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Model Train Sets 101

All aboard these awesome model trains!


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There is 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, seeing the anticipation 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 are a first time railroader, before you run off to the hobby shop, or order a set online, Santa.com has a few tips you might want to choo choo on (get it?) before laying your holiday tracks.  

Let’s begin. 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). These include G, O, S, HO, N and Z.  G 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 are looking to create a small table display, we would recommend something smaller like N, or even the smallest, Z, depending on how much space that 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!  

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

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

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. 

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, Disney, and more!   

Create a magical setting! 

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

Note, if your floor is carpeted, you should place a plywood or foamcore board or build a platform underneath the tracks to keep your track flat and to prevent carpet fibers from getting on the track, and damaging your train.  Also, if you have a live tree, make sure to clear the needles from the track on a regular basis. 

If you are making a table top 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. For years, model trains have also been a traditional gift, which is another reason they are often associated with Christmas!   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.  

One final tip… if you plan to expand your track someday, make sure to read the fine print on any set you are 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.