Many O-gauge trains are built to played with and passed on for generations. Even many starter sets include die-cast steel 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.
The 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 dollars.
Why Not O-Gauge?
Cost: an O-gauge starter set or layout is at least twice the cost of an HO gauge layout of the same (scale) size and quality.
For an outdoor or "garden" layout, look for quality G-gauge equipment, which are often engineered to withstand weather. Many G-gauge trains have very durable heavy plastic bodies, so they are less likely than O-gauge trains to be damaged by rough play by children. However, since G-guage is even larger than O-gauge, you would need a huge amount of space to create a realistic looking indoor layout. Good G-gauge brands include Aristo-Craft, MTH One Gauge, LGB, Marklin 1-Gauge, and USA Trains.
The 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 a room.
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.
Where to Shop?
Find a local store that specializes in O-gauge model trains. A good way to find nearby stores is to check http://www.hobbyretailer.com/. A big advantage of buying locally is that the dealer will repair or replace defective merchandise under warranty - and due to the many mechanical and electronic parts in O-gauge trains, defects are unfortunately not rare. If you save $10 by buying mail-order and then spend $20 mailing a defective piece back, your savings is negative!
Although there are many train dealers online, few have prices that are signficantly lower than your local dealer. An online store with good service and fairly good prices is Trainz.com. The store WholesaleTrains.com (also known as Lantz Hobbies) has a large selection and low prices, but their shipping charges are unpredictable; it is best to telephone and get a firm total for shipping before placing an order. I have had good experiences ordering from The Western Depot, a California dealer that always has a large selection of sale items.
Avoid Ebay until you have some experience: the prices can be higher than from a reputable dealer. Quality O-gauge trains are a low-volume
business; enormous discounts below list prices do not exist, except for the least expensive starter sets.
Model train shows are a great place to see operating layouts and 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. To attend York, you need to join TCA.
There are two auction houses that specialize just in toy trains: Stout Auctions and NETTE.
I have found the grading of trains by these houses 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.
Pre-War, Post-War, and Modern Eras
Many hobbyists like to collect antique trains to display or run. Trains 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 Flyer.
The main post-war brands are Lionel and Marx.
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.
You 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 (post-war).
Which Brand to Buy?
The biggest brands are Lionel, MTH, and Atlas-O. Smaller companies include Williams, Weaver, RMT, and 3rdRail. Another company, K-Line, has gone out of business, but old stock can still be found in many stores (in particular, The Western Depot) and many of its items have been reissued by Lionel and RMT. Engines, cars, and transformers are
interchangeable (except as regards remote-control, see below), so you are not locked into one brand. An interesting Czech company, ETS, sells hand-made tinplate trains.
Tranditional Lionel track is called "tubular" track, so-called because the rails are hollow, formed from metal sheets, with unrealistic widely-spaced ties. Starting in 2003, 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).
MTH starter sets include a similar but incompatible track called RealTrax, which they
introduced years before Lionel. RealTrax includes 31 inch radius curves, while the minimum radius of Fastrack is 36 inches; these few inches actually give you a lot more flexibility with RealTrax on a small layout (e.g. 4 x 8 feet). MTH also makes a non-integrated roadbed track system called ScaleTrax. MTH was founded in 1980 by a model-train enthusiast who wanted to recapture
the glory days of model railroading, and ever since has built a strong
reputation for reliable and high-quality equipment. MTH 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!)
Atlas-O concentrates on producing detailed, high-quality scale-size trains aimed at adults who want to create realistic ("high rail") layouts, but in 2010 introduced a low-cost line of starter sets called "Industrial Rail", which come with a track with integrated roadbed that is similar to Fastrack. Atlas O's higher-end track is called "21st Century Track" and comes in a wide variety of curve diameters and styles of switches. Higher-end Atlas-O engines are compatible with Lionel TMCC remote control.
Williams 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. Their starter sets are considerably pricier than those from Lionel or MTH.
Weaver is another small company that manufactures O-gauge trains and buildings right in Northumberland, Pennsylvania. It is the only company described here that builds trains in the USA. It appeals mainly to adult collectors who want the very highest quality and detail. They do not sell starter sets and their engines are pricey, but they also have a huge range of rolling stock (cars) and wooden and plastic buildings which are very affordable.
RMT (Ready Made Trains) is a small family business, associated with the G-scale train company Aristo-Craft, best known for its line of small diesel engines called BEEPs. In 2012, it is introducing some larger diesel and electric engines, and also re-issuing some former K-Line products, including SuperSnap track. SuperSnap track is nice compromise between traditional tubular track and "roadbed" track such as Lionel Fastrack. Instead of a solid plastic roadbed, rails are held together by closely-spaced heavy plastic ties.
3rdRail makes extremely detailed, expensive, limited-edition models out of (painted) brass for adult collectors.
ETS (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 that include track and a transformer use 2-rail track and DC power, and include cars with a different style of coupler than is used by the companies above. However, all of their engines can also be ordered set up for 3-rail AC operation and with Lionel-style knuckle couplers.
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
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 buying!
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, even
in more expensive equipment, but there are some exceptions.
Both MTH and K-Line make freight cars with metal
die-cast bodies, but
a line of several such cars will be too heavy
for many engines to pull. 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
Almost 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.
The higher wattage of a transformer, the larger layout it can handle without overheating. Get a transformer with at least 80W of power. If you have inherited an old Lionel transformer that is in good condition (no frayed wires or cracks in the case), you can use it with modern trains. 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.
Traditional O-gauge trains include a electro-mechanical horn and (rarely)
a bell. Although such trains still appear in starter sets,
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.
Higher end engines also are remote-control ready. There are two
different (incompatible) remote control systems, one by Lionel and also licensed to
other companies such as Atlas, and the other by MTH. Both systems allow
multiple trains to be independently operated on the same track from a hand
held remote (including detailed control of sounds), and can operate remote
switches and accessories.
Trainsounds - engines with Lionel's most basic electronic sound system
Railsounds - engines with Lionel's more advanced electronic sound system, which allows multiple sounds to occur simultaneously (e.g. chuffing + whistle + bell)
TMCC (TrainMaster Command Control) - engines with Lionel's remote control
capability and electronic sounds system
TMCC II Legacy - Lionel's updated remote control system, released in 2007. It has many new features but is backward compatible with original TMCC equipment.
Loco-Sounds - engines with MTH's electronic sounds system only
Proto-Sounds DCS (Digital Command System) 2.0 - engines with MTH's remote
control capability and electronic sounds system.
Proto-Sounds DCS 3.0 - the latest version of MTH's electronic control system, introduced in 2010. It is backward compatible with Proto-Sounds 2.0 but offers many new features.
Remote control allows you to run multiple trains on the same track without complex wiring of different sections of your layout.
Lionel requires (in addition to a TMCC or TMCC II Legacy engine) a TMCC or TMCC II Legacy remote and control base. The original TMCC remote and base cost about $150, while TMCC II Legacy costs about $300.
MTH provides a number of options for controlling Proto-Sounds engines. The most advanced is a DCS Remote Control and a DCS Track Interface Unit, which together cost about $300. By giving up a few more advanced features and the wireless handheld unit, you can instead buy a DCS Commander unit for $150 (alone), or for $220 together with a 100W transformer. At the lowest end, for a mere $30 you can buy the DCS Remote Commander, which controls the basic functions of a single engine at a time. Many MTH starter sets include the Remote Commander.
If you have money to burn and want to run both TMCC and Proto-Sounds trains, you can wire a Proto-Sounds Track Interface Unit to control a TMCC base.
Remote controlling switches and operating accessories can require additional hardware. For regular Lionel switches, you need to add a TMCC Accessory Switch Controller ($75), or use Fastrack TMCC switches. (These cost about $25 more each than regular remote control Fastrack switches.) MTH requires the addition of a DCS Accessory Interface Unit ($100).
Recommended Starter Sets
Plan on spending $300 - $350 on a good starter set that includes a die-cast steam locomotive, several cars, a loop of track, and a transformer. Don't forget to buy some extra track, too!
Any of MTH's starter sets are good quality, but be aware that the Lionel name appears on a few plastic, battery-operated G-scale train sets you should avoid. Some good choices include:
Any MTH Ready to Run set. Of particular note are some inexpensive sets with Proto-Sound engines and a Remote Commander, such as the Pennsylvania 4-6-0 Steam Freight or Passenger sets, which retail for around $300 - $350 (MSRP is $400). The slight additional cost of a Protosound set over a Loco-sounds set (about $50) is well worth it.
Any Lionel set that comes with an 80 watt CW-80 transformer. Some of Lionel's cheapest sets come with a 30-watt Powermax transformer, which your layout will soon outgrow. Lionel often changes which transformer comes with a particular set year to year, so check carefully before making a purchase. Currently the Sante Fe Flyer and New York Central Flyer come with the CW-80. Note that none of the Lionel starter sets include TMCC engines.
What about the Lionel Harry Potter Hogwart's Express O-Gauge set ($350 list, but often discounted to much less)? It looks great, and I owned one once, but I found it disappointing. The engine is not a smooth runner - it slows down dramatically on curves, and cannot negotiate any curve tighter than O36, so it is not possible to run on older O31 track. The cars are very light and easily derailed. And, disappointingly for the HP fan, there are no HP character figures included.