Beginner’s Complete Guide to Model Trains and Our Top 5 Picks

Introduction

Model trains are life-like and small versions of real trains and building accurate and detailed layouts is an enjoyable hobby and a satisfying experience. Model trains and tracks can vary in size, style and shapes with average prices varying from $20 to a whopping $1,200. As a general rule of thumb, the higher the price, the more detailed models you are going to get. However, going for the cheapest options is usually not what we recommend and you should have at least a $100-200 budget for something decent.

The hobby is also called model railroading, railway modeling and model railways. A modeled train kit can include a variety of scaled models of different components, including:

  • Locomotives
  • Passenger cars
  • Rolling stock
  • Mail cabins
  • Tracks
  • Streetcars
  • Signaling
  • Landscapes
  • Roads
  • Country side
  • Bridges
  • Vehicles
  • Buildings
  • Urban landscape
  • Lights
  • Model figures
  • Hills
  • Rivers
  • Canyons
  • Tunnels
  • Sounds

Hobbyists have different options ranging from buying readymade kits to spending large amounts of money and time on custom made and highly detailed models. These models include not only the train and tracks but also accurate representation of the scenery the train passes through. Some railroad modelers even have models that are large and spacious enough to ride on. The ultimate goal of some modelers is to build and run a railroad model as if it was a real one. Railway models range from circular or oval tracks to track-by-track representation of real places and historic maps.

A Brief History of Model Trains

Model trains and the hobby has been around since carpet railway trains were invented in the 1840s. These steam-powered trains did not have a track and ran across the floor/carpe, hence the name. Marklin introduced the first model train kit in 1891, which included tracks, trains and other accessories like buildings and tunnels. Powered by clockwork, the first documented model train kit was built in 1859 (Railway of Prince Imperial) by Napoleon III for his 3-year-old son.

The hobby gained popularity in the 1920s around which enthusiasts also shifted from steam powered model trains to electric powered tracks. Things only got better in the next 100 years with the advancements in technology. Model railways were not to a specific scale in the beginning, but different organizations came up with standardized scales with the passage of time. In 1940, NMRA standardized model railway scale for the first time, which is still used in North America and some other countries.

With a 40 KM (25 miles) track, MiniaturWunderland is the world’s largest model railroad in Germany (in H0 scale 1:87). Established in 1910, The Model Railway Club is the oldest society or club (London) with over 5,000 periodicals and books.

Scales and Gauges

Beginners new to the hobby need to understand the scale and gauge, which define the size of model trains and tracks. Although there is some incompatibility between the UK/US models, things are not so complicated for the most part. The most notable organizations behind model railways are the NEM (MOROP-EU, NormenEuropäischerModellbahnen) and NMRA (National Model Railroad Association). Scale standards cover different aspects of building model trains, including rolling stock wheels, catenary, curve radii, loading gauge and slope grades.

Britain uses its own railway scale and rarely uses other internationally accepted standards. Foreign modeling companies operating there or local companies modeling prototypes for other countries are an exception. Countries like Japan also have their own scales, but they also use NEM and NMRA scales for exports.

Scale

A scale is defined as a ratio between two trains. For example, HO trains have a scale of 1:87, G scale trains are 1:22.5 and N scale trains are 1:160. Here 1 represents the actual train size and the number coming after : represents that the model train is 87 times smaller (all dimensions).

N and Z scale model trains are tiny and much smaller than full-sized trains, which is roughly the size of your finger. G Scale model trains are considered to be too big for the indoors and are also known as Garden Trains. Although there are many model train scales, the most popular scales include:

  • G Scale 1:22.5
  • O-Scale 1:48 (USA)
  • HO Scale 1:87
  • N Scale 1:160
  • Z Scale 1:220

You can find more details about model train scales and standards here at the Wikipedia page.

Gauge

Gauge represents the width of the track. In case of HO scale (1:87), the track gauge is normally 1.75-inches. A company might use a slightly different gauge, but in most cases they’d mention this in the specifications. Some companies produce ‘narrow gauge’ tracks to better reflect the real-world trains. However, despite the possible differences in gauge, the model trains themselves are built on standard ratios.

  • G Scale 45mm
  • Scale 31mm
  • HO Scale 16mm
  • N Scale 9mm
  • Z Scale 6mm

The higher the scale, the smaller the gauge (higher scale = smaller trains = smaller gauge tracks)

Couplers and Connectors

Different couplers and connectors also exist in addition to scales and gauges, but most of them are not compatible with each other. Couplers are used to connect cars and although not fully compatible, they can be exchanged with all scales with varying levels of difficulty.

Landscaping and Weathering

Landscaping is considered to be an important element of railway modeling and enthusiasts pay close attention on how to landscape the layout. Also known as scenery building and scenicking, landscaping involves using a wide range of materials to construct landscapes that are as accurate as possible (can also be based on a fantasy world). Different materials can be used to prepare a sub-terrain such as screen wire, cardboard strips and styrofoam sheets.

As the name suggests, weathering refers to making a model look more realistic by stimulating wear and tear and dust. Unweathered models are more common (look new out of the box) because they are easier and cheaper to produce. It’s up to the hobbyist to weather their brand new models. Accurate weathering also depends on where the original train was used. Weathering of desert trains will be different than urban trains. Some common weathering techniques include dry-brushing, air-brushing, breaking in, sanding and using chemicals to artificially cause corrosion.

How Popular is this Hobby?

Train modeling is usually associated with older enthusiasts who have the time and money to make things work. However, the hobby is also popular among the youth, thanks to mass production of model trains and decreasing prices. The hobby can be expensive and time consuming and that’s probably the main reason why it’s less popular than other less expensive and ‘quick-fix’ hobbies.

The craze comes and goes as, which is also the case with almost any other hobby. Train modeling suits people who are not into short forms of entertainment and are willing to put their time and money into it. Despite these things, the train modeling community is still very strong with events and meetups taking place regularly around the world.

The Basic Working of Model Trains

So how do these model trains actually work? The answer can be pretty simple and complicated at the same time. Most of today’s model trains are electrically powered by a power unit, which is usually attached to the track and sends electricity to the model train. In simple words, the train will go forward/backward and change the speed based on the amps or power it is receiving. You need a model train, train track and a power unit to get started.

However, things can start getting complicated when DCC control systems are involved, which allow more input, can run multiple model trains, can go forward/backwards, blow horn/whistle, speed up/slow down, control lights and do all sorts of other stuff.

How Model Trains Are Powered?

Today’s model trains are normally electric-powered (low-voltage DC), but that’s not the only power option. Some trains also use AC power, while larger models can be powered by live steam. The four ways of powering a model train include:

Electricity

Electric powered model trains can either be powered by DC (Direct Current) or AC (Alternating Current). Power can be delivered using different systems, including three-rail, two-rail, stud contact, overhead line and battery. Modern model trains normally supply electric DC power through the tracks, while DCC (Digital Command Control) systems generally use AC.

Battery-run trains are also common, but the size and capacity can vary significantly from one model to another. Larger batteries are used in garden railway models and bigger models that have enough space for installing rechargeable batteries and need more power/current draw.

Connecting two wires carrying electric current to the track is the most common method to power electric model trains. Voltage and current varies depending on the complexity and size of a particular setup, but G and O scales usually run on around 18V, while Z and N scales run on 12V. DCC powered model trains can take something between 22-25V for smooth operation.

Digital Command Control (DCC) kit is the middleman between the train track and the power unit. DCC model trains have a decoder with which the DCC module can communicate. These decoders understand digital messages the DCC systems send and can stop, slow, reverse, break and do other things. DCC allows operators to do much more than just start and stop a model train, but it also comes at a higher price.

Steam

Live steam is another option used by hobbyists to create accurate models of steam-powered trains.

Internal Combustion

Gasoline-electric models are rare and a lot more expensive than electric-powered models. These are patterned after diesel-electric trains and made by a very few companies and hobbyists.

Clockwork (Spring-drive)

Most of the early train models were clockwork-powered and lever-controlled. These models were robust and large, which made control handling more practical. Slowing/stopping tracks were used to trigger levers for station stops.

Locomotive Control

Early models that were powered by clockwork or live steam kept running until no power was left. This meant that the operator could not restart/stop/adjust speed. With the introduction of electric-powered locomotives, operators were able to adjust speed via voltage/current. More complex throttles were introduced as technology advanced and with the introduction of rectifiers and transformers. DC-powered trains can move forward or backwards simply by reversing the polarity.

Popular Model Train Brands

There exist many reputable brands that produce model trains. Some of them are specialized in some areas while others are do-it-all. Similarly, some brands are affordable, while others might cost you a kidney. Picking a brand depends on a variety of factors, including your budget and skill level.

Lionel

Considered to be the biggest O-scale model train manufacturer (around 60% market share), the US-based company offers detailed model trains and kits. Their kits are not the cheapest, but the products compete well with other top-tier manufacturers and are considered to be better than the most. Its model trains are worth the premium if you can afford it and don’t want to compromise on quality.

Atlas

Atlas is another US-based company that is one of the oldest industry players and well-known for its quality products. It’s also known for bringing railroading within reach of the masses through constant innovation. Atlas offers O, N, HO and Z scale model trains with different detail levels, which also affects the price. The company also makes ready-to-use accessories such as cars, buildings and decals.

Hornby

The UK-based company has been operating since 1901 and produces almost anything related to building your own model train setup. Hornby offers different variants of model trains, including electric, diesel, steam powered in different sizes and details. Whether you want complete kits or accessories such as buildings, bridges and tunnels, Hornby has got you all covered.

Bachmann

Established in 1833, Bachmann is a US-based, one of the oldest companies and the largest seller by volume. It is mostly known for its HO and O scale model trains and has modeled almost all popular trains. Bachmann is a great option for those getting started and new to the hobby because it offers variety and great value for the money.

Getting Started with Train Modeling

The first step is to find a suitable spot with ample space for the model train layout you want to buy or build. The basement and garage are good spots as you can leave your models there for a long time without having to worry about others bumping into them. Keeping your setup on the floor for long periods of time means you risk damaging it, while it might also get dirty in no time.

The next step is to figure out which modeling scale you’ll use. For example, G scale layout is more suitable for building a model in your garden, while HO is the most popular among hobbyists who have some space in a large room. Those who only have a space equivalent to a coffee table find Z or N scales more suitable. Next comes the theme i.e. the kind of trains you want to run and the scenery you want to build around it. This also includes other details such as miniature versions of people and it’s up to the hobbyist to include what they think is relevant.

Visiting your local hobby shop gives you a fair idea of what to expect and enables you to try out different models and have a friendly chat. Instead of spending a lot of money and later realizing that you wanted something different, it’s better to talk to someone experienced who can give you better advice. If you already know what you want, you can also consider buying model trains from online marketplaces such as Amazon or the manufacturer’s official website.

Building a model train is the fun part and allows you to build your own layout. Mistakes are expected in the beginning, but don’t let that discourage you from improving. Google and YouTube videos are a great starting point if you are not sure of anything specific.

Constructing Layouts and Adding Details

Layouts can be as complex and eye-catching as you want by adding mountains, sceneries, bridges, tunnels and so on. Most model train manufacturers also produce these accessories. The most common materials used to build up the ground include polystyrene or hard foam because these materials can easily be carved and can be painted after adding some plaster of Paris.

But first, you need to determine where things would go, which should be a part of initial layout ideas. You might have to move things around a bit if you are adding details later. Just make sure that the train has enough clearance and the new objects won’t interfere with its movement.

Common Terminologies

There are a lot of terminologies associated with train modeling, but let’s go through some important ones as follows:

  • Ballast: Gravel/rocks between rails
  • All-in-one track: Complete track that also includes ballast and road bed
  • Code: height of a rail track, expressed in 1/1000 inch. E.g. Code 70 means 0.7-inch tall
  • Sectional track: Pieces of straight and short tracks
  • Flexitrack: Like a bendable tape that you can lay down, more like a flexible sectional track
  • Turnouts: Also known as switch, the part that allows the operator to switch between tracks
  • Blocks: Electrically isolated track sections that are normally used to control the model train, including breaking and reversing
  • Gantlet Track: Overlapping tracks that allow a model train to pass through narrow spaces like a tunnel, bridge or valley (share the same roadbed)
  • Crossing: Track sections that cross another piece of track, roads etc.
  • Roadbed: Under-track dirt buildup, keeps the track up off the ground
  • Yard: Refers to an area that has many track ends and where trains can be stored and sorted
  • Caboose: Also known as the buggy, way car, cabin and other names, caboose is the car at the back of a model train which carries the crew
  • Coupler: The joining part that allows joining different trains, locomotives and cars
  • Classification lights: The front lights that show the type of a model train. E.g. white = extra train, green = another train section is still coming
  • Deadhead: Usually referred to an empty passenger car attached to a train
  • Helper: Locomotives that can be added to a train in different situations such as climbing up a steep incline
  • Head End Cars: Express, baggage and mail cars usually at passenger car’s front
  • Slug: Weighted locomotive that has traction motors for extra traction in slippery conditions
  • Unit: Refers to one locomotive (usually diesel)
  • Throttle: Allows controlling the speed/direction

Deciding on the Time Period of a Model Train

Picking up the time period is a matter of personal preferences, but you can start with a slightly modern and neutral layout. 1800’s wild west is a popular themed track and looks fine with trains of 50s. However, a 1920’s setting with a modern train won’t go well together. In other words, somewhat older trains can be used in modern settings, but modern trains don’t look good in old settings. You also need to make sure that other details are cohesive, which can be a lot of work but worth it in the end.

Train Model Maintenance and Cleaning

Cleaning and maintenance are very important and integral parts of the hobby. It’s not that difficult if you make a habit of doing it at least on a semi-regular basis. Here are some tips for keeping your model trains clean and well maintained.

Wheels need the most attention because they get dirty easily and fast. Use a dampened (with isopropyl alcohol) cloth and lay it over a stretch of the sectional track. Run the train while holding the piece of cloth, which should clean the dirt without requiring you to do a lot of hard work.

Debris and gunk will also build up over time on the track, which in some cases can even derail the train. A pair of tweezers make it easier to pluck out the grime/dirt, while you can also use isopropyl alcohol dipped cotton buds to clean the track tops.

It is recommended to perform regular maintenance of locomotives, units and cabs after every 100-hours run time, which is normally after 6 months. Common signs you need to do some oiling include loud noises (more than usual) and when you start hearing the friction between different parts.

You might also want to look around and search for information related to maintaining other parts of the layout. Things like static grass or other parts coming off /moving are specific issues and can usually be fixed pretty easily, but you need to research a bit online for what others who encountered the same issue say about it.

General Tips

Voltage drop

A model train running slow or lights dimming are signs of voltage drop, which usually means too many components are trying to use electric power. A simple workaround is to pull some things off the power or buy a bigger electric power unit.

Where to Keep the Tracks?

If you are just playing with kids or working on a layout for a short period of time, keeping the tracks on a floor is fine. But it’s better to keep tracks off the floor if you think it’s going to take a lot of time and put the whole setup on a table. This saves the setup from kids, pets and people knocking over bits, while it’s also a lot easier to do it earlier than moving the finished setup later on.

The Model Train Keeps Derailing

A model train that frequently comes off the track can be because of the track or the train. If the train derails at random locations, you probably need to look into the train for signs like bent wheels. If it comes off the track at the same spot, then something might be wrong with that part of the track, which mostly happens because of a very sharp bend.

Start Simple

It’s better to start simple and avoid spending too much money on expensive models. Start with a simple and neutral layout and keep adding details over time. This gives you the chance to determine if the hobby is really for you, while you also gain valuable experience during this phase. You can gradually increase the complexity and details, but trying to do it all at once might not be a good idea for beginners.

Attention to Detail

It is the key to standing out from the crowd. In addition to detailed models and expensive accessories, you also need to put some time and effort into things like drawing some graffiti, modeling a little landslide and weathering rust. There are a lot of details you can add to make your model truly unique and the options are only limited by your imagination.

Product
Visual
Where to Buy
Bachmann Trains - Rail Chief Ready To Run 130 Piece Electric Train Set - HO Scale
Lionel Santa Fe Super Chief Electric O Gauge Model Train Set w/ Remote and Bluetooth Capability
Bachmann Trains - Durango & Silverton Ready To Run Electric Train Set - HO Scale
Lionel The Polar Express Electric O Gauge Model Train Set with Remote and Bluetooth Capability
Bachmann Trains - Norfolk & Western Class J 4-8-4 DCC Sound Value Equipped Steam Locomotive - N&W #611 - N Scale (53253)

 

Our Picks for the Best Model Trains for Beginners

Recommending a model train to someone is not easy because people have their own individual preferences and tastes, and there are a lot of variables involved. With that being said, we have compiled a list of some of the most popular electric model trains for beginners that have been selected carefully considering the price, user reviews and brand reputation.

Bachmann Rail Chief

The HO scale model train kit comes with everything a beginner needs to get started, including five different cars. The 130-piece kit also includes railroad signs, miniature figures, signal bridge, telephone poles and street signs, making it a great option for those just starting out with the hobby.

Key features

  • Ready-to-run 130-piece kit
  • 47×38 inches oval track (Snap-Fit)
  • Speed controller
  • Power pack
  • Easy-to-follow instructions manual

Lionel Santa Fe Super Chief

The set includes the locomotive (Santa Fe FT Diesel), two coach cars, eight curved O36 FasTrack sections, an observation car, power lock-on, a 10-inch straight FasTrack, a FasTrack terminal section, wallpack PSU, two 10-inch straight and a remote.

Key features

  • Comes with Bluetooth connectivity and remote control
  • Sound on/off switch (diesel revving, horn, bell, background sounds as well as user-based announcements)
  • Directional headlight
  • Maintenance-free motors
  • Illuminated cab interior
  • Die-cast operating couplers and metal stubs
  • Forward/reverse knobs
  • Horn/bell/user-activated announcements
  • Minimum curve O31
  • Set length 52.5 inches
  • 12 pieces of track can create a 40”x60” oval

Bachmann Durango & Silverton

The HO-Scale, ready-to-run electric train set includes an open excursion car, and old-time coach and combine car. Accessories include a power supply, speed controller, terminal wire and rerailer/terminal.

Key features

  • 47×38 inch oval track
  • Speed controller
  • Power pack
  • Magnetic knuckle couplers
  • DCC-ready with operating headlight (8-pin socket)
  • Open excursion
  • 12 pieces curved track, 1-piece straight track

Lionel – The Polar Express

The Polar Express is one of the bestselling model train kits, which includes locomotive/tender, observation car, two coach cars, movie characters (four articulated), track sections, lock-on section, terminal section, straight sections, power supply, remote and of course The Polar Express bell.

Key features

  • Remote controller
  • Bluetooth connectivity
  • Official movie sound clips, user-activated announcements
  • Operating headlight
  • Maintenance-free motor
  • Interior lighting of the passenger car
  • O31 minimum curve
  • 40×60 inches set length (Oval)
  • Easy-to-connect track system
  • 12-pieces track included

Bachmann Norfolk & Western Class J

A model of the last mainline US steam-powered locomotive. The mode is recommended for hobbyists who already have some experience with train modeling and want to build a layout around this classic locomotive.

Key features

  • DCC sound equipped
  • Precision motor
  • Die-cast boiler/tender frame/underframe/driver spokes
  • 16 whistles and a variety of bell types
  • 5 air pumps
  • Designed for 11.25-inches radius curves (or greater)

Conclusion

It’s your own unique model train and what you can create is only limited by your imagination. That’s the best thing about train modeling. You have all the freedom to build your own layout, locomotives, landscape and add all the details you want. Train modeling is a hobby that brings joy and is a rewarding experience. Model trains are exciting to view and experiencing an old-time train weaving through the scenic landscape is a unique experience. Building railroads is not that hard, but it takes time, financial resources and a flair of creativity to build stunning layouts and close-to-real model trains.