Who Makes the Best HO Scale Locomotives?

Who Makes the Best HO Scale Locomotives?

For model railway enthusiasts, collecting HO-scale engines and building a railroad takes time, effort, and money. The search for the best HO scale locomotive can be overwhelming, considering the variety of train engine models and accessories in the market today. 

The best HO scale locomotives makers are Atlas, OTOH, Rapido Trains, Bowser, Intermountain, Proto 2000, and Athearn. Choosing the best maker of HO scale locomotives depends on the prototype accuracy, price, finish, drive quality, engine chassis, design details, and robustness.

People who collect HO scale locomotives as a hobby have so much passion for it they have developed a preference over the makers they prefer. The rest of this article will explore some of the reasons some brands are favored and topics related to HO scale locomotives. 

Which Are the Best Brands of HO Scale Locomotives?

HO scale trains are scaled down to a ratio of 1:87 of the real train. This means these model trains are 87 times smaller than the real locomotive trains. Manufacturers of HO scale locomotives attempt to recreate replicas of the real trains, but it isn’t easy to get a perfect representation. This is why some brands are considered better than others. 

The best brands of HO scale locomotives are Athearn, Walthers, Atlas, Bachmann, KATO, OTOH, Lionel, and Bowser. Athearn’s premier locomotive, Genesis, has prototype accuracy, while Atlas and OTOH models have a great fit and finish, while Bowser has great engines. 

People with a passion for the HO scale prefer one brand over another for various reasons. However, all of these brands are some of the best in the market, not just because they have detailed designs, but they also offer a variety of trains.

best ho scale locomotives
David B.

How To Choose the Best HO Scale Locomotive Maker

Most hobbyists and model train enthusiasts consider the authenticity of the HO Scale locomotive. The details on the train are illustrative of how far some makers go to make prototypes that are replicas of the same trains. 

If you have a specific train in mind when purchasing an HO scale train, you may want to compare the details of the original train and compare it with the models. Besides the details on the train, you should also consider the size, weight, and performance. 

The details and performance of the HO scale locomotive may impact the price. Some brands are more expensive than others, yet the train models are similar.

This video provides great insights on how to choose an HO scale train, especially if you are new to model trains:


Qualities of the Best HO Scale Locomotive

While some people pick train sets based on price, HO scale train collectors are more specific when searching for the best locomotive. 

These are qualities of the best HO scale locomotives:


  • Details on the trains. These are the features you see on the train on the rail or shelf. For example, KATO train models are some of the best for various reasons, but mostly for the details. The roof details, doors, lights, rails, flywheel, controls, and interior are similar to the real train.
  • Flywheels. Flywheels are great additions because they help the trains to glide to a halt when the power goes off. Switch trach gaps, dirty rail tracks, and gaps in the rail usually cause HO scale trails to lose power temporarily. Models that have no flywheels stop as soon as the power goes off, and you will need to nudge the train every time to get it to move again. 
  • Weight. Heavier HO trains carry more cars and have no difficulty running over dirt tracks. 
  • Wheels. All the wheels should pick up current to enable the train to maneuver over rail gaps or dirty tracks comfortably. Unfortunately, some HO scale trains, especially low-budget ones, only have a few wheels which pick up current. 
  • Poles. HO scale locomotives with more poles (usually five) are quieter, run smoothly, have more torque, and have better speed control.
  • Voltage. Trains with a higher voltage cause the motor to spin faster, so they are unlikely to stall when moving at low speeds. 
David B.

Top HO Scale Locomotives From Popular Brands

As a scale, HO is the most popular of all train models, but some trains are in higher demand than others. Interestingly, HO scale train models are favored by the young and the old. Interestingly, hobbyists actively buying model railroaders are in their 50s and 60s.  

These are some of the top HO scale locomotives:

Walthers Trainline HO Scale Union Pacific Model GP15-1 

The Walthers Model GP 15 -1 Union Pacific HO scale has a heavy die-cast metal frame, which adds weight and pulling power. This train set can pull up to 25 cars. It is a favorite for many enthusiasts because it comes fully assembled, is all-wheel drive, and has an electrical pickup.

Other features that make this Walthers HO scale train an excellent choice include its compatibility with multiple tracks and smooth-running motor. It has a powerful engine capable of pushing and pulling heavy loads. 

Unfortunately, this train does not come with its tracks, so you will need to buy them separately.  

Bachmann HO Santa Fe Flyer Electric Train

The Bachmann HO scale Santa Fe electric train set is a multi-colored, ready-to-run set that comes with a 36 inch (91.44cm) snap to fit track, power pack, and speed controller. It has multiple coaches, both open and closed, an operating headlight, is easy to set up, runs smoothly, and its battery is long-lasting. 

The downside is that sometimes the coaches come apart as the train moves. This set is also too sensitive to rail obstructions. 

Lionel HO Polar-Express Train 

The Lionel HO Polar Express Train is a popular Christmas gift choice for children and hobbyists of different ages. It is an iconic polar express 2-8-4 train set with a coachbox, observation car, and abandoned toy car. 

It is fitted with Bluetooth technology, DC or DCC transformer, knuckle couplers, LED lighting, maintenance-free motor, a horn, bell, steam sounds, Polar Express PA announcements, and rail sounds. 

The mechanical features include a 12V DC power supply, 9-inch (22.86-cm) MagneLock terminal section, twelve 20-inch (50.8-cm) Radius MagneLock curves, and three 9-inch (22.86-cm) straights. It also has a LionChief remote and Polar Express Bell.

Other product specifications include HO gauge compatibility, 18-inch (45.72-cm) minimum curve radius, and 45-inch (139.7-cm) set length. The train set uses three AAA batteries, which you-ll have to buy separately. 

Lionel Nickel Plate HO Model Train 

The Lionel Nickel Plate HO train set is popular because the details are incredible. Besides the details on the body, this train is packed with so many features that make it one of the most realistic HO models ever made. 

It has a die-cast boiler, tender body, speed control, crew figures, fan-driven smoke, a powerful maintenance-free motor, and number boards. 

Features that make this Lionel HO scale train an ideal choice include the LED headlight, flickering firebox, directional lighting, mars lights, cab light, volume control, background sounds, whistle, horn, and rail sounds. 

The locomotive and control features include six railroad speeds, correctly timed warning signals, refueling sound effects, eight diesel rpm levels, and current speed information. The set is controlled with a universal remote and Bluetooth connectivity using smart devices, conventional transformer, or legacy cab. 

The entire train set is 20 inches (50.8 cm) long and is ideal for anyone aged ten years and above. 

best ho train brands
David B.

Why Is HO Scale Very Popular?

HO scale train sets are very popular when compared to all the scales. These trains have been in the market since the mid-1930s. Their popularity grew in the 1940s when people started living in smaller apartments. 

HO scale is very popular because the trains are detailed, cheaper, and a wide range of trains are available. Many manufacturers make HO scale trains, so hobbyists choose trains from their preferred brand. Accessories, like buildings, bridges, and scenery, for this scale, are also realistic. 

HO scale locomotives are no doubt a favorite for many train enthusiasts. Since more people do not have the space to create a large layout, the scale works for small areas. Even those with entire basements to create a realistic layout prefer the HO scale because they have greater flexibility to get more trains, cars, and accessories. 

These Generic Railroad Accessories (available on Amazon.com) are ideal for buildings and bridges. They are easy to install, are detailed, and the perfect size for HO scale rail layout. 

Importance of the Motor in HO Scale Locomotives

While the physical appearance of an HO scale locomotive is important, hobbyists often focus on the motor, which has two main attributes; speed and torque. 

Most HO scale locomotives use DC motors because:

  • They have great speed control.
  • They run smoothly.
  • They have high torque.

If you want a fast train set, you need to look at the voltage. The higher the voltage, the faster the motor. Most HO scale locomotives are designed for 14 volts, but some run at 10v or 12v. 

A train running at the maximum voltage runs the risk of having its motor heat up and burn out. Fortunately, most manufacturers provide a controller to keep this from happening.

Speed is also measured using RPM (revolutions per minute). An HO train with 10,000RPM is faster than one with 8,000RPM at maximum voltage. 

The load the train will carry also affects motor speed. An HO scale train may have a high voltage, but the motor speed will be optimal when it has no load. The load is anything that will slow the motor or cause it to use its power to move. 

The load could be the cars the train carries, the friction in the wheels of the cars being pulled, gear friction, and the axle bearings. 

Torque is the train’s ability to handle and overcome friction. When the train moves at maximum speed, the torque is at zero, and when the train is not moving, the torque is at maximum. When starting a stalled train, you need more power to get it to move. A train with sufficient power starts easily, is fast, and can overcome friction. 

ho scale locomotive
Public Domain

DC vs. DCC Model Trains

When buying HO scale models, you will discover some use the DC system while others use the DCC system. DC and DCC systems are methods of supplying electricity to the train set or railway. DC is the traditional way, and the trains that use this system are often referred to as analog. 

The DC system is simplistic, and the trains have no independence. They will move simultaneously unless each train has a different power source.

On the other hand, DCC is an advanced powering system that is digital. A DCC decoder controls multiple trains, as per the operator’s instructions. However, only one train can be controlled at a time, based on the given instructions. 

However, multiple trains using the DCC system run simultaneously, albeit at different speeds and activities. For example, some trains may be moving in reverse, others may run slowly, and others may speed on the rails. Additional effects, like sounds, lights, smoke, and steam, make trains that use DCC systems fun to operate. 

If you have Bachmann HO scale trains, this Bachmann Command DCC Controller (available on Amazon.com) is a plug-and-play device that you can use for DC and DCC compatible HO trains. It has simple programming that is easy to use.  

Tips to Making an HO Scale Railroad Layout

HO scale locomotives are the most popular because of their size. The rails can fit on almost any space, including the top of a coffee table or living room. If you have plenty of space, you can build a bigger layout.

These tips will help you make an HO scale railroad layout:


  • Buy the train set first if you intend to make a temporary track layout. Find out how big the railroad is when fully set up, so you can tell if it is suitable or not. Fortunately, you can buy more tracks and accessories to expand your railroad layout.
  • Plan your layout. The layout of the railroad can be flat, or you can get accessories to introduce inclines and bridges on the railroad. 
  • Follow the recommended HO curve radius. The distance between the center of the curve and the track is critical because if the curve is too sharp, the train will topple over. The ideal minimum radius for HO scale trains is 15 – 22 inches (38.1 cm – 55.88 cm). Longer trains, parallel tracks, and S-track designs require a larger curve radius. You can also choose your preferred radius if it is not too narrow. 
  • Use the brand’s model railroad track. Most brands have track software packages, which you can use to design the railroad.  
  • Consider the trains you intend to use on the tracks. Modern rail tracks are popular because they have a realistic base, a roadbed that elevates the track, and locking mechanisms that lock connected rail pieces. Unfortunately, the track pieces are not universally compatible, so you may need to buy the same train brand.

This video offers tips on what to look for when buying HO scale trains:


How Much To Spend on HO Scale Trains

When buying a train set for the first time, choosing one can be a challenge because train sets cost as little as $25 and others cost $500. Some brands are considered the best and have a higher price tag, so the price is sometimes associated with the brand. 

Often, the prototype, details, and size of the set will influence the price of HO scale trains. For example, a set that carries several cars on a figure 8 track is likely to have a high price tag.

The material of the tracks will also affect the price. Nickel silver rails are becoming more common because they do not rust. Other rails are made of aluminum, steel, and brass. In humid conditions, steel and brass rail rust.  

If you are buying an HO scale locomotive for the first time, look at the details, such as the writing on the body, windows, grills, lights, and wheels. You should also check the weight of the set and features to determine if the price is worth it. 

You should also consider where you are buying the train set. Discounted train sets at high-end stores are likely to be of better quality than discounted sets in low-budget stores.

If possible, buy from a hobby store which stocks a range of train sets and has personnel with in-depth knowledge about the train set. Having an expert and train enthusiast at hand to explain the details, especially concerning the pricing and quality of the train set, will help you make the right decision.


The HO scale locomotives dominate the model train market because train enthusiasts and model train makers prefer the size, price, and details. The range of trains and accessories available in this scale make layout and track building fun for children and adults.


Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

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