before you've set aside enough cash. Collectors are speculating that they will have greater future value. But realistically - will they? If too many people buy an item as an investment, it is no longer rare. Its value might diminish in time. When so many are collecting and investing, rarity decreases and so does future value.

The collecting fad of today might be the flash-in-the-pan of tomorrow.

If you collect for your own enjoyment, you will undoubtedly go for things that appeal most to you. For instance, I have started collecting a specific brand and model of locomotive because I like the different paint schemes. I don't collect them all - just the ones that appeal to me. They don't stay on a shelf or in a box, either! Most if the fun is running them. Another item is a specific type and road name of passenger car. Again, the goal is to have a small fleet of them to run as passenger liners. (By the way, I also collect plastic toy soldiers and spacemen!!!)

So why collect? Perhaps because there's something we like and we want to have more of it, in all its many variations......

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