Train sets for kids reach back into the past and span generations. Model railroading is considered one of the great family hobbies. Train sets come in so many shapes and sizes that it's hard to know where to begin.
Some toy train sets are cartoonish, but most strive to authentically recreate miniatures of real railroad engines and railway cars. If you're looking for a realistic battery-powered train set as a great gift for kids and beginners, the Lionel Pennsylvania Flyer Freight is a good choice.
Before you invest in a train set, there are some factors to consider, such as what power source it uses and the types of tracks it comes with.
Wall outlet: Train sets that plug into the wall are made so the engines draw their power from the track itself. This type of power has long been a favorite of hobbyists who want to run their trains without the bother of changing batteries.
Battery power: These train sets have a compartment on the underside of the locomotive. Batteries are usually larger C- or D-cell types and you install them like batteries in most devices.
Remote control: Remote controls are also battery-powered, usually by smaller AA and AAA batteries. The remote control sends commands to the locomotive to change speed and direction and to trigger sound effects.
Materials: The body of most tracks is made of plastic, but the rails have several different types of metal. Look for train sets that have brass rails because it conducts electricity really well.
Connectivity: All sets come with sections of track that join together by means of specially designed links. Track sections may click or snap together and others have one plug into the next. Look for tracks that are easy to assemble, stay smoothly connected and are easy to take apart.
There are four great eras of trains in America, defined mostly by the types of locomotives that were most prevalent.
The Pioneer Era (1860-1910)
These are the early days of railroading that most people associate with the Wild West made famous by movies and television. Locomotives were steam engines powered by wood or coal.
The Golden Era (1910-1940)
Steam engines were still the kings, but diesel and electric-powered locomotives began to emerge as more powerful and more efficient choices that also didn't make all that smoke.
The Transitional Era (1940-1970)
This is the era that dominates the toy train set world because it includes a bit of everything. During this era, steam and diesel locomotives worked side by side in nearly equal numbers.
The Modern Era (1970-today)
Freight cars dominated the industry, especially technologies that automated the loading and unloading processes.
Most sets come with only a few railroad cars. Because train sets have nearly infinite possibilities, enthusiasts can add as many cars as they like. They are limited only by how much track they have. Some of the more popular railroad cars are gondolas, tank cars, freight cars, boxcars and cabooses. Better sets have freight cars that can be loaded and unloaded.
Model railroading fans want to create small worlds around their train sets. A good starter set includes a train station or depot. Better train sets include signals, signs, lights, buildings, people, tunnels, trees and lakes.
The primary cost factor is the number of cars included in the set. The secondary aspects are the quality of the construction and the level of detail. You can expect to find simple train sets with a few cars for $100 or less. Above $100, and it depends on the number of cars, the track size and the extras that surround the train’s world.
A. Anywhere you have a dry, firm and flat surface. Before assembling the track, lay it out loosely to see what kind of room you have. If your train set is powered by a house current, place the power pack near a room outlet or power strip.
A. Good sets snap together easily. Align the surfaces of two sections and push them together. Double-check your connections by running your fingers over the rails to ensure the transitions are smooth and seamless.
What you need to know: This battery-powered train set is a great gift for kids and beginners.
What you’ll love: Detailed and authentic, this train set is a quality starter set that includes a steam engine and tender, a gondola with crates and a caboose with a center cupola. The remote control operates the train, whistle and bell. The 24 pieces of track can make a 6-foot-by-4-foot oval, a 4-foot circle or a 53-by-53-inch rounded square to fit anywhere.
What you should consider: You need six C-cell batteries to operate the train and three AAA batteries to operate the remote control. No batteries are included.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
What you need to know: This General-style locomotive brings the Christmas spirit to kids, hobbyists and holiday decorating.
What you’ll love: The locomotive and tender of this train set pull a gondola with three packing crates of gifts headed for Christmas delivery. You can set up the 32 track pieces as a circle, oval or rectangle. The locomotive plays authentic announcements and train sounds, including a bell and whistle.
What you should consider: You need six C-cell batteries for the train and three AAA batteries for the remote, but they're not included. Some owners quickly tire of the train sounds.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
What you need to know: This train set includes buildings, signs, telephone poles, people and everything you need to recreate the golden era of trains.
What you’ll love: The electric train set comes with a power pack and speed controller. The 0-6-0 steam locomotive has operating smoke and a headlight. It pulls a tender, boxcar, open hopper car, tank car and caboose. The 4-foot-by-3-foot oval is made with Snap-Fit E-Z Track.
What you should consider: There are a lot of pieces to keep track of.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
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David Allan Van writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.