model train set on track

Model & Toy Trains: Fun for Kids of All Ages!

Life-size trains roared to life at the outset of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s, and they immediately captured our imaginations. It was not long before model and toy trains emerged—wooden and metal toys resembling trains were first made in Europe in the 1860s—and the collecting hobby was born among children and adults alike. Today, the toy train collecting and modeling hobbies extend to many different types of people, and the Train Collectors Association (TCA) is home to most of them! 

Are you new to collecting, building, running, buying, or selling model and toy trains? You’ve come to the right place! This area of our TCA website is a basic introduction to getting started with trains!  

What Kinds of People Love Trains? 

In short—all kinds of people! The toy train hobby is for everyone, from young kids to the young at heart. Those who are the most enthusiastic about trains got by some specific names, but if you’ve ever had a train under the Christmas tree, know who Thomas the Tank Engine™ is, taken an Amtrak trip, or commuted to work by rail, you may just be a train enthusiast! 


The term “railfan” describes those who love real-life, full-size trains. But just as real trains inspired the creation of toy and model trains, many railfans are also scale modelers or toy train collectors. After all, it isn’t exactly easy to own a full-size train as a hobbyist! Most railfans love to take pictures of trains, study their history, visit railroad museums, and read magazines like Trains and Railfan and Railroad

Scale Modelers 

Scale modelers build and run small models of “the real thing” from the ground up—often using pre-designed kits. Intricately designed and crafted with meticulous skill, these scaled-down trains often run on track layouts built to reflect actual or typical railroad locales. 

Toy Train Operators 

Today, toy trains produced for the mass market are rather realistic, if not absolutely to scale. Those made by manufacturer Lionel provide a good example. Folks who dedicate more of their time to purchasing trains so they can set up tracks and run the trains are considered toy train operators. An older term used many years ago to describe such fans is “hi-railers.” 

Train Collectors 

If it isn’t clear already, most toy train enthusiasts probably fit into several of these categories. And if you have multiple toy or model trains in your home—whether you built them yourself or not—you’re a train collector! 

And you’re in good company. There are tens of thousands of people who seriously collect toy trains. Some specialize in specific periods and types. Some build train layouts to run their trains, but the greater emphasis is on collecting, preserving, and displaying. 

Collectors belong to groups like the Train Collectors Association, share information and advice, and often attend regional “train meets” to further exchange technical information and enjoy the hobby. Some regard toy trains as investments, and some act as dealers, buying and selling

What’s the Difference Between Model Trains & Toy Trains?

The primary way that model trains are different from toy trains is their resemblance to life-size trains—model trains are scaled-down versions. Model trains may also be built by hand from kits.  

Toy trains, on the other hand, can include everything that looks like a train and can be technically be “played with” in some way. Think of LEGO® train sets or Thomas the Tank Engine toys.  

To better understand the difference, it’s essential to look at the history. 

By 1901, Lionel had made its first electric train for use in store display windows. A little later, in 1934, Model Railroader magazine began publishing, and by the 1950s, seemingly every American boy—and many girls—had a train set. Around then, there arose a differentiation between cheaper production trains for kids (toy trains) and much more detailed and accurate reproductions pursued by adult train collectors.  

Including Lionel, many famous toy and model train manufacturers appeared on the scene as the toy train craze really took off, such as American Flyer, Ives, Marx, Märklin, and LGB. Much of what these makers produced are known as “tinplate trains.” 

What are Tinplate Trains?
You may hear TCA members and other train enthusiasts talk about tinplate toy trains, which may be an unfamiliar term to new collectors. “Tinplate” is a term applied to toy trains originally built of thin stamped metal, but it broadly refers to plastic trains as well—or those with a mix of metal and plastic components. Tinplate trains are any toy trains built for mass-market enjoyment rather than the precise scale that some of today’s model railroad craftsmen construct and enjoy. 

More Information for Beginning Collectors 


Toy trains come in different sizes, reflecting different rail gauges—the distance between the main rails on the track—and scales. We have information for you about some of the most popular toy and model train gauges. 

Grading Standards 

TCA has adopted standards to help guide toy train collectors and encourage common terminology usage when describing things like item categories and conditions. Visit our Grading Standards section of the website for more information. 


Creating scale environments for toy trains is something that many collectors dedicate a lot of time to. Layouts may be purely make-believe settings, or they can be designed as scaled-down versions of real-world locations.

How to Get Started with Train Collecting 

Many people know they love trains, but they just aren’t sure where to start in terms of going deeper with the hobby.  

One tip we often share is to pick your “niche.” Do you enjoy carefully constructing models and layouts from the ground up? You may be a scale modeler. Or perhaps you simply enjoy talking about trains and traveling to train-related destinations, like the National Toy Train Museum. You may be more of a railfan.  

No matter your area of interest, we have a place for you at TCA and can help you hone your skills—and your train collection! In addition to getting involved with our organization, you may want to check out some of our resource links on this page. 

Have kids you would like to introduce to trains? Discover how you can get them started in the hobby, too! 

The Best Way to Get Involved with Model & Toy Trains? Join TCA Today! 

TCA Members receive a long list of tangible benefits that put them on the toy train collectors’ inside track! These include free admission to the National Toy Train Museum in Strasburg, PA, as well as access to special collections of material in the National Toy Train Library, among other great perks and benefits our TCA members enjoy.  

Ready to get involved and join our excellent organization with thousands of other model and toy train enthusiasts around the world?