Modeling trains have been a popular hobby for many years. Many different brands of trains are available, but which one is the best? Depending on your preference, many brands would suit you best. This post will talk about the best model train brands and where they are specifically good at. That way, you can decide which is the best based on your preference.
The best model train brand depends on the modeler’s preference. For example, if they want a model train with DCS controls, then MTH is the best. Kato will be their choice if they want the best and most trusted train tracks for decades. Suppose they’re looking for the most popular, then Bachmann or Hornby.
This post will give the strengths of each train model brand. That way, you can choose which is the best depending on what you are looking for. Finally, I will give my preference at the end of this post.
What are the best model train brands?
|Model Train Brand
|Best for Beginners
|Best for People in the UK
|Best for O and S scale trains
|Best for Quality Track
|Best Alternative to Hornby
|Wm K. Walthers
|Best for Variety
|Best for TT and N scale Trains
|Best for DCS Controls
Here are the best model train brands.
1. Bachmann Trains
Bachmann has been one of the dominant train model brands in the world. It produces a wide variety of models, from cheap beginner models and high-quality models for experienced modelers.
A few years back, Bachmann had a bad reputation for producing low-quality models. Unfortunately, It is still apparent, and you might still hear people saying that they should stay away from Bachmann.
However, Bachmann is not the same as it was in the early 2000s. While their old models are low quality, they started to improve their models from detailing to their raw materials.
For example, old Bachmann models only use Soundtraxx, which can be a turnoff for modelers who want high-quality sounds on their models.
Right now, most of their models include DCC with TCS WOW sounds which is superior to Soundtraxx.
Bachmann offers not only beginner-level models but also offer high-quality models like the ones from the Spectrum line. The Spectrum line is considered one of the highest quality lines from Bachmann.
Not only that, but they also offer layout accessories such as tracks, trees, houses, and more.
The truth is, you can build an entire layout with only Bachmann products, from your layout design to your controller, tracks, and train.
They also introduced the E-Z app to control your train with DCC using your phone via Bluetooth, which is a massive quality of life improvement for train modelers.
If you ask me, the reason to choose Bachmann is simplicity since they are one of the leading producers of beginner train sets.
A complete beginner would often wonder what tracks, locomotive, and controller to buy. This was made easier with Bachmann sets, so you won’t need to worry about compatibility.
Bachmann trains are the best model train brand for beginners because of their wide range of products and popularity among the model railroading community. Also, Bachmann offers a free “getting started” course on their website to help beginners and returning modelers.
For more information regarding Bachmann trains, I made a post talking about how good their model is here: Are Bachmann trains good?
2. Hornby Trains
If you live in the UK, you might already know Hornby trains. Hornby is the leading model train manufacturer in the UK.
In fact, if you are in the UK, I recommend going for Hornby since modelers have trusted them for generations.
The main reason for going with Hornby is their strong community in the UK, where you can quickly seek help if you have some problems with their product.
Because they have a lot of users, it will be easy to fix your trains whenever you encounter some problem with the layout or train.
Another reason to go with Hornby is if you are a fan of the OO scale trains. In fact, Hornby is the one who made the OO scale in the first place.
If you go to the UK, you might notice that their train models are slightly larger than in the USA. This is because they use OO scale models, which as 1:76 scale.
In the US, the most popular scale is the HO scale which is the 1:87 scale.
As you can see, the OO scale is 15% larger than the HO scale.
Thus, if you are into OO scale trains and live in the UK, Hornby is your choice.
Hornby trains are the best train model brand for people who live in the UK and are into OO scale trains. This is because Hornby’s quality has been tested for about a century with their first OO scale train released in the 1920s.
Recommended Read: For a deeper comparison between HO and OO scale trains, feel free to check this post: HO vs. OO Scale Model Trains.
3. Lionel Trains
Lionel is one of the best model train brands. They are considered as one of the high-quality train model brands.
Furthermore, Lionel offers various products such as train sets, locomotives, train cars, accessories, track, and power supplies.
But it doesn’t stop there.
Lionel is famous for producing the 3-rail tracks and O gauge trains, accounting for about 95% of their total sales.
Most O gauge trains would use a 3-rail track, and those tracks usually come from Lionel.
3-rail tracks from Lionel are popular because they prevent short circuits, making wiring the tracks simpler.
For a comparison between 2-rail and 3-rail tracks, feel free to check this post: What is the purpose of the 3rd rail?
Lionel is also one of the producers of the rare S scale trains, which are in the 1:64 scale.
This allowed modelers to use their train models with cars from Hot Wheels and Matchbox since these brands produce 1:64 scale models.
While that looks amazing, I don’t recommend going for the S scale due to its limited supply, and materials for S scale locomotives are hard to get by.
However, if you’re into S scale locomotives, then Lionel would be the best brand for you.
Basically, Lionel is the best model train brand if you are looking for O scale and S scale locomotives. They offer high-quality models and are considered one of the high-end brands on model railroading.
4. Kato Trains
If you are always keen on your layout’s tracks, why not go for Kato?
Almost all train modelers have trusted Kato for decades because they don’t settle for the quality of their tracks. In fact, many modelers would often recommend Kato for tracks since they are of good quality and compatible with other tracks.
However, most prefab tracks aren’t compatible with other brands due to their roadbed connection.
But if you have problems with tracks or want high-quality tracks, go for Kato since they are a time-tested brand for tracks.
Kato also produces high-quality HO and N scale train car sets that can even go as long as 9 cars.
However, they will always be known for their tracks, like their flextrack and unitrack. They also offer T-track kits, which include not only the track but also the layout like mountains or bridges.
Kato trains are the best model brand if you’re looking for high-quality tracks. They offer not only standard but also prefab tracks that can also include layouts.
5. Athearn Trains
If you’re a fan of Hornby, but you don’t live in the UK, then you might want to check Athearn trains.
Hornby owns Athearn trains. Thus, their quality usually matches the ones you will find in Hornby.
Athearn offers a wide variety of train models, from their high-quality Genesis line to affordable models from the Roundhouse line.
Furthermore, they are known for their high-quality couplers, which modelers would know as the McHenry couplers.
But the main reason to get Athearn is if you’re a fan of Hornby.
6. Wm K. Walthers
Walthers is one of the biggest train manufacturers globally, with over 200 manufacturers of layout buildings, people, sceneries, locomotives, and rolling stock.
In fact, Walthers has also been known for their wide variety of train lines from the budget to mid-tier and high-tier.
The budget trains from Walthers are known as WaltersTrainline, which offers budget sets that suit beginners.
If you want an upgrade, you can try WaltersMainline, which offers mid-tier quality models.
Their highest quality models come from the WalthersProto, which offers only the highest quality locomotives and train sets.
Thus, if you want to have many models to choose from, then Walthers is a good choice.
Walthers is also known for producing the Code 83 rail, the standard rail size in the US.
While other manufacturers make quality rails, they are the pioneer producer of the code 83 or the 0.083 inches tall rail on the HO scale.
7. Arnold Trains
Earlier, I talked about O scale trains which are large model trains. However, what if you want really small train models?
On smaller trains, you can often go with N scale and TT scale models.
Arnold trains are famous for their small-scale trains. In fact, the Arnold Rapido is the first N scale train.
The N scale is the 2nd most popular train model scale taking 20% of the total model train market.
This scale started with Arnold trains, and they became popular because of this.
Furthermore, if you’re into TT model trains, which are slightly larger than the N scale, Arnold trains would offer you those rare scale trains.
Thus, if you are looking for highly detailed yet small train models, then you may want to consider Arnold trains.
Arnold trains are the best producers of N scale and TT scale model trains. In fact, they are the first ones to manufacture the N scale with the Arnold Rapido.
8. MTH Trains
Many beginners would start scratching their heads when they begin using DCC controls. DCC stands for digital command control, where you control your locomotives using a controller, computer, or phone.
This is possible thanks to what modelers call JMRI or Java Model Railroad Interface.
Thanks to this technology, you can control your train and its speed using precise values on your computer. People also call this digital control.
Most model trains are now DCC ready, where you only need to install decoders for them to work.
However, beginners would often get confused when starting DCC controls with Digitrax or NCE.
That’s where MTH trains come in.
MTH trains use a different system called the DCS or the Digital Command System. Basically speaking, it is a simpler version of DCC.
Think of MTH trains as the brand that offered an easier to operate DCC system. However, their simplicity has a catch.
MTH works well with Protosound 2 or 3. But if you try using DCS with other branded decoders such as ESU or QSI decoders, then it wouldn’t work.
Think of it as the easy way to use DCC controls, but you will be stuck with Protosound 2 or 3.
If you can’t figure out how to use DCC, DCS from MTH trains is your choice. I still recommend DCC, though, since it is universal, and you can use any brand with it.
MTH is the best model train brand if you are looking for DCS controls which would give better control of your train’s movement compared to DC controls.
What is the most popular model train set?
Now that we’ve talked about the strengths of each brand let’s talk about what you should get.
The most popular model train set is Hornby in the UK and Bachmann in the US. Both of these models have a big community that helps each other when having trouble with their layout and are not only beginner-friendly but also cost-efficient.
Bachmann has not only been in the business for a long time, but they also improved a lot in a short amount of time. For example, they started producing not only metal parts that made it durable, but they also upgraded the accessories such as adding high-quality train sounds.
On the other hand, Hornby has been trusted for almost a century since their first OO gauge train. Thus, you won’t go wrong with using Hornby train sets.
Both of these brands are good, and you can start with them. However, if you prefer other scales and features, then you can also try different brands.
In the end, you may always refer to the table summary I included above to get the best brand for you.