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    

Usa Trains G Scale Model Train Sd70 Bnsf Diesel Locomotive With Sound No 9840Postwar Lionel 2339 Wabash Gp-7 Diesel Locomotive~w/ob & InstructionsBalboa-ktm Japan Brass Ho Scale S.p. Ac-12 Cab Forward 1968 Original Box-beauty!Lionel 685 4-6-4 Die-cast Steam Locomotive W/6026w Tender Ex/boxAmerican Flyer "s" K5340t Yard King Boxed Set-1953 343 0-8-0 Switcher-runs-look!Lgb 21181 Denver And Rio Grande 2-6-0 Mogul Steam Loco #19 Ex/boxRare / Unopened / Mint Still Wrapped Bergs Brass Nswgr D.53 Locomotive & TenderPfm United Crown-japan Brass Ho N&w Y6b 2-8-8-2 Loco & Tender-1959-runs-look!Ho Brass Sunset Models Southern Pacific Ac-9 2-8-8-4 Steam LocomotiveLgb (20490) Amtrak Genesis Diesel Locomotive In Fantastic Condition!A Good Working Mamod Live Steam Locomotive With Waggons And TrackAccucraft Al84-201a"g"denver & Rio Grande Western San Juan Coach #326 - Metal WhSunset Models 170a-1 Ho Brass Sp 2-8-0 Steam W/whale Back Tender #2552 Ex/box3rd Rail 4470 B&o Mikado Q-4b 2-8-2 Steam Loco/tender 3-railAristo-craft G Scale Dash 9 Cn LocomotiveAccucraft Al84-201e D&rgw "san Juan" Coach #325 - Metal Wheels NibRare Vintage Bergs Brass Nswgr C.30 Tender Locomotive, Original BoxBoston & Maine K-8b 2-8-0 Brass Custom Paint HoAristo-craft #21514 Reading 2-8-2 Mikado Steam Locomotive Large G Scale Trains% 1960's American Flyer New Haven Engine 494 & 495 W/ Train Cars & MoreEarly ( C 1911 ) Carette O Gauge 0-4-0 Live Steam Locomotive No 500/35Postwar Lionel 2350 New Haven Ep-5 Electric Locomotive~w/nice Ob & InstructionsO Scale Brass L&n 4-8-2 Steam Locomotive & Tender #402 (2-rail)Impressive Lionel #381e Olympian State Set Train Loco 12 Wheels 1920s Original!Lionel 2341 Jersey Central Fm Trainmaster-original Fm!% 1960's American Flyer Engine 287 With Train Set & More Lot-43Gilbert American Flyer S Locomotive 21910 Fe-a 21910-1 Fe-b 21910-2 Fe-santa FeAmerican Flyer #336 Engine & Tender Union Pacific 4-8-4 Northern ChallengerOverland Emd Bl-2 Ho Scale BrassTenshodo Ho Brass Great Northern Railways 4-8-4 Steam Lcoomotive & Tender ExBoston & Maine / Santa Fe Berkshire 2-8-4 Ho Scale Westside Brass Brass Ho Scale Alco Models Norfolk & Western G1 Class 2-8-0 #6 And TenderLionel No. 5a Service Station Test Set, Test Bench *1938 No ReserveLionel 2289ws 736 Steam Engine Set Ex/boxHo-p2k Heritage Virginian 2-8-8-2 With Sound & DccLionel Postwar 736 2-8-4 Berkshire Steam Locomotive And 2671wx 12 Wheel TenderHo Bli Broadway Limited 013 Norfolk & Western #1217 2-6-6-4 Steam Locomotive DccBoston & Maine B-15b 2-6-0 Overland Ho ScaleHo Brass - Alco Rok-am Sp Southern Pacific Mk-6 2-8-2 Steam Locomotive Lionel 3366 Operating Circus Horse Car & Corral Ex/boxHo Walthers Proto 2000 920-32004 N&w #2037 2-8-8-2 Steam Locomotive Dcc/soundLionel 2360 Pennsylvania Gg-1 Powered Electric Locomotive -type Iv (rare) ExLionel 2368 Baltimore & Ohio F3 Ab Diesel LocomotivesAthearn Ho #88663 Union Pacific Turbine Sound UpgradedHo Walthers Proto 2000 920-32003 N&w #2012 2-8-8-2 Steam Locomotive Dcc/soundStandard Gauge American Flyer Adams Antique Train Engine Nr Alco Ho Brass New York Central K 3-q 4-6-2 Locomotive & Tender S-113 In ObLionel Prewar Standard Gauge 29 New York Central Nyc Day CoachLionel 2352 Pennsylvania Ep-5 Electric Locomotive/boxHornby Dublo Oo Dl1 Lner A4 4498 Sir Nigel Gresley Clockwork Body Only Pre-war Lionel 726 Berkshire 2-8-4 Die-cast LocomotiveBroadway Limited 464 Ho Union Pacific Emd E8a #930 W/dcc, Sound/boxHon3 Tomix 2-4-0 Disney Western River Railroad Locomotive4 Post War 1950's Lionel Train Illuminated 2531 2532 2533 2534 W/ Boxes RailroadLionel 2344 New York Central F-3 Aa Diesel Locomotive SetAmerican Flyer 0-8-0 Steam Locomotive & Nickel Plate Rd Tender Model Rr Train LvAristo-craft 20120 Usa Stainless Steel 10' Diameter Curved Track (12) NibLionel 2331 Virginian Fm Trainmaster Powered Diesel Locomotive3rd Rail 3017 Brass C&nw H-1 Class 4-8-4 Steam Locomotive & Tender W/tmcc 3-railBlw 2000 Brass Silverton Northern Railroad Bus " Casey Jones" (1:20.3 Scale) Ex