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    

Broadway Limited C30-7 Powered Diesel Locomotive Atsf #8153 Dcc/sound Ho 1/87Lionel 2340 Pennsylvania Gg-1 Tuscan 5-stripe Electric Locomotive/boxFleischmann Ho Vintage 1339 Fs E428 Electric LocomotiveN Broadway Limited Bli Alco Pa/pb Set W/ Sound Rio Grande Drgw California ZephyrN Scale Kato Engine Sd70ace Mkt #1988 176-8409Overland Omi #5400 Dash 8-40bw Wide Nose Atsf #556 Ho 1/87 Brass Dcc/soundThe Car Works O-scale Brass Model Ca&e Niles Car & Mfg Co. #301-308 Woosung WbmHallmark Brass Missouri Pacific Eagle 8 Car Set Plus 3 Car Add OnLehmann Lgb Rhb Lok 205 2045 Locomotive Made In Germany UsedWestside Models Hon3 D&rgw K-27 2-8-2 #464 Pro PaintedLionel 8060 Tuscan Red Pennsylvania F-3b Mint ObMccoy Standard Gauge Set TcaLionel 6-21797 Southern Pacific Daylight Steam Passenger SetUsra Light Mikado 2-8-2 Djh Masterpieces In Miniature W/brass Kit Ho [mr24.1]K-line K-1415 Reading Plymouth Switcher Train Set 1:48 Scale W/ 6 Ore Cars.mintAmerican Flyer Trains 343 Nickel Plate Road 0-8-0 "yard Goat" Switcher 1953-54Mts Imports Ho Model Of 1936 Philadelphia 2001-2020 Series P.c.c. Trolley KitAristo Craft G Scale Art22201 Central New Of New Jersey Diesel EngineVintage Alco Models Ho Brass Pennsylvania Railroad O1c Electric LocomotiveHo Scale Heljan Bullet Train X2000 Wmc, Sp, Mt-5. 4-8-2, W/ Skyline Casing, CustomBrass O Scale 2r Dc 0-4-0American Flyer Diesel - Santa Fe Alco 360/364 (a + B Unit)Lionel 1875w Western & Atlantic Coach W/whistleLionel 027, The Halloween General, Add-on Set (6-52405)O Scale Circus Wagon" Little Red R.h Wagon" - Painted- Circus Train Accessory Kato 106-6114a N Scale Gunderson Maxi-iv Dttx Nib With Emp ContainersMth Rk O/o27 30-2367 New Haven Sw-9 Diesel Switcher Engine W/sound 3 Rail, ExcBrass O Metalon Cnwx Cylindrical Covered Hopper C/p No Reserve Atlas Ho Ge Dash 8-40cw C40-8w Canadian National Cn Custom Painted WeatheredRare New Marx Birthday Cars Set In Box 11 Pieces Wow!! Boxcars Reduced Price!Lionel O Scale 8 Straight Sections Complete With Hardware Prewar For The 700-eHo Brass Train: Css&sb South Shore Custom Painted 700 Electric Loco Nickle PlatAtmos Clock 15 Jewels #47104 Le Coultre. Not Working3rd Rail Canadian Pacific D-10, 4-6-0, Late Version Brass O Scale #1057 2-railLot Of Ten (10) Weaver O Scale 3-bay Coal Hoppers, Western Maryland, No TrucksLionel Postwar Steam Engine #681 And Pennsylvania 2046w-50 Tender CarDigitrax Booster And Controller SetAtlas "o" Scale Track - Over 100 Feet Of Track! Pfm Samhongsa Brass Ho Amtrak Superliner Passenger Sleeping CarMth 30-2274-0 R36 4-car New York City Subway Set Worlds Fair W/sound, Lights MibBroadway Limited Dual Mode D&h, Rf-16a "shark" & Rapido Dh CabooseLionel Southern Pacific Non-powered Scale Dash 9-44cw Diesel #8129 Sku: 6-39579Sunset, Sp, Mt-5, 4-8-2Nse Special Run 17-69 Weathered Graffiti Railbox 50' Box Car 2 Car Set # 11Athearn Ho #2586 Bombardier Control Car & Coach Cars & Locomotive #2622 TreGenesis Ho Scale Monon Engine ~ 2 SetLionel 6464-1 Wp Boxcar Variation With Interior Roof Ribs & ObRio Grande Southern Rotary Plow Kit #413 Durango Press O ScaleFvm N Scale Ns, Norfolk Southern Tuxedo Ge-es-h #1982 - 70466Mth 20-2963-1 Erie Lackawanna U25b Diesel Engine O Scale Locomotive Train 2.0 ElHo - Brass - Palace Car Co. - Milwaukee Road Coach Passenger Car #655Marklin Ho: 00796-01 To 00796-07 D-zug Car Tin SetAmerican Flyer Track Gang Set S-ga#49808 New,mint,sealed Shipping Box,wow,l@@k !Athearn Delaware Otsego System # Lasb102 Alco Rs3 Dcc Ready Fjg Cacv Dos NyswMth Premier 20-6784 Gm&o Full Length Vista Dome Passenger Car Show MeVintage Rare American Flyer Service, Parts, Price Catalog 1953-1957 Red BinderNew York Tars Huffliner Ho Trolley, Streetcar (custom Painted)Lgb 2076 D Steam Locomotive Very Rare N Scale 3 Passenger Carsbyrapido Algoma Central # 5474 5519 5483