Model trains

Buying your first model train set, part 1: An Introduction

Train sets should be enjoyable at any age. Hopefully the first train set you purchase will allow for many hours of entertainment and perhaps even catch your interest in model railroading as a hobby for life.

A usual train set contains a locomotive, 3 to 5 freight or passenger cars, enough track to create a circle or an oval, a transformer (also may be called a power pack), and a some wires that go between the power pack and the track. One of the track pieces is usually a “rerailer” section that helps assist you in putting the cars and the locomotive onto the rails more easily.

A more detailed train set might include a track switch (sometimes called a turnout) as well as accessories such as telephone poles, a tunnel, a bridge, small structures, and even trees.

To get the correct set for your needs, it’s important to be an informed model trian buyer. These are some tips to make your train-set buying and “playing” experience more entertaining.

Age/Scale Recommendations
Here’s a good rule of thumb to follow if you’re buying the train set for a youngster: the younger the child, the larger the scale should be. (See the glossary below for the definition of “scale” and other key terms.)

Children 8 years and older will usually do fine with an HO scale (1:87 proportion, 1⁄87th of real size) train set. Children younger than 8 might find the smaller equipment more difficult to control, so larger equipment, like that found in S, O, and large scale train sets, will be more fun for them.

If the train set is for an adult or the entire family, any scale from Z through large can be considered. The smaller scales – Z, N, and HO – are especially good for people living where space is at a premium.

Buying your first model train set, part 2: Components

Part one of our buyer’s guide suggested what to look for in a train set and provided age and scale recommendations as well as a glossary of model railroad terms. In this part, we’ll cover the components typically included in an electric model train set so you’ll know what to look for when you go shopping.

Speaking of shopping... part three of this buyer’s guide covers the common train set manufacturers and advice for train set shopping.


The locomotive is the heart of any train set. The key features to look for in a model locomotive are:

  • Diesel locomotives should have all-wheel electrical pickup and at least eight-wheel drive.
  • Steam locomotives should pick up electricity from the drivers and the tender wheels.
  • Flywheels are good to have as part of the drive mechanism on a diesel locomotive. Flywheels help the locomotive operate more smoothly and negotiate dirty track better.
  • Avoid traction tires. These little rings of rubber around some locomotive drivers and wheels are intended to overcome poor adhesion. However, the cure is almost always worse than the disease. Traction tires contribute to an irritating wobbling and also can’t pick up electricity.
  • While they may be appealing, inexpensive steam locomotives generally won’t run as well as inexpensive diesels.

Diesel locomotive underside

A good-quality model diesel locomotive will pick up electrical power from all eight or 12 wheels and will be geared on all wheelsets, or “trucks,” for the best pulling power. Avoid traction tires as these contribute little to performance.

Steam locomotive underside

If you’re purchasing a train set with a steam locomotive, make sure the locomotive picks up power from as many wheels and drivers as possible. Preferably, the tender should assist in power pickup, as this locomotive’s does.


Most likely the cars in your train set won’t be the highly detailed kind you see on layouts in Model Railroader. These would make the train set’s price tag considerably higher. But you certainly can add these kinds of cars later. Easy-to-build kits and ready-to-run cars from Accurail, Athearn, Atlas, Life-Like, Micro-Trains, Model Die Casting, Walthers, and other manufacturers can be found at a well-stocked hobby shop.

You might consider swapping out the stock “horn-hook” couplers for more realistic and better-operating knuckle couplers. The hobby shop can show you some inexpensive replacements and how to easily install them.

HO scale freight car undersides

Most HO train set cars come with truck-mounted “horn-hook” couplers, like the one on the top car. The bottom car has body-mounted knuckle couplers, which are more realistic and reliable.

N scale freight car couplers

Most N scale train set cars come with truck-mounted “Rapido-style” couplers (as shown on the top car). Replacement truck sets are available that have more realistic and reliable knuckle couplers (bottom car).


A lot of train set companies today include track pieces for HO or N scale sets (the two most popular model railroading scales) with built-in, cast-plastic roadbed; they are easy to assemble. Using track with plastic roadbed helps keep the track sections together and takes the place of having to lay cork under the track. Popular brands are Atlas True-Track, Bachmann E-Z Track, Kato Unitrack, and Life-Like Power-Loc.

Model railroad track with built-in roadbed

Look for a train set that has a built-in, cast-plastic roadbed system with nickel-silver rail for ease of assembly and reliability. Pictured from left to right are: Life-Like HO Power-Loc track; Bachmann HO E-Z Track; Bachmann N scale E-Z Track; Kato N scale Unitrack; Kato HO Unitrack; and Atlas HO True-Track.

TIP: Put the track on a sheet of plywood, a tabletop, or other hard surface. Carpet fuzz and floor dirt can hamper smooth operation.

Power Pack

The power pack (also can be called the “transformer” or “throttle”) takes 110-volt alternating current from your household wall socket and transforms it to 12-15 volt direct current for the train set’s track and up to 18 volts alternating current for the accessories. These lower voltages are not dangerous, but it’s safest to attach wires to the terminals when the power pack is unplugged from the wall.

Most train set power packs don’t have the power to run much more than one locomotive and 1 or 2 accessories. If you wish to have lots of accessories, get a larger power pack, one that can deliver 18VA (volt-amps) of current or more. Then use the train set power pack to run the accessories.

Make sure the power pack that comes with your train set is UL listed, and follow the instructions that come with it when connecting the track feeder wires to the terminals.

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