Why Are Model Trains So Popular?

Model trains have come a long way. From the cheap toy of yesteryear to the great collectible of today, model trains remain one of the most popular miniature vehicles ever made. What is the driving force behind the popularity of the model train?

Model trains are so popular because they are so fun. But besides that, they are also a great family activity. Model trains bring generations together in a mesmerizing activity that is at the same time very educational. Model trains are great conversation starters that can help the younger generations understand the lives and times of the older generations.

Model trains are not merely a Christmas gift for an eight-year-old child anymore. They have become the all-consuming hobby of enthusiasts from every walk of life and every age group. Let’s examine what keeps the model train so popular with every generation.

Model Trains Bring People Together

Model trains are so popular because historically, trains were the first avenue of bringing people together across the vast sprawling countryside of various nations. Presently, model trains bring people together across generational lines.

Model Trains Are A Family Activity

Model trains are a great way for families to spend time together. Who doesn’t love playing with model trains? The whole family can participate in building a railroad and running their own railway lines. 

Model trains provide a way for grandparents to spend quality time with their grandchildren without the kids being bored stiff. Children will be happy to visit Granny and Gramps if there is a super-cool model railway in the basement waiting to be explored.

model trains so popular
David B. Photo

Model Trains Are Educational

Playing with model trains can be a fun way for kids to learn about the world as it was generations before them. Model trains can help them learn the basics of how commerce works.

Since trains are primarily used to move payloads from one place to another, playing with model trains can help children understand the many components of a supply line. If the train can’t get through, the towns can’t get vital supplies.

Adults can tell the children actual stories of times when trains couldn’t get through due to:

  • Snow drifts
  • Lack of equipment
  • Mountainous terrain

You can explain the hardship that resulted in the towns along the railway when supplies could not be delivered, particularly in the pioneer days. It will be a fun way for children to learn not only history but also how all the components of our economy depend on each other.

They also learn cause and effect. They learn that running the train too fast around a curve causes it to derail. An adult can explain to them the catastrophe that results from a derailed train. This will teach them the importance of following safety directions.

Additionally, model trains can help children understand the importance of punctuality by having an adult or older sibling role play with them. The older person can pretend to be a passenger or station manager waiting for the train conducted by the child. If the train is late, the passenger misses a necessary appointment, or the cargo misses its connecting train.

Building a model railway can help children visualize the landscapes in different parts of the country where they live. In this way, it is a fun method of learning geography. As they help build the mountains or plains that their train must run through, they learn the unique challenges posed by each landscape type.

Model trains also serve as an object lesson in simple physics:

  • If the grade of the hill is too steep, the train can’t climb it. 
  • If the downgrade is too steep, the train will pick up too much speed and fly off the rails. 
  • If the curve is too sharp, the train will get stuck. 
  • If the train is too long, one engine can’t pull it.

The lessons that can be taught by model trains are almost endless. Playing with model trains will also raise questions about how an engine works. An adult can explain to children how a steam engine differs from today’s fuel engines. This may help to spark an interest in mechanics, which can lead a child to explore the possibilities of a career in mechanical work.

why are model trains popular
David B. Photo

Model Trains Are Fun 

Probably the biggest reason model trains are so popular is simply because they are fun. They take us back to simpler days. For the senior adult, they may be able to remember when trains were the lifeline of the economy. It may take them back to their childhood when the wail of a train horn was the highlight of their day.

It will almost certainly take them back to Christmas mornings from long, long ago when they unwrapped their very first model train. This helps them relive happier times when life was slower and less stressful for them.

For younger adults and children, trains are a fascinating relic from a glorified era we all wish we could have experienced. The era of heroes and bandits, lawmen and desperados. Model trains allow us to pretend that we part of that rugged generation who carved out a living from barren rocks and canyons.

The mesmerizing clackety-clack of the train wheels against the rails helps us forget our troubles and just enjoy a simple pastime.

Model Train History Goes Back Two Hundred Years

Germany was the first to build model trains in the early 1800s. These were not powered at all; they had to be pushed along the rails. Next, France began making tin toy trains that were ornately decorated. These, too, were hand-powered, only they didn’t run on rails. They were just pushed across the floor.

England produced the first steam-powered model train. These were a fascinating mess since they left trails of water wherever they went. They were soon replaced by model trains powered by clock mechanisms. These model trains were clumsy and expensive.

It was again the Germans who produced the first electric train set complete with sectional tracks and the now-classic figure-eight layout.

In America, by the turn of the twentieth century, the company known as Lionel made a name for itself by building the most realistic model trains on the market. Lionel trains were electrically powered, and the motors were surprisingly strong. The rugged construction and bright colors made them the most popular model train in America.

The model train niche really took off in post-World War 2 America. This was when model trains became more of a collectible than a child’s toy.

model railroad popularity
David B. Photo

Model Train Popularity Today Continues To Expand

In recent decades, model trains have become a hobby for both old and young. Women, as well as men, have become fascinated by building ever more realistic railway models. Gone are the days of watching a three-car train race around an eight-foot track.

These days, elaborate model railways may fill up an entire room! They are usually built on plywood tables and can span up to fifty feet. And it isn’t just rails. These sets include realistic landscapes complete with:

  • Mountains
  • Plains
  • Tunnels
  • Valleys
  • Towns
  • Cities
  • Neon signs
  • Miniature people
  • Elaborate stores
  • Elevated railways
  • Realistic topography

These Master Model Railroaders are super serious about their railways accurately reflecting the real thing. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are devoted to this hobby as railway sets are expanded continuously.

Often, the room walls are painted so that it’s hard to tell where the backdrop ends and the scenery begins. 

The landscapes are 3D and exhibit quite an artistic flair. This has the effect of transporting you to the area represented by the model railway. It can be a mesmerizing experience to race your model train through the canyons and over the mountains of the Wild West, outmanoeuvring bandits and train robbers without ever leaving your warm, comfortable home.

This trend shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

Model Trains Are Creating A Vast Network

Building model railways includes more than just playing realistic games. Master Model Railroaders have forged relationships with each other and have even formed a national association. They have their own magazine, and model railroad clubs are popping up all over the country, this is what makes model trains so popular.

More than 200 years after the iron horse was introduced to the world, model trains are still bringing people together. 


Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

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