All aboard! A total of 11 testers got to relive their childhoods, spending about 20 hours testing 10 different model and toy trains for functionality, design, durability and fun. You can spend $1,000 or more on primo engines, but we looked at much more affordable models a novice might be interested in. We tested train sets we could find for around $200 or less, though the manufacturer’s price for many of these trains is a bit higher. Model train enthusiasts will of course know selecting a train has a lot to do with personal preference, but we feel the Lionel Pennsylvania Flyer is the best overall for its detailed engine and cars, ease of use and durability.
Lionel Pennsylvania Flyer
The Lionel Pennsylvania Flyer is a large, attractive steam engine fit for both children and experienced hobbyists.
The Bachmann Chattanooga’s manufacturer price tag is pretty high, but like most trains you can find it for substantially less on secondary market websites like Amazon.
Mickey Mouse Train Set
Even the oldest of testers enjoyed this cute and durable train set perfect for kids.
This train has five cars total, including the steam engine, and runs on a 60 x 40-inch track when set up in an oval.
You can make other track shapes by using only some of the 12 track pieces that come with the set, or you can purchase more to make a massive track around the room. This train has all the extras: smoke, audio, an illuminated headlamp and small moving parts that make for a really realistic experience.
Liquid smoke comes with the Pennsylvania Flyer, so all you have to do is add a few drops in the smoke stack to see the train come to life. The stack even emits smoke in time with the train’s chuffing sounds, a detail our testers really enjoyed. In fact, the 11 people who played with all the trains we tested gave the Pennsylvania Flyer the highest marks, so it earned an A+ in detail and design. The speed control is responsive, and the train topped out at 2.17 feet per second, making it the fastest model we played with. We also knocked it off of a desk four times to test durability and this train was the only one without any physical or performance damage whatsoever. You won’t have to worry about leaving it with your child if they tend to be rough with their toys.
Despite everything we loved about this train, it did have a couple flaws. You’ll need AAA batteries for the remote, and while it’s supposed to also run via Bluetooth using a free mobile app, we couldn’t get that feature to work. Also, the engine chirps incessantly if the model is plugged in but the remote is off. Aside from that, our reviewers really loved this durable, easy-to-use train.
This train comes with six cars including the engine, the most of the trains we tested.
This is a pretty inexpensive high-quality model train, especially when you consider the fact that you’re getting 155 pieces. This includes a 0-6-0 steam locomotive, box car with sliding door, open quad hopper, single-dome tank car, caboose, 48 figurines, 36 telephone poles, 48 railroad and street signs and more. It’s an HO scale train so it’s large enough to easily see detail while not taking up half of a living room.
The 14-piece track has E-Z Track design, so assembly is as easy as sliding two pieces of track together. The design of the cars is delicate and detailed, with pristine paint lines. The train pieces are heavy in your hand, giving an impression of quality before you’ve even got the train on the track. This unit is operated by a power pack you plug into an electrical socket. Our testers gave this train an A- for overall design and detail because it looks authentic, but they were divided on the sound the train makes as it circles the track. Some said it sounded rickety while others enjoyed it.
Along with being a great HO scale train, the Bachmann Chattanooga is also durable. While many trains started failing after the second of four drop tests, this model’s engine didn’t have any external damage until the very last drop. The only problem we noted was the engine sounded substantially more high-pitched and strained while running around the track. You can find this solid yet detailed train at an affordable price, making it the best value out there.
Best for Young Children
The Mickey Mouse Train Set is adorable, festive, fast and fun.
It’s recommended for children age 4 or older and doesn’t have any small removable parts that might prove dangerous for a young child. This Christmas-themed train set is perfect for playtime or for around the tree. You get a large 73.2 x 50-inch oval track in 31 pieces, though you can use fewer pieces and create track layouts in varying shapes. The train is a massive O scale model and requires AAA batteries for the remote and C batteries for the engine.
Once you’ve installed the batteries you can start playing right away. Our testers loved how much muscle Mickey had as the four train cars sped around the track without falling off. In fact, this is the second-fastest train we tested, reaching 1.75 feet per second. It earned a B+ for overall design and detail because while many of our testers loved it, this children’s train obviously isn’t model-grade and probably isn’t a teenager’s dream. The headlamp works, and the train makes chuffing sounds as it circles the track. You can also activate bells, whistles and audio with the remote. As one tester put it, this train is “Christmas morning gold!”
Along with being beloved among our testers, the Mickey Mouse Train Set is super durable. We dropped it off a table about 3 feet high and it wasn’t until the second drop we noticed the train running at a slightly higher-pitched tone. Nothing changed on the third drop but by the fourth the train’s responsiveness had decreased a bit. Nothing broke off of the engine though, so we gave it a B for durability. On top of this, the train is also pretty affordable, making it the perfect starter train for young children.
Best for Teenagers
The Athearn Iron Horse is the perfect train to get the young train enthusiast in your life.
It’s HO scale, so it’s not tedious but still has the feel of a realistic model train. It comes with five cars total, including the locomotive with working headlamp, and runs via a power pack remote you’ll need to plug into the wall. The track is fairly decent in size at 45 x 36 inches and easy to assemble with the E-Z Track system that clicks into place. This train isn’t very durable, but then again, detailed model trains of this caliber aren’t meant to be tossed around. Our testers gave it an A- for design and detail because while some struggled to make it run others loved the attention to detail. It’s a perfect train set if you’ve got a little patience. One of the cars even has removable cargo, which is a fun element the other trains we tested didn’t have. The Athearn Iron Horse is ideal for teenagers and new hobbyists because it’s highly detailed but easy to use.
The Lionel Polar Express is a lovely Christmas train for play or decoration.
Its large O scale size alone makes it stand out, but it’s also frankly a lot of fun to play with. You’ll need AAA batteries for the remote and C batteries for the locomotive but putting everything together is quick and easy. You can activate bell and whistle sounds via the remote and even audio straight from the movie with Tom Hanks calling out “all aboard!” It stays on the track even at full speed, which is a mid-range 1.33 feet per second. The track itself is 73.2 x 50 inches, so it will definitely draw attention in your living room. This train is pretty expensive straight from the manufacturer, but we were able to find much more affordable models on other websites like Amazon, so we’d recommend shopping around. If you do splurge on this fun, festive four-car train, you can count on it working for a long time as it passed our durability tests with an A. This train is a one-way ticket to the North Pole!
Why Trust Us
We have been playing with … um, testing … trains since 2010 and we’ve had a lot of fun doing it. Whether you want a highly detailed and quiet N scale locomotive with a lot of extra props for building minuscule scenery or something larger and better for young kids, we’ve used them all.
Wonderful World of Trains employee Zachary Woirhaye has been interested in model trains since he was a child. He said the more features a set has, the more expensive it’s likely to be. Just because a set is large doesn’t mean it’s going to cost a lot.
“They’re collector’s items,” he said. “They become more valuable over time.”
You can get models that cost $1,000 or more and there’s no shortage of additional accessories like figurines and extra track, but we looked at more affordable trains in our tests. We realize it’s a bit unfair to compare models of a different scale against each other. For example, the large O scale Mickey Mouse Train set is going to be understandably more durable than a delicate N scale meant more for viewing and less for playing. Keeping this in mind, we tried to compare fairly and account for who would be using each train.
How We Tested
We had so much fun with these trains it’s hard to call the time we spent with them testing. First, we assembled each track and train noting the details, design and how hard it was to put together. Then we simply asked testers to come play with the trains; they ran them around the track, used all of the extra features, played with any included figurines and even tried to race trains against each other. Frankly, sometimes they were raced directly at each other, like kids might do. Testers then assigned points to each train based on overall appearance, design and functionality, and those scores were used to calculate a corresponding letter grade.
Durability tests were saved for last, and even though the most common injury we imagined a train would sustain is someone accidentally kicking or stepping on it, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to kick these beautiful models around. Instead, we dropped the engine from each train set a total of four times from a height of nearly 3 feet, noting the damage sustained after each fall and attempting to get the engine to go all the way around the track one time between each fall.
How Much Do Model Trains Cost?
Some high-tech, extremely detailed train engines alone can cost $1,000 alone. On the other end of the spectrum, some toy train sets for children cost closer to $40. If quality matters to you, we recommend spending at least $50 on any train set and around $200 if you want a detailed model train in HO or N scale. You can usually find trains at a discount on secondary websites like Amazon and eBay.
Important Features to Look for When Buying A Model Train Set
A train's scale relates directly to its size. Smaller models like the N scale allow for incredibly complex layouts in small spaces, like your kitchen table. Large trains, like G or O scale, are better for young children and make for a beautiful Christmas tree accessory. HO scale trains are more middle-of-the-road and often seen at model train trade shows.
Each scale letter corresponds to how much a train has been shrunk down from its size in real life. For instance, N scale is equivalent to 1:160, so 160 inches on a real train equals 1 inch on the model. In this scenario, a 40-foot boxcar becomes a mere 3.25 inches long.
N - 1:160
HO - 1:87.1
O - 1:48
On30 - 1:48 (appears smaller due to thinner track)
G - 1:22.5+
We highly recommend some parent supervision when children use any of these trains, particularly if they’re young. Many of the models we tested have small metal parts that could be easily broken off and swallowed. Each train set includes a recommended age range, so make sure you read the fine print before leaving little Billy unattended with a bunch of small parts. Depending on the age of your child they might need assistance to install the proper batteries. Electrically powered trains will spark if moved along the track incorrectly, which is also a safety hazard. Some trains also come with liquid smoke, and it’s important not to ingest any of the product.
Customizing Your Train
There are a lot of ways experienced hobbyists can customize trains and other accessories. One way to make your train really stand out is by painting it. First, you need to strip the paint off the train's exterior. You can buy paint stripping liquid at most hardware stores, but you can also try soaking the parts of the train that don't have electronics in them in alcohol. Once you've stripped the paint, an airbrush is one of the best ways to add your own colors, though a kit can be expensive. Set up a painting booth for safe air brushing and to protect other items in your house. Very small paint brushes are best for getting the finer details perfect.
There are also a lot of ways to customize your track and terrain. As long as it's the correct size and type of track, you can add track switches, which can take your train in different directions. This means you can add on virtually endless miles of track and guide your train around the room. You can also purchase additional scenery pieces like stores, signs and foliage. In addition, you can get creative with things you already have at home and build entire worlds for your train to travel through. Most scenery pieces can also be customized with paint. When it comes to hobby trains, if you can dream it, odds are you can do it. It’s part of what makes the hobby so much fun.