Why Buy Model Train Sets?
The top performers in our review are Lionel Pennsylvania Flyer, the Gold Award winner; Lionel 2-4-2 LionChief Scout, the Silver Award winner; and Lionel Polar Express, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a system to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of these 10 products.
There is something nostalgic about building a model train set. For most model train set enthusiasts, it reminds them of their childhood, grow listening to the sound of trains clanking on their tracks or the train-whistle blowing in the middle of the night. You can share a piece of your childhood with your kids by giving your child their first model train. Not only can this be the perfect gift for both adults and children, but during the holiday season it can also serve as an annual family decoration that circles the Christmas tree.
Model trains come in a variety of different sizes or scales. These measurements along with more information can be found in our learning center articles on train sets.
- G Scale: Typically 17 inches long, 5 inches wide and 7 inches tall
- O Scale: Typically 11 inches long, 3 inches wide and 3 inches tall
- HO Scale: Typically 6 inches long, 2 inches wide and 2 inches tall
- N Scale: Typically 3 inches long, 1 inch wide and 1 inch tall
The model train sets in our review are expandable – you can buy more cars and track pieces for your model, but they are only expandable within the same scale size. For example, you can't connect an HO-scale car to a G-scale train car.
All trains sets come with a locomotive, but the rest of the train cars vary from set to set. Some train sets come with several different types of train cars. Tender, tank car, boxcar, caboose, flatcar, gondola and passenger cars are the most common types of train cars you'll find in a train set.
The trains in our review have snap-together track pieces. You assemble the track by pressing the ends of two track pieces together. This makes for simple assembly for children. Some track sizes are larger or longer than other trains, but nearly all of the train tracks that we reviewed are expandable.
Train Sets: What We Tested, What We Found
You want a train set that is going to stand the test of time. Train sets are something to pass down to your children and for them to pass down to their children. We went through extensive lengths to make sure that you not only purchase a great-looking train, but one that is going to last you and your family a long time.
We took a detailed look at all of the train cars and their respective build quality. We checked to see if the paint is highly detailed or smudged or if the manufacturer used stickers instead of paint. We also checked to see if the train cars, locomotives and wheels were made out of plastic or metal. Metal components will handle wear and tear better and last longer.
We found that the most detailed and best-built model trains are the Lionel Pennsylvania Flyer and the Lionel 2-4-2 Scout. Both of these model trains have all metal locomotives with die-cast tires that will withstand wear and tear. The lack of plastic parts not only makes these locomotives feel sturdy, but it makes them more authentic than any others in our lineup.
The two trains with the most flawless paint jobs are the Bachmann Thomas' Fun With Freight and the Lionel Thomas and Friends train sets. Both of these trains have superior paint quality with perfect powdered-blue base and red trim. There are absolutely no paint chips, smudging or any other defect we looked for on either of these trains. These trains show elite craftsmanship and will make any model enthusiast happy.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. We obtained the units in our comparison by loaner models from manufacturers. We also purchased any models we were unable to obtain from the manufacturer. The manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
What Else Is Important in Selecting a Train Set?
Although the quality of the each train's design and the durability were the main things we researched, some train sets offer additional features, such as accessories or remote-control capabilities, to add to your model-building experience. Below are some additional features to consider when searching for the best model train set for you.
Some of you may be looking for a model train set that comes with many accessories so you can create an entire landscape or city around your train set. Model train sets, such as the Bachmann Chattanooga, come with 48 additional figures, 36 telephone poles, 48 signs and a signal bridge that let you or your child create a world around the train set. While these figurines or additional model pieces don't affect your train's performance in any way, they definitely add fun and flair to your model-building experience.
Another train set that features many additional pieces is the Bachmann Rail Chief. This train set offers 36 additional figurines, 24 telephone poles and 48 additional signs. Unlike the Chattanooga, the Rail Chief does not come with a signal bridge.
All of the trains have a power source that plugs into the terminal section of the track and a control with a dial so you can adjust the speed, but the dial is connected to the track by wires. Train sets, such as the Lionel Pennsylvania Flyer, provide a remote control, so you can control the speed of the train, along with the headlight, whistling and locomotive smoking features, all from a remote control. The Lionel 2-4-2 LionChief also has these same capabilities. Both train sets require 3 AAA batteries to operate the remote control.
Train Sets: Our Verdict & Recommendations
The best model trains all cost at least $150. The Lionel LionChief Pennsylvania Flyer is our Top Ten Reviews Gold Award winner. It features extraordinary paint detail and a sturdy build quality. The locomotive is made of metal and will outlast all plastic train counterparts. It is also one of the most authentic-sounding model trains we reviewed. As the model train circles around the track, the sound effects made by the speaker in the tender make this sound like a miniature train in your household. Kids and adults of all ages will be impressed in every facet by this model train.
The Lionel 2-4-2 LionChief Scout is our Top Ten Reviews Silver Award winner. This model train features the same heavy and sturdy build quality as the Lionel Pennsylvania flyer. The paint quality is almost on par with our Gold Award winner, but we found some small paint smudges on the conductor of the locomotive and on the orange stripe that runs down each side. These details were very minute, but these can make all the difference in the world to a model enthusiast. This model train also features the best bell and whistle noises of all the trains we reviewed. The amount of detail put into the paint and sound quality make this train worth every penny.
One of the most recognizable trains today, The Polar Express, is our Top Ten Reviews Bronze Award winner. This model train is the only G-gauge train that we reviewed and is the largest of all trains. Unlike our top two best model trains, this is made from hard plastic and doesn't operate on electricity. This train is completely battery powered. The track is even plastic and easy connects together allowing the young children assemble this train without any issues. This is a classic train that all children will enjoy.