For over a century, model trains have captured the imagination of hobbyists looking to build their own miniature railroad empires. If you’re ready to start your model railroading journey or add to your current setup, you’ll want to choose the right model train set to suit your needs. In this guide, we review some of the best model train sets across popular scales and styles for both beginners and seasoned enthusiasts. Whether you prefer vintage diesels or modern electric trains, you’ll find the perfect starter set here to get your railroad up and running.

What is a Model Train Set?

A model train set is a miniature replica of actual trains, railroad tracks, and scenery that is used as a hobby or for display. Model train sets come in different scales such as HO, N, O, and G scale. The scale refers to the ratio of the model compared to its real-life counterpart.

List of the Best Model Train Sets

Check out the thorough review of the best model train sets below.

1. Bachmann Trains Digital Commander Model Train Set

1. Bachmann Trains Digital Commander Model Train Set

The Bachmann Trains Digital Commander offers model train enthusiasts of all ages a fully immersive HO scale railroading experience right out of the box. Powered by twoDigitally Controlled (DCC) equipped locomotives – an EMD GP40 with an operating headlight and an EMD FT-A also with a functioning headlight – that allow for independent speed, direction and lighting control, this ready-to-run set simplifies operation while maximizing realism.

Consisting of 56” x 38” of nickel silver EZ Track, including 12 curved pieces, 4 straight pieces, a left turnout, a rerailer and bumper, the included oval layout allows the GP40 and FT-A to smoothly transport their rolling stock payload of a plug-door boxcar, open quad hopper and wide-vision caboose around tight bends at variable speeds. Meanwhile, the user-friendly EZ Command wired control unit with wall pack transformer enables precision throttle and direction control of both locomotives.

Pros And Cons

  • Comes with full oval of EZ Track and power

  • Digitally controlled/DCC-Equipped locomotives

  • Realistic details and operating headlights

  • Easy-to-use EZ Command control system

  • Control unit is wired not wireless

2. Kato New York Central 20th Century Model Train Set

2. Kato New York Central 20th Century Model Train Set

Bringing an icon of American passenger rail to model railroading, the Kato USA N Scale New York Central 20th Century Limited 9-Car Set authentically replicates the famous New York to Chicago express train. Entirely new tooling accurately models each of the signature streamlined cars, including the “big window” observation lounge. Shock absorber equipped truck construction provides smooth performance befitting these flagship cars of New York Central’s “Water Level Route.” Intricate exterior details like roof vents and grab irons join precisely decorated interiors complete with tables, chairs, and even miniature passengers.

The expertly assembled and ready to run cars only need their era-appropriate EMD E7A locomotive counterparts, also newly tooled by Kato (sold separately). With the ability to closely mimic one of the most recognizable American passenger trains of the 20th century, the Kato New York Central 20th Century Limited coaches and sleepers offer unmatched realism. Ultimately, this 9-car set provides both seasoned and novice N scale modelers the opportunity to authentically recreate the mid-20th century golden age of rail travel.

Pros And Cons

  • New, highly detailed tooling of each individual car

  • Precisely matches real-life 1950s era consist

  • Smooth running shock absorber equipped trucks

  • Fully assembled and ready to run out of box

  • Pairs with newly tooled E7A locomotives

  • Locomotives sold separately

3. Lionel Pennsylvania Flyer LionChief Model Train Set

3. Lionel Pennsylvania Flyer LionChief Model Train Set

Bringing modern smartphone control to traditional model railroading, the Lionel Pennsylvania Flyer LionChief makes O Gauge railfanning more interactive than ever before. Featuring Bluetooth connectivity, the included 0-8-0 locomotive and tender can be operated via LionChief’s companion app alongside the conventional RF remote control. Realistic details abound, from the Berkshire-style locomotive’s puffing smoke and RailSounds RC sound system to the operating couplers and doors on the rolling stock.

The ready-to-run set includes enough FasTrack sections to complete a 40” x 60” oval layout with a 031” minimum curve radius, providing ample space for the locomotive to pull its string of included cars – a 3-dome tanker, boxcar, and caboose. With rugged ABS construction and maintenance-free motorization, the Pennsylvania Flyer is built to deliver hours of modern, interactive model railroading fun for beginners and seasoned hobbyists alike.

Pros And Cons

  • Bluetooth control via app

  • Detailed locomotive with smoke and sounds

  • Ready-to-run on included 40”x60” layout

  • Rugged ABS construction

  • Easy to set up and operate

  • Limited expandability of train cars

4. LEGO Harry Potter Hogwarts Express Model Steam Train Set

4. LEGO Harry Potter Hogwarts Express Model Steam Train Set

Bringing J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world to life in stunning 1:32 scale, the LEGO Harry Potter Hogwarts Express – Collectors’ Edition allows adult fans to recreate iconic scenes and characters from the beloved films. This incredibly detailed set includes over 5,100 pieces to construct a locomotive, coal tender, and passenger car depicting Platform 9 3⁄4 and interior vignettes like Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s first meeting. Spanning over 46 inches long when completed, the train features interior lighting and lever-activated mechanical rocking for realistic motion.

Additionally, the set includes 20 minifigures of key characters like Harry, Dumbledore, and Luna to display across four distinct movie moments. With four instruction booklets for a multi-person build experience, the Collectors’ Edition Hogwarts Express makes an immersive building project and display piece sure to impress Harry Potter devotees. Ultimately, it provides a meaningful way for adult fans to celebrate their passion for the Wizarding World through a highly complex LEGO sculpture.

Pros And Cons

  • 1:32 scale replica with stunning details

  • Over 5,100 pieces for engaging build

  • Interior lighting and rocking mechanism

  • 20 minifigures to depict iconic movie scenes

  • Thoughtful gift for Harry Potter enthusiasts

  • High price point

5. Bachmann Trains Empire Builder Model Train Set

5. Bachmann Trains Empire Builder Model Train Set

Bringing classic American railroading to compact N scale, the Bachmann Trains Empire Builder starter set delivers detailed realism in a small package. A Northern 4-8-4 steam locomotive outfitted with an operating headlight pulls an assortment of eight freight cars ranging from a wood reef car to an offset cupola caboose around an oval 44” x 24” layout. The E-Z Track snap-fit roadbed allows for quick set up, while nickel silver rails provide conductivity for smooth performance.

With a scale ratio of 1:160, the set’s miniscule details like wood planking on the stock car or “Danger” placards on the tanker bring engines and rolling stock to life in miniature. However, the Empire Builder’s small size and intricacy make it better suited for experienced N scale hobbyists rather than beginners. Providing a taste of American railroad history in a compact form factor, the Empire Builder set offers seasoned modelers an engaging starter set to expand into a more complex N gauge freight layout.

Pros And Cons

  • Great starter set value with 8 cars

  • Nicely detailed locomotives and cars

  • EZ Track for fast setup

  • Classic American railroading theme

  • Compact N scale size

  • Small and intricate for beginners

6. Lionel Disney Christmas Model Train Set

6. Lionel Disney Christmas Model Train Set

Bring Disney magic to model railroading with Lionel’s ready-to-run Christmas train set. Featuring Mickey, Minnie, and pals decorating for the holidays, this 28-piece O gauge set includes a 0-8-0 steam locomotive, tender, boxcar, gondola with trees and presents, caboose, and enough FasTrack to complete a 40”x60” layout. Utilizing Bluetooth connectivity, the locomotive can be controlled via smartphone app or the included remote control with speed adjustment and sound activation buttons. Ensuring smooth and reliable operation, the set runs on Lionel’s FasTrack system with strong magnetic locking connections.

With puffing smoke, an operating headlight, and a RailSounds RC sound system with steam chuffing, whistles, and Disney character voice clips, the locomotive delivers a realistic interactive experience. From the durable ABS construction to the festive Christmas theme, Lionel’s Bluetooth-equipped train set provides a great introduction for young conductors aged 8 and up while bringing modern tech to a timeless holiday tradition.

Pros And Cons

  • Bluetooth control through app

  • Festive Disney Christmas theme

  • Durable ABS plastic construction

  • FasTrack’s strong magnetic connections

  • Realistic smoke, lights, and sounds

  • No interior details on cars

7. Bachmann Trains Overland Model Train Set

7. Bachmann Trains Overland Model Train Set

With its powerful 4-8-4 steam locomotive and nine-car consist, the Bachmann Overland Limited Ready-to-Run HO set delivers maximum impact for model railroaders. Led by a Union Pacific-branded locomotive outfitted with operating smoke and headlights, the set brings classic American railroading to life in 1:87 scale. Spanning over 5 feet long when assembled, the 63” x 45” oval EZ Track layout provides ample room for the locomotive to haul its string of freight cars including tankers, hoppers, box cars, a stock car, and a caboose.

With EZ Track’s snap-together design, the layout is fast to construct right out of the box. The included power pack and speed controller dial in the right throttle for smooth starts and stops. Capturing the sights and sounds of steam Era freight trains, the Overland Limited set provides hobbyists an easy way to own a ready-to-run HO scale trainset modeled after an iconic American named train known for its record-setting “fast freight” service starting in 1935.

Pros And Cons

  • Iconic Union Pacific theme and branding

  • Locomotive with operating smoke and lights

  • Nine-car consist for long freight trains

  • EZ Track for quick layout assembly

  • Great value ready-to-run set

  • Not expandable into a full-sized layout

8. Lionel Santa Fe Super Chief Model Train Set

8. Lionel Santa Fe Super Chief Model Train Set

Reimagining an iconic postwar passenger train for the modern era, Lionel’s ready-to-run Super Chief set brings Bluetooth and voice control to O gauge model railroading. Featuring an F-unit diesel locomotive and two matching coaches in Santa Fe’s legendary “Warbonnet” paint scheme, the 18-piece set includes enough FasTrack for a 40”x60” layout. Utilizing Bluetooth connectivity and the LionChief app, the locomotive can be controlled via smartphone or the included remote. The Lionel RailSounds RC system generates realistic diesel sounds like horn blasts, bells, and station announcements activated by buttons on the remote.

From the operating headlights and illuminated interiors to the flexible diaphragms between cars, attention to detail brings the mid-20th century streamliner to life. Constructed from durable ABS plastic, the Super Chief can handle the curves of O-31 track for under-tree setups. Blending modern technology with postwar style, the Bluetooth-equipped Super Chief makes model railroading more interactive for Lionel enthusiasts aged 14 and up.

Pros And Cons

  • Bluetooth control through smartphone app

  • Iconic Santa Fe Super Chief branding

  • Durable ABS plastic construction

  • Realistic lights, sounds, and announcements

  • Flexible diaphragms between cars

  • FasTrack may limit layout shape options

9. Bachmann Trains Thunder Chief Model Train Set

9. Bachmann Trains Thunder Chief Model Train Set

Bringing digital command control to entry-level model railroading, the Bachmann Thunder Chief makes DCC easy and affordable right out of the box. Powered by an EMD F7-A diesel locomotive with an operating headlight and 21 authentic diesel sounds accessible through the included E-Z Command DCC controller, the set simplifies operation while maximizing realism. The DCC-equipped unit smoothly pulls an attached string of freight cars – a boxcar, tanker, and caboose – around an oval 56” x 38” layout.

With its nickel-silver EZ Track rails and snap-fit assembly, the layout is fast to construct and conducts electricity reliably. From the locomotive’s die-cast chassis to the molded plastic freight cars, the set combines durability with scale details that bring prototypical railroading to HO’s 1:87 ratio. Providing an interactive experience through digitally controlled lights, sounds, and speed, the Thunder Chief delivers on quality, simplicity, and value for entry-level modelers.

Pros And Cons

  • DCC-equipped locomotive with sounds

  • Easy E-Z Command control system

  • Durable die-cast locomotive chassis

  • Realistic detailing on cars

  • Affordable starter set pricing

  • Minimal layout size and shape options

10. Lionel Disney 100 Years of Wonder Model Train Set

10. Lionel Disney 100 Years of Wonder Model Train Set

Celebrating a century of Disney magic, Lionel’s ready-to-run train set brings interactive features and charming details to O gauge railroading. A Bluetooth-equipped steam locomotive with matching tender leads a passenger consist including a coach with a disappearing Mickey figure and lighted interiors. Moulded in a unique finish commemorating Disney’s 100th anniversary, the 19-piece set runs on FasTrack’s strong magnetic connections laid in a 40” x 60” oval. Utilizing Bluetooth 5.0 and the LionChief app, the locomotive can be controlled via smartphone or the included remote which triggers realistic sounds and smoke.

From character silhouettes to themed announcements, Disney charm imbues the set. With recording and streaming functions, custom sound clips can be uploaded wirelessly. Made from durable ABS plastic, the imaginatively designed train provides hours of modern, interactive play for Disney fans aged 14 and up while integrating LionChief’s latest technology like Voice Control.

Pros And Cons

  • Commemorative 100th anniversary details

  • Bluetooth 5.0 with enhanced features

  • Custom sound upload capability

  • Strong FasTrack magnetic connections

  • Charming Disney character details

  • No interior car lighting effects

How to Choose the Best Model Train Set for Your Needs?

The world of model railroading offers endless possibilities for hobbyists to build miniature worlds limited only by imagination. With so many model train products available, choosing the right starter set for your needs and space can feel overwhelming. This guide will walk you through the key considerations when selecting the best model train set for you. Follow these tips and you’ll be operating your own railroad empire in no time!

1. Consider Your Space

The first step is determining the space you have available for your layout. Model train scales range dramatically in size:

  • HO scale is the most popular for its combination of detail and smaller space requirements.
  • N scale allows for more complex layouts in tighter spaces.
  • O scale provides stunning realism but requires more room.

Measure the area you can dedicate and use scale size as an initial filter when selecting a train set. Also factor in desired accessories like buildings, figures, and terrain when planning.

2. Decide on a Set Scale and Era

Once you know your space constraints, decide what scale interests you most. Key model railroad eras include:

  • Vintage steam locomotives from the 1800s to 1950s.
  • Diesel transition era from 1930s-1960s.
  • Modern trains from the 1960s onward.

Choose a starter set that aligns with your preferred era and scale. Most major brands offer starter sets across eras and scales to suit any taste.

3. Determine Your Budget

Model train sets range from under $100 for basic oval starter sets to over $500 for large sets with multiple locomotives. Determine what you can spend upfront as a beginner. You can always expand later.

4. Look for Quality and Details

Examining set features closely is key:

  • Locomotive detail – Does it look realistic and era-appropriate? Smooth, quality construction?
  • Tracks – Enough included for basic layouts? Flexible or rigid?
  • Cars – Do they couple realistically and roll smoothly? Right era?
  • Power – Smooth startup and operation from included transformer?
  • Accessories – Does set include buildings, terrain, figures for expanded play?

The best model train set provides quality, realism, and era-appropriate details aligned with your space constraints and budget. By following these guidelines, you’re sure to find the perfect entry point into the exciting world of model railroading.

Frequently Asked Questions When Picking the Best Model Train Sets

1. What are the most popular scales for model train sets?

The most popular model train scales are HO, N, O, and G scale. HO scale is the most common at 1/87th the size of real trains. N scale is smaller (1/160th), O larger (1/48th), and G scale the largest at 1/22nd size. HO and N allow more detailed layouts in smaller spaces. O adds more realism. G works well outdoors.

2. Should I buy a ready-to-run train set or build my own?

Ready-to-run starter sets are great for beginners, providing everything you need in one box. Building your own allows for total customization but requires researching compatible products. Hybrid approaches are also possible. Ready-to-run sets help new hobbyists learn before building their own.

3. What features make for the best quality model train sets?

Look for smooth operation, realistic model detailing, durable construction, strong pulling power, quiet motors, and precision engineering. High-end brands like Broadway Limited offer more authentic detailing. Detail parts should be tightly affixed. Wheels and gears should operate smoothly.

4. How much do model train sets cost?

Basic starter sets can run from $50-$150. Mid-range setups are $150-$300. High-end sets with multiple trains, premium details, and expansive track can cost $500 and beyond. Determine your budget and look for quality components vs. quantity.

5. What eras of model trains are most popular?

Classic steam locomotives from the late 1800s to 1950s remain perennial favorites. Many also love the transition era diesels of the 1930s through 1960s. Modern eras and contemporary bullet trains have their fans too. Select based on your favorite railroads and history.

6. How do I power and control the trains?

Model trains run on direct current from a power pack or transformer. The controller lets you adjust speed and direction. Multiple trains can run on one power source. Look for adjustable power and smooth startup. Many sets include controllers.

7. What scale provides the most realistic detail?

O scale is best for realistic detail since models are larger at 1:48 ratio to real trains. HO still offers excellent detail at the popular 1:87 ratio. N has more compromises in exchange for smaller layout footprints.

8. How much space do I need for a layout?

HO scale needs roughly 25 sq ft for a basic layout but can work in less. O scale may need 50+ sq ft. N can fit complex layouts in 10 sq ft. Consider scale size, track plans, and accessories when estimating space.

9. Are there child-friendly model train sets?

Many brands offer durable, interactive sets for kids. Features like magnetic couplers, easy-click track, and included toys/buildings cater to children. Look for sets labeled for ages 8+ or 14+ for developmentally appropriate designs.

10. What are the best brands for starter sets?

Top beginner model train set brands include Bachmann, Lionel, Athearn, Märklin, Atlas, Kato, and Broadway Limited Imports. Compare component quality between sets rather than brand names alone.

Final Thoughts

Selecting the perfect model train set to start your railroading hobby is an exciting first step. By taking the time to carefully consider your available space, budget, preferred train scales and eras, and quality of construction, you can find a starter set that aligns perfectly with your interests. Model railroading is meant to be an enjoyable, soothing pastime, so don’t feel overwhelmed. Start small with a basic set that appeals to you. As your skills grow, you can always expand your tracks, add new cars and locomotives, and increase the realism through detailed scenery and accessories.

Enjoyed this review of the best model train sets? Then be sure to check out our other guides.