model train set on track

Discover the Magic of Toy Trains

Toy trains. It’s not always easy for enthusiasts to explain our passion for these enchanting scaled-down versions of life-size locomotives. Our appreciation is often rooted in nostalgia for childhood, though the lively hobby of collecting, building, and operating toy trains is serious business to many adults. Of course, that does not mean that we don’t have child-like fun with toy trains, no matter our numerical age! 

The Train Collectors Association exists to cultivate camaraderie among toy and model train collectors, as well as share resources so we can all grow our knowledge and appreciation of toy trains. Find out more on this page.

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. 

Toy Trains Defined 

So, what are toy trains exactly? The definition is somewhat broad and can be a little confusing, believe it or not.  

In short, a toy train is a toy that represents a full-size train. So is a model train. However, toy trains are distinguished from model trains by their low cost (for a mass-market audience) and durability. Toy trains are made to be played with, whereas scale model trains typically are not. Toy trains may be designed as simple pull toys that do not run on a track, or they might be powered by electricity, batteries, and more. 

Want to view one of the largest toy train collections in the world? We invite you to visit us at the National Toy Train Museum in Strasburg, PA! 

A Brief Timeline of Toy Train History  

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


The first wooden and metal (often lead) toys resembling trains were made in Europe around the middle of the 19th century. The technological marvel of the steam locomotive had roared onto the scene at the beginning of the 1800s, and many people were enchanted by its power. As the Industrial Revolution continued, the ability to produce toys and scale models of many kinds came about, and toy trains were born. 

Manufacturing and materials advanced such that tin could be processed—stamped, cut, rolled, and decorated—at record speeds. This allowed tin toys to proliferate. 


German toymaker Märklin began selling its first wind-up train with carriages and a standardized track. This innovation is often credited as the earliest train layout, as it was not long before Märklin started offering buildings, rolling stock, and other accessories to help make toy trains more life-like. 

Lionel made its first electric train for use in store display windows. Before this time, toy trains were typically not powered, though some (like the Märklin models mentioned above) ran by “clockwork” or a wind-up mechanism. 


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

Most children and households in America owned some type of toy train set, often setting these up around Christmas trees during the year-end holiday season. During this time, the modern emphasis on realism in model railroading started to catch on, creating a more significant difference between toy trains marketed to kids and teens and the model railroading hobby geared more toward adults. 


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

After years of declining interest in toy trains among kids, a resurgence occurred thanks to the popularity of LEGO® building sets and train-themed TV shows and characters, like Thomas the Tank Engine™. (It’s important to note that the toy and model train collecting hobby continued to be popular throughout this time.) 

1980s & 1990s

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

The Biggest Names in Toy Trains 

There have been many brands making toy trains over the years. Some companies have gone out of business or been bought out by competitors. This list on Wikipedia offers some insight into 48 different brands that made toy trains throughout history. (Though there have been many more than 48!) 

A few of the biggest brands still making toy trains today include: 

  • Lionel 
  • Märklin 
  • LEGO 
  • Bachmann Industries 
  • Brio 
  • Playmobil 

The Future of Toy Trains: High-Tech Features 

As with so many aspects of our lives today, toy train sets are now “living in the future.” Smartphone controls, authentic sound, lighting, and electronics are standards in many sets widely available in the marketplace. The National Toy Train Museum and many of our TCA members are beginning to expand their collecting into these high-tech areas, as well.  

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

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

More Toy Train Information for 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.

Grow Your Love of Toy 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?