model train set on track

Model and Toy Train Layouts: Small Worlds of Incredible Detail

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.  

Some of the biggest brand names in toy trains and model railroading sell their own lines of layout accessories, and these items are also collectible in themselves.

Why Do Enthusiasts Create Model & Toy Train Layouts? 

One of the biggest reasons people create train layouts is that it’s not exactly possible for most of us to own and operate real-life trains! However, trains have long captured our imaginations.  

Building small-scale worlds centered around toy trains and model railways presents a fun challenge for many different types of people—from those who enjoy the engineering aspects to those who love the artistry that goes into crafting scenery. 

What is Rolling Stock? 

You will often hear toy and model train enthusiasts talk about rolling stock. The term “rolling stock” refers to all railway vehicles, both powered (such as locomotives) and unpowered (such as boxcars). Railfans will note that the term applies across the board when talking about trains—from full-size down to scale models and toys—anything that operates on a track.  

In the world of layout building, rolling stock is just one aspect of creating an entire small-scale environment. Set pieces, electronics, scale buildings, and more are often just as important to layout builders as the trains themselves! 

See Our Layouts at the National Toy Train Museum! 

Visitors to the National Toy Train Museum will experience one of the world’s most extensive toy train collections. This includes a variety of meticulously maintained model train layouts, which we refresh every winter. Can’t visit us in person in Strasburg, PA? You can explore our layouts from the past and present right here on our website! 

A Brief Timeline of Train Layout History  

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


A model (garden) 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 and constructed layout. 

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. 


The marvel of electricity comes to the train set when Carlisle and Finch develop electric-powered trains running on a metal track. This innovation opens the door to creating all types of layouts with circuitry, though electricity in private homes is still relatively rare. Enthusiasts begin setting up layouts in public spaces. 

American toy train manufacturer Lionel made its first electric train for use in store display windows. 


What is now often cited as the world’s oldest world’s working model railway, a model designed to train signalmen on the real-life Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, was built. It remained in use for training purposes until 1995 and is now in the National Railway Museum in York, England. 

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

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 train layouts to further your research? Visit our Vintage Train Layouts page and search our database! 

More Model & Toy Train Information for Collectors 

About Model Trains & Toy Trains 

Do you know all the differences between model trains and toy trains? Here at the Train Collectors Association, we support and celebrate both toy train collectors and model railroaders from all walks of life, and you can explore more right here on our website. 


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. 

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?