With the availability of gaming systems, hobby drones, and complex gadgets, the continued popularity of electric train sets showcases their enduring appeal to a wide variety of fans. From children to seasoned hobbyists, electric trains offer great fun and ample opportunities for creativity for the entire family.
Regardless of your experience level, the size of your hobby area, or even the depth of your wallet, this guide highlights essential information that any model train enthusiast needs to choose the best electric train set.
- BEST OVERALL: Lionel Pennsylvania Flyer Electric O Gauge Train Set
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Bachmann Trains – Rail Chief Ready To Run
- BEST FOR YOUNG CHILDREN: Brio My First Railway Battery Operated Train Set
- BEST FOR TEENAGERS: Bachmann Trains – Santa Fe Flyer Ready To Run
- BEST FOR HOBBYISTS: Lionel The Polar Express Electric O Gauge Model Train
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Electric Train Set
The hobby of model trains is nearly 200 years old. Because of that, there are enough train, track, and style variations to make your head spin. But that same rich variety also allows any electric train enthusiast to find the set that best fits their situation. Here are some of the most important tips to consider when searching for the best electric train set for you.
One of the most important aspects of any model train set is identifying who the engineer is. Electric trains are wonderful fun for the entire family, and you must consider who will be in charge of the set. If you’re an experienced adult enthusiast, you might not need the durability of plastic models, allowing you to choose a more detailed die-cast set. Perhaps your experience has made you ready for a premium set, and the price is not a consideration.
Conversely, suppose you will be enjoying a train set with your children or just getting into the hobby. In that case, the world of model trains offers various easy-to-assemble sets with larger plastic trains that ensure safety without sacrificing detail—while keeping your budget in mind.
Size and Scale
Model trains are built around various scales of their real-life counterparts. Determining the best scale and, therefore, the size of your electric train set will include many considerations. There are several standardized sizes of model train sets, referred to as gauges. These gauges reference the distance between each track’s outside rails, and they are assigned different letters as a quick reference to their sizes. These range from the 1:22.5 scale G gauge, which carries train cars nearly 2 feet in length, to the 1:480 scale T gauge and its 2-inch cars.
The most popular gauges are O and HO, at 1:48 scale and 1:87 scale, respectively. HO gauge train sets are popular for their smaller size (the cars are around 7 inches long). This makes them great options for smaller areas without sacrificing the fine details that make these sets so beautiful.
O gauge sets are twice as large as HO, which can create problems if you don’t have the proper space, but their increased size allows for the most specific details across the entire set.
Just as there is significant variation in sizes, there is also a great variety of track choices. Different manufacturers create their own track styles—with specific means of connection—depending on the gauge and design of the particular train set. Most of the time, you can’t connect to other-gauge tracks.
Additionally, although nickel silver is the most common—and easy to use—track material, sets might feature other metals. These additional materials will need to be treated and handled differently, including various means of cleaning and storage.
Finally, all tracks come in two major styles: conventional and roadbed style.
- Conventional tracks are simply metal rails molded onto plastic ties to create a standard “piece of track.” This track style allows the hobbyist to have greater customization of the layout of the track, but it takes much longer to set up, and it requires the creation of a roadbed or some other means of proper track mounting.
- Roadbed-style tracks include the rails and ties of a conventional track, on top of various forms of molded “roadbed” ballast (such as crushed rock, concrete, or dirt). These sections are easy to connect and ensure that the electric current powering the set travels uniformly throughout the entire track. But there is no bending or shaping these sections, so you are forced to use the track shapes offered by the manufacturer. (Fear not; there are countless wonderful roadbed sections for any enthusiast.) Most sets use roadbed-style tracks.
As these are electric train sets, they have to pull their power from somewhere. Most plug directly into the wall, using a transformer in the plug to convert to DC electricity, which travels through the set’s metal rails. Having direct power is needed for a smooth ride across the entire set and ensures that the engine can pull all of the cars.
Conversely, some electric train sets are powered by batteries in the cars. These sets benefit from being cheaper and much more portable. However, they are often marketed to a younger audience and are typically not adaptable to other track styles, limiting a battery-powered model’s future customizability.
Wheels and Couplers
There are two main choices when it comes to wheels: metal or plastic. Plastic wheels are usually found on more budget-oriented train sets. Modern plastic wheels work well but miss out on many of the desirable aspects that metal wheels bring, such as durability and cleanliness. Additionally, plastic wheels have a better chance of coming off the rails.
Metal wheels benefit from smoother rolling and added weight to help keep the train properly positioned while running, and they deliver that lovely click-clack of a train coasting over its tracks. Though sets with metal wheels tend to be more expensive, most enthusiasts find the added benefits worth the expense.
For couplers, many higher-end sets will use the same knuckle coupler as seen on real-life trains, in which a claw on one coupler grips another, joining the cars. In more beginner-friendly sets, these couplers have been replaced with magnets to secure the cars to one another. While these magnetic couplers might not be as authentic, they make it easier to set up and use the set.
Once you assemble and plug in the set, it’s almost ready to roll. But first, almost all of the best electric train sets come with a speed controller to start and stop the train. This also allows you to change the train’s speed and direction as it cruises around the track, and many speed controllers include triggers for horns, announcements, and whistles to create that authentic train sound.
Lastly, the top manufacturers have introduced smartphone apps that connect to the set over Bluetooth. Aside from allowing users to access the track from up to 30 feet away, these apps also allow you to control standard speed options and added features such as sound controls (horns and chatter) and control over working smokestacks.
Electric train sets come with, quite literally, a variety of bells and whistles to create the sights and sounds of authentic trains. From working lights and smokestacks to the sounds of chugging as it rolls over the track, many sets will allow you to control and trigger these lights and sounds as you wish.
Some sets come with hundreds of additional pieces—such as people, lampposts, and various signs—allowing an enthusiast to create the exact setup for their specific layout. Other sets offer a variety of train cars and track designs.
Still, many sets are simply an engine, three to four additional cars, and enough track to create a sizable circular course to enjoy your train. Beginners benefit from these simpler offerings, as they allow the user to focus on learning the proper operation of the set while also offering great customizability in the future.
Of course, all top manufacturers sell countless extra parts and pieces, from houses to miniature shrubs to specific-powered tracks. The customization is endless.
Our Top Picks
The following recommendations keep all the previous specific considerations in mind. No matter your experience with electric train sets, these suggestions are some of the best on the market for all levels of electric train enthusiasts.
Lionel’s O Gauge Pennsylvania Flyer is a wonderful combination of accessibility, ease of use, and detail. Made of die-cast steel and high-quality plastic, it is durable enough to be safely handled by children and adults alike. Featuring an 0-8-0 locomotive and tender, a boxcar, a three-dome tank car, and a caboose—each in stunning detail from the substantial O gauge size—it is a true treat to watch this set roll over the rails.
Additionally, the Pennsylvania Flyer features a fully functional headlight and operational whistles and announcements triggered by the user. The smokestack puffs real smoke (from unscented smoke fluid) in time with chugging sounds that match the train’s speed and motion. Working knuckle couplers allow the user to connect and reconnect the cars in any order and enable you to add extra cars later.
Not every gem is without its flaws, however, and this train set is no different. This smart electric train set can be operated through a mobile app. However, should you have any connectivity issues, know that you can also power it, and access all of its features via its remote control.
The Bachmann Rail Chief is a wonderful, robust offering at a lower price point. Cast in HO gauge, this set creates a 47-inch by 38-inch oval that allows for an enjoyable set in a smaller footprint.
Made of quality plastic, the Rail Chief utilizes EZ-track to make setup a cinch. And with more than 130 pieces in the entire set, your course will be customized with telephone poles, figurines of people, and various signs to add a lovely extra touch.
In exchange for the price point, some features are absent from the Rail Chief, such as sliding doors on the cars and a lack of sounds or smoke from the engine. Some individual parts, such as the signal bridge, can be challenging to assemble. But with the great overall quality and a variety of included pieces, this set is an excellent addition for any enthusiast.
Brio’s battery-operated train set is a great entry set for a burgeoning engineer. Made of child-safe wood and plastic, the parts are large enough to be used by children over 18 months old and safe for anyone to handle.
Featuring bright colors and an interactive car, this set comes with ramps, stacking blocks, support pieces, and various sections of track for your little ones to be as creative as they would like. And what’s even better, as your child grows, this set will connect with any other Brio railway set.
The tracks are simply grooved wood, so derailments will happen. But that will give your child another opportunity to have fun while learning.
The Santa Fe Flyer from Bachmann Trains is an ideal entry train set for an older child or teenager. Modeled in HO gauge, this set offers great detail in a train that runs along a 36-inch circular track.
Made of sturdy plastic, this set can take some hits and keep on chugging, making it perfect for those still learning the ropes of electric train sets. The snap-together E-Z tracks make setup a breeze.
As it is made from plastic, some of the smaller parts can be a little flimsy, so care is always recommended in handling. Additionally, this is a fairly basic kit, with just track and four cars. But at this price point and with easy availability of additional tracks, cars, and accessories, the Bachmann Trains Santa Fe Flyer makes a perfect starting set for anyone interested in model trains.
If you’re looking for a premium electric train set that could be the centerpiece of your collection, The Polar Express from Lionel is a gorgeous train with robust features. The 2-8-4 Locomotive, observation car, and two coach cars have been re-created in exquisite detail, and the four articulated movie characters add premium authenticity to the set.
Featuring an operating headlight, true-to-life smoke and chuffing sounds (synced with each other as the train moves), interior lighting within the cars, and official sound clips from the movie itself, this set—an O gauge—will stand out for its size and attention to detail.
Though it doesn’t come with additional track or scenery pieces, the tracks can be easily added to other Lionel O gauge tracks. For the experienced model train operator, this set’s true beauty lies in the train itself, making it a perfect addition to any collection.
FAQs About Electric Train Sets
Though train sets are popular and enjoyed by millions of hobbyists worldwide, getting into electric trains can bring about some basic questions. Here are a few of the most frequently asked questions—and answers—about electric train sets.
Q. What is an electric train set?
An electric train set is a miniature model train engine that pulls several cars over special tracks. These trains are powered by electricity, from a wall outlet or a battery, to send them around a series of train tracks laid out in standard layouts.
Q. How does an electric train set work?
An electric train set uses electricity, which flows through the metal tracks of the set to propel the train around the track. A remote or smartphone app controls the speed and direction.
Q. Is an electric train set made for kids?
Electric train sets are made for everyone, from the young novice to the seasoned veteran. Some models are intended for kids, though most can be enjoyed by any enthusiast, no matter the age.