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]

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    

Lionel Prewar Black 763e And 2226wx Whistle TenderG Scale - Aristocraft -union Pacific 2-8-2 Mikado Locomotive & Vanderbilt TenderG Scale - Lgb - 2067 Motorized Track Cleaning Locomotive Train!G Scale - Aristocraft - Central New Jersey Blue Comet 4-6-2 Steam Locomotive!Lionel Standard Gauge No. 400e Gunmetal Locomotive - Tender Sold Separately MmmG Scale - Lgb - 70457 Baltimore & Ohio F7 Aba Diesel Locomotive Set!G Scale - Lgb - 2028d D.s.p. & P.r.r. Mogul 2-6-0 Steam Locomotive Train!Lgb 70457 Baltimore &ohio F7 Aba Diesel Set Ln/boxLive Steam 1.5" Scale 7 1/2" Track Cp 173 4-4-0 American Casting Kit Blueprints Lgb #70457 Baltimore & Ohio F7 A-b-a Limited Edition SetAccucraft K-28 1:20.3 Live Steam Engine + Tender Nib Never UsedScarce Postwar Lionel 6517-75 Erie Bay-window Caboose~mint Unrun~w/nice Ob Ives Pre-war Limited Vestibule Express O Gauge Train Set #1125 Locomotive 1913Marx Army Supply Train 500 Set 12 Pieces Cannon Machine Gun Tank Shells Radio NrLionel Standard Gauge #421 Westphal Passenger Car - Original W/ Box C-7 - MmmLionel Standard Gauge #420 Faye Passenger Car - Original W/ Box C-7 - MmmRare American Flyer 375 Gm Gp-7 Diesel Lgb #20570 Santa Fe F7 A Unit (used)Lionel Standard Gauge Passenger Car Set: 418 Parlor, 419 Combo & 490 Obs, Nice(lot #1740) Bachmann Spectrum Ho Train 80 Ton Three Truck Shay No. 81901 Coach Yard Ho Brass Southern Pacific Harrman Horse Express #7212-23 Class 70-bh-American Flyer "s" Gauge 5108w Boxed Set-1951 Sf A&b-3 Aluminum Pass Cars-look!1959 Original Unpainted Postwar Lionel 3672 Bosco Automatic Milk Car, Ex/obPostwar Lionel O Scale 773 Hudson Steam Locomotive 4-6-4Lionel Standard Gauge No. 400t Gunmetal Tender For 400e Locomotive - C-7 MmmLgb #28570 New Haven F7 A Unit Gem Models / Samhongsa 0-6-0 Camelback - Reading - O Scale 2-rail, BrassAster Gauge 1 Brass Live Steam Baltimore & Ohio Atlantic Grasshopper Loco #299Lionel Standard Gauge #422 Tempel Observation Car - Original W/ Box C-7 - MmmLionel Standard Gauge Prewar 390e Steam Locomotive Tender 390Lionel 9e Standard Gauge 2-4-2 Bild-a-loco Electric Loco, C-8 Ln, Runs GreatHo Scale Dcc Athearn Genesis Bnsf #9376Ho Brass Southern Pacific Steam Locomotive Katsumi Balboa Mt-3 4-8-2 Train & BoxLgb #20892 Sumpter Valley Mallet With Sound (no Outer Box)Westside Models Southern Pacific F5 2-10-2 Locomotive & Tender Ex/boxBachmann 81198 Spectrum Ely Thomas 36 Ton 2-truck Shay NibLionel Standard Gauge No. 400-w-gm Whistle Tender For 400e Locomotive - C-7 MmmBrass Hon3 Rio Grande K-36 Mikado Project- Free ShippingUsa Trains R22122 G-scale Gp9 Locomotive Western Pacific #7151964 Vintage Boxed Lionel Trains-#6414 Automobile Transport Car-mib-c-9 PristineGenesis Ho Sd70ace Bnsf W/dcc And SoundLgb #2056 Queen Mary Series Rio Grande Diesel Locomotive NibLionel 385e Steam Locomotive & Tender - RestoredAntique Lionel #385e Gray Standard Gauge Steam Locomotive Engine Vintage PrewarLgb #91950 Amtrak High Speed Train Set, Collection ItemLionel 763e Gray O Gauge Hudson Prewar Steam Engine And TenderSunset Models Ho Scale Brass Southern Pacific Ac-12 4-8-8-2 Cab Forward #4292 ExWmc Ho Brass Southern Pacific Fire Train W/4-6-0 And 2 Water Cars C/p Ob V.g.Atlas O Scale 2 Rail D&h C-628Dtd - Ho Scale Brass Pfm Tenshodo Late 1975 Run Up 4-6-6-4 Challenger #3950Bailey's Produce Co. Js#2 Fine Scale Miniatures Fsm Ho Scale Craftsman Kit NosHo Athearn Rtr Southern Pacific Sp Sd45 #7480Samhongsa Brass N Scale Sp 4-8-2 Mountain Class Mt-4 Steam Locomotive & TenderMth Standard Gauge Green State (passenger Car) Set, Prod. Samples, C-8 Ln PlusThe Coach Yard - Southern Pacific "glen Tarsan" Cy #1405 Ho Korean BrassSango Brass Ho2 1/2 (hon30) S.r.& R.l. #4 Rail Car(lot #1720) Ahm Rivarossi Ho Train Union Pacific Big Boy 4006 4-8-8-4 LocomotiveFranklin Watchworks. Js#4 Fine Scale Miniatures Fsm Ho Scale Craftsman Kit PartsRare 1964 Lionel Ho 0864-285 All Detergent Dealer 19364 Promotional Display, NosO Scale Brass Camel Back & Tender Runs Great Looks Great No Reserve