Many O-gauge trains are built to played with and passed on for generations. Even many starter sets include die-cast steel locomotives and cars with many metal parts.
It is easy to incrementally upgrade a starter set with even higher-quality cars and locomotives and trackside accessories as the years go by
What about cost? Although O-gauge equipment initially costs more than HO gauge, it not only lasts longer but holds its value. Used equipment can be resold easily. Rarer pieces sometimes appreciate.
The best O-gauge locomotives are both finely-crafted machines and true works of art. You might not be able to collect Porsches, but you could collect some of the best toy trains ever produced. You can buy pristine examples of many collectable locomotives for a few hundred dollars.
Why Not O-Gauge?
Cost: an O-gauge starter set or layout is at least twice the cost of an HO gauge layout of the same (scale) size and quality.
The space needed for an minimal O layout is larger than for an HO layout, but not by as much as you might think. If you are happy with a "toy train" style, you can build a nice layout in 4 x 8 feet, or even 3 x 6 feet - see my Layouts directory. A very realistic ("high rail") layout, on the other hand, can easily fill a room.
If you like the idea of really big all steel trains in the style of the earliest model electric trains (from around 1900-1930), consider Standard Gauge instead of O. The Lionel Corporation brand of MTH produces reproductions of standard-gauge trains from the early pre-war era (as well as pre-war O replicas), and original Standard Gauge equipment can be easily found at auctions (see below). Standard-gauge track looks like 3-rail O-gauge, but is about twice the width.
For an outdoor or "garden" layout, look for quality G-gauge equipment (also called "large scale"), which are engineered to withstand weather. Most G-gauge trains have durable heavy plastic bodies, so they are less likely than O-gauge trains to be damaged by rough play by children. G-gauge is about the same size as Standard Gauge, but always uses 2-rail track and DC power instead of 3-rail AC. G-gauge brands include MTH One Gauge, LGB, Marklin 1-Gauge, Bachmann, Hartland Locomotive Works, and USA Trains. See GardenTrains.org for lots of information and links.
Where to Shop?
You might be lucky enough to have a model train shop nearby. Check the "dealer locator" links on the Lionel website, or check http://www.hobbyretailer.com/. Most general hobby shops carry only a limited selection of model trains, and dedicated model train shops are becoming fewer in number each year. Most dedicated train shops are tiny operations whose hours can be irregular, so you should telephone in advance before traveling to them.
Although there are many train dealers online, few have prices that are signficantly lower than a local dealer. An online store with good service and good prices is Trainz.com. I have had good experiences ordering from The Western Depot, a California dealer that always has a large selection of sale items. I've not purchased anything from Trainworld, but their prices on starter sets and close-out items are pretty low. The country's largest model train dealer is Charles Ro in Malden, Massachusettes. Eastside Trains in the Seattle area is one the nation's most attractive train stores for all scales, and has a growing online and mail order business.
Model train shows are a great place to see operating layouts and buy new and used merchandise from a large number of dealers. There probably is a show near you at least once a year. Many traveling shows are organized by Greenberg Shows. The Train Collectors Association (TCA) organizes a huge show twice a year in York, Pennsylvania. In the Rochester, New York, area, the Rochester Institute of Technology hosts the Tiger Tracks Train Show each December.
There are two auction houses that specialize just in toy trains: Stout Auctions and NETTE.
I have found the grading of trains by these houses to be reliable, and winning bids usually reflect true market value. Grading and prices at other auction houses can be highly variable. If you can't attend live auctions in person, I have had good experience with using LiveAuctioneers to place bids on items before or during auctions. Search on "Lionel" at the site to find upcoming model train auctions.
Pre-War, Post-War, and Modern Eras
Many hobbyists like to collect antique trains to display or run. Trains produced up to 1942 are called "pre-war", and those from 1945 to 1969 "post-war". No model trains were manufactured in the USA during its involvement in WWII.
"Tinplate" trains are the earliest pre-war trains, which are constructed out of sheet metal rather than die-cast metal and plastic. "Tinplate" is sometimes used generically to refer to any pre-war train or to any toy-style train.
The main pre-war brands are Lionel, Ives, and American Flyer.
The main post-war brands are Lionel and Marx.
Marx trains were and are much less expensive than Lionel trains, and also much less realistic and more toylike. Early tinplate Marx trains can be charming. Later plastic Marx trains are just ugly and cheap.
You can educate yourself about models, terminology, and prices of pre- and post-war trains by getting the Standard Catalogs of Lionel Trains by David Doyle, volumes 1 (pre-war) and 2 (post-war).
Which Brand to Buy?
Engines, cars, and transformers are
interchangeable (except as regards remote-control, see below), so you are not locked into one brand.
The best-known brand is Lionel. Tranditional Lionel track is called "tubular" track, so-called because the rails are hollow, formed from metal sheets, with unrealistic widely-spaced ties. Starting in 2003, Lionel starter sets come with Fastrack track. The rails are attached to a wide,
solid plastic base, so it is fine to use even on heavy carpet. The Fastrack manual switches are unique in that they will not derail the train if it runs into it "backwards" (all brands of automatic switches have this feature).
The second biggest name in O-gauge trains - and which in many ways is superior to Lionel - is MTH. MTH starter sets include a similar but incompatible track called RealTrax, which they
introduced years before Lionel. RealTrax includes 31 inch radius curves, while the minimum radius of Fastrack is 36 inches; these few inches actually give you a lot more flexibility with RealTrax on a small layout. (On the other hand, an advantage of Lionel Fastrack is that the pieces attach together more solidly.) MTH also makes a non-integrated roadbed track system called ScaleTrax. MTH was founded in 1980 by a model-train enthusiast who wanted to recapture
the glory days of model railroading, and ever since has built a strong
reputation for reliable and high-quality equipment. MTH makes several
different product lines. Their RailKing line of traditional
trains includes many starter sets. Their Premier line is aimed at adults
who want accurate models of real trains. Finally, MTH's Lionel Corporation brand produces reproductions of tinplate O-gauge and standard-gauge trains from the early pre-war era. (Confusingly, Lionel Corporation is not part of Lionel!)
Atlas-O concentrates on producing scale-size models of diesel trains aimed at adults who want to create realistic ("high rail") layouts. Higher-end Atlas-O engines are compatible with Lionel TMCC remote control.
Williams was a small independent company producing replicas of postwar Lionel trains until the owner retired in 2008. Fortunately, rather than disappearing, the company was bought by Bachmann, a large toy company, which had previously been known for HO and N gauge trains. Williams concentrates on replicas of Lionel trains from the 1950's, and do not support remote control.
K-Line, now out of business, produced both conventional control and TMCC compatible trains, sets, and accessories that were a good value. K-Line products can still be found at some dealers, such at the Western Depot.
ETS (Electric Train Systems) hand-produces all-metal tinplate trains in the Czech Republic, and sells them at surprisingly low prices given their quality. Their products are hard to find in the US, but can be ordered directly from the company or their US distributor. Their train sets can be ordered configured for either DC or AC power, 2 or 3 rail, and with a variety of different kinds of couplers. To be compatible with US standards, you'd choose 3 rail AC with knuckle couplers.
How can you judge the quality of a (new) engine or rolling stock? Aside from the obvious visual detail, a simple rule of thumb is that higher
quality pieces tend to use less plastic and more metal (steel, aluminum, or
The body of steam locomotive should be die-cast metal. The upper
body of a diesel engine will be plastic, but if you turn it over all
you should see is metal. All of the companies mentioned above include
such engines in some of their least expensive starter sets - but there are
some unfortunate exceptions, so check before buying!
For rolling stock, check whether the "trucks" (the things the wheels
attach to) are plastic or steel. Steel trucks are sturdier and their
weight helps keep the car on the track. If the trucks are
steel, check if the carriage (the bottom of the car) is steel as well -
another good sign. The rest of the body is likely to be plastic.
The more expensive passenger cars from all
three manufacturers are made of aluminum. Most pre-war rolling stock is made of thin stamped steel called tinplate.
Transformers, Rails, Sounds, and Remote Control
Almost all O-gauge trains are electrically compatible - if the motor is in good condition, you can run a train from 1935 on a modern layout. Trains intended for the US market from all eras run on AC current, using transformers that deliver 0-18 volts AC, and are designed to run on 3-rail track. Pre-War Lionel and modern MTH trains run equally well on AC or DC current. Trains designed for the European market are often built to use DC current and 2-rail track. Top-of-the-line trains from MTH (their "Premiere" line) can be easy modified by the owner to work on 3-rail or 2-rail track. The smaller companies described above often sell both 3-rail AC and 2-rail DC versions of their products.
All engines with the notable exception of Lionel LionChief engines (see section on remote control below) can controlled "conventionally", meaning their speed varies with the amount of voltage supplied by the transformer.
The higher wattage of a transformer, the larger layout it can handle without overheating. Get a transformer with at least 50W of power. Non-refurbished transformers from the 1950's and before are a fire hazard. A number of dealers on Ebay sell refurbished Lionel transformers from the 1950's. However, to protect the delicate electronics in modern engines from being damaged, you should add an inexpensive fuse block between the transformer and the track. You can buy appropriate fuse blocks from Scott's Odds N Ends. In fact, it is an excellent idea to add a fuse block even if you have a brand new transformer.
Traditional O-gauge trains include a electro-mechanical horn and sometimes
a bell. Most modern O-gauge locomotives include electronic sound systems of varying
degrees of sophistication. They provide sounds of chuffing, steam release, brakes, whistle, bell, and radio chatter from a train crew.
Higher end engines also are remote-control ready. There are two
different (incompatible) remote control systems, one by Lionel and also licensed to
other companies such as Atlas, and the other by MTH. Both systems allow
multiple trains to be independently operated on the same track from a hand
held remote (including detailed control of sounds), and can operate remote
switches and accessories.
Trainsounds - engines with Lionel's most basic electronic sound system
Railsounds - engines with Lionel's more advanced electronic sound system, which allows multiple sounds to occur simultaneously (e.g. chuffing + whistle + bell)
TMCC (TrainMaster Command Control) - engines with the original version of Lionel's remote control
capability and electronic sounds system.
TMCC II Legacy - Lionel's updated remote control system, released in 2007. It has many new features but is backward compatible with original TMCC equipment.
LCS Lionel Control System - an extension to TMCC II Legacy that allows trains to send information via special infra-red sensor based track sections to the controller. Note that two-way communication between trains and controllers has always been a feature of MTH Proto-Sound.
Lionchief Remote Control - a simple remote RF control system for most current Lionel trains. It is completely separate from all versions of TMCC, which cannot be used to control Lionchief-only engines. In 2017, Bluetooth remote control using an iPhone or Android app was added to this system. Starter set engines with this kind of control can only be operated by a Lionchief remote or phone app, and cannot be operated "conventionally" - that is, by a regular transformer that varies voltage.
Lionchief Plus Remote Control - a more advanced version of Lionchief, which adds the ability to control smoke and audio volume. Most importantly, engines with this kind of control can be controlled conventionally.
Loco-Sounds - engines with MTH's electronic sounds system only.
Proto-Sounds DCS (Digital Command System) - MTH's original remote control system. All versions of Proto-Sound are forward and backward compatible: you can control older engines with newer controllers, and newer engines with older controllers (but with fewer features).
Proto-Sounds DCS 2.0 - engines with MTH's 2nd generation remote
control capability and electronic sounds system.
Proto-Sounds DCS 3.0 - the latest version of MTH's electronic control system, introduced in 2010.
In 2017, MTH introduced iPhone and Android apps that can control Proto-sounds trains using a relatively inexpensive wifi adapter, the DCS Explorer. This adapter is now included instead of a physical speed control in most starter sets. While Bluetooth as used in Lionchief is limited to a distance of about 20 feet, wifi distance is, of course, unlimited.
Remote control allows you to run multiple trains on the same track without complex wiring of different sections of your layout.
The original Lionel LionChief can control the speed of a single engine on a layout. The current generation can control up to three engines, and newer LionChief trains can also be controlled by phone app using bluetooth. For anything more, you need one or more TMCC engines, a TMCC remote, and a TMCC control base. (Note that LionChief engines cannot be controlled in any manner by TMCC, and that LionChief Plus engines can only be controlled by TMCC in conventional mode, meaning only speed, bell, and whistle. If you want the engines to send speed and position information back to the remote, you need to add an LCS sensor track and controller. If you want to control accessories remotely, you further add one or more TMCC accessory control modules. Finally, to remote control switches, you can either use only FastTrack TMCC switches or an TMCC switch controller with any electrical switches.
MTH provides a number of options for controlling Proto-Sounds engines. Starter sets come up a wifi adapter to allow control from an iPhone or Android phone, or you can buy the adapter, the DCS Explorer Track Interface Unit 50-1035 for $129.95. The most advanced option is a DCS Remote Control and a DCS Track Interface Unit, which together cost about $300. To remote control accessories or switches, you add Proto-Sound control modules connected to the Track Interface Unit.
If you have money to burn and want to run both TMCC and Proto-Sounds trains, you can wire a Proto-Sounds Track Interface Unit to control a TMCC base.
Recommended Starter Sets
Plan on spending $300 to $400 on a good starter set that includes a die-cast steam locomotive, several cars, a loop of track, and a transformer. Any of MTH's starter sets are good quality, but be aware that the Lionel name appears on a few plastic, battery-operated G-scale train sets you should avoid. If you are interested in eventually having remote control, then the MTH Proto-Sounds system is better integrated than the hodge-podge of remote control options Lionel currently offers. Proto-Sounds 3.0 appears on almost all new MTH RTR sets - they have a few slightly cheaper LocoSounds sets, but the small savings is not worth it.
In 2017, the MTH Railking Pennsylvania Eagle Steam Freight Set with Proto-Sounds 3.0 includes the DCS Explorer Track Interface Unit, a 50 watt tranformer, and 12 pieces of track lists for $469.95. It sells for $389.99 at Trainworld.
In 2017, the Lionel Lionchief Pennsylvania Flyer Freight Set including a handheld Lionchief remote and Bluetooth capability, with 8 pieces of track and a 54 watt transformer lists for $299.00 ($239.99 at Trainworld). The similarly equipped Hogwarts Express set similarly equiped lists for $419.99 ($329.99 at Trainworld). But note the limitations of LionChief (non-Plus) remote control described above - you cannot control these trains with a conventional transformer or TMCC. So, despite being cheaper than MTH, they are inappropriate choices if you grow your layout.
As of January 2018, Lionel does not produce any starter sets with Lionchief Plus or with TMCC.