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How To Get Started in Model Railroading Part 2 of 3 - Toy Trains

Updated on July 17, 2012
This pre-World War II American Flyer locomotive is a pretty convincing toy train that was popular in the 1920s and early 1930s. She still runs like the day she left the factory, in 1928!
This pre-World War II American Flyer locomotive is a pretty convincing toy train that was popular in the 1920s and early 1930s. She still runs like the day she left the factory, in 1928!
Some post-World War II trains from the 1950s had scale proportions but were still considered toys.
Some post-World War II trains from the 1950s had scale proportions but were still considered toys.
This Union Pacific "Katy" locomotive from MTH's RailKing line is decorated like the prototype but is not-to-scale.
This Union Pacific "Katy" locomotive from MTH's RailKing line is decorated like the prototype but is not-to-scale.

The World of Toy Trains

In the last installment we talked about how to get started in model railroading in general terms, and gave an overview of model and toy train sizes, scales and gauges. In this installment, we will cover toy trains (vs. model trains) and cover some of the key terms you'll encounter when exploring toy trains.

In short, toy trains are toys to be played with. Model trains are scale representations of a prototype train that are either displayed or "operated" (a.k.a. played with). Toy trains tend to lack scale proportions or prototypical decoration. They can be fanciful, brightly colored, or decorated similar to the prototype but designed for play. The most famous maker of toy trains is Lionel. Lionel trains have been around since the early 1900s and have been played with for generations. Pre World War II Lionel trains are prized by collectors. Lionel trains from the late 1940s and through the 1950s are equally treasured. Many of the trains produced before World War II are being reproduced today. Lionel also regularly catalogs updated versions and reissues of its most popular products from the 1950s.

While toy trains can be found operating on all gauges of track, the most popular is O Gauge. To recap, O Scale refers to the actual scale proportions of the train, O Gauge refers to the gauge of the track or the distance between the outside rails. When someone casually refers to O Gauge trains, they could be speaking of scale models or toy trains that lack the scale dimensions. For our purposes, and formally speaking, O Gauge trains are those that are not scale and are typically of the toy variety. In Lionel parlance, these are called "Traditional O" trains. Essentially meaning that traditionally, Lionel did not make scale replicas, rather, semi-scale or not-to-scale trains. You can find other manufacturers such as Mike's Train House (MTH), William's by Bachmann, Atlas O, and Ready Made Toys (RMT) who make O Gauge toy trains. MTH's toy offerings come from their RailKing line. Atlas O has a line called Trainman for their toy versions. William's by Bachmann and RMT are both almost exclusively "toy" in their O Gauge releases. (Of course, with that said, Atlas's Trainman line is of scale proportions with less detail. The same holds true for much of the RailKing line from MTH and some of the offerings by William's.) Bottom line is all will run on O Gauge track.

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Get Going

Perhaps the best way to get started with toy trains is with a starter set. Starter sets typically come with a basic oval of track, a power supply and a basic passenger or freight train. Lionel, MTH and Atlas offer starter sets in O Gauge, LifeLike and Walthers offer starter sets on HO and N. (Note again that HO and N are scales and gauges, but are almost never referred to by the gauge, just the scale. Dizzy?) All the starter set manufacturers offer ways to expand the starter sets with additional track and accessories. Your typical Lionel starter set, for instance, would contain a 60-inch by 40-inch oval of track, an 80-watt transformer, a locomotive and three to five cars. You can then purchase limitless track, accessories, locomotives and cars to expand the set and purchase more powerful transformers to run your railroad empire. You can, of course, mix scale and not-to-scale equipment as it all runs on O Gauge track. (Except of course for 2-rail O Scale, which is an entirely different animal to be discussed in the next installment.)

Be picky when choosing a starter set. In the O Gauge world, Lionel, MTH and Atlas all make their own track and out of the box, they do not mate with each other. To mix MTH and Lionel, you would need to add transition pieces. This complicates things, so picking a starter set can marry you to a track system. In HO, LifeLike and Bachmann have incompatible track systems too. (Your best bet in HO is to select a track system that does not have roadbed attached. It's compatible with just about anything.) When choosing your gauge, keep the amount of space you'll need for your railroad in mind. You can get much more N track on a 4x8 sheet of plywood than O Gauge track. More track means more trains.

What To Know

Here are a few key terms to keep in mind when selecting your toy trains:

Scale and Gauge are sometimes used interchangeably. Scale means the proportions to which the model was reproduced. Gauge refers to the distance between the outside rails of the track. While they are sometimes intertwined, they do not mean the same thing.

Roadbed, in real railroading, is the prepared surface on which the track was laid. In toy and model trains, it is the surface on which your track is laid. Some manufacturers offer track systems that have roadbed incorporated into the track. Others offer track that is simply rails and ties and you supply the roadbed. While it is not required it can help make running your trains more enjoyable. Also, track systems with integrated roadbed are not interchangeable out of the box.

Transformers are electrical devices that convert household current to variable low voltage current for running trains. N and HO trains use DC transformers while S and O Gauge trains use AC transformers.

Next Up

Next time out we will dive in to the world of Model Trains, meaning the scale reproductions and some of their quirks. We will also touch on some key factors to consider when choosing model trains over toy trains.


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