Model railroad trains first became popular when department store owners incorporated them into their Christmas window displays in the 1920s, and they've been a fixture of childhood and beyond ever since. Today model railroading is an extremely popular hobby, with both collectors and modelers who focus on every imaginable aspect of railroad history and operations.

Model trains have been available since the beginning of the railroads, but they weren’t considered a hobby until the 1880s and boomed in popularity in the 1930s.

Vintage model train collectors and hobbyists tend to specialize by scale or gauge (O scale, HO scale, N scale, Z scale, G scale), by type (brass, tinplate, steam, etc.), or by manufacturer (Lionel, American Flyer, Marx, Märklin). Until the National Model Railroad Association was formed in 1935, there were no standard gauges and a train from one manufacturer wouldn’t necessarily run on a track from another. The NMRA developed the standardized gauge system that is still in place today.

O scale model trains, built to a 1:43, 1:45, or 1:48 scale reached a height of popularity before World War II. True O scale trains ran on a two-rail track and were built to scale. Companies like Lionel and American Flyer made O gauge trains, but these ran on a three-rail track and are not as collectible as O scale.

HO scale model trains were introduced in the 1930s and became popular in the 1950s. HO, short for "Half O," is scaled to a 1:87 size and has the widest available range of rolling stock and accessories of all model railroad scales. Most HO scale trains run on a two rail track.

N scale is built to a 1:160 scale, much smaller than O and HO. First introduced in the 1960s, N scale model railroads are in demand because they don't require a lot of space to set up a layout. An even smaller scale, Z scale (built at a scale of 1:220), was first introduced in Germany in 1972 and became common in the U.S. shortly after.

G scale trains are the largest model trains and can be used for either indoor or outdoor (aka 'garden') model railroads. G scale trains, built at a scale of 1:22.5, are the largest electrically-powered model trains...

HO scale trains are currently the most sought-after, although O scale was most popular in the 1930s and '40s.

The earliest model trains were mostly made of tinplate. Tin trains, which were cheap and efficient, were produced until shortly after World War II, when other materials took the lead. After WWII, soldiers returned to the U.S. with brass model trains from Japan, sparking an interest in brass railroad sets. Although still made today, the most collectible brass model trains are those produced in Japan up through the 1970s.

Until the 1950s, steam locomotive models were more popular than diesel, and they continue to be desirable among collectors today. Steam model trains are categorized by wheel configuration and railroad name.

Some people tend to collect more by the railroad than the manufacturer, even creating railroad layouts that are historically accurate. Some of the most popular railroads to collect and recreate are the Pennsylvania Railroad, New York Central, Chicago and North Western, Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, Santa Fe, and Great Northern.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Airfix Model Railways

Airfix Model Railways

Dave McCarthy's Airfix Model Railway treasure trove is an in-depth archive of the company's plastic railway kits fr… [read review or visit site]

Gateway NMRA

Gateway NMRA

This great reference site for model railroaders, from the Gateway (St. Louis) division of the NMRA (National Model … [read review or visit site]

HOseeker.net

HOseeker.net

This site is a treasure trove of HO scale model railroad manufacturer catalogs and other reference information, inv… [read review or visit site]

Postwar Lionel Trains Library

Postwar Lionel Trains Library

Bernie Schulz’s Lionel Trains Library focuses exclusively on postwar Lionel trains and accessories. The site cont… [read review or visit site]

Eric's Trains

Eric's Trains

Eric Siegel's site displays his collection of O-gauge/O-scale trains, tracks, turntables, and other accessories. A … [read review or visit site]

Tech Model Railroad Club of MIT

Tech Model Railroad Club of MIT

MIT's model railroad club, as one might expect, has one of the best websites for learning about how people play wit… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Lgb G Scale Trains No 70685 Orient Express Train Set Limited Edition W/ Sound ExLionel Post War 726 Berkshire & 2426 Metal Tender 1948 Model-orig Box-very Nice!American Flyer Wide Gauge Brass Piper Locomotive W/vanderbilt Tender RestoredMax Gray Brass O Scale Sp 4300 Class 4-8-2 Mountain Steam Loco & Tender 2-railLionel Prewar #42 Dark Green New York Central Electric LocomotivePacific Fast Mail Crown On3 Brass D&rgw Class T-12 4-6-0, Built By FujiyamaUsa Trains G Scale~santa Fe 752 Gp-9 Lionel 80 Prewar Vintage Racing Automobile SetLionel Prewar O Large 263e Deluxe Steam Loco With Tender!!! Nice One!!!Aster G Scale Brass Climax Live Steam Locomotive/boxWeaver G1085-lp Great Northern 4-8-2 P-2 Brass Steam Locomotive & Tender (3-railLionel #390/390t Black Steam Locomotive And TenderLgb 'g' Gauge Motorised Trolley Car Tram Loco No.17 #817Precision Scale Company 15029 O Scale 2-6-6-2 Brass Steam Locomotive & Tender-Mth 10-1246-0 Great Northern 400e Tinplate Steam Engine (traditional) Ln/boxHo Scale Bli Broadway Limited 009 Prr #6716 4-8-2 M1b Steam Locomotive Dcc SoundLionel 6-28306 Ge Es44ac Evolution Hybrid Diesel Ln/boxOverland 0155 Class 70-3 Willamette 3-truck Brass Shay Steam Locomotive & TenderIves Standard Gauge 3245r Multi-wheel Locomotive Made By Model Engineering WorksOverland/ajin Propane Turbine With Tender - Union Pacific Up - 2-rail, BrassMth Premier 4-4-4-4 T-1 Duplex Steam Engine 20-3043-12 Steam Ho Scale Rivarossi Engine Power UnitVintage Prewar Lionel Train Store Display Wooden Locomotive Rare With BoxOverland Models Brass Ho Scale Up Fef-3 4-8-4 #836 Dcc MintG Scale Grizzly Flats Train Set; Lgb 20130 Chloe 0-4-2 Steam Loco 2 Lgb 30430 LnMth Premier 4-6-4 Hiawatha Steam Engine 20-3096-1American Flyer #4696/4694 Steam Locomotive And Tender (piper Locomotive)Brass Mack Plant Switcher #1 By Lee Snover O Scale- 2-rail Ln/boxBalboa Ho Scale Brass Southern Pacific 2-8-0 Class C-9 Steam Loco & Tender LnG Scale Bachmann Climax 25 Ton Little River Logging Co. LocomotiveIves #3238 Black Electric LocomotiveMth 10-1196-0 Flying Colonel Set - Traditional (blue W/brass) Nib6-14295 Lionel #990 Legacy Command Set For Legacy And Tmcc O-scale Trains (complLionel Postwar 221 Santa Fe Alco Diesel A Unit Olive GreenSunset Models Ho Scale Southern Pacific C-19 2-8-0 Brass Steam Locomotive & TendIves Standard Gauge 1134 Locomotive Made By MthMth Premier Burlington Pioneer Zephyr Diesel Passenger Set W/ps2 20-2250-1Pair Of 1937 Pre War Lionel 763e Hudson Locomotive Cast Iron Tops (part #700e1)Union Pacific Challenger 4-6-6-4 Steam Engine Williams New In BoxMth Premier 2-8-4 Berkshire Steam Engine W/proto-sound 2.0 20-3071-1Key Imports 4294 Ho Scale Brass Sp Cab Forward Ac-12 4-8-8-2 Steam Locomotive &Lionel 10 Interurban Powered And 1010 Trailer Original Parts 1913 Mfg TrolleyRy Models 2201501 O Scale Brass Speeder/boxAmerican Flyer #43226 Black Steam Locomotive And TenderOverland 0156 Class 70-3 Willamette 3-truck Brass Shay- 2-rail/boxSunset Models 2843 Southern Pacific 2-8-0 Brass Steam Loco & Tender - 2 Rail Ln3rd Rail 5654 Brass B&o T-4a 4-8-2 Steam Locomotive & Tender/boxHo Bli Broadway Limited 017 Prr #5528 4-4-4-4 T1 Steam Locomotive Dcc SoundUsa Trains Emd F3ab LocomotivesAmerican Flyer Prewar #4637 Green Shasta Electric LocomotiveBachmann Oo 32-401ds Br Green Class 25/3 Diesel Loco D7638 Dcc Sound Boxed #442Lionel 6-28254 Lionmaster Candian Pacific Sd90mac Diesel Loco W/tmcc & RailsoundLgb G Scale Trains No 23570 Union Pacific F7-a Diesel Locomotive ExcellentIves O Gauge #1122 Steam Locomotive 4-4-2 With TenderLionel Postwar 2349 Northern Pacific Gp9 DieselAmerican Flyer Prewar #4000 Red Electric Locomotive And 3 Passenger Cars Ktm Ho Scale Brass Pennsylvania 2-10-4 Steam Loco & Tender #6453Sunset Models Ho Scale Brass Southern Pacific 2-6-0 M-9 Locomotive & Tender LnBeaver Creek O Scale Collector's Edition Brass Oldtime 3-car Set - 2-railGem Models Sh-109 Ho Scale Brass Prr Class N1s 2-10-2 Steam Loco & Tender