Is Model Railroading an Expensive Hobby | 4 Easy Tips to Save Money in Model Trains

Many people have a major roadblock starting or going back to model railroading which is price. I also experienced that problem when trying a hobby. For a millennial that doesn’t have enough money to try model trains, I learned ways to get more for my buck. But why are model trains expensive?

Model trains are an expensive hobby because it has a very high upfront cost where you need to get a locomotive, coaches, tracks, controller, and design layouts. Furthermore, layouts tend to take a lot of space which is getting more expensive. These reasons can make it harder for people to get into the hobby.

This post will discuss why model trains are an expensive hobby. Then, we will discuss each reason and some tips I’ve gathered on how you can get the most out of your money in train modeling.

Are model trains an expensive hobby?

Are model trains an expensive hobby?

Model trains are a good hobby to try since not only does it teach how to work on motors and electricity, but it boosts creativity. However, this hobby is quite expensive with a high upfront cost as you need many things to make the trains run.

Model trains are expensive. When I look at their price, I often wonder why these models go for hundreds of dollars for locomotives and around 50 dollars for the coaches.

However, as I checked the people into the hobby, I started seeing some reasons why they are getting expensive.

One of which is space, which is becoming an issue these days.

Many live in tinier apartments that don’t have enough space for a hobby that requires a workbench and a room to build an entire layout.

This lifestyle change has been tremendous since fewer people can get into the hobby.

This is why smaller scales such as the N scale are becoming more popular.

This is also where the problem gets worse.

Since most of the train modelers are people who live in bigger spaces, it also means that the majority of them have money to spare.

Furthermore, when you look at the demographics of an average train modeler, you can see that they are in their 40s or 50s. This means most of them already have stable jobs and big houses to cater to their hobby.

Manufacturers know that many train modelers have money to spare. That’s why model trains tend to be expensive.

Furthermore, train models aren’t usually compatible with other scaled models. For example, the HO scale is 1:87, while the popular Hot Wheels are in the 1:64.

This means it is hard to put these two together to save some money. Thus, manufacturers are making their own scaled cars, trees, and buildings on the HO scale.

Furthermore, model trains have a very high upfront cost since you need to buy many things to make the train work.

You will need a controller, tracks, power supply, motor, locomotives, and coaches.

Manufacturers made it easier as you can get all of these on starter sets, but on average, a starter set would cost around $100. Model train sets price ranges from $50 to $500.

The good thing about train sets is that they would have everything you need to make the train run, such as a simple DC control, tracks, locomotive with motor, and cars.

Many people start with these sets and upgrade them in the future by adding designs such as trees, stones, people, or buildings.

While model trains will be cheaper after the upfront cost, it can be intimidating to start the hobby.

However, there is no way to decrease this upfront cost except if you get a second-hand train set, and people wouldn’t know that train modeling will be cheaper after the upfront cost.

Model trains have been in decline these past few decades, and the main reason is that it’s hard to get into the hobby due to how much it can cost to start the hobby.

On average, the upfront cost in starting model railroading will be about $500, including the train, tracks, controller, power supply, and a few layout designs. However, some people are good at looking for deals that they will only spend around $200.

However, having a $200 budget for starting train modeling is quite hard, and most likely, you would have a very simple layout.

The upfront cost will be evident if you compare it to popular hobbies such as Hot Wheels. For example, a simple Hot Wheel can cost around $7. Compare that to the $500 needed for train modeling.

When you go for Pop Funko, they would only cost around $12 – $35. That is a huge difference compared to train models.

We can’t blame train modeling for its high upfront cost since, unlike these other hobbies, you need to make the train run on a track that requires more equipment.

The good news is that model trains are generally compatible with one another regardless of the brand. This means you can run any branded train provided on any tracks provided that they are on the same gauge.

Of course, there will be exceptions to the rule, such as having a DC locomotive and a DCC control, but that’s a different story.

Recommended read: To know the difference between DC and DCC; please check this post: DC vs. DCC.

The next section will continue reasons why model railroading is expensive. This is by-no-means a way to get you away from the hobby. I was able to get into the hobby for a lot cheaper than usual with some techniques, which I will share in the last section.

However, I am telling you all this because I want to be completely honest about the state of the hobby.

Why are model train sets so expensive?

Generally speaking, model train sets are expensive because of their additional accessories. These sets have not only the train locomotive and the cars but also the tracks, controller, and power supply. Without these accessories, the model train wouldn’t run, and the hobby will be useless.

Model train sets are usually the starter sets that are aimed at beginners.

In a perfect world, these should be cheap enough to get more people into the hobby. But why are model trains more expensive compared to other hobbies?

I can’t blame the manufacturers for having a high price on model train sets since they did their best only to put the most important ones.

All of the accessories included in the set are necessary to make the trains run, and without them, the hobby will be useless.

Imagine having a train with no tracks and controller. How would you be able to make it run? Pushing them to make them run isn’t fun compared to running them on DC or DCC controls.

But that’s not all.

Here are the reasons why model train sets are expensive.

1. The Brand Name Costs a Lot

Many model train brands have been around for a long time, such as Hornby, Bachmann, Lionel, etc.

These brands are considered to be the dominant brands in the market.

This is also why these branded trains tend to get more expensive.

For example, Brandless model trains from China can be around 50% cheaper than these brands.

There are many reasons for this, but one of which is that since it has a brand, they make sure that what you’re getting passed their quality standards.

Furthermore, brand names are often licensed and leased to companies which can cost up to millions of dollars. Well, of course, they need to earn money from that license by adding a premium price on their models.

While this might seem like bad news, please take note that having their brand means they are obliged to adhere to the brand’s quality standards which sets it apart from cheaper brandless model trains.

Furthermore, most of these brands have high-quality, and beginner sets that suites everyone.

For example, Bachmann has cheap train sets that are perfect for beginners, but they also have their Bachmann Spectrum line, which is best for experienced modelers.

2. Selling Few Means, Selling for a Premium

Model railroading has been in decline for the past few decades. This had a massive impact on the price of the models.

Let’s continue with our example on the licensing fees. Usually, licensing fees would be a fixed amount of money for a limited time.

This means the licensing cost must break even or cost less than their revenue.

The two ways to do this are to either sell many models with lesser markup or sell a few but with high markup.

Since the model railroading industry has been in decline for decades, they can’t sell a lot which means they only have the second choice, which is to increase its price.

The current price of these models is the price where they will cover up the business cost even if fewer people are buying them.

Furthermore, as discussed earlier, most train modelers can keep up with their rising prices since most have stable jobs.

3. Model Train Sets Include the Controller and Tracks

Perhaps this is the most discussed reason for this post, but train modeling requires trains and other accessories.

For example, you need a controller to set the train’ speed and direction. You also need some wiring and power supply to power its motor. Finally, you also need tracks to run these trains.

These accessories add to the cost of model train sets, and that’s why they are expensive, even if they don’t usually include designs such as stop signs or trees.

4. Variety of Options for More Expensive Products

Model railroading has been around for more than a century. This means there are lots of options to train to model.

Some options are cheaper while some are better but come at a premium price.

For example, DC control model trains are simple and cheap. However, many modelers with large layouts usually have problems with DC since it requires meticulously fast hands to control multiple trains.

That’s where they upgrade to DCC, where you control the trains by installing a tiny chip inside the train’s engine.

Since this technology is more advanced than DC, it is more expensive, and you need to buy decoders for each locomotive.

Furthermore, there are DC starter sets, DCC-ready starter sets, and DCC-fitted starter sets.

DCC-fitted would be the most expensive, followed by DCC-ready, then DC sets are the cheapest.

The number of varieties is not only on the controls other accessories such as tracks.

For example, prefab tracks will be more expensive but easier for beginners, while traditional tracks will be cheaper.

As you can see, these factors make model train sets expensive. However, that doesn’t mean you need a lot of money to start the hobby.

The next section will give some tips on reducing the cost of model railroading so that everyone can enjoy the hobby.

How to Save Money on Model Trains

Tips to Make Model Railroading Cheaper

Making model railroading cheaper can be done by buying second-hand items, finding alternatives, using popular scales, and trying DIY. Taking note of these things can save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars when getting into model railroading.

While it is true that model railroading is expensive, it doesn’t mean that there are no ways to make it cheaper.

Here are some tips to make model railroading cheaper.

1. Buy Second Hand Items

Buying second-hand is one of the ways to get into model railroading. The good thing is there are many mint-in or items in excellent condition you can buy at a lower price.

This doesn’t only apply to locomotives. You can also get cheaper coaches, trees, buildings, and tracks.

Another advantage is some limited edition models are sold for a low price on auctions.

Imagine getting a limited edition model train for just a few hundred dollars because it’s second-hand.

The easiest way to get second-hand items is through the internet. eBay or Facebook are some of the top sites for buying and selling second-hand train models.

Recommended Read: For a list of more marketplaces for diecast models, such as train models, check this post where I also gave tips on how to get the most out of your money: Market for Diecast Models.

2. Look for Alternative

Many people are buying branded designs, but the truth is some alternatives can cost you less.

For example, some would buy dirt or stones to improve their layout, which can cost a lot of money. One alternative is to use a cat litter that looks the same and is significantly cheaper.

If you’re not very keen on the scale, you can try using Hot Wheels for the cars on the layout since their scale is close to the HO or OO scale.

While they aren’t of the same scale, the difference is so little that many wouldn’t notice.

To give a perspective, HO is on the 1:87 scale, OO is on 1:76, and Hot Wheels are on the 1:64 scale.

This slight difference isn’t noticeable, but people keen on details would need to buy HO-scaled cars.

Tip: If you decide to go with Hot Wheels or Matchbox on your cars, do not combine them with HO scaled cars since comparing can make the difference in size obvious.

3. Use Popular Scales

I know how fun it is to go to the smallest or even the largest scales, but that is not the cheapest way to get into model trains.

Go for the most popular scales such as HO, OO, N, and O scale since there are many manufacturers on these scales.

Recommended Read: The two most common scales are the HO and OO. The price and demand for these scales depend on the location. For example, the HO scale will be more expensive in the UK, while OO will be more expensive if you live in the US. To know more about HO and OO, please check this post: HO vs. OO scale.

These manufacturers compete with each other causing their prices to be lower than other scales.

If you want the cheapest among them, go for the HO or OO since they comprise 60-70% of today’s model trains.

N scale is the way to go if you don’t have spare room for model trains since they are the smallest on the list. N scale is in the 1:160 scale.

If you’re into large and old model trains, go for the O scale since they were once the most popular train scale.

Not only would you save money from cheaper train sets, but you would also save money from buying scales layouts such as trees and buildings.

Plus, you get more choices on bridges and tracks on these scales.

I know how tempting it is to go with the small T scale or the large G scale, but they would be more expensive due to less competition between the manufacturers.

Plus, remember my first tip to get second-hand? You can get more second-hand items if you do to the popular scales.

4. Do It Yourself

Many people are doing DIY for their train layout since making someone do it for you can be pretty expensive.

For example, converting a DC train to DCC can be expensive, especially if it is not DCC-ready since you need to install the decoder into the motor manually.

Some people are even offering weathering or painting services to get more money for their hobby.

This requires knowledge and precision that can get expensive if you let others do it for you.

Thanks to technology, the good thing is that you have easy access to lots of tutorials on doing DIY on the internet.

Also, other people are making their own tracks instead of buying tracks themselves. This can also save a lot of money, depending on your layout’s size.

Doing things yourself is fun and can save you lots of money.

I sincerely hope that these tips help you get into model railroading. This is a fun hobby, and it doesn’t need to be very expensive as long as you follow these tips.

What’s next? Model trains are expensive but are they a good investment? I made a post talking about the topic which you can find here: Are model trains a good investment?

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