Choosing a first train...

Discussion in 'FAQs' started by Mwether, Jan 6, 2005.

  1. Mwether

    Mwether New Member

    Hi all.

    What a great resource this is! Thanks for all the time and wisdom you've invested here.

    My story is EXACTLY the same as the fellow from a few years ago who posted this thread: Model Train Newbie seeks advice ( In short, I am wondering about an around-the-tree train for next Christmas when my train-crazy eldest son will be four.

    The consensus seemed to be that Ravensfan should go with either a G or O/O27 train for durability's sake and all the cool "toy train" gizmos available for the latter, and then do HO if and when he and his son got more serious about the modeling/authenticity aspects. As I understand, he wound up going with HO because it was less expensive. Are there larger scale trains that compete with HO on price? Are they junk?

    Unlike Ravensfan, I'm wondering if you could recommend or comment on specific sets by different manufacturers--or at least individual manufacturers' reputations for quality/durability/value?

    One that's caught my eye is here:
    This is neat because my in-laws have a house in the mountains near the Tweetsie and my son will probably have ridden their excursion steam by December '05, but I'm not sure about Bachmann's products or a fair price.

    Any and all suggestions will be appreciated!

  2. Russ Bellinis

    Russ Bellinis Active Member

    The Bachmann large scale trains are not as well made as LGB, but they are not as expensive either. If your just going to set it up to run around the Christmas tree once a year for a few months, I don't see a problem. It might also be a nice set for a youngster to start as his first train set. Another train in the same size to consider was offered a few years ago by the same company that made "little People" I think they were called. The train operated on LGB track and used LGB mechanism, but were sturdier with less small details to break off. If I remember correctly, they were priced at around $150.00 for a set. I don't know if it is still available, though.
  3. shaygetz

    shaygetz Active Member

    Welcome to The Gauge, Jeff :thumb:

    Russ is thinking of the trains put out by Playmobile.
  4. Mwether

    Mwether New Member

    Thanks for the feedback, guys!

    Russ: The Little People are a Fisher-Price brand. You may be right that it's discontinued; a quick web search hasn't yielded much. I'll keep looking...

    Shaygetz: Aha, Playmobile! I loved this idea until I saw that their RC "Old Timer" train is $200. That pricetag is most of an O gauge starter set and $60 more than the Bachmann G Tweetsie. I think I may go with O/O27 so it can grow with him if he's interested beyond the preschool age (plus it's more managable space-wise than G), but I'm still unsure. Price is a factor too and O seems expensive...

    Of the big O/O27 manufacturers (Lionel, MTH, K-Line) where would you steer me for a steam engine? I read somewhere that the best way to get going "on the cheap" is to buy track and cars used on eBay and then buy the best new loco you could afford. Sound advice?

  5. Russ Bellinis

    Russ Bellinis Active Member

    If you have a hobby shop nearby with knowledgeable people working in the train dept., ask their advice. I would reccommend a Lionel starter set for o27. The problem with buying a separate locomotive is that most Lionel, MTH, or K-line locomotives that are sold separately from train sets are detailed for adults to play with and have sound and other "bells & whistles" that make them more delicate and expensive. As an example, my local hobby shop has Lionel starter sets for @ $150.00 I think, but the locomotives that they sell individually whether Lionel or MTH start at around $350.00 and go up from there to almost $1000.00. Those things are way too expensive to give to a child to play with. If there is no hobby shop nearby, the last time I was in a Toys-R-Us they had Lionel starter sets.
  6. cidchase

    cidchase Active Member

    Hi y'all,

    In my experience, electric trains are not made for little people.
    The best train for a four-year old is a wooden Thomas or similar.
    Let them use their imaginations and their hands! Most kids
    love to watch the model trains running, but always want them
    to "go faster" :D :D :D And there is nothing as much fun as
    a good wreck!! But they sure are quick to learn the road names!!

    I know why a Dad wants to buy a model railroad "for the kids" ;)
    Yeah, right :D :D :D

    I'm sure there are four- and five-year-olds who can handle model
    railroading, but I would bet that they are rare :) :) So don't take
    me wrong, but I think that kids below 8 or 9 are more likely to
    be frustrated :mad: than to have a ball railroadin' !!
    (std JMHO disclaimer)
  7. Dave Farquhar

    Dave Farquhar Member

    As far as O27 goes, Lionel's Pennsy Flyer set is inexpensive and will get you in a steam locomotive, some track, and a few cars. JC Penney is selling its version at closeout at $119. Several retailers had versions of it. The Lionel Fastrack that comes with the set is a bit pricey BUT it's pretty easy to take apart and put back together, especially once it's been done a few times, and you can set it up on the floor without getting oil and dirt on the carpet and without getting carpet in the engine.

    K-Line has a good basic steamer that it sells in its starter sets. I'm not sure on the price but I know Hobby Lobby stocks them and puts them on sale sometimes.

    Used locomotives aren't necessarily a bad way to go. Marx made very durable steamers that are very easy to work on, and they mate just fine with a Lionel tender. They don't have as much pulling power as a modern Lionel or K-Line would, but when you can get an old Marx locomotive for under $50, they're good enough to get started, and one can always get a better locomotive later if interest holds. Old Lionels are durable too but a Marx is much easier for a beginner to work on if it's not quite right from the get-go.

    Used postwar O27 cars are very easy to find for $10, at least in St. Louis. K-Line has a line of O27 boxcars called "Keystone Classics" or something like that that retail for $10.95. K-Line's Train 19 line of O27 cars sell for right around $20. Their couplers are compatible with Lionel. Marx's plastic cars are cheap and look good with Lionel but the couplers are incompatible, unfortunately. By the time you change the trucks you lose the money you saved.

    As far as getting a new locomotive, there isn't a lot of interest right now from the manufacturers in selling a really nice O27 locomotive, at least not outside of a set. I think if Lionel were to offer the Berkshire locomotive out of the Polar Express set as a separate-sale item, priced at $100-$125, they'd sell a ton of them. So your best bet, new, would be to buy a set, then add on to it with inexpensive cars, whether new or used.

    I think O27 is a good size for kids. It's big enough that small hands can handle it and can get it on the tracks without getting too frustrated. It's not as inexpensive as HO, but its prices aren't in the stratosphere like its full-size O gauge big brothers.
  8. Russ Bellinis

    Russ Bellinis Active Member

    Another thing about the Lionel starter 027 sets is that the trains are almost indistructable (spellinig).
  9. Mwether

    Mwether New Member

    Russ wrote:
    Dave wrote:
    These two pieces of advice are SUPER helpful, guys, and just the sort of thing somebody like me wouldn't have a clue about. Thanks!

    Now with your help I'm down to an 027 or G set. Can somebody talk about the relative merits of these two sizes? Is G really too big for anything but around the tree on a tight circle track or out in the garden?

    cidchase: I had to laugh at your Thomas recommendation. My wife and I thought so too, then so did my mom, next my sister, and now every relation and friend with a checkbook. I'm embarrassed to think of what his collection is worth. Attached is his "layout" minus the chocolate factory and about 2/3rds of his trains. He wants to "move up" to electrics and I told him maybe next Christmas if he's a good boy yadda yadda. I'm doing the homework now 'cause I figure I might get a good deal in January!

    Attached Files:

  10. sumpter250

    sumpter250 multiscale modelbuilder

    There are two play tables at the hobby shop, one Thomas, and one Brio. I see the younger (under 8) kids, and even some of the older ones, having fun playing with these trains. They develope hand-eye coordination, motor skills, and more importantly, imagination, and problem solving. I have to stand in favor of the "wooden rails" kind of trains for this age group.
    You can buy cheap track, and cheap cars, but if the engine doesn't work, the train doesn't run! No matter what your choice, however, stay away from the "department store" train sets! Go to your local Hobby Shop, and buy the set there, even if it is the cheapest one in the store, it's better than the "generic" train set especially at the holiday season.
  11. 60103

    60103 Pooh Bah

    I started with all sorts of train sets -- usually because none lasted until the next Christmas. I had a wind-up O gauge, then an electric O gauge when I was 4 or 5, then a Lionel set at 7. I switched to HO at 13. We didn't have G in those days.
    I suggest that O (or O-27) is a reasonable size for age 4-6 because they can pick it up. But I like the Tweetsie, specially if it has meaning for them.
    As long as it's a train, it can't be that bad!
  12. Dave Farquhar

    Dave Farquhar Member

    The biggest problem with G (keep in mind I'm an O/O27 gauge guy, so I'm biased) is the lack of standards. While O is plagued with that problem too, G is worse. The scale varies, and there's no standard coupler type or height, so you can't just walk into a hobby shop and buy a G scale car and know it'll work with your train. With O/O27, you can walk into a hobby shop and any new O or O27 car will couple up with the Lionel knuckle coupler that was introduced in 1945. The $100 full-size O scale boxcars won't look right next to a $10 O27 boxcar, but they'll couple together and run.

    As far as space, O27's space requirements can be comparable to HO, believe it or not. You can fit an O27 loop with a couple of switches onto a 3'x4' table. More space is better, obviously, but it's very practical to make a 4'x6' train board that slides under the bed that has plenty of action. That's assuming you want to make a train board; you might just want to turn him loose with loose track on the floor. That's the advantage of the newer Lionel Fastrack; it's bigger (36-inch radius) but easy to work with. Your son will learn something about electricity pretty fast by setting up floor layouts so that might be the way to go.

    Also, since O27 track has three rails it can reverse on itself without difficulty, so you can make loops that change the direction of the train and keep it from being just a train running around and around in circles. With a 2-rail system like G, such tricks can only be accomplished with difficulty. My Christmas layout is two such loops; in the space most people take up with a circle of track, my train goes in a U-shaped pattern that at first glance looks almost random.

    I know people do G indoors but I like the versatility of O27. Both can integrate with existing toys; Playmobil figures are sized reasonably close to G, while Hot Wheels/Matchbox-type cars and their buildings are sized pretty close to O27.
  13. TR-Flyer

    TR-Flyer Member

    Dear J-:

    I'm coming into this discussion a day late but want to add another option for your consideration. S-Gauge. Yeah, i know, y'all think it's about as useful as learning to speak Latin. But, there’s more to S than some old American Flyer "junk". I received my "used" Flyer for Christmas when i was 7, in 1961. Most of it was built in 1953. I still have it and it still runs great. I had to have my PA-1 rebushed, and I had to find a new “vibrator” tube to get my diesel horn to work again but other than that, all I’ve done to this fifty year old set is clean and lube it an dreplace light bulbs. Here it is running at a GATS show last year:
    So why would you consider “S”?

    It’s 1:64 scale, that’s between HO (1:87) and O (1:43) so you can fit more track into a smaller area than “O”. The original Flyer stuff, and the new equipment being made today, are more “in scale” than the Lionel O-27 equipment. This is mainly because Lionel has to selectively compress the length of their equipment in order to get it to go around a 27-inch curve. You’ll notice that most Lionel engines have the “cowcatcher” of their diesels turn with the front trucks in order to allow the trucks to turn sharp enough to stay on these tight curves. With S-gauge, you can get a lot of action in a 5 x 10 space.

    It is rugged. The original Flyer engines were built to last, and do. Small hands can get them on the tracks and if they run them into a wall of wooden blocks, the engine will likely run again when you put it back on the track. They are easy to work on; parts are readily available as are guides on working on them. (Jeff Faust’s book is good for beginners, ISBN 0-89778-092-2). K-Line makes a series of S-gauge freight cars for less than $20 a car and they look good and will survive a kid.

    It’s readily available. The NASG site,, lists many of the folks producing S. Since the late ‘80s Lionel has owned the AF name and in the last two years they have FINALLY been releasing a lot of “new” Flyer equipment. Here’s the catalog for this year’s stuff:, go to 2004 vol 2 and then open the American Flyer pages. You’ll see that they have a 0-6-0 docksider engine for $99 with operating front and rear lights, smoke and choo-choo. There are a lot of Christmas cars available dating back into the nineties which would allow you to set up a fun consist for under the tree, I especially like the naughty and nice gondolas from this year. As I mentioned, K-line makes cars for little people to handle and Maury Klein has said they will be bringing an S-gauge starter set out for next Christmas. (We’ll all believe it when we see it but Maury has never actually stated this to our club before as he did at the Neuse River show in Raleigh this past November and as his sales director confirmed at the Raleigh TCA meet.)

    There’s also lots of original Flyer available, go to e-bay and search on “American Flyer”. There are also folks who will put together a train set for you based upon what you would like to spend. Check out: or

    And then there’s the operating accessories. Both Lionel and Flyer will work with Flyer, because neither one’s accessories is really “to scale”. Again, go to the Lionel website and you can see this year’s range of available accessories. There’s a TON of fun operating accessories to use with “S”. K-Line and MTH also make operating accessories and buildings and of course there’s also the whole Plasticville line for inexpensive buildings.

    So there’s my S-pitch. Beyond that, I agree that 4 years old may be young for an electric train, but you will have to judge that based upon what your kid is like. They’re all different. It also doesn’t preclude YOU buying the train for next year and letting him play with YOUR train set until you think he is ready. Buy him blocks or legos to build things to go with “your” train set or get him the Thomas or Brio so he can set up a layout for his daily explorations with you into “layout design. Then, sometime in the next few years, when you think he’s ready, you can give YOUR train to him. If you don’t like S, I think O-gauge Lionel or K-Line equipment would be a great way to start into the hobby. And, like S, you don’t have to migrate to other scales to progress into a “scale” layout later on where your kid can begin to create wonderful pieces of craftsmanship such as the folks here on The-Gauge display.



  14. shaygetz

    shaygetz Active Member

    I like S...honest. I think of it as the lovable bachelor uncle scale, overweight, smoking a cigar, with a racing form in his hand, ready to babysit the kids whilst Miss M and I go out to dinner ;) :D

    We had a beautiful Flyer setup at the Hadji Temple train show in Pensacola, September of last year that was remarkably similar. Did your club do that show?
  15. Bikerdad

    Bikerdad Member

    LEGO!!! Lego has operating trainsets. That's the direction I would go, with any kid between 4 (ok, maybe Duplo at that age) to about 12...
  16. Mwether

    Mwether New Member

    Wow, everybody! The information here has been overwhelming, both in volume and number of options. Despite my dizziness, I see the vast and varied appeal of this wonderful hobby. Thanks to all for their thoughts and advice!

    Dave and TR: The detailed and logical posts on your favorite gauges were VERY enjoyable and helpful.

    At this point, I guess I'm thinking about the following sets...

    In O27, the K-Line Pennsy Freight seen here:
    This seems to fit a niche between the Lionel NYC or PRR Flyer ($249 list) with the venerable 4-4-2 loco and the Lionel Nickel Plate Road Super Freight with the same awesome looking 2-8-4 Berkshire that they use for the Polar Express set ($399 list).
    I like that the K-Line has the two tippable cars--their "play value" pitch holds water with me--and that has it for $199.

    In G, I like the Tweetsie I posted originally (around $140):
    and in my dreams the LGB NYC Freight Starter Set seen here:
    the problem here it that $311 is the best price I've found it for ($100 per car if you don't count the tender).

    It seems like the K-Line may represent the best value? Agreed?

  17. Dave Farquhar

    Dave Farquhar Member

    The K-Line set is a very good value. I like that it gives you sound for that price--it's a $100-$125 upgrade to add sound to a locomotive that doesn't have it. So if you think you'll ever want sound the K-Line is a great way to go. And the 120 watt transformer is very nice to have. Lionel's 80-watt transformer retails for $99 as a separate-sale item. Dang it, now YOU'VE just about talked ME into buying that K-Line set! Isn't this supposed to work the other way around?

    And yes, that Lionel Berkshire is magnificent. I'm one of the few who ordered early and actually got a Polar Express set. Lionel would do well to offer that Berkshire as a separate-sale item.

    As far as comparing the K-Line to the Bachmann, I know Bachmann's entry-level stuff doesn't have a very good reputation for durability. If the K-Line were to break, you'd still have a nice transformer, a sound-capable tender (I'm assuming the sound generator is in the tender), your cars and your track. The junked K-Line engine is still worth something for parts because it's based on an old Marx design and the parts are interchangeable, and fans of old Marx *love* to scavenge parts and rebuild. If the Bachmann locomotive breaks, you've got a few nice cars and the track looks nice enough, but fewer options for replacing the locomotive, and how good is that Bachmann transformer?

    Whichever set you get, I recommend adding an empty flatcar and gondola soon after the purchase. Of the non-operating cars, those have the best play value because they can carry visible loads. Of the two, I like the K-Line... too much.
  18. Mwether

    Mwether New Member

    Thanks for the reply, Dave. It seemed like a good deal to me too. Sorry to bring it to your attention! :D

    Any experience with the K-Line SuperSnap track that comes with Pennsy set? I like the more realistic look, but would rather have the new all-in-one type I've seen with the little bed of plastic ballast attached. That way I could run it right on the floor.

    The SuperSnap 31" switches are pretty dear ($49.95 MSRP) and seem to be the tightest available, i.e. no 27". Cause for concern?


    PS: GREAT blog! I've really enjoyed browsing around.
  19. Dave Farquhar

    Dave Farquhar Member

    All of the high-end switches are more expensive than the $20 O27 switches, unfortunately. You'll pay $50-$70 per switch with just about any other track system. That's unfortunate; a pair of switches can cost as much as the set initially cost. That's one reason I stayed with the traditional tubular O27 track.

    That said, I'm in the process of phasing out most of my 27-inch curves on my layout. The trains run better on wider curves. So I don't see the O-31 minimum as much of a problem, no, except for the price.

    My best advice on any other track system is to watch for sales. Hobby Lobby did a 40% off all train accessories sale recently, for instance. Luckily, they carry K-Line Supersnap.

    As far as the track with integrated roadbed, it looks nice but it's loud. I've heard lots of theories on how to quiet it but I've yet to see anyone say they've found something that worked.

    Personally, I run on the cheap tubular O27-profile track. It lacks the ties but that doesn't bother me a lot, as it's what I grew up with. I also have a loop of the Lionel Fastrack (came with a set), with integrated roadbed. No personal experience with the K-Line but it does look nice. The disadvantage is the lack of roadbed so it's not as good on the floor. I once made some roadbed out of cardboard for my O27 track to protect the floor; you could work up something similar for the Supersnap. I'd use something other than cardboard though; it didn't hold the screws well.

    Thanks for the compliments on the blog, BTW. That's one of my other obsessions.
  20. Mwether

    Mwether New Member

    Well, after all that--and a couple of long conversations with my wife about who the train was REALLY for (lad, NOT dad)--I think I'm going to go with this K-Line Christmas set:

    Same 3000 series loco, same track, same 120W transformer. No sound and one less car. I've found it for $165 vs. $190 for the Pennsy.

    The thinking is--as cidchase and sumpter250 felt--that there are at least two or three years left in which he should get good use out of his extensive Thomas "Brio-scale" collection. Electric shouldn't replace that set until he is able to engage electric trains as meaningfully as he does his wooden ones, i.e. making layouts, playing imaginatively, etc. At this point he'd just watch it go around and jack the throttle wide open! :D Until he can do more, a seasonal O27 train hooting its way around the tree seems the way to go.

    I know the Pennsy represents better value, but it's not very Christmas-y. I toyed with the idea of buying three or four Christmas-themed cars for it to pull, but then my investment goes up by another $45-$80.

    The Christmas set seems like a fairly inexpensive way to get a good quality electric train into the house. If he loves the hobby we can get another "yearround" O or move to HO as he is able to handle it. If he shows no interest, I'm out 165 bucks and have a nice Christmas tradition going.

    Thanks to all for helping me work through this decision. (Some times I think D-Day was easier to plan than this purchase!:D )


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