model train set on track

Model Trains: Scaled-Down Versions of the “Real Thing!”

Since trains first became commonplace in the middle of the 19th century, we’ve been enchanted. However, it’s not possible for most people to collect life-size “real” trains! 

Enter the hobby of model railroading, which allows railfans to create rail transport systems at a reduced scale.  

Model Trains Defined & Their Differences from Toy Trains 

If you have been a toy train enthusiast for some time, you probably know all about the differences between toy trains and model trains. What can be confusing is that there is some overlap between the two terms. A toy train might be a relatively faithful reproduction of a real-life train, which almost elevates it to model train status. However, model trains are not usually toys in a technical sense—and toy trains are sometimes not patterned on real trains at all! 

Confused? Think of it this way: model trains tend to be made for and marketed toward adults or older youth. Toy trains have always been designed with younger kids in mind. They’re durable and meant to endure kids’ not-so-gentle playtime energy. Now, some adults certainly collect toy trains—especially those from their own childhoods. But many adults are so-called model railroaders, faithfully collecting and building scale models of real trains that actually exist—and creating intricate environments for them, known as layouts. 

Here at the Train Collectors Association, we support and celebrate both toy train collectors and model railroaders from all walks of life. And we invite you to visit our National Toy Train Museum, where hundreds of historic toy and model trains are on exhibit along with fully operational layouts in standard gauge, O, S, G, Z, and HO scale! 

What is Scratch Building? 

You may hear seasoned model railroaders talk about scratch-building models, which may be an unfamiliar term to new collectors and enthusiasts. The term refers to creating scale models of trains, scenery, and more “from scratch.” At one time in the history of model railroading, scratch building was often necessary to achieve the proper degree of realism that model train enthusiasts seek.  

Today, advanced manufacturing techniques allow mass-produced models to achieve a high degree of precision and realism cost-effectively. However, some modelers still prefer to scratch build for the challenge and fun of it! 

Looking for an Overview of Toy Trains More Generally? 

Are you more of a toy train collector than a model railroader? You won’t want to miss our Toy Trains page here on the website.  

Key Moments Along the Track of Model Train History 

Take a journey through the past with important stops along the track of model train history! 


A model railway described by magazines of the day as “a real toy as well as a masterpiece of mechanical science” was built for Napoléon, Prince Imperial, the 3-year-old son of emperor Napoleon III, in the private park of the Château de Saint-Cloud in France. A contemporary photo of this railway is also thought to be the first-ever of a model train. 

Model Railroader magazine began publishing, and differentiation between toy trains and more exacting scale model train building and collecting started to grow more pronounced. 


Model trains become inextricably linked to engineering disciplines, as the Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) at MIT pioneered automatic control of track-switching using telephone relays. 

The founding action of the Train Collectors Association (TCA) occurred in Yardley, PA. Learn more


Most model train layouts become digitally controlled—including by smartphones. For example, the command system offered by the majority of model train manufacturers in 2020 was a variant of Digital Command Control (DCC)

Looking for examples of vintage model trains to further your research? Visit our Vintage Model Trains page and search our database! 

The Biggest Names in Model Trains 

There are scores of model train makers today, as well as many from the past that are no longer in operation. This list from Wikipedia gives a sampling. Some of the top brands include some cross-over with toy train manufacturers more generally (Lionel & Bachmann, specifically). These are the big names in model trains in the USA today: 

  • Athearn (HO, N scale) 
  • Atlas (O, HO, and N scale) 
  • Arnold (N gauge, owned by Hornby) 
  • Bachmann (HO, N, and G scale) 
  • Lionel (O scale trains). 
  • Walthers (N and HO scale) 

Model Trains in the Modern Era: A Digital Revolution 

As we mentioned in the timeline section, model trains are now typically controlled with digital protocols versus older technology, such as traditional DC power. Other digital “tools” like our smartphones and video cameras are also integral to the model railroading hobby today. 

While preserving vintage model trains continues to be a priority for enthusiasts, modern examples are fun to learn about, build, and run! 

Looking for examples of model trains from the “modern era” to further your research? Visit our Modern Era Model Trains page and search our database! 

More Model Train Information for Collectors 


Toy trains (including model 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 and model 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 and model 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.

Grow Your Love of Model Trains with Other Enthusiasts. Join TCA Today! 

If you are not yet a member of the Train Collectors Association, you’re missing out. 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?