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November 6, 2023

Model Train Sets 101

All Aboard these Awesome Model Trains!

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Closeup of a model train under a Christmas tree.

Shutterstock / New Africa


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There’s something magical about a model train running on a track around a Christmas tree.  Whether it evokes the feeling of a bygone era when families boarded elaborate train cars to visit loved ones over the holidays, or simply the enjoyment on a child’s face as a train circles around the tree, a traditional train set can add wonder and excitement to your Christmas decor.  

If you’re a first time railroader, before you run off to the hobby shop or order a set online, we have a few tips you might want to “choo choo” on before laying your holiday tracks.  

All Aboard the Gauge Express: Finding Your Perfect Track!

Model trains are classified by scale and gauge. Scale refers to the size of the train, and gauge refers to the width of the track. There are six major scales and all scales are identified by a corresponding letter(s): G, O, S, HO, N and Z. G trains are the largest and Z are the smallest.  

O is one of the most popular scales for use underneath a Christmas tree. You can go smaller with HO, but O makes a bigger statement and is more durable, especially if there are small kids and pets around!   

If you’d like to create a small table display, we would recommend a train set as small as N scale  or even, Z, depending on how much space you have available. 

Consider a Set

The world of model trains is extensive, and there are many ways to customize. However, for a first time buyer who is focused on holiday decor, we recommend purchasing a set. This Lionel Pennsylvania Flyer set, for example, is O scale and comes with everything you need to plug in and run under your tree!  

Lionel Pennsylvania Flyer model train.
Lionel Pennsylvania Flyer model train.
Lionel

If you are looking for something smaller, there is also this HO Scale from Bachmann.

Bachmann HO Scale model train.
Bachmann HO Scale model train.
Bachmann HO Scale model train.

For a tabletop display, you might want to consider this holiday themed N scale Bachmann’s Spirit of Christmas set

Bachmann “Spirit of Christmas” model train set.
Bachmann “Spirit of Christmas” model train set.
Bachmann Trains

And even smaller, for a Z scale display, there is the Marklin Mini Electric Train Set that comes with a few decorations to help create your Christmas display. 

Marklin Mini Electric train set.
Marklin Mini Electric train set.
Marklin

There are also larger G scale sized battery operated sets, including ones inspired by beloved characters and movies such as Thomas the Tank Engine, The Polar Express, Frozen, Mickey Mouse, and more!   

Create a Magical Setting

While your train might be navigating through wrapped Christmas presents, you can also add snow, buildings, and other holiday decorations to create a magical experience around and under your tree.  

NOTE: If your floor is carpeted, place a plywood or foamcore board or build a platform underneath the tracks to keep your track flat. THis also prevents carpet fibers from getting on the track and damaging your train. And if you have a live tree, be sure to clear the needles from the track on a regular basis. 

If you’re making a tabletop display, there are endless decorations to help you create a winter wonderland scene. From artificial snow, to trees, to animals, people and buildings, almost anything you can imagine is available from craft and modeling stores. Are you baking gingerbread this year? You can even create gingerbread houses as part of your display!

Engage the Kids

Model trains are a great activity for the whole family to engage together as well as a terrific way to inspire your child's imagination and creativity. The magic of model trains at Christmas can also inspire a hobby that can grow. While they may not choose to pursue a career in electrical engineering, the skills they learn from helping design and build will be an asset they carry with them throughout their lives.  

Mother and son play with model train set under Christmas tree.
Mother and son play with model train set under Christmas tree.
Shutterstock / kryzhov

One final tip… if you plan to expand your track someday, make sure to read the fine print on any set you're considering to ensure that you can combine it with additional tracks. If you want to learn more about model trains, there are great resources on the National Model Railroad Association Website. Here is a link to their beginners guide.  

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