Model trains remain one of the most popular hobbies for people of all ages. Whether you've just picked up your first beginner train set or are a seasoned model train collector there's a range of models designed to suit your needs. But are model trains toys, are they considered scale models or are they something different entirely?

In this article we'll explore the scope of the hobby, as well as the factors that many modellers take into account when classifying train sets. We'll also take a look at the differences between toy trains and evaluate whether model trains are toys.

Are model trains toys?

The short answer is that some model trains are toys and some are not.

Starter train sets, including wooden trains, basic plastic railroads, and some beginner Hornby sets would be classed as toys. However, as you go up through the range of products and on to more advanced model locomotives they fall under the umbrella of scale models.

However, the detailed answer is somewhat more nuanced.

Categorizing model trains

Model trains encompass a wide range of products, from wooden toy trains all the way through to collectible model locomotives. With such a wide scope of target age ranges, it's simply not appropriate to categorize all model trains as toys.

The marketing of these products also plays a key role in determining whether these items are toy trains or not. If a company is marketing a product to children they will almost certainly be considered toy trains. This is evidenced by the naming of the product, the packaging design, advertising, as well as the make up of the product itself.

Let's start at the beginning of the range. Here, we've got wooden train sets like the Lego Deluxe Railway Set, other kids plastic trains, as well as things such as the Thomas the Tank Engine toys.

These are aimed at children, they're often made of basic robust materials, such as wood and plastics, and they're functional rather than providing extreme levels of detail. Therefore, it's easy to classify these types of model trains as toys.

Brio Deluxe Railway Set
The Brio Deluxe Railway Set is an example of a toy and is marketed as such.

Conversely, at the other end of the scale you have things like specialist model locomotives such as the Hornby LNER Q6, in addition to cars, carriages, wagons and other types of model rolling stock.

These are very much targeted at scale modellers or more serious model train enthusiasts and focus on providing exceptional levels of detail, realism and production quality.

They are highly accurate scale models of the real full size locomotive. As such, they would definitely not be classed as toys.

Hornby LNER Q6 locomotive in BR black early crest livery
The Hornby LNER Q6 is a detailed scale model of the real locomotive.

Now, where things get more difficult is in the middle of the road. This includes the beginner starter train sets from Hornby, such as the Valley Drifter Train Set.

It can be quite hard to categorize these types of train set, as one could make an argument for classifying them as both toys and model trains.

On the one hand they are could be considered toys for the fact that they're often starter sets and are low cost and durable. On the other, they could also be categorized as model trains due to being scale models of real rolling stock.

It all comes down to the target market, intended use of the train, manufacturing methods, product features and price point to determine whether they're either model trains or toys (or perhaps both).

Summary of model trains vs toys

Toy trains and model trains are two differing representations of full size real world trains.

Toy trains are generally aimed at children and focus on providing a basic representation of the real full size locomotive. They use basic, durable materials and focus on function at a low cost rather than providing exceptional levels of detail or realism. They are considered toys.

Model trains are scale models rather than toys. They're marketed to scale modellers and more serious model train hobbyists and feature highly accurate liveries, small and detailed components, and provide exceptional realism. They often make use of complex manufacturing methods, so are more expensive to produce. Some model trains may even have additional features such as live steam and sounds. They are not considered toys.

While different, both these options have their place in representing the full size versions of trains. Wooden trains remain one of the most popular toys for babies and children, while a quality beginners train set is an ideal starter train for older kids.

For those becoming more interested in the world of model trains, searching for the best train set for adults is a good starting point that'll provide you a cost effective introduction to scale models without committing to purchasing expensive model locomotives.

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