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50 years of loving trains

Model Railroading for Beginners

Model Train Sets Are Good For Starters.


I am asked from time to time at model train shows that our model train club attends whether or not to buy model train sets.

The first rule of thumb is to remember that you get what you pay for. However, many of us got our start with a train set. My first HO set was by Trix back in the 1950s. It was three-rail AC that allowed one locomotive to be powered by the center and left rail while a second one was powered by the center and right rail, sort of like Lionel trains but in HO. The rolling stock was British. But I loved it.

A few years ago when I wanted to experiment with G scale I purchased an LGB "starter" kit. It worked great and still does.

Model train sets in the smaller scales, such as HO scale, can be somewhat problematic. To keep the cost down there is a tendency by manufacturers to include power control units that are minimal at best, brass track, and rolling stock with plastic oversize "horn hook" couplers. Having said that, the model train sets have improved dramatically in recent years. Sets bt Walthers Trainline and Bachmann are good starter sets. Bachmann even has a DCC Digital Command Train Set, and of course, a Thomas & friends set.

While a starter set may be all you want at first, if you get "hooked" on model railroading (and I hope you do because it's a fascinating, lifelong hobby), there are a few things I suggest you do sooner than later:

  • Upgrade the power supply and keep the one in the set for operating accessories like lights
  • Move up to DCC if your pocketbook will afford it. This will allow you to do so much more, such as running multiple sound-equipped locomotives at the same time.
  • Replace any brass track with nickel-silver. You'll get better electrical pickup. You still need to keep the rail clean. DCC, especially, needs clean track.
  • Change the couplers to Kadee metal knuckle couplers or other brands. I still believe Kadee are the standard although some may disagree with me. I've used just about every type at one time or another.
  • Replace the "trucks" (complete wheel sets) if they are "Talgo" style, that is the coupler is mounted to the wheelset and swivels. Body-mounted couplers perform better, especially when backing up.
  • Replace plastic wheelsets with metal wheelsets. They add weight to the car while lowering the center of gravity, track better, and spread less dirt on the rails.
  • Weight the cars to NMRA standards for better overall performance and make sure the coupler height above the rail is correct.

You'll find lots of information on my other pages about these and other subjects. I'm not suggesting you do all this at once. Take your time and learn one skill at a time. I recommend you invest in some good "how-to" books or order the Model Trains Beginner's Guide compiled by Dan Morgan. It's full of useful information and will guide you every step of the way so that your model railroad is satisfying and works well.

I have one further tip: Don't crowd your layout with track, but make sure you have at least one passing track (two turnouts facing each other). Most of us always put in too much track and don't leave enough space for scenery, buildings, roads and people. Check the model railroad magazines, have a look at other layouts in my train photos, go to model train shows and visit clubs in your area or while travelling. And you can always send me a question via my Contacts page.

Underhill North staging yard
model railroad city at night



Go from "model-train-sets" to the Starting Your Model Railroad.

Read about a hobby cost comparison to put your modeling desires in perspective.

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