The 10 Best Train Sets
This wiki has been updated 26 times since it was first published in June of 2015. There is a very good reason why train sets have been staples in toy boxes around the world for generations: they are fascinating to play with, inspire imaginative games, and vary in complexity to suit all ages. In fact, some of our choices are great for those who are actually young or simply young at heart. Check out our selection to find the perfect gift for the railroad lover in your life. When users buy our independently chosen editorial choices, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki.
October 23, 2020:
There's just something magical about a train, and this popular all-ages toy continues to be a favorite for kids and adults alike. For this update, we've removed the Lego Duplo My First Train Set, which is an older, rarer model whose price has grown too high (although it's ratings are still excellent). In its place, we've added the Duplo Steam Train, a similar toy that's equally well-reviewed and less than a third of the price.
We've also added Melissa & Doug Take-Along, a portable kit with an affordable price that will appeal to many families. We've also removed the Bachmann Trains Thoroughbred, another older model that has been surpassed by better sets, like the Bachmann Rail Chief Ready To Run.
November 18, 2019:
Train sets appeal to all ages, so we've kept a range that will suit both kids and adults. But keep in mind that not all sets are appropriate for everyone, so you'll want to check the manufacturer's recommended age range to ensure that the user doesn't feel too challenged or bored. Some sets come with small pieces, too, so you'll need to supervise young kids.
With that said, we have opted for the Brio My First Railway over the also-popular Melissa & Doug Deluxe Wooden Railway. Whether one manufacturer is better than the other is open for debate, but the latter choice has blocks that tend to fall over, which can frustrate younger users. The Brio option, on the other hand, is more straightforward and rated for little ones as young as 18 months. For the 2 to 5 crowd, the Lego Duplo My First Train Set remains the option to beat, since it offers the fun of trains and Lego Duplo. We've added the VTech Go! Go! Smart Wheels, as well. The VTech model is interactive and makes a lot of noise, which is engaging, but it has a ramp that can be tough for kids to operate by themselves, which is a bit of a drawback.
For adults and older, more mature children, we still like the Lionel Polar Express Remote, but we've updated our pick to the Bluetooth version. It has an app that allows you to control the train with your smartphone, a nice touch, along with interior lighting, a puffing smoke unit, and plenty of other exciting features. There's also the Bachmann Rail Chief Ready To Run. It's attractive, but some find it a little touchy, so it is perhaps not the best choice for those who are impatient.
Real Trains Model Railroad For the true train fanatic, the high cost of the Real Trains Model Railroad might be more than justified, especially since this option is sized to actually carry passengers. Of course, this means you probably can't set one up in your living room, but if you have the yard space, you'll be in for hours and hours of fun. realtrains.com
Kato N Scale Amtrak Superliner Although a plane will get you where you want to go much faster, passenger rail can be a relaxing, scenic way to go. For those who appreciate this type of travel, the Kato N Scale Amtrak Superliner set is a fine choice thanks to detailed interiors and smooth-rolling trucks. They are not all-inclusive, though, so you'll need to invest in tracks and other accessories if you don't already have them. katousa.com
Choo-Choo Choosing A Great Train Set
For the toddler or pre-school aged child, a train set with tracks that firmly click together and stay in place is a good choice.
Miniature train sets (much like their full-sized, real world counterparts) have an almost universal appeal. The right train set can amuse an adult modeling and engineering enthusiast for hours on end just as a toy train set can envelop a child in a whole afternoon of engaged, imaginative play. Whether you appreciate a train set that is designed to resemble a scaled-down version of a real locomotive and cars in every minute detail, or if you just want to find a great, wholesome activity your kids can enjoy when it's cold or rainy outside, you can surely find the right set to match your needs and budget.
One of the more common uses for an adult's train set is as a decoration that circles the Christmas tree. If you are looking for a train that will serve in this purpose, make sure you first measure the approximate circumference of your tree stand and tree skirt. Then, compare that size to the perimeter of the track that your set can create. If you are considering a train set that uses a common track gauge (often called track scale as well), then acquiring additional track should be easy, but confirm that before you commit to a set. It's also important you confirm that any trains and tracks you already own are of the same gauge/scale of a new train if you hope to merge the sets.
When buying a children's toy train set, make sure you know where the child will play with the trains (if possible) and take his or her age, coordination, and temperament into consideration. Some sets come complete with their own table and can be easily enjoyed on any surface; others can prove frustrating to use on carpets or uneven floors, or simply when used by younger hands with poor fine motor skills. For the toddler or pre-school aged child, a train set with tracks that firmly click together and stay in place is a good choice. For slightly older children, or if playtime often involves an adult on hand to facilitate construction and "repairs," then almost any train set will serve a child fine.
Note that several children's brands of toy trains use the same wooden track size. You can use trains and tracks from the celebrated companies Brio and Melissa & Doug interchangeably, so don't worry if your kids already have a few pieces from one company when considering another brand.
Ideal Accessories For Your Train Set
Perhaps the best accessory you can get for a train set is simply additional sections of track. The more track you have, the larger and more elaborate routes you can craft for your trains. Once you have lots of track, you need a place to create your rail yard and to lay out the rails for the train's journey. A tried and true option is a single sheet of plywood supported on a pair (or set of four) solid sawhorses.
Also, look for railroad crossing signs and signals that often feature actual working lights.
To create an instant and easily replaceable feel of either a rural or urban setting, cover the plywood in either a green or a gray sheet. (Or use a white sheet for the appearance of snow.) Natural rocks can create the feel and appearance of mountains and hills, and artificial geological and flora features are available in abundance from hobby shops or online retailers. Another natural accessory widely available in many parts of the country is moss, which tends to stay green long after it is plucked from the ground and placed near your trains. Also, look for railroad crossing signs and signals that often feature actual working lights.
For the children's set, or for the playful adult modeling enthusiast, building block sets such as those offered by LEGO can make the ideal accompaniment to your trains. Not only are there many pre-fabricated LEGO sets that look great with trains (such as their City Builder series or their Wild West-themed sets), but you can also use LEGO bricks, Lincoln Logs, or a host of other building toys to create your own structures from scratch.
The History Of The Model Train
Many diehard train set enthusiasts will take umbrage with the term "toy trains," instead insisting that these items should be referred to as "model trains" exclusively. And indeed there is an argument to be made there when discussing the finest, most detailed train sets available. For when well designed and built, a miniature train set is almost indistinguishable from a full-sized train, save for the fact that it is at a 1:76.2 size ration, to name one common scale example.
German toymakers began producing simple toy trains in the 1830s.
As the first working locomotive driven train was not invented until the year 1804, and as a practical train was not in service until 1812, it will of course come as no surprise that model train sets have existed for less than two centuries. It only took two decades following the first use of trains and railroads for craftsmen to begin creating model trains, though.
German toymakers began producing simple toy trains in the 1830s. These first little trains were usually made out of solid brass or tin that was melted and poured into molds. Wooden wheels were sometimes attached and many models had simple moving parts, though at the time model tracks had yet to be developed.
One popular early toy train was the Birmingham Dribbler, a toy train with a tiny functioning boiler that was heated by a small onboard burner and that could actually roll forward under its own power.
The first electric train was released in 1897 and soon these ever more elaborate sets were sprawled out across living rooms floors and in garaged all around America and around the world.