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Toy Train Size: Electric Train Scales for Children

Introduction to Electric Train Scales

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This article on model train scales (the size of electric trains) was reviewed prior to publication by: Vicki Anderson, M.Ed.; Kelly Crockett, M.Ed.; and Glenna W. Tabor, M.Ed.

Introduction

This article focuses on the size of toy trains with respect to choosing the right size (scale) for your child. This is one in a series of articles about electric trains for children. All of these articles supplement the information given in Parents' Guide to Toy Trains and Electric Trains.

It's About Space and Cost

In writing this article I've worked on the assumption of minimal available space. Diagrams represent a 32 x 48 inch train board.

My criteria in evaluating electric train sets for children are space and cost. The trade off when selecting a scale in electric trains for children is, size for space or space for size. Adult modelers factor in level of detail, but this won't be as important to a child and increases the cost of model trains. The space issue is largely governed by the size of the track curves your child will need to make a layout to run their trains on. And this in itself can be an introduction to geometry for your child.

Before We Get Specific

"Scale" is the relationship between the size of a model train and the real-life train it models. If you've read my article on scales and gauges, you'll notice there are scales I don't mentioned here. With the exception of OO scale/gauge in the UK, I don't regard scales not listed here as practical options for children's train sets. For parents in the UK, OO gauge considerations will be the same as those listed for HO scale.

Whatever you deciede, be sure the set you buy for your child includes an integrated roadbed track. Also, if you are buying a TT or N scale train set for your child, be sure it includes a railer. If it doesn't, buy one separately. Railers are also available for HO trains, though perhaps not as necessary.

In My Opinion

My opinion about the best choice of a train set for your child is based on the factors I've cited above, size and cost. And this opinion is rather unconventional in America today. I think it was Harry Truman who said, "If you took all the experts and laid them end-to-end, they'd point in all directions". So, here's where I point you in a vastly different direction than the other "experts".

TT Scale: The Railroad Less Traveled

Layout diagram by the author.
The best scale for younger children's electric trains in my opinion is TT scale. What's so crazy about that? No major American manufacturer offers TT scale trains. But honestly, the best buy I've seen on a train set was on a German Tillig TT scale Startset. Unfortunately, Euro Train Hobby is the only source I know for Tillig in North America.

So if all the other American experts are going to tell you that I'm out of my mind, why would I recommend this Tillig TT set?
  • TT scale is comparable in size to most push toy trains children already have.
  • Tillig's German engineering is comparable in quality the best American and Japanese trains.
  • Tillig sets are priced competitive with lesser quality train sets offered in many toy stores.

N is for "Narrow"

Layout diagram by the author.
As space is a primary consideration, if I haven't sold you on a German set of limited availability, then N scale would be the best alternative. If your child is using an under-the-bed train board, as described in my article on train tables, then N would be my first choice after TT Scale. N scale "feels" small, but remember that children have smaller hands than we do. N scale is the only scale other than TT which will fit more than one concentric oval on most childrens' train boards or tables. In N scale a Kato set would be my first choice, followed by either a set from Athearn or Walthers. Remember, stick to inexpensive trains, they're good tools for teaching responsibility without undue financial risk.

Playing it Safe with HO?

Layout diagram by the author.
You need to be aware that once you've discarded TT and N as an options, you're not going to have much flexibility in layouts for a small train board or bunk bed train table. The minimum curve radius is too big. For bed-sized layouts in HO, a single oval or figure eight is about all you'll be able to do. Experienced modelers build small "switching layouts". I don't regard them as suitable for younger children.

HO scale would be my third choice. Sadly most parents just pick up any cheap HO set available at the national toy store chain. But if you prefer to give your child quality toys I'd go with one of the Atlas Trainman HO sets. If the Atlas set is a little too expensive, then I'd look at sets from Bachmann or Walthers.

Three Reasons I Don't Recommend O Scale for Children

Basically, size, strength required for setting them up, and AC transformer power are the reasons I wouldn't buy an O scale set for a child. As I developed the material on O scale for this article, there was so much to say that I decided it needed its own article. I cover the issues in detail in an O scale issues article. I personally like O scale, but I don't think it's a good choice for children today.

On30: Another Unusual Recommendation

Okay, now that I've bashed the venerated American icon three-rail O scale, let's see how much farther afield I can stray. Here's another completely off-the-wall idea from the guy who's top choice for a kids' set is a Tillig TT Startset from Germany. If your child happens to be fascinated with old-fashioned trains, take a look at Bachmann's On30 train sets. These are narrow gauge O scale trains, which means that they have the size of O scale but they run on HO scale track. Subsequently, you can make layouts with tighter turns, requiring less space. The trade off is that these sets don't come cheap. But if Victorian era trains are something you enjoy, then perhaps you'll find sharing them with your child a worthwhile expense.

You're the Parent

Children may have their own ideas, but then they're not in a position to understand your budget or why they can't cover their entire floor with train tracks... permanently. I've given you the pros and cons of various scales, with regard to their use by children. Making the choice based on your child's whims may make them happy in the moment, but might only serve to frustrate them in the long term.

Not long ago I saw a father and son in a train shop. I overheard the father telling the salesman that he'd made an under-the-bed board for his son's O scale train set. I observed how unhappy this little boy looked every time he pointed at track pieces of interest to him, only to hear his father say, "It won't fit on your board."

Disclaimer

I am not affiliated with Euro Train Hobby and have received nothing from them for mentioning them in this article. They are the only source I know for Tillig electric train sets in North America. If you are a North American model railroad supplier who stocks these sets, please contact me so that I can list you here too.
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