trains are built to be played with and passed on for generations.
Even many starter sets include die-cast locomotives and cars with
many metal parts.
It is easy to incrementally upgrade a
starter set with even higher-quality cars and locomotives and trackside
accessories as the years go by
What about cost?
Although O-gauge equipment initially costs more than HO gauge, it not
only lasts longer but holds its value. Used equipment can be
resold easily. Rarer pieces sometimes appreciate.
best O-gauge locomotives are both finely-crafted machines and true
works of art. You might not be able to collect Porsches, but you
could collect some of the best toy trains ever produced. You can buy
pristine examples of many collectable locomotives for a few hundred
Why Not O-Gauge?
space needed for an minimal O layout is larger than for an HO layout,
but not by as much as you might think. If you are happy with a "toy
train" style, you can build a nice layout in 4 x 8 feet, or even 3 x 6
feet - see my Layouts directory. A
very realistic ("high rail") layout, on the other hand, can easily fill
If you like the idea of really
big all steel trains in the style of the earliest model electric trains
(from around 1900-1930), consider Standard Gauge instead of O. The Lionel Corporation
brand of MTH
produces reproductions of standard-gauge trains from the early pre-war
era (as well as pre-war O replicas), and original Standard Gauge
equipment can be easily found at auctions (see below). Standard-gauge
track looks like 3-rail O-gauge, but is about twice the width.
an outdoor or "garden" layout, look for quality G-gauge equipment, which are engineered to withstand weather. Most
G scale trains have durable heavy plastic bodies, so they are less
likely than O-gauge trains to be damaged by rough play by children.
G-gauge is about the same size as Standard Gauge, but always uses
2-rail track and DC power instead of 3-rail AC. G-gauge brands include MTH One Gauge, LGB, Marklin 1-Gauge,
Hartland Locomotive Works,
and USA Trains. See GardenTrains.org for lots of
information and links.
Where to Shop?
You might be lucky enough to have a model train shop nearby.
Check the "dealer locator" links on the Lionel website, or check http://www.hobbyretailer.com/.
Most general hobby shops carry only a limited selection of model
trains, and dedicated model train shops are becoming fewer in number
each year. Most dedicated train shops are tiny operations whose hours
can be irregular, so you should telephone in advance before traveling
Although there are many train dealers online,
few have prices that are signficantly lower than a local
dealer. An online store with good service and good prices is Trainz.com. I have had good experiences
ordering from The Western Depot,
a California dealer that always has a large selection of sale items.
I've not purchased anything from Trainworld,
but their prices on starter sets and close-out items are pretty low.
The country's largest model train dealer is Charles Ro in Malden,
in the Seattle area is one the nation's most attractive train stores
for all scales, and has a growing online and mail order business. On Long Island, people recommend Nassau Hobby.
train shows are a great place to see operating layouts and buy new and
used merchandise from a large number of dealers. There probably is a
show near you at least once a year. Many traveling shows are organized
by Greenberg Shows.
The Train Collectors Association
(TCA) organizes a huge show twice a year in York,
Pennsylvania. In the Rochester, New York, area, the Rochester
Institute of Technology hosts the Tiger Tracks Train Show each
An auction house that specialize just in toy
trains is Stout Auctions. I have found the grading of trains by Stout to be reliable, and
winning bids usually reflect true market value. Grading and prices at
other auction houses can be highly variable. If you can't attend live
auctions in person, I have had good experience with using LiveAuctioneers to place
bids on items before or during auctions. Search on "Lionel" at the site
to find upcoming model train auctions.
What about Ebay?
There are indeed a enormous number of O-gauge trains available on Ebay
from both dealers and private individuals. I have bought and sold
many items myself. Before bidding on Ebay, check the history of
the completed-sale prices of similar items. The quality of
grading is highly variable between sellers.
Pre-War, Post-War, and Modern Eras
produced up to 1942 are called "pre-war", and those from 1945 to 1969
"post-war". No model trains were manufactured in the USA during its
involvement in WWII.
"Tinplate" trains are the earliest
pre-war trains, which are constructed out of sheet metal rather than
die-cast metal and plastic. "Tinplate" is sometimes used generically to
refer to any pre-war train or to any toy-style train.
The main pre-war brands are Lionel, Ives, and American
The main post-war brands are Lionel and Marx.
trains were and are much less expensive than Lionel trains, and also
much less realistic and more toylike. Early tinplate Marx trains can be
charming. Later plastic Marx trains are just ugly and cheap.
can educate yourself about models, terminology, and prices of pre- and
post-war trains by getting the Standard Catalogs of Lionel Trains by
David Doyle, volumes 1
(pre-war) and 2
Which Brand to Buy?
Engines, cars, and transformers are interchangeable (except as regards
remote-control, see below), so you are not locked into one brand.
The best-known and biggest selling brand is Lionel.
The company was originally founded in 1900, but has gone through
several changes of ownership. Its lines of O-gauge models, in
order of increasing cost and detail, are LionChief ready to run,
LionChief Plus, Lionel Legacy, and VisionLine. In addition to
O-gauge, Lionel recently reintroduced American Flyer S-gauge.
S-gauge is in between O and HO in size, and runs on 2 rail track.
The second biggest name in O-gauge trains is MTH, which
was founded in 1980 by a model-train enthusiast. It makes
several different product lines. Their RailKing line of traditional
trains includes many starter sets. Their Premier line is aimed at
adults who want accurate models of real trains. Finally, MTH's Lionel Corporation
brand produces reproductions of tinplate O-gauge and standard-gauge
trains from the early pre-war era. (Confusingly, Lionel Corporation is
not part of Lionel!)
concentrates on producing scale-size models of diesel trains aimed at
adults who want to create realistic ("high rail") layouts. Some
Atlas-O engines are compatible with Lionel TMCC remote control.
was a small independent company producing replicas of postwar Lionel
trains until the owner retired in 2008. Fortunately, rather than
disappearing, the company was bought by Bachmann, a large toy company,
which had previously been known for HO and N gauge trains. Williams
concentrates on replicas of Lionel trains from the 1950's, and do not
support remote control.
K-Line, now out of business,
produced both conventional control and TMCC compatible trains, sets,
and accessories that were a good value. K-Line products can still be
found at some dealers, such at the Western Depot.
(Electric Train Systems) hand-produces all-metal tinplate trains in the
Czech Republic, and sells them at surprisingly low prices given their
quality. Their products are hard to find in the US, but can be ordered
directly from the company or their US distributor. Their train sets can
be ordered configured for either DC or AC power, 2 or 3 rail, and with
a variety of different kinds of couplers. To be compatible with US
standards, you'd choose 3 rail AC with knuckle couplers.
All brands of trains can run on any brand of 3-rail track. Styles of track include:
The most traditional track, introduced in the Pre-War area, is called "tubular" track, so-called because
the rails are hollow, formed from metal sheets, with unrealistic
Most Lionel starter sets come with Fastrack track. The rails are attached to
a wide, solid plastic base, so it is fine to use even on heavy
carpet. The Fastrack manual switches are unique in that they will
not derail the train if it runs into it "backwards" (all brands of
automatic switches have this feature).
Most MTH starter sets include a similar but incompatible track called
RealTrax, which they introduced years before Lionel.
For large permanent layouts, most modellers choose a flexible
track system, for smoother running, added flexibility, and better
modeling of curves. Flexible track and mixed fixed-radius and
flexible track systems include Gargraves, Atlas O, and MTH ScaleTrax.
A big share of the cost of a layout is switches - prices range from about $60 to $120 each.
The Lionel Fastrack
system includes both manual and remote switches. Their remote
switches can also be ordered or upgraded to include built-in TMCC
wireless control (see below about TMCC).
The MTH RealTrax system includes remote control switches.
you are building a toy-like tubular track layout, used
Lionel 022 remote switches are a fine choice. You can find them
on Ebay or from dealers for around $25 each. With just a little
cleaning with circuit cleaning spray and a drop of oil, even Pre-War 022
switches work well. For a smooth running toy-like layout, with a little
ingenuity you can use old Lionel 022 switches with any flexible track
How can you judge the quality of a (new) engine or rolling stock?
Aside from the obvious visual detail, a simple rule of thumb is that
higher quality pieces tend to use less plastic and more metal (steel,
aluminum, or brass):
The body of steam locomotive should be die-cast metal.
The upper body of a diesel engine will be plastic, but if you turn it
over all you should see is metal. All of the companies mentioned
above include such engines in some of their least expensive starter
sets - but there are some unfortunate exceptions, so check before
For rolling stock, check whether the "trucks" (the things the
wheels attach to) are plastic or steel. Steel trucks are sturdier
and their weight helps keep the car on the track. If the trucks
are steel, check if the carriage (the bottom of the car) is steel as
well - another good sign. The rest of the body is likely to be
plastic. The more expensive passenger cars from all three
manufacturers are made of aluminum. Most pre-war rolling stock is made
of thin stamped steel called tinplate.
Transformers, Rails, Sounds, and Remote Control
all O-gauge trains are electrically compatible - if the motor is in
good condition, you can run a train from 1935 on a modern layout.
Trains intended for the US market from all eras run on AC current,
using transformers that deliver 0-18 volts AC, and are designed to run
on 3-rail track. Pre-War Lionel and modern MTH trains run equally well
on AC or DC current. Trains designed for the European market are often
built to use DC current and 2-rail track. Top-of-the-line trains from
MTH (their "Premiere" line) can be easy modified by the owner to work
on 3-rail or 2-rail track. The smaller companies described above often
sell both 3-rail AC and 2-rail DC versions of their products.
engines with the notable exception of Lionel LionChief engines (see
section on remote control below) can controlled "conventionally",
meaning their speed varies with the amount of voltage supplied by the
The higher wattage of a transformer, the
larger layout it can handle without overheating. Get a transformer with
at least 50W of power. Non-refurbished transformers from the 1950's and
before are a fire hazard. A number of dealers on Ebay sell refurbished
Lionel transformers from the 1950's. However, to protect the delicate
electronics in modern engines from being damaged, you should add an
inexpensive fuse block between the transformer and the track. You can
buy appropriate fuse blocks
from Scott's Odds N Ends.
In fact, it is an excellent idea to add a fuse block even if you have a
brand new transformer.
O-gauge trains include a electro-mechanical horn and sometimes a
bell. Most modern O-gauge locomotives include electronic sound
systems of varying degrees of sophistication. They provide sounds of
chuffing, steam release, brakes, whistle, bell, and radio chatter from
a train crew.
engines sold by Lionel and MTH have some kind of wireless
remote control system. Lionel has two kinds
of control systems, TMCC and LionChief. The MTH remote control
system system is called Proto-Sound. To add wireless remote
control of switches and accessories, you need to buy adapters for
either the TMCC or Proto-Sounds system. TMCC and Proto-Sound
controllers cannot digitally control engines of the opposite brand, but
can control them in "conventional mode", meaning varying the speed of
the engine by varying the voltage from the transformer. It is
possible to run both systems simultaneously. MTH also sells a
module that allows a Proto-Sound base (see below) to control a TMCC
Following is the terminology for the systems produced over the
past decade by the two companies:
Trainsounds - engines with Lionel's most basic electronic
- engines with Lionel's more advanced electronic sound system, which
allows multiple sounds to occur simultaneously (e.g. chuffing + whistle
(TrainMaster Command Control) - the
original version of Lionel's remote control capability. It has
two main components, a handheld wireless controller and a base that
receives commands from the controller and transmits them through the
track to TMCC engines. The base can also be wired to controllers
for switches and accessories, and to a voltage controller that allows
conventional mode control of non-TMCC engines. A few accessories can
receive signals from the base.
II Legacy - Lionel's updated remote control system, released in 2007.
It has many new features but is backward compatible with original TMCC
equipment. In 2017, this system was renamed just "Legacy", and new
Legacy engines were given both Bluetooth Lionchief control capability
as well as TMCC control capability.
LCS Lionel Control System - an extension
to TMCC II Legacy that allows trains to send information via special
infra-red sensor based track sections to the controller. Note that
two-way communication between trains and controllers has always been a
feature of MTH Proto-Sound.
Lionchief Remote Control -
a simple remote RF control system packaged with most current Lionel starter sets. In 2017, Bluetooth remote control using
an iPhone or Android app was added to this system. Starter set engines
with this kind of control can only be
operated by a Lionchief remote or phone app, and cannot be operated in conventional mode.
Lionchief Plus Remote Control - a more
advanced version of Lionchief, which adds the ability to control smoke
and audio volume. Most importantly, engines with this kind of control can
be controlled conventionally.
Loco-Sound - engines with MTH's electronic sounds system
DCS (Digital Command System) - MTH's original remote control system.
All versions of Proto-Sound are forward and backward compatible: you
can control older engines with newer controllers, and newer engines
with older controllers (but with fewer features). As with TMCC,
the two main components are a wireless handheld accessory and a base,
which MTH calls a Track Interface Unit (TIU). The TIU relays
signals bidirectionally to engines, and with additional modules can
also control switches and accessories.
Proto-Sound DCS 2.0 - engines with MTH's 2nd generation
remote control capability and electronic sounds system.
Proto-Sound DCS 3.0 - the latest version of MTH's electronic
control system, introduced in 2010.
2017, MTH introduced iPhone and Android apps that can control
Proto-sounds trains using a relatively inexpensive WiFi adapter, the
DCS Explorer. This adapter is now included instead of a physical speed
control in most starter sets. While Bluetooth as used in Lionchief is
limited to a distance of about 20 feet, the range of WiFi is limited
only by the size of your home's WiFi network. In fact, if you are
clever about setting up your home's WiFi router, you could control your
MTH trains from another city, while watching them using a home
addition to the DCS Explorer, which directly controls Proto-Sound
engines from a WiFi app, MTH sells a DCS WiFi Module that uses
the WiFi app to control a Proto-Sound base, and thus, all parts
of a Proto-Sound layout.
Recommended Starter Sets
"Ready to Run" set includes an engine, cars, track, and
transformer. RTR sets are often available at discounts of up to
20% off list price. The cheapest MTH RTR sets are more expensive
than the cheapest Lionel RTR sets because MTH includes
Proto-Sound 3.0 engines while Lionel includes less fully-featured
LionChief engines. (LionChief engines cannot be operated
conventionally, as noted above.)
You don't have to start with a ready to run set, of
course. You can instead buy a engine, cars, track, and
The RTR Railking Pennsylvania Eagle Steam Freight Set with
Proto-Sound 3.0 including WiFi phone app control lists for $470.