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Cheap Model Trains

Updated on April 16, 2013

Building a Model Railroad Without Going Broke

Model railroading does't have to be expensive. "Cheap model trains" isn't about price, it's about attitude and learning to do things on your own. Like kitbashing and detailing a plastic RTR locomotive instead of buying expensive brass... scratch building a structure instead of buying a craftsman style kit... learning to find the best deals on model railroading and toy train equipment... and finding money saving projects. After all, model railroading is supposed to be fun, and it's hard to have fun if you're going broke doing it. My aim is to show how to make model railroading a hobby that is affordable to anyone. Hope you enjoy....

(All photos on this page that aren't credited or linked to vendor sites were taken by me and used with my permission)

Inexpensive Atlas HO Scale train set
Inexpensive Atlas HO Scale train set

Cheap Model Trains

How to build a model railroad without going broke...

Model railroading can be expensive - but it doesn't have to be. Cheap model trains aren't just something you can buy, they are an attitude. How do you make your hobby affordable? You ask you wife to take a second job!!! Just kidding... The real way is to adjust your attitude towards model railroading. This will effect the scale you model in, the equipment you run, the size of your layout, even the era you model. Keep reading and I'll explain what kind of train layout is the cheapest to build, where to find cheap locomotives and rolling stock, and how to add cheap buildings to your model railroad. Cheap model trains are a great way to have fun with model railroads without causing money problems, and tracking down good deals adds to my model railroading enjoyment. I think you'll like it too...

Cheap Model Trains means HO Scale - HO Scale is the most affordable scale to model in...

Roundhouse HO Scale Atlantic
Roundhouse HO Scale Atlantic

(Photo Credit: slambo_42 under Creative Commons license)

If you want to build an affordable model railroad, HO scale is the way to go. HO Scale is the most popular scale so it has the highest sales volume which helps prices down. HO Scale also has the most of everything available - locomotives, rolling stock, buildings, people, vehicles, etc. which means it's easier to find good deals on HO scale train stuff. There are deals to be found and ways to save money in other scales, but the easiest way to build an affordable model railroad is to build it in HO Scale. (Read more about model train scales)

Picking the Right Prototype

Small, simple prototype railroads are cheaper to model...

If you want a cheap model railroad, pick a simple prototype to model. You'll spend less money on locomotives, rolling stock, track, and everything else. Trees, people, and cars can cost a lot of money so modeling a desert area and small towns is cheaper than modeling big cities or forests. Wooden buildings are cheaper than brick because you can easily scratch build them instead of buying kits. You might think it's tough to find a good prototype to model but books like Railroads of Nevada are full of short lines that would be perfect subjects for a cheap model railroad. If you simply must have a Class One railroad, then model one of their branch lines.

Cheap Model Train Engines - Affordable HO Scale locomotives for your model railroad...

Tyco Shifter - affordable HO Scale steam engine
Tyco Shifter - affordable HO Scale steam engine

A brand new HO Scale locomotive costs from around $100 to almost $300 - even more if you're talking brass engines. They don't have to be expensive though... Cheap model train engines are available from Atlas, Bachmann, IHC, and others. You can also find older AHM, Athearn Blue Box, Roundhouse, and Tyco locomotives for sale at good prices. The key to finding cheap model train engines is to look around - a lot - and have the patience to wait for good deals. Besides eBay, the best place to find good deals on model train engines are online train stores that specialize in closeout items. Happy bargain hunting:)

In the picture above, the locomotive on top is a high end brass import that cost over $1200 new (this one sold on eBay for "only" $700) while the one on the bottom is in inexpensive plastic locomotive made by IHC. I got it on eBay for less than $60. Obviously the brass locomotive has better detail. It will probably last longer too. But really - if you're on a budget, is the brass engine really worth over $600 (or $1100) more than the cheaper locomotive? I'll bet if a little time was spent detailing the IHC locomotive it would look almost as good as the brass one - especially if you have less than perfect eyesight like I do...

eBay hint: you can often get better deals by purchasing equipment lots instead of individual items. Also, be sure to watch out for excessively high shipping charges.

Cheap Benchwork

Affordable model railroad benchwork...

Model railroad bench work can be expensive - a single sheet of plywood can cost over $30 and on top of that you need lumber for joists, supports, legs, etc. One source of cheap table tops is damaged hollow core doors. These can often be bought for $5 or so from Lowes, Home Depot, etc. You'll still need lumber for the supporting structure, but with a bit of work you can find that cheaply too. In fact one of my fellow lensmasters has created an entire page on finding salvaged wood. If you're looking for cheap lumber for your model railroad bench work, this is the best source of information:

Please Sign my Guestbook - Do you have any cheap model train tips to share?

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      Chris1970 4 years ago

      Good lens.I model cheaply too.I just don't see the need to spend so much money on a hobby.