The definitive beginners guide to setting up Hornby model railway

OO track cleaning

So you got a Hornby train set for Christmas or perhaps taken the plunge and bought your first model railway, probably a Hornby starter set.

You’ve unwrapped and carefully opened the box.

Now what?

Here’s a quick guide to get you started and set up your first train set.

What’s in the box

All DC model train sets will have the same basic bits.

> DC train sets are analogue sets, those using basic power to control the train, as opposed to DCC aka digital trains. I cover setting up DCC train sets in another guide.

There’ll be the track; some rolling stock (the vehicles that run on the rails), and the electrical bits that provide power and control of the trains.

In some starter packs — Hornby in particular — there might also be a track matt. Don’t worry if you don’t have this, it’s just a guide to help place the track.

If you can resist the urge to dive in and start playing, take a look at each part and familiarise yourself with it. It’s not vital, and admittedly few people actually do this, but I find it helps.

Setting up the train set

You may be tempted to rush and connect all the track but I’d recommend you first pause and think about where you’ll set up your train set.

Location, location, location: where to put your train set

You can of course put it on the floor and many do, including myself occasionally, but I recommend against this. To you and me, the fluff, fibres and dirt on your floor are small and insignificant; you might not even be able to see some of it but they are there and to the locomotive, these tiny particles are like barbed wire. They’re just waiting to wrap themselves around the axles, jam up the gears and entwine themselves around the shaft of the motor and bring your trains to a grinding halt and even break them.

Tables used for food are just as bad.

> Note: This assumes you are setting you a train set for the first time and just want to get the trains running on some track, temporarily. If you are looking to put the track on a permanent base and build a model railway, you’ll want a baseboard. For advice on these, see my complete guide to choosing and building model railway baseboards.

Instead, try to find a dedicated clean, flat and level space. It needn’t be dedicated but if it is you can leave the track in situ safe in the knowledge it won’t get knocked or disturbed. A sheet of plywood that you can lay fly on a table or floor works well; and if really pushed, even a cardboard box that’s been flattened down can work. Insulting foam sheets – found in DIY stores – can also work.

One of the best options when first starting out and you just want to run some trains quickly, is a play mat, particularly the interconnecting ones.  These can be set up and put away quickly. They don’t use up much space when not in use but raise the track off the floor or table and give the trains a flat even surface on which to run – model trains don’t like uneven surfaces!

Whatever surface you opt for, put it away from ‘high traffic’ areas in your home where people move around a lot. It’s very easy to trip on tracks, wires and even trains and they can be easily damaged. You also want somewhere that’s dry and ideally well-lit so you can see the tracks and wheels easily.

With the surface for your railway and location sorted, you can get on to connecting the track together.

Connecting track pieces

Take a close look at a section of track. You’ll see that there are two rails, the metal bits. At either end of the track, one of these rails will have a tiny clip sticking out. Look at another piece of track and you’ll see the same. Connecting the track together is simply a matter of pushing the track together so the clip on one rail slides under the protruding bit of the rail on the next section.

Connect all the track so it makes the design on the track plan or as shown on the box. Usually, this is an oval with some straight sections in the middle and perhaps a point from where a stretch of track leads off on its own.

Run your finger over each join, there should be no ridge or gap between sections of rail. If there are the trains will most likely derail. Where you feel a gap or ridge, gently separate the track and slide them back together.

Connecting power

Hornby power clipNext, connect the power.

One of the track sections will have a power clip attached. If not, locate this — pictured — and slide it between the back bars (sleepers) on part of the track. You’ll want this facing outwards and near a wall plug.

Next, find the controller (the box with the dial on it). Coming from this will be a wire with a two-pin plug. Connect this plug to the track clip by pushing the pins into the holes on the outside edge of the track clip.

Finally, plug the power cord into the controller and the other end of a wall socket and you’re done.

Running the trains

That’s it. Your railway is set up and ready to go.

Carefully, place the locomotive on the track, turn on the power and slowly turn the dial on the controller. Your tiny train should burst into life and set off forward or backwards.

The direction of the train is set by the switch on the controller.

Turn the dial on the controller until the power is off and the train stops; flick the switch and slowly adjust the dial to increase the power again. The train will now move in the opposite direction.

It won’t hurt the locomotive if it’s pointing in the wrong direction for the movement but will make it easier for you to operate. If this is the case, just pick the loco up and turn it around.

Take the train for a few laps, varying the speed and have some fun and then add some of the other rolling stock. This is just a matter of placing a wagon or carriage behind the locomotive and slowly pushing it up to the locomotive until the hooks on each come together and engage.

Troubleshooting common problems

If the locomotive doesn’t move when you turn the power on the controller, it’s most likely due to a mis-connection with the rail joiners. These not only hold the track together but carry electrical currents from track section to section. If the locomotive doesn’t run, it’s likely because one of the rail joiners isn’t secure and so isn’t passing the current along.

Inspect the joiners at each end of the section of track on which the locomotive stalls. Try disconnecting this and reconnecting it. Problems with locomotive power are most often caused by incorrectly connected track and reseating it will solve most problems.

If you have any problems getting your railway working, read my troubleshooting guide and check these maintenance tips,  especially if the railway is set up on the floor or tabletop. When you’re finished, be sure to put the trains away. They are delicate and can easily break if left lying around.

Where next: expanding your model railway

The possibilities with model trains are endless.

When you’re ready you can add more rolling stock; stations and buildings; tunnels and scenery; track to make the oval bigger or even join other ovals and branch lines to take trains off in different directions. I’ve assembled a suggested collection of the most popular track, trains and buildings to add to a train set on my Amazon page.

It’s completely up to you but for most people, expanding the track is the first thing they do.

Adding more track provides a bigger circuit on which to operate the trains and provides more variation. The most common track expansion options are covered in my post — how to expand model railway track.

Further resources

If you’re looking for further information, take a look around the rest of my site. There are hundreds of tips and guides, all free to read.  If you’re looking for more help, the following resources:

  • The Hornby Book Of Model Railways, is an excellent introduction to model railways from the company that started the hobby in the UK.
  • The ModelRailwayEngineer community: A lively online community of model railway enthusiasts who are happy to answer any and all questions.
  • Local Clubs: There are hundreds of local model railway clubs across the UK where you can pop along and talk to other enthusiasts.
  • Subscribe to my free email newsletter. To get more guides like this, tips for building more railways and the latest news from Hornby, subscribe to my email newsletter.  It’s completely free, you can unsubscribe at any time and I promise to never spam you. Subscribe now.
  • And once you’re ready to move beyond a basic train set, read my next guide: how to make a model railway, train set to layout.

Best wishes and have fun with your train set.


The ModelRailwayEngineer


Update: For the sake of clarity, the picture of the track at the start of this article is N gauge track rather than OO and is for illustrative purposes only. The information in the article remains the same and applies to both N and OO tracks. Thanks to Jamie Flint for picking me up on this.




Founder of ModelRailwayEngineer, Andy Leaning

Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of 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.
  1. Hi Andy…I have a layout which is 30 years old and been in garage for probably 20 years. Wish to resurrect it but obviously rusty etc etc. Is it worth trying to clean up or best to start again. Thanks.

    • Hi Robert, that sounds like a fun project to work on! If the baseboards are still level and not warped and the electrics are generally okay I’d certainly give it a go. Unless badly rusted track can be cleaned up and salvaged – although I’d probably replace the points unless they work first time without problem – and you can swap out the track section by section over time. Andy

  2. Hi, I have a few Locomotives and train tracks and will get more, but i need help with the landscaping.


    • Hi, that sounds like a nice arrangement; not too difficult but interesting and fun too. Are there any specific areas you’re struggling with? By the way, I have lots of readers much older 🙂

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