What Are the Best Model Train Brands?
There are dozens of companies manufacturing model trains, rolling stock, railroad sets, and accessories. A few of these companies have been in business for over a century and are still going strong, bringing us to the challenging quest to choose the best model train brands.
Overall, the best model train brands are Bachmann, Williams, Lionel, Athearn, Walthers, and Kato. Once you decide on the criteria, including scale, the best model train brands list will include MTH, LGB, Marklin, Atlas, and Piko based on your budget & preferences.
Most brands do not manufacture sets for all scales or sizes with the full range of features. Also, the leading brands have partnerships or subsidiaries dedicated to manufacturing specific types of model trains & railroad sets. Read on to know everything about the best model train brands around.
The Best Model Train Brands for Every Scale
Let’s have a refresher on the standard scales of model train sizes and gauge or track widths before we discuss the best model train brands in detail. G is the largest scale for model trains, followed by the considerably smaller O. HO is usually half the O scale, and N is even smaller.
Here is a quick glimpse of the popular scales for model trains & railroad sets:
|Scale||Ratio||Model Size to 1 ft (304.8 mm)||Gauge / Track||Best Model Train Brands|
|G1||1:20.3 – 1:32||~13.5 mm (0.53”)||45 mm (1.77”)||Bachmann, Piko, LGB|
|O||1:43.5 – 1:48||~7 mm (0.27”)||30 mm (1.18”)2||Lionel, Williams, MTH|
|HO3||1:87||3.5 mm (0.14”)||16.5 mm (0.65”)||Athearn, Kato, Walthers|
|N4||1:148 – 1:160||2.06 mm (0.08”)||8.97 mm (0.35”)||Kato, Bachmann, Athearn|
- The standard G Scale ratio is 1:22.5.
- The reported 30 mm (1.18”) O Scale gauge or track is usually 29.9 mm (1.17”).
- HO Scale has a few sub-categories, but the standard cited here is the most popular.
- Companies have different ratios and model sizes referred to as the N Scale.
The best model train brands for every scale in the fifth column on this table aren’t an exhaustive list. The ones mentioned are among the bestsellers for those categories. However, other major brands, such as Atlas and Marklin, have model train sets across the standard scales.
Bachmann Industries (Bachmann Trains) | Scales G, HO, and N
Bachmann is among the largest model train manufacturers in the world. It is also among the oldest companies that still make model trains and railroad sets. The original company was founded in 1833 and based in Philadelphia, but it did not start making model trains until 1968.
Bachmann Industries is currently a subsidiary company of the Kader Group, officially known as the Kader Industrial Company Limited. Hong Kong-based Kader Group also owns Williams Electric Trains, a popular company in Maryland that acquired Bachmann in 2007.
Bachmann Trains are a global bestseller by volume after taking into account all its regional brands in North America, Europe, China, and the rest of the world. In that sense, Bachmann can be anointed as the market leader. However, Bachmann is mostly known for entry-level models.
As a part of Kader Group, the Bachmann trademark is exclusively used for G, HO, and N scales. The trademark Williams by Bachmann is used for O scale model trains and railroad sets. Bachmann is credited with many firsts, such as introducing integrated roadbed tracks in the US.
This large ready to run bestselling electric train set available on Amazon.com is a plastic model of size 8. A tad pricey if you are looking at smaller entry-level sets, this 4-6-0 steam-era locomotive has:
- An operating headlight
- Speed-synced sound
- Coal-loaded tender
The train set runs on a 9V battery, not included in the kit, and on an oval steel alloy track of 162.56 cm by 129.54 cm (64 inches by 51 inches). You get a:
- Powerpack & speed controller
- Gondola car with festive decor
- Santa figure
- Merry Christmas bobber caboose
This ready-to-run Li’L Big Top electric model train set is substantially more affordable than the Night Before Christmas kit. The theme train model has:
- An operating headlight
- Coal tender
- Circus caboose
- Gondola cars
- Hook & loop couplers
- A power pack & speed controller
This HO scale Bachmann Trains Thoroughbred model is a ready-to-run electric train set priced at under $100. It is an Amazon bestseller featuring a plastic F7 diesel locomotive with:
- Gondola car
- Open quad hopper
- Wide-vision caboose
- An oval snap-fit E-Z track
This multicolor electric train model has 18 pieces packed in a 49.53 cm x 7.62 x x 33.65 cm box (19.50 inches x 3.00 inches x 13.25 inches). The Amazon’s Choice plastic model train set is an affordable HO scale bestseller sporting the usual Bachmann features and a reverse drive.
This HO scale Bachmann set has digital command control systems in two locomotives, one is an EMD GP40, and the other is EMD FT-A. You can regulate the direction, lighting, and speed of the two locomotives using the DCC on an E-Z track with siding and turnout features.
This McKinley Explorer model from Bachmann Trains is a starter set including a navy plastic EMD GP40 diesel locomotive and three passenger cars named after Alaskan rivers Kenai, Knik, and Deshka. Bachmann’s N scale for the kit is 1:160 and for children aged 14 and older.
The Roaring Rails DCC Sound Value edition is an N scale ready-to-run model train set with a GP40 diesel locomotive, operating headlight, and integrated DCC sound. The set includes:
- A wide vision caboose
- Box & gondola cars
- E-Z track
- A command controller
The Super Chief is an affordable N scale ready to run train set with:
- A boxcar
- Offset cupola caboose
- Steel gondola car
- An F7-A diesel locomotive
The 1:160 scale model kit includes a 61 cm (24 inches) circular E-Z track made of nickel silver, power pack, and speed controller.
Williams Electric Trains | Scale O
Williams Electric Trains was founded in 1971, at a time when Bachmann Industries had already been rebranded as Bachmann Brothers Inc. and were making HO scale model trains. In 2007, Williams Electric Trains acquired Bachmann, marking the latter’s entry into the O scale category.
Williams by Bachmann is currently the branded trademark of Kader Group that specializes in manufacturing O scale model trains and railroad sets. Bachmann and Williams by Bachmann model train sets are available in the United States, but they are branded differently elsewhere.
The 4-6-0 steam locomotive is a premium-quality O scale model for those interested in exquisite detailing and excellent maneuvers. The locomotive model from Williams by Bachmann is around 10 cm (4 inches) tall. It has a coal tender and can navigate O-27 curves or gauges.
The O scale train for children aged 14 & older has True Blast Plus for 16-bit polyphonic sounds, including idle steam, whistle, chuff, and bell. The model with a strong motor can navigate O-31 gauges and has both headlight and backup lights on the smoke unit, rear coupler, and tender.
Lionel, LLC. | Scales O and HO
Lionel is one of the oldest model train manufacturers in the world. The original company, Lionel Corporation, was founded in 1900 in New York City and manufactured model locomotives and train sets throughout the 20th century, except for the World Wars and the Great Depression.
Lionel, LLC. is currently a market leader in the US with not only model trains and locomotives but all essential gears, freight & passenger cars, tracks, and railroad accessories. Lionel’s The Polar Express was an instant bestseller upon its launch and has been popular ever since.
For over a hundred years, Lionel has been the most significant brand for the O scale segment of the market. It has ventured in and out of the HO scale. You will now find ready to run train sets, gauges, locomotives, and other essentials from Lionel for both scales.
The Polar Express Model Train Set with Remote – O and HO Scales
The Polar Express on Amazon.com was originally an O scale ready to play, battery-powered, Berkshire-styled model train set including:
- A steam locomotive with tender
- Passenger coach
- Observation car
- 8 straight and 24 curved plastic track parts
- Remote control
The Polar Express is now available in HO scale, too. Neither the original nor the recent editions are compatible with G scale gauge or track systems. Known for high-quality train sounds and announcements apart from the classic design, The Polar Express has a few variants available, including a non-branded or generic edition that has been officially licensed by Lionel.
You may consider the standard version or the Complete Set with Expansion Track. The latter has 24 curved and 20 straight track pieces. Also, there is a Lionel Polar Express Train Set with Bonus Santa’s Bell that includes 3 train cars and an oval track. Furthermore, there is an officially licensed The Polar Express Train Set that is a tad cheaper than Lionel’s models. These are all available on Amazon as well.
The Pennsylvania Flyer is an electric model train set with Bluetooth and LionChief. Lionel’s LionChief is a universal remote for its model trains and railroad sets. You may choose among three different versions:
- The complete set
- The one with Bluetooth
- The one that includes an expansion track
Available in various colors, the plastic set has a:
- 0-8-0 locomotive with tender
- Tank car with three domes
The kit has FasTrack with 8 curved O-36 tracks, 2 straight tracks, and a terminal. You can control the train using its remote or via mobile Bluetooth.
This electric train set is also compatible with LionChief and has Bluetooth. Available in assorted colors, the Santa Fe has:
- An FT diesel locomotive
- Observation car
- 2 passenger cars
- 8 curved and 2 straight FasTrack pieces
- Horn & bell
- 2 motors
- Operating headlight
- Illuminated cab
Athearn was founded in 1946 and has a longer history of making model trains or locomotives than Bachmann. Also, Athearn was the first company to encounter unprecedented success with its HO scale models, so much so that Lionel used its locomotives for its similar-sized train sets.
Athearn is currently owned by Horizon Hobby, but the original vision and approach to model trains and locomotives haven’t changed. The brand continues to prioritize premium designs and immaculate detailing. Athearn is known for its quality, finish, and specifications, but with caveats.
Athearn HO SD60E with DCC & Sound, available on Amazon.com, is a truck-themed plastic locomotive for model train sets. The HO scale model #6952 has a higher price tag than a few brands’ complete sets, and Athearn coaches, couplers, and accessories are also costlier.
Likewise, Athearn GP40-2 #3007 is a DCC or digital command control ready locomotive, more affordable than the SD60E, but it is still considerably costlier than some complete train sets. The Athearn locomotive models are also made of plastic, but the differences rest in the detailing.
Wm. K. Walthers, Inc. | All Scales
Founded in 1932, Walthers is currently one of the largest brands of model trains, railroad sets, essentials, and accessories. The company is also a distributor representing more than 200 manufacturers, including but not limited to:
- Model buildings
- Rolling stock
For almost a century now, Walthers has been a pioneering brand leading in model trains and railroad kits for several sizes, but most notably the HO scale. In 2021, Walthers introduced a hitherto unheard-of subscription program for model railroaders, hobbyists, and families.
Presently, Walthers makes and sells everything, cutting across scales, categories, and budgets. The brand’s Proto range is for veteran railroaders, those looking for nothing short of the finest quality. The Mainline range is for hobbyists with a bit of experience and flexible budgets.
Unlike most model railroad locomotives and train manufacturers, Walthers makes and sells almost everything you may need or can imagine. You may explore the collections of SceneMaster, Tools & Screws, and N scale models. Walthers is a one-stop brand in this niche.
This Walthers Trainline model is among the brand’s affordable sets with sound and DCC. The bestseller & variants have:
- A GP15-1 diesel locomotive
- Power-Loc roadbed track of nickel silver
- 8 cars with metal wheels and knuckle couplers
- Open coal hopper
- Wi-Fi connectivity
The Trainline locomotive or engine available in red, yellow, and gray sports many logos, including but not limited to:
- Union Pacific
- BNSF Railway
- Canadian Pacific
- Norfolk Southern
- Boston & Maine
The locomotive has a metal frame & wheels, magnetic couplers mounted on the body, all-wheel drive, and electrical pickup for the extra power to pull the cars.
Walthers Essentials and Accessories
All railroaders, whether beginners or hobbyists with some experience, will need a few essentials other than the model set. Walthers offers a plethora of rolling stock, essentials, and accessories. For all practical purposes, you may not have to look beyond the brand’s inventories for anything.
You can get a Walthers Trainline HO Scale Model 50 Plug-Door Boxcar. This Union Pacific boxcar has metal wheels. Alternatively, you may choose the Walthers Trainline 40 Plug-Door Track Cleaning Boxcar if you want a smaller one for HO scale sporting Union Pacific. This one features realistic paints, metal wheels, and magnetic knuckle couplers mounted on the body.
The Walthers Trainline HO Scale Model Norfolk Southern Tank Car can be a great addition to a set. The model train car is made of metal but weighs barely 0.19 lbs (86 g). If you prefer plastic and need a hopper, Walthers has the Trainline HO Scale Model Offset Hopper with metal wheels, realistic paint, and molded details for an aesthetic & durable finish.
You can create your own landscapes and exotic layouts with innumerable features with Walthers accessories, such as the Cornerstone Series Kit HO Scale Trestle with Steel Deck Girder Bridge. The HO scale set piece is made of alloy steel, wood, and plastic.
You may make your train set more interesting with a Walthers Trainline HO Scale Model Flatcar with Logging Crane. Besides, Walthers has everything you need for your projects, from wires and electrical controls to fasteners, lubricants, nuts & screws, drills, and taps, among others.
Kato USA | Scale N (and some HO)
Kato USA is a subsidiary of Kato Precision Railroad Models or Sekisui Kinzoku Kabushikigaisha, a Japanese company. While the brand makes HO scale models, its noteworthy and widely appreciated specialization is in the N segment.
Kato manufactures a variety of models in the N scale, including the famous bullet trains. One reason why brands like Bachmann are known for G scale and Athearn is famous for HO is the vast difference in the engineering and precision required to move up and down the size ladder.
A few brands known for their quality have relatively expensive model train sets that are not conveniently affordable for beginner hobbyists. Kato’s sets are neither exorbitantly priced nor as cheap as the entry-level variants listed in this guide. The prices may suit mid-range budgets.
This Kato PlaRail Model Train is a starter set with 3 cars for children aged 8 and older per Amazon but 12 & above per the manufacturer’s recommendation. The level of detailing in this affordable basic model train is more than satisfying, making the listed price totally worthwhile.
This Union Pacific-styled freight train set has a locomotive with working headlights and 6 freight cars of mixed designs, all of which have metal wheels and magnetic couplers. The model train set is DCC compatible, and the kit includes Kato’s Unitrack (oval shape) and a power pack.
The Kato USA N Scale Amtrak & Amfleet set has an ACS-64 locomotive, 3 coaches, and 1 cafe car for a 10.16 cm x 7.62 cm (4 in x 3 in) Unitrack loop. The kit includes a re-railing crossing and a 12V power pack. Also, it is among the quietest cars given the price range.
MTH Electric Trains | Scale O (some HO and S)
MTH Electric Trains, formerly Mike’s Train House, has a few HO and S scales models, but the brand is mainly known for its O gauge sets and pieces. Technically, MTH is no longer functional as the company shuts its operations in May 2021. However, its products are still available.
You can check out the MTH SP 4-8-8-2 on Amazon.com. The Southern Pacific styled model is a premium edition made of high-quality materials and parts. Alternatively, the MTH RailKing Norfolk Southern EMD GP20 is a more affordable option. The model is made of metal and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS). The O scale model requires a minimum curve of O-31.
MTH has several essential parts for railroaders, such as the USCG 40 High Cube Boxcar and RealTrax 5” (12.7 cm) Straight RiteTrax System. You can add more cars and tweak your track layout using these essentials. Also, MTH has a few military themed and styled cars and accessories.
You may check out the MTH US Army Boxcar or Flatcar with 3 Military Vehicles. Such accessories can make your railroad modeling hobby or fun more enjoyable. Besides, you have to use gauge or track compatible parts and accessories, and MTH has a few for the O scale.
Lehmann Gross Bahn (LGB) | Scale G
LGB or Lehmann Gross Bahn (Lehmann Big Train) is a subsidiary of Marklin, both German brands making various toys, including model trains and railroad sets. LGB specializes in G scale models, popularly known as the garden railway or train in Europe.
The LGB model trains, essentials, and accessories are for serious hobbyists, especially those considering outdoor installations. An LGB Passenger Train Set on Amazon.com can be a tad costly for beginners, despite the smoke generator & fluid systems, DCC or MTC control, directional lights, and steam sounds synced with the engine speed among other features.
The LGB Freight Train Set is equally expensive as a starter kit. However, the brand has some of the most premium parts for its models, such as the Buhler motor. The brand has a Christmas Starter Set, too. It costs less than the freight set, but almost the same as the passenger edition.
Like the train sets, LGB parts and accessories are also a tad pricey. An LGB Electric G Scale Uncoupler measuring 150 mm (5.9 inches) costs nearly $80, but it is meant for both indoor & outdoor use. Besides, there is a light signal for location, and you can uncouple with the remote.
Marklin | Multiple Scales
Marklin or Gebr. Marklin & Cie. GmbH is the parent company of LGB. While LGB remains aimed at the G scale segment, Marklin explores the HO, gauge 1, and Z sizes. Like LGB, Marklin model train sets may be expensive for many, particularly for beginners and as gifts for children.
A Marklin Christmas Starter Set of Z scale is costlier than the larger N and HO sizes of many brands. Z gauge has a ratio of 1:220. Hence, 1.38 mm (0.05 inches) of this Marklin model is equivalent to 304.8 mm (1 foot) of the actual train. Such a small size may be unsafe for children under the age of 8, and kids older than 10 or 12 may prefer N, HO, or perhaps the O scale.
Atlas Model Railroad Co. Inc. | Several Scales
Atlas makes model trains, railroad sets, and rolling stock in the scales O, HO, N, and Z. Its O gauge collection is substantially based on the acquisition of the range from MTH Electric Trains. Like LGB and Marklin, Atlas model trains have premium prices, but it has affordable sub-brands.
However, the entry-level sets in the Trainman range that are relatively affordable have very little detailing. The new molds are not as appealing as those of Kato, Athearn, Lionel, Williams, or Bachmann. The aesthetic craftsmanship is evident only when you explore the Master collection. An Atlas Master locomotive can cost as much as a basic set of several other brands.
Piko | Scale G
Piko is a German company specializing in G scale model trains. The company has a few models in HO, N, and TT scales, but they aren’t as popular or brilliant as the G gauge sets. Like Marklin, Piko is a premium brand known for its impeccable detailing and fantastic aesthetics.
You may check out the Piko G Scale WP&Y Freight Starter Set on Amazon.com. It is an entry-level kit priced at ~$500 with a couple of cars. You can get many more cars in various styles for much less. A Piko G Scale Gazebo costs almost $120. The intricate detailing & coloring make it a fitting addition to an outdoor garden or park if you have such a requirement.
The world of model railroading is vast, diverse, and overwhelming. Choose a scale, decide on a budget, and make a shortlist of the features you want before shopping. This guide will probably assist you in sifting the thousands of options available online and at retail stores.