A Guide to Purchasing Equipment

model trains for beginners


The quality and variety of equipment available for model railroading, as with any hobby is great, but selection can be daunting and there are caveats.  When buying equipment, please consider quality.  In most cases quality and price will be closely related.

With this in mind, there are two distinctly different types of model railroad equipment available. There is equipment available that is targeted at the serious model railroader, and then there is that which is targeted towards the “toy train” market. The challenge when purchasing model railroad equipment is that one would prefer not to spend a large amount of money on high quality equipment when starting out, and especially if you are buying for a child who may lose interest in the hobby very quickly. The majority of equipment available in toy stores and many hobby shops is unfortunately of the “toy train” category, which is designed to be cheap and as such performs accordingly. Herein is the caveat.  The lure to purchase cheaper equipment results in poor operation of this equipment, which in turn frustrates, disappoints and discourages the owner before any serious interest in the hobby can properly develop.


Advice on Buying Locomotives

We have found from experience, that many cheap train sets have such poor quality locomotives, that when the power is turned on there is no response until you push it.  When the locomotive does go, it tends to move so fast that is jumps the track on encountering the first bend.  There has however been some improvement in recent years, whereby starter sets are now including some relatively good quality equipment, but the price reflects such a change.  Manufacturers have started to take cognizance of the fact that it is important to provide good quality equipment in order to grow the interest and thus sustain the supplier sector, hence the improvement of sets.

The quality issues that affect these starter sets have been found to be mainly the quality of the locomotive and the quality of the power pack.  In order for the locomotive to run properly, the wheels must pick up electricity from the track rails and then transmitted to the electric motor in the locomotive. It makes sense the, that the more wheels that pickup power from the rails, the greater the ability to transmit power to the motor.  Several factors influence this basic operation, namely the quality of the electric motor, the weight of the locomotive and the flywheels.  Weight benefits the operation, in placing more pressure on the wheels, thus providing better electricity pickup, and also improving traction of the wheels on the track.

A good quality locomotive will have small flywheels added at one or both ends of the electric motor.  These flywheels slow down the motor on initial rotation, thus providing smooth acceleration and likewise when the motor is powered down, the motor slows down smoothly and does not stop abruptly.  These features obviously impact the manufacturing cost, but also make a very big contribution to overall performance.  All these kinds of features are included when purchasing equipment designed for the serious model railroader.  Look for locomotives with all metal wheels, which are available in both HO and N scale.  Locomotives that are provided for the “toy train” market will not have flywheels and only some of the wheels will pick-up electricity due to the fact that not all of the wheels are proper metal.  It is a good idea to insist on removing the locomotive from the packaging prior to purchase.

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Check that the wheels are all metal, and check to see if all the wheels are geared.  A non-geared wheel will turn freely.  Also insist that the locomotive is test run on test track that is normally available in the hobby shop.  If you need to push the locomotive to get it to run after the power is turned on, do not purchase it.  This could be because the track is dirty, so please clean the track with a piece of rag before running the locomotive.  If after cleaning the locomotive does not run immediately without pushing, don’t buy it simple as that.


Advice on Buying Rolling Stock

 Rolling stock must also be purchased with care.  Important things to check are once again the wheels.  These must turn easily and it is important that they do not wobble. Once spun, the wheels should continuing turning for a few revolutions before stopping.  If they only spin for one revolution, do not buy.  It is not really that important whether the wheels are metal or plastic, however the best choice is that which runs on a metal axle.  Plastic wheels on a metal axle can be adjusted if the gauge is not exactly accurate.  Be wary if the wheels and axle are modeled as one piece, as if the gauge is slightly out, you will not be able to adjust it, particularly if the equipment is cheap.


General Advice

There are a couple of things to bear in mind when purchasing model equipment either for an adult of in particular for youngsters.


  • Purchase locomotives and freight cars that are short.  Longer equipment can have difficulty in negotiating sharp curves, as most sets have 18 inch curves.
  • Rather purchase diesel locomotives.  Steam locomotives are longer and can also have issues negotiation sharp curves and turnouts.  They also have a lot more wheels, and as a result take more time to place on the track.  Do not purchase the very short 4 or 6 wheel steam locomotives or the 4 wheel diesel locomotives as in general they tend to not run very well.
  • Try and avoid passenger cars as they are generally long and also cause problems on sharp curves.  Short passenger cars are available in order to circumvent this problem, but they tend to look out of proportion to the real item.  Also avoid long tank cards and automobile cars, as these also experience the same issues.


Here are some questions to ask before purchasing locomotives or rolling stock.


  • Will the rolling stock or the locomotive work well with my layout.  Specify your layout e.g. 18 inch radius.
  • Will it run smoothly through my turnout?  State the size of the turnout such as #4, #6 and so on. Ask for example, “I have #4 switches and turnouts.  Will the item work smoothly through them as well as backing up smoothly?”
  • If I purchase the equipment, is there a return policy if I am not happy with the goods.

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These tips will assist you in not wasting a fortune when initially purchasing equipment.  As you get more confident in the hobby, you will find that experience will drive your decisions in the main.

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