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Imagine a brand new train set circling and puffing around the tree on Christmas morning. Exciting, indeed! In fact, a train set is one of the coolest nostalgic toys you’ll find on the market any time of year. A train set entices the imagination. For some, it inspires an exciting hobby that includes building cars, collecting accessories, and arranging tracks on long and winding journeys. But because there are so many train sets on the market, it may be hard to figure out which would be best for you. That’s where we come in!
At BestReviews, our goal is to provide our readers with honest, unbiased reviews of the best products available. We consult experts, buy and test products, and solicit owner opinions in order to present a clear picture of what you can expect from each item on our shortlist.
Our five favorite train sets are listed in the product matrix, above. If you’d like to learn more about train sets and how to choose one for yourself or a loved one, please continue reading this shopping guide.
The first thing you should know as you embark on your shopping journey is that two types of trains exist: model trains and toy trains. A bit of overlap exists between the two, but the design and function of each is unique. Here are some standout characteristics of model and toy trains:
A model train's handrails aren’t made to bear weight, and its doors can easily come unhinged with too much force. If you’re shopping for a small child who may engage in rough play, a toy train would probably be a better choice.
Both model and toy trains are designed for fun, but the type of fun is different. To get an idea whether a train set is designed for collection or play, take a look at the manufacturer’s prescribed age range.
Some model trains include tiny breakable parts that could pose a choking hazard for younger kids.
At the front of every train is the engine. Just like real life, this is where the train gets its energy. Some engines run off battery power; others must be plugged into the wall.
Battery-operated engines such as the MOTA Holiday set and Lionel’s Frosty The Snowman have a small compartment underneath where you load the batteries. To turn them on and off, you must manipulate a switch on the engine.
Electrically powered engines such as the Lionel Polar Express and both Bachmann sets in our matrix are powered by an electric current in the track itself. The current is harmless and only activates when the metal of the engine’s wheels touches the metal of the rails. You activate them from a transformer box with an On/Off switch that plugs into a wall socket or with a remote control.
Lionel’s electrically powered Polar Express operates by remote control. Using the same principals as an RC car, you can control the speed of the train going both forward and backward. You also have the ability to blow the whistle and make other sound effects.
The locomotives on our shortlist offer a variety of power sources, from classic coal-burning engines to electric motors.
A train just isn’t a train without a full complement of cars trailing behind it. Each set comes with at least two specific types of cars, and it’s possible to purchase additional cars beyond what’s in the box. Here’s a brief list of car types you’ll encounter in the world of trains:
Once upon a time, most train sets were made of metal in order to accurately exude the look of a real train. Nowadays, plastic is the preferred material. It’s cheaper to manufacture, and it makes the trains lighter and the parts easier to replace.
The Polar Express is the only train on our list that employs die-cast metal with plastic parts molded onto it. The rest are made of plastic, although their electronic parts are still made of metal.
Quad hoppers and gondolas come in various designs, but only a gondola has moveable parts that can be placed in or around the car. A quad hopper, much like a coal car, has a plastic mold of “decorative” coal that’s cemented inside the car itself.
The most common track designs are a circle or an oval. This simplicity allows you to easily set up the train straight out of the box.
Tracks are generally plastic, but the rails are made from one of four materials: brass, steel, zinc-coated steel, and nickel silver. Brass conducts electricity the best and is the most common.
Each track connects to the next using a T-slot formation. One piece will have two rods that stick out and fit into the T-shaped slots of the next piece. When track pieces are connected, the metal track aligns perfectly so the train runs smoothly without falling off or bumping into an off-center rail.
You can purchase additional tracks to expand your collection. The more tracks you own, the more different paths your train can take.
Track pieces generally snap together and hold themselves firmly in place, but they’re also designed to pull apart easily.
Earlier we mentioned Thomas & Friends, the well-loved TV show about Thomas the train and his buddies. Indeed, this TV show (as well as the books that preceded it) have inspired many folks to get into train play and train collecting.
Who could forget the lush scenery and stations that Thomas and his friends would visit? Much like that beloved story, you can add accessories and other components to your train set to create a lush environment.
It’s possible to glue track pieces together. However, without solvent, you wouldn’t be able to reconfigure the tracks later.
Below is a list of common items you could purchase to enhance your train set:
The world of model trains has a lot of its own terminology. These words describe what different parts are and how they function. The list of terms is expansive, but here are some of the most common:
The MOTA train set has an additional option that requires mineral water. First, you pour a small amount of water into the smokestack. Then, the train vaporizes it into steam to create a “smoke” effect.
Each train set falls under a specific design lettering which primarily defines its size but is also used to classify the purpose of the set. There are six different scales, but we’ll focus on the three that appear on our shortlist. These three also happen to be the three most frequently used by manufacturers:
Lionel’s Frosty The Snowman steam engine exudes a “classic” look, which includes smoke bellowing from the coal engine.
Die-hard train collectors tend to pay attention to fine details. It’s one thing to say your model looks kind of like the Union Pacific engine; it’s another to say your model looks precisely like the Union Pacific.
If you’re interested in trains with realistic details, there are some areas you should check to make sure what you’re purchasing looks, sounds, and acts like the genuine article. For example, you might want to pay close attention to the following:
If you’ve got an eye for detail, you may appreciate the MOTA Holiday Christmas Train Set and the Lionel Polar Express, both of which are designed to look exactly like a classic steam engine.
Most train sets are fairly easy to set up straight out of the box. Here’s a summary of the general guidelines offered by most manufacturers:
Based on the size of their tracks and trains, Lionel’s Polar Express and Frosty the Snowman sets are the easiest to set up. The MOTA isn’t too far behind; users say their main difficulty with this product is getting the train positioned correctly and making sure the wheels don’t push the track pieces apart.
The Bachmann sets are the most difficult to set up — but calling them “difficult” is a stretch. Owner tell us that the most common problems stem from connecting the track, as the T-shape fixtures can be hard to work with. Once you get the hang of snapping the pieces together, however, it isn’t really an issue.
Except the MOTA Train Set, our other matrix options use a non-toxic liquid smoke formula. Most train sets have some liquid smoke loaded, but they may not come with a refill bottle.
Price is one of the hardest things to gauge when it comes to a train set, because companies put different values on different aspects.
However, we can apply a general segmentation of the pricing into 2 sections — Around $75 and Around $100. Take a look below:
The MOTA and Frosty The Snowman trains fall into this price bracket. Frosty runs on remote control, which makes it a great choice for kids. The MOTA is best suited for older kids who would appreciate a sophisticated model with “real” smoke.
The Bachmann Rail Chief is a detail-oriented train set and one of the better deals you can get in this price range. Bachmann is one of the the biggest companies that makes model trains in the U.S. As such, many of their designs work on the same tracks. So if you were to decide to buy another engine from them, you wouldn’t have to worry about buying additional parts.
Q: How can I change the shape of my track?
A: The easy answer is to experiment and get creative. But if you don’t quite know where to start, there are dozens of online guides that can show you different shapes to make with what you have.
Q: My set has plastic rods. What are these?
A: These accessories are called track clips. They’re an optional addition that helps ensure the tracks don’t slip apart after frequent use.
Q: Can I mix and match train sets?
A: Only if they’re from the same company. Train manufacturers don’t generally allow you to mix and match brands. Your particular model probably wouldn’t work with a different brand.
Q: How can I get mountains and other massive pieces of scenery?
A: You can either purchase pre-made models from a hobby store or research online DIY guides that will show you how to make them.