model train set on track

Modern Era Model Trains: 1970s through Today

After a big popularity spike in the model railroading hobby in the 1950s, it can be said that the leisure activity of collecting, building, and operating model trains matured in the “modern era” of the 1970s through today. There have been many exciting changes in the marketplace in more recent history, and the introduction and refinement of digital controls and realistic sounds and movement are hallmarks of the era.  

1970s-1990s: New Gauges & Changes at the Big Toy Train Manufacturers 

At the very end of the 1960s, ownership changes at the biggest toy train manufacturers began to shape the future of both model railroading and toy train collecting.  

Lionel sold the tooling for its then-current product line and licensed its name to General Mills (maker of many popular breakfast cereals) in 1969. The Louis Marx Company made a similar move and sold out to Quaker Oats in 1972. While these changes affected quality and ushered in a period when brands began to morph and change quite regularly, there were also many tech innovations coming down the line.  

For instance, three new gauges popped up right at the end of the 1960s and into the early 1970s, giving model railroaders a whole new world to explore and create in the proceeding decades! 

  • 1965 was the year N-scale trains were introduced 
  • 1968 marked the introduction of G-scale trains  
  • Z-scale trains came on the scene in the 1970s 

21st Century: High-Tech Features in Layouts 

One of the hallmarks of model railroading in the 2000s has been the proliferation of high-tech features, such as smartphone control systems. In fact, the command system offered by the majority of model train manufacturers in 2020 was a variant of Digital Command Control (DCC) versus more traditional DC power. 

Video has also become incredibly important to the model railroading hobby. Many enthusiasts make and post videos of their layouts and trains on YouTube and other social media sites. 

Search the National Toy Train Library Database 

Ready to research? Examples of model trains from every possible brand abound in our database. Search books, handbooks, catalogs, advertisements, photographs and much more in our National Toy Train Library 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 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.

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?