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.