Let’s be honest, model trains and railways aren’t a cheap hobby. It can cost a LOT but it can be done on a budget.
Model railways via Hornby, Bachmann Branchline, Dapol and others can be expensive. By the time you’ve bought track, trains, accessories and a few buildings you’ll have a substantial hole in your wallet.
Let’s work some numbers.
The Hornby Pendolino train set costs £140, chuck in another £150 for some buildings, £100 for an extra locomotive and some rolling stock and £50 for a few track extensions and you’ll have notched up almost £500 and this is only just getting started.
It seems a lot but this is very comparable to other hobbies.
Take home cinema. A TV and BlueRay or DVD player plus movie collections will quickly ramp up to a spend of well over £500. Add in speakers and you can easily spend almost £1000.
Let’s try another hobby that I know from your messages a lot of railway modellers share: photography. A DSLR camera will easily set you back £500 even before adding accessories like an extra lens. As we’ve seen, it’s certainly possible to get a OO gauge train set for less than that!
But unlike cameras and home cinema a model train set can be built for a lot less – it just takes a bit of thought, work and planning. Here’s how.
If there’s a local model railway shop or club (and most large towns will have one) get to know them.
Shop owners will be happy to work with you and give suggestions on what and what not to buy. Some will often have ex-display Hornby trains or be willing to guide you with tips and advice. And many now sell second-hand locomotives.
I remember making regular trips to my local model shop as a child, at the time in Wimbledon, and spending ages looking at the packs of imitation grass and bushes. I could have spent a fortune if the owner hadn’t taken pity on me and let me in on how to make my own. See these model railway beginners’ tips and other starter tips.
Likewise, members of railway clubs will have years of experience and know-how to help you get started.
New trains and accessories are expensive and for good reason but there’s no reason you need to buy everything brand new.
Think about what you’re buying. If it contains something that is likely to wear out or break over time – especially electrics as found in the locomotives and controllers – buy these new.
But buildings, tracks, wagons and carriages, however, can be bought second-hand without too much risk and doing so will cut your costs considerably.
Second-hand Hornby wagons, for example, can be found on eBay for under £5, if you want a bit more confidence in what you’re buying try Hattons (one of the biggest model railway retailers) where they can be had for only a bit more – although still under a tenner.
MRE Tips For Buying Second-Hand Trains
- Read up on what you’re buying first. Explore the background of the make and model in question, they’re not always what they seem. For example, the Graham Farish The Shredded Wheat loco regularly appears on the second-hand market for under £20 which seems fantastic value for a loco until you realise this particular train was a promotional product and isn’t powered – just a push-along toy. If it looks too good to be true it probably is!
- If buying via eBay wait until the last second to bid, don’t put in an early bid as this only drives up the price early.
- Ask questions, and a genuine seller will be happy to answer. Does it have all the couplers, when was it last used, and are the doors and windows present on buildings ask to see photos of all sides.
- Speaking of photos, examine them carefully. If there aren’t close-up photographs and the seller won’t provide others this should sound warning bells.
- Be patient, don’t buy the first item you find. There are plenty of old Hornby models in circulation, take your time, watch what similar items sell for and bid wisely.
- If buying privately, always, ALWAYS, haggle.
- Use PayPal: Never send a check or money. Paypal will guarantee a purchase up to a certain amount. You can also get a Paypal receipt, avoiding any risk of being ripped off.
- Ask for a guarantee, even if it’s only for a few weeks.
Only Buy What You Need
When starting a model railway, like any new hobby, it’s tempting to rush out and buy lots of products and equipment.
The great thing about model railways is that they can grow over time, you don’t need everything to begin with. Stick to buying what you need – as you need it. At the start, this can be just a beginner’s set. These starter kits have everything you need to get started:
- Hornby Caledonian Belle steam starter kit
- Hornby R1167 Flying Scotsman
- Hornby R1155 Virgin Trains Pendolino
Once you’ve learnt the basics then, and only then, start to add more track with expansion packs or buildings.
Doing it this way you can slowly grow your railway without breaking the bank. See my guide to the best model train sets.
Ask Friends and Family
Ask your friends and family – especially older family members – if they have any old model railway items you could have.
Sign-Up For Shop Newsletters
One of the top ways to save a few coins is by signing up for newsletters. Although they might clog up your inbox, you’ll be first to know when a brand new sale or promotion is launched and you can click over to their site to grab a bargain. Some sales are incredibly cheap but often for a limited time only – both Hattons and Gaugemaster have regular bargains on offer.
Steer Clear Of DCC
Train sound effects, smoke and lights are appealing. However, they’re unnecessary and can add hundreds of pounds to the railway.
But when starting you don’t need these features. Just go for good, old, reliable DC/analogue trains and controllers and you’ve saved a lot of money!
If you really want the extra features DCC offers, you can always upgrade later when you have more money.
Do It Yourself
Most experienced model railway builders will tell you most of the fun of model railways comes from making it, creating the models and even trains but it’s surprising how many novices don’t appreciate this and spend a fortune buying ready-made scenery, buildings and trains.
Plan First, Buy Last
When starting any new hobby, it’s easy to buy things early on that you later realise you didn’t need or want. This is especially true for model railways.
It’s all too easy to buy lots of track while swept up in that first burst of enthusiasm only to find later you don’t need it.
When you later start to explore and know what track plan you want you can buy just the extension packs you need. Doing so will save you a lot on track, trust me! On my early railways, I spent a lot on points and curves in my initial excitement which then didn’t work with the eventual layouts. The money I’d spent on them could have got me quite a few wagons!
This is why the starter packs above are good, they give you just what you need to start without wasting money on unneeded items.
Not Just Hornby
Lastly, although Hornby is the most well-known brand for OO gauge and I recommend anyone just beginning to start with them (see above) there are many other manufacturers of OO gauge items.
Look around and you’ll find Dapol, Peco, Bachmann Branchline and Heljan OO gauge locos and/or wagons that will happily run on Hornby track and often for less than Hornby models.
Model railways aren’t the cheapest hobby but hopefully, these tips will help you get started without breaking the bank. And don’t make the same mistakes I did.
Share your money-saving tips for starting a model railway and help others, add your tips below.
Picture: William J. Grimes, public domain.
> A final, personal, note: I spend a huge amount of time testing, photographing, writing and researching techniques for these articles and pay for all the running costs of MRE out of my own pocket. If you found this article useful you can support me by making a donation on my fund-raising page. Thanks and happy modelling, Andy.
Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of modelrailwayengineer.com. He has been building model railways, dioramas, and miniatures for over 20 years. His passion for model making and railways began when he was a child, building his first layout at the age of seven.
Andy’s particular passion is making scenery and structures in 4mm scale, which he sells commercially. He is particularly interested in modelling the railways of South West England during the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, although he also enjoys making sci-fi and fantasy figures and dioramas. His website has won several awards, and he is a member of MERG (Model Railway Electronics Group) and the 009 Society.
When not making models, Andy lives in Surrey with his wife and teenage son. Other interests include history, science fiction, photography, and programming. Read more about Andy.