RC trains have come a long way since Joshua Lionel Cowen started selling electric trains for department store displays in 1900. Today you can get trains in a variety of sizes, materials, and prices. But all those choices can leave you wondering which RC train set is best for you?
The best RC train set for most people is the Lionel New York Central Waterlevel Limited Set. It is a reasonably priced introduction to HO trains, will provide many opportunities for expansion and diorama building, and is suited for beginning teenagers and longtime hobbyists.
The only instances in which I wouldn’t recommend the Lionel New York Central Waterlevel Limited LionChief are if:
|TopTOP QUALITY||Lionel New York Central Waterlevel Limited LionChief 2-8-4 Set with Bluetooth Capability, Electric HO Gauge Model Train Set with Remote||Check Price|
|BEST O SCALE||Williams by Bachmann The Greyhound - O Scale Ready to Run Electric Train Set||Check Price|
|BEST G SCALE||LGB Freight G Scale Starter Set with Sound - 120 Volts||Check Price|
|BEST ON BUDGET||Bachmann Trains - Canyon Chief Ready To Run Electric Train Set - HO Scale||Check Price|
|BEST FOR KIDS||TEMI Train Sets w/ Steam Locomotive Engine, Cargo Car and Tracks, Battery Operated Play Set Toy w/ Smoke, Light & Sounds, Perfect for Kids, Boys & Girls, Red||Check Price|
In this article, I will discuss the factors you should consider when buying an RC train set and some of the reasons why the Bachmann Overland Limited Set will be the best choice for most people. I will also discuss other trains which may be a better option for people with different needs. Read on to find out which train set is best and which is best for you.
Factors To Consider when buying Train Set
Some of the factors you need to consider when choosing a train set include:
- RC train size
- Available space
Since manufacturers sort RC trains into different sizes, let’s start our discussion there.
What are Available Train Sizes?
Train hobbyists describe their sets by the gauge of the railroad tracks. In America, the rails of a standard gauge train track are 56.5 inches (143.5 cm) apart. RC Trains run on several different gauges. The gauge measures the ratio between the RC track and standard railroad tracks.
This ratio also determines the scale at which manufacturers build their models. O gauge tracks are 1/48 the width of a railroad, and the trains that run on those tracks are built to 1:48 scale. A 40-foot (12.2 m) long boxcar in an O scale would be 10 inches (0.25m) long.
So long as they are built to the same gauge, you can mix and match trains and even tracks between brands. (This depends on many factors, and you should always check before making a large equipment purchase!). Here are the most widely available gauges in order of popularity.
HO Gauge RC Trains
HO gauge, the most popular, is 1:87 the width of a standard train track. The rails lie 0.65 in (16.5 mm) apart. Typical HO cars range between 5.5 and seven inches (14-17 cm) in length. The oval of track with most starter kits is about three feet wide by five feet long (90 x 150cm). (Though hobbyists know just how to fast-track dioramas can expand!)
HO Gauge RC trains hit the sweet spot for many RC train fans. They are large enough for manufacturers to include many details on their models. Hobbyists looking to create realistic dioramas have many more options with HO trains than with smaller gauges. But they are small enough to allow hobbyists to have fun even in cramped living spaces.
The Lionel New York Central Waterlevel Limited Set has a remote with a forward and reverse speed control knob and whistle, bell, and announcement buttons. You can also use the Lionel app on your phone to control the engine’s movement and sounds. After over 120 years in business, Lionel remains a leader in the RC train industry.
N Gauge RC Trains
N Gauge tracks are 0.35 inches (9 mm) wide, a bit over half HO width, and a quarter O width. These pint-sized train sets have been on the market since 1962. The cars and engines that run on N gauge are built to 1:148 to 1:160 scale. N scale engines run a bit over 4 inches (10 cm) in length, and N scale cars are closer to 3 inches (7.6 cm).
N Gauge trains have been around since 1962 and are particularly popular in Japan. Space is limited in tiny Japanese houses, and Japanese train hobbyists have produced some spectacular works of art in miniature. Remarkably realistic N scale accessories are available, and you can turn your tabletop into an industrial landscape or a city with a working subway.
O Gauge RC Trains
HO (“half O”) originally started as a smaller alternative to O gauge tracks. American O gauge trains are a bit less than twice the width of an HO track. O gauge tracks are 1.25 in. (31.75 mm) wide, and a typical O scale boxcar runs around 10.5 in. (28 cm) long. O gauge trains are popular with hobbyists who find the extra size makes for more impressive displays.
Introduced by German toy manufacturer Märklin around 1900, the O gauge was America’s most common model gauge from the 1930s until the early 1960s. The American 1:48 standard differed from Europe’s more accurate 1:43, and today you can still run into issues mixing trains and tracks from European and American manufacturers.
The Williams by Bachmann Greyhound Train Set is built by Williams, an American subsidiary of Chinese toy railway giant Bachmann Trains. The Greyhound set will take you back to the mid-century railroads with lighted passenger cars, smoke, a headlight, whistles, and bells. Williams became famous for its modern reproductions of vintage RC trains.
G Gauge RC Trains
Before the Depression, O gauge trains were the smaller alternative. Serious hobbyists with lots of room preferred even larger trains around their Christmas trees and on their train dioramas. But after Black Friday, many hobbyists who could no longer afford big, expensive trains discovered the joys of smaller, less expensive train sets.
While Americans often call G gauge trains “garden scale,” the G actually comes from the German Gro, or “big.” G gauge trains are indeed big! At 1:22.5 scale (1:24 for Lionel G scale trains), the tracks are spaced 1.75 inches (45mm) apart. An average G scale car runs around 17.5 inches (45 cm), and engines can top 24 inches (60 cm)!
LGB stands for Lehmann Gross Bahn (Lehmann Big Train). LGB renewed interest in larger trains when they first introduced these G-sized models in 1968. The LGB Freight G Scale Starter Set lets you control speed, lights, sounds, and smoke. Expansion kits are available if you have the room.
Other RC Train Sizes
There are a few other gauges you might occasionally see in the RC train hobby or on display. Though not as widely found as the others listed above, you will find some very interesting trains in these less common gauges and a surprising number of merchants supporting them.
S Gauge RC Trains
Once a toy train industry standard, Lionel brought the 1:64 S gauge back in 1979 with its American Flyer line. Today several other producers make S gauge cars and equipment. S gauge trains work well for people who want something bigger than their O gauge set but don’t have much room.
Like Lionel’s O and HO trains, their S gauge train can be controlled by remote or Bluetooth. Lionel The Polar Express S Gauge American FlyerTrain Set is available at Amazon.
Z Gauge RC Trains
Z gauge trains (1:220) run on 6.5mm (0.256 in) tracks. Created in 1972 by German model train maker Märklin, today, Z scale producers can be found in North America, Europe, and Asia. Z scale trains pack a lot of train fun into very little space.
Available at Amazon, the Märklin Christmas Starter Set track oval is 21 in x 16 in (53 x 40 cm) and will fit on many desks. You can have Santa Claus and a whole winter holiday village on top of a desk, complete with a cheery train that will keep you through many seasons — especially if you replace your Christmas exhibit with some of Märklin’s other Z scale options.
T Gauge RC Trains
At 1:450 scale, T gauge train sets are the smallest on the marketplace. The track’s 0.12 inch (3mm) width is so tight you couldn’t squeeze two pennies sideways between it. These minuscule trains can be surprisingly detailed but also can come with a remarkably big price tag.
The Convergent T Gauge Freight Train Set comes with a locomotive, oil tanker, container wagon, and 4-bay hopper wagon, along with enough track to make you a tiny railroad tycoon. When hitched together, the entire train is about half as long as a single O scale boxcar.
Available train set sizes:
|Gauge||Scale||Track Width||Average Car Size|
|HO||1:87||0.65 in. (16.5 mm)||5.5-7 in (14-15 cm)|
|N||1:148 – 1:160||0.35 in. (9 mm)||3.5 in (89 mm)|
|O||1:48||1.25 in (31.75 mm)||10.5 in (27 cm)|
|G||1:22.5 – 1:24||1.75 in (45 mm)||17.5 in (45 cm)|
|S||1:64||0.885 (22.5 mm)||7.5 in (19 cm)|
|Z||1:220||0.25 in (6.25mm)||2.25 in (57 mm)|
|T||1:450||0.117 in (3 mm)||1 in (2.5 cm)|
Available Space for RC Train Set
Now that you’ve seen some of the best trains available in different sizes, you need to look at your open space. Where are you putting your train set? How much room do you have to add more track and increase your collection of engines and cars?
The bigger the gauge, the greater the space required for the track layout.
G gauge trains can maneuver surprisingly tight turns thanks to their extra weight and width. Z and T gauge trains need wide curves because of their narrow wheelbase and tiny mass. Look at track setups, and you may find your room can handle a bigger train than you thought. For most hobbyists, HO is large enough to impress but small enough to display easily.
Cost of RC Train Sets
Smaller doesn’t always cost less. You can spend a lot of money on any RC train set, especially when you factor in the costs of setting up a scenic environment. And you pay a premium for the tiniest RC trains just as you do for the biggest ones.
You can expect to spend between $250 and $500 or more for a high-quality train set of any size. Many beginning hobbyists find their initial set provides them with all the entertainment they need. That first set is the gateway into a whole new hobby of diorama building and train setups for many others. The train hobby can get expensive, but it is always rewarding.
Less expensive trains can be lots of fun and help you get your feet wet in the hobby. The Bachmann Trains Canyon Chief HO Set’s engine has a plastic rather than die-cast metal chassis and doesn’t puff smoke. But its small track can be expanded, and Amazon also carries other Bachmann HO trains like their Thomas the Tank Engine series.
Safety of RC Train Sets
Lots of parents buy RC trains for their children. RC trains can offer hours of family fun and even more hours of quiet playtime. But before you buy a family train set, make sure it is age-appropriate for your child.
RC trains with die-cast bodies sometimes have sharp edges in unexpected places. Plastic bodies can break if handled roughly or thrown. And some of the smallest RC trains can pose a choking hazard if swallowed. A teenager or a supervised child should have a few problems with a train set, but you should make sure children under 5 do not have easy access to your train set.
The Temi Train Play Set will provide a safe, inexpensive introduction to RC trains for children 3 and up. The large track pieces fit together easily so children can create their own courses, and the train delights them with smoke, whistles, and chugging sounds.
Here is a table with the manufacturers’ minimum recommended ages for unsupervised play (or as unsupervised as you can leave a 3-year-old). As household items go RC train sets are not especially dangerous to young children. But young children can do a great deal of damage to your RC train set.
|Manufacturer Age Recommendation for Train Sets|
|Bachmann Trains Canyon Chief HO Set||14+|
|Convergent T Gauge Freight Train Set||15+|
|Kato Silver Streak Zephyr Train Set||14+|
|LGB Freight G Scale Starter Set||14+|
|Lionel New York Central Waterlevel Limited LionChief||14+|
|Lionel American Flyer Polar Express Set||14+|
|Märklin Christmas Starter Set||15+|
|Temi Train Playset||3+|
|Williams by Bachmann Greyhound Train Set||14+|
The Best RC Train Sets currently Available
As promised, here is my list of the best RC train sets currently available. Because every train hobbyist has different needs, I have also included a few other excellent RC train sets that may be better suited to your situation.
Overall Best: Lionel New York Central Waterlevel Limited Set
Since HO is the most popular RC train gauge, an HO train set offers more expansion opportunities. HO sets give you the biggest selection of new track, display accessories, cars, and engines. HO train sets will best suit most people’s needs, so I looked for our best train set among the enormous selection of available HO trains.
The Lionel New York Central Waterlevel Limited Set wins points for Lionel’s app that lets you control the train with your phone or tablet. For over 120 years, Lionel has been making durable train sets you can pass down through generations. For that reason, the Lionel New York Central HO Set wins my coveted “best in show” award.
Best on a Budget: Bachmann Canyon Chief Train Set
The Bachmann Canyon Chief Train Set doesn’t quite measure up to our winner. It does not offer Bluetooth control, and its materials are not as impressive as Lionel’s set. But it is a solid, reliable train that can serve as a fine introduction to RC trains and may be the only RC train you will ever need.
Bachmann made its mark, offering inexpensive train sets for beginners. But over the past few years, Bachmann has begun aiming at the higher end of the RC train market. The Bachmann Canyon Chief is a solid performer that comes in at about half the price of the Lionel set.
Best N Train Set: Kato Silver Streak Zephyr
The Kato Silver Streak Zephyr is built by the highly regarded Japanese model train company Kato. Reviewers praise Kato’s attention to detail and the durability of their tracks and trains. The Silver Streak Zephyr reproduces a midwestern luxury train that operated between Lincoln, Nebraska, and Kansas City.
The Silver Streak Zephyr set comes with a wired controller, but you can add a DCC card and command station and run your trains wirelessly. This DCC setup will give you the ability to control multiple engines and track functions remotely in a detailed exhibit — and since the Silver Streak Zephyr is so small, you will have no trouble finding room for your new rail line.
Best O Train Set: Williams by Bachmann Greyhound Train Set
The Williams by Bachmann Greyhound Train Set wins my award largely because of its engine. The Williams 4-6-0 is a reproduction of a 1908 locomotive. For this set, Williams painted the 4-6-0 (“4-6-0” means the engine has four front, six middle, and no back wheels) in the gray Union Pacific railroad colors.
With this engine, your train can navigate sharp 0-27 curves and pull plenty of cars behind your big steamer. Take your time setting up the tracks, as some reviewers have complained that putting them together can be challenging. But once you get things rolling, the Greyhound train set will be working on your model railroads until you pass it down to the next generation.
Best G Train Set: LGB Freight G Scale Starter Set
The LGB Freight G Scale Starter Set runs in a 51″ (130 cm) circle. This is impressive, seeing as how the three-car train is 33″ (85 cm) long. Bigger trains can run in tighter circles. But when you start adding extra track to your starter set, your G scale train can go many other places.
The LGB Freight train is designed for indoor and outdoor use. Many G scale hobbyists run track through their gardens and yards to produce entertaining outdoor exhibits. So long as you keep the tracks clean and keep your trains out of bad weather, your LGB Freight Train will happily chug around your roses and rhododendrons for many summers to come.
Best RC Train for Kids: Temi Train Play Set
Trains are big, noisy, and awesome. It’s no wonder children love them. If your child loves trains, the Temi Train Play Set will provide a great introduction to the wonderful world of RC trains. Your child can watch the choo-choo puff smoke and then construct new paths using the large, easy-to-handle track pieces.
The Temi train set is not expandable, and your child will probably outgrow it in a year or two. But their joy in playing with the train will be worth far more than the modest cost of this train. And this Temi train may well be the start of a lifelong hobby.
Today there are more RC trains available than ever. Finding train sets is easy, but finding the best can be challenging. Our Best Train selection will be an excellent choice for almost everybody reading this article.
You may be looking for something different, and that’s OK. Now that you’ve seen some of the other available options, you are in a better place to choose the train set that will be best for you. Good luck and happy conducting!