Electric train sets Vs model railway set: what’s the difference?

Model railway train sets and electric train sets are both great hobbies for people of all ages. But what’s the difference between the two?

In 1901, Joshua Lionel Cowen unveiled the first electric model trains in a Manhattan shop window. That pioneering display set the stage for the beloved train sets and model railways we know today. In this article, we’ll explore the nuances that distinguish them, why they’re so popular and look at some key considerations for those considering them.

Before getting into the meat of this guide, it’s worth clarifying exactly what I’m covering here.

Most powered model/toy trains available today have DC electrical motors at their heart, powered by battery or mains electrical supply. All the trains mentioned here are therefore electric trains. What this article covers is the difference between those described as electric train sets and those called model train sets. Both contain locomotives, wagons, carriages and tracks for them to run on but vary in other ways.

What is an electric train set?

Electric train sets are like the gateway drug to the world of train hobbies.

Children's electric train set

A typical children’s electric train set, less detailed than a model railway train but a lot of fun, much cheaper and complete with bells and sounds

Remember those hand-pushed wooden toy trains you might’ve played with as a kid?

Well, electric train sets are their cooler, more fun cousins. Instead of manually pushing them along, these trains are powered by—you guessed it—electricity in the form of batteries or mains power. They’re the natural progression from wooden push-along train set for children.

The size of the railway they make is usually smaller and less complex than model railways making them perfect for a quick setup on your living room floor or a tabletop but can also be put away when not in use.

The trains are typically less intricate and accurate than those in model train sets and their proportions may be off but they are clearly trains and lots of fun to operate.

There is quite a lot of variation between the different electric train sets available. There are the basic sets, aimed at toddlers such as the Hornby Playtrains range, the more advanced sets such the retro model set pictured above for older children that look more realistic and then there are the hybrid-types – such as Lego City Express – that require assembly before use.

Overall, they’re an excellent introduction for children to the world of trains, offering a hands-on lesson in basic engineering but without the time and space and model making committing of a model railway.

What is a model railway train set?

Hornby model train setThe trains in model railway sets also have electric motors but they are much more than mere toys.

Trains in these sets typically get their power via the rails rather than on-board batteries.

Unlike electric train sets, these sets pave the way for building full-model railways. These are projects that will be built over time, often taking years to complete. My current layout (White River Mills) has been under construction since 2020 while other previously layouts have taken even longer.

They can build into intricate masterpieces that capture the essence of real-world train operations in miniature form. Each model railway is a testament to precision, artistry, and engineering, often reflecting a specific historical era, geographical location, or even a particular railway line. And the trains reflect this, being far more accurate representations of their full-size counterparts than those in the electric train sets for youngsters, even featuring tiny detailing such as the livery of particular lives and numbering. (Most of my model railways for example are based on an industrial theme in South West England at the start of the 20 century with appropriate rolling stock).

And the allure lies not just in the trains themselves, but in the meticulously crafted landscapes, buildings, and tiny life-like details that transport enthusiasts to another place and time. Whether it’s recreating a bustling cityscape of the 1950s or a serene countryside at the turn of the 20th century, model railways offer a unique blend of nostalgia, craftsmanship, and technological marvel, making them a captivating hobby for both the young and the young at heart. To do so, they use complex electronics and even digital control; with sounds, lights and animations – another reason I like them is there’s always something new to learn.

But whereas children’s electric train sets can be set up and put away, model train sets are designed to be set up on baseboards and require commitment in both space and time.

How do electric train sets and model railway train sets compare

Here is a table that summarises the key differences between model railways and electric train sets:

Feature Electric Train Set Model Railway
Purpose Primarily designed for entertainment and play. They’re often a child’s first introduction to the world of trains. Often built with a purpose in mind, whether it’s to recreate a historical railway, a specific location, or even to simulate real-world train operations.
Size Typically smaller and more portable Typically large and complex – four or five feet square and larger.
Material Mainly plastic, although some sets (such as Hornby’s Railroad range) use metal rails. Metal and plastic
Scale Not to any particular scale Typically to a specific scale
Complexity Simple and easy. Plug together and go. Typically very complex with electronics and model making involved.
Cost Circa £50. From a few hundred to thousands.
Suitable for Children, particularly those under 10 Teenagers and up.

Which is right for you?

So, which is right for you? It depends on your needs and interests.

If you’re looking for a challenging and rewarding hobby, then a model railway set is a great option.

If you go this route, however, consider how much space you have available and the scale you want to use. In a survey of 10,000 ModelRailwayEngineer followers in 2022, over 55 per cent opted for OO gauge, 4mm scale.

Based on my experience, selecting a set with your train that’s memorable to you, perhaps from your childhood, can lead to more enjoyment.

But if you’re looking for something that’s just for fun, a train set under a Christmas tree for example, more portable and less complex, and aren’t worried about realism, an electric train set may be a good choice.

And if you have young children, I recommend starting with an electric train set such as the one above. For older children (teenagers and up) I’d go for a Hornby style set.

No matter which type you choose, model railways and electric train sets can be a lot of fun for all ages and, from my experience with my own children, both offer more than entertainment; they provide an engaging platform for teaching STEM concepts. Concepts like circuitry, physics of motion, and spatial reasoning come alive through the hands-on play they’ll get with it.

I hope this article has helped you to understand the difference between model railways and electric train sets. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment below. Better yet, start now, and get an electric train set such one of these.

Founder of ModelRailwayEngineer, Andy Leaning

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.

Afflliate disclosure:The links on this page may take you to carefully selected businesses, such as Hornby, Amazon, eBay and Scale Model Scenery, where you can purchase the product under affiliate programmes. This means I receive a small commission on any orders placed although the price you pay does not change. You can read my full affiliate policy here. I also sell my my own ready to use, pre-made and painted buildings and terrain features. browse the range.

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