model train set on track

Modern Era Toy Trains: 1970s through Today

The popularity of toy trains may have reached a fever pitch in the 1950s, driven by the long period of global strife during WWII that had finally ended. As the later decades of the 20th century rolled on, the toy train hobby continued to chug along with lots of interesting changes in the marketplace.  

Today, many collectors are intrigued by the so-called “modern era” of toy trains, and especially younger collectors enjoy some of the newer-style toy trains that came on the scene during this time, like LEGO® sets. 

1970s-1990s: Changes at the Big Manufacturers & The Rise of LEGO 

While several “disruptions” took place in the toy train world beginning at the end of the 1960s, changes to the ownership structure at Lionel Corporation might be the moment that marked a significant break from the past.  

In 1969, Lionel sold the tooling for its then-current product line and licensed the Lionel name to General Mills (maker of many popular breakfast cereals). This major shift at one of the biggest toy train manufacturers in existence ushered in what’s known as the Modern Era of toy trains. 

Other notable changes during this time include: 

  • Bachmann entered the HO-scale market in 1970. 
  • The Louis Marx Company sold out to Quaker Oats in 1972, which marked the beginning of the end for that massive toy conglomerate whose toy train sets had outsold Lionel for part of the 1950s. 
  • Lionel changed hands several more times during the 1980s and 1990s. Quality could sometimes be uneven. 
  • LEGO bricks rose significantly in popularity during the 1980s due to increased marketing around the world. Although LEGO trains were first introduced in 1966 with set number 080, a major design overhaul around 1980 made these toy trains more popular than ever before. 

21st Century: High-Tech Features 

One of the hallmarks of toy trains in the 2000s has been more high-tech features, such as smartphone control systems. Video has also become incredibly important to the hobby of operating and collecting toy trains. Many enthusiasts make and post videos of their layouts and trains on YouTube and other social media sites. 

Search the Database 

Ready to research? Examples of model trains from every possible brand abound in our database. Search by manufacturer, gauge, and/or year to return results from our National Toy Train Museum collections and more.

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?