|Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)|
Garden Railroading with Toy Trains
This article is part of our series on "Garden Railroading on a Shoe String" which contains links, tips, and tricks, for using low-cost approaches and products to create attractive, reliable railroads in your back yard.
I first wrote this article in 2007, and updated it significantly in 2012. But so many things have changed since then, it deserves another update. The short version is that you CAN use toy trains on a garden railroad, as long as you choose carefully, and are willing to put in the other work you need to do to make the railroad sturdy and attractive.
Now for the biggest change: in 2012, most of the larger toy trains available ran on the same gauge of track used by LGB, Piko, and other name-brand garden trains (45mm, or 1.775"). But in 2019, one of the most popular big toy train lines did NOT run on the same track.
We'll start with that line and its closest relatives. But first here's a sort of caveat to explain why the sets described on this page "come and go so quickly." That is, they may be widely available one year and never show up again. Or they may show up every few years like Brigadoon, then disappear again.
About Toy Train AvailailabilityEvery year, the major toy manufacturers bring their prototypes and examples to mammoth "toy fairs" that folks who buy for distributors and store chains attend. There, the manufacturers take orders for how many toy trains each store or chain wants to buy that year (usually scheduled to arrive in the fall). If a set was a popular seller last year, a new manufacturing run may be scheduled for the year. On the other hand, if the stores and distributors were stuck with too many sets, the set may not get enough reorders to justify another run.
If distributors still have a large stock of last year's product, the set will show up in stores even if none were made that year. But when they sell out at one store, they're very likely to sell out all all stores in short order, because the distributors' stock was relatively low starting out.
In addition, every company likes to "shake things up" a bit with their line. So a train set that was painted for Pennsylvania RR last year may be painted for Santa Fe this year. But the molds, the features, and the marketing channels will be essentially the same.
So, though I've described many of these trains in enough detail for you to spot them if they show up at a store (or garage sale) near you, you may NOT be able to find them this year at all. Or the stores may be glutted with them, and you may be able to score them for half price after Christmas.
At this point (April, 2020) the biggest of the toy fairs have already occurred, so the orders are in. But until trains start shipping this fall, it's any layperson's guess which trains will be available by Christmas.
In other words, this article is to help you make good choices among the options that present themselves this year - it's no guarantee that you'll see these particular trains in the stores.
Lionel's Battery-Powered TrainsIn the 1980s, Lionel started selling battery-powered toy trains that ran on G gauge track, but they were really built by the other manfacturers on this page. Around 2010, they "upped their game" and started designing more solid and realistic battery-powered, remote-controlled trains. Though they are still toys, they don't look as much like toys as other manufacturers' trains. Then, around 2016, they converted that line over into a new track gauge.
"Ready to Play" - Wrong Track Width But Robust - As of this writing (April 2020), Lionel's most popular line of battery-powered toy trains do NOT run on the same track as the rest of these trains. They run on 2"-gauge track, a gauge that hasn't been used for over a century. It's fairly obvious that Lionel designed this line just to keep people from mixing and matching their trains with trains from other manufacturers. That said, except for the goofy track gauge, they are nearly identical to the older, G gauge line (below) that Lionel manufactured up until about 2015. Although they are smaller in scale than true garden trains, they are surprisingly solid for toy trains.
Several of Lionel's "Ready to Play" trains can be converted to run on G gauge track. However, if you're just starting out and you don't plan to mix and match brands, there's no reason you can't stay with 2" gauge at first - besides the ridiculous price of add-on track.
Note about "Extra Track": If you need extra track, you'll notice that another circle of track could cost you as much as $40 (the pieces are so short, it takes 24 curves to make a circle). If you can track down a "Ready to Play" set marked down after Christmas, you may be able to get a whole 'nudder train for the cost of another oval of track purchased separately.
The best part about the Lionel "Ready to Play" track is that the curves DO make 48" diameter circles, the same diameter as entry-level garden trains and most of the other trains on this page. Consequently, if you build a railroad that will support your 2-inch "Ready to Play" track, and later on come up with a true G gauge train set you want to run, you don't have to rebuild anything - you just have to swap out the track. You can set your "Ready-to-Play" train aside to get out when the kiddies come over, or - if you're good with things like dremels - you can convert most of the "Ready-to-Play" trains to run on G gauge track.
By the way, I don't have a "buyer's guide" page for these yet, plus they come and go quickly. So if you want to take a look at what is available right now, clicking on the little picture to the right should give you some idea.
Amazon puts all kinds of trains on the same page, so once you get there, make certain individual trains you click on say "battery powered" and or "Ready-to-Play."
True G-Gauge but Discontinued: Lionel's G Gauge Toy Trains - About 2011, Lionel introduced a better quality of battery-powered toy trains that ran on G gauge track. These were not models by anybody's definition, but they enabled garden railroaders to set out trains for the kids to run without risking their expensive models. My favorite set of that era, the Hogwarts Express was the only version of that train that was ever built to run on 45mm track, and we have a lot of fun with it. The most popular set was the Polar Express (a "Ready-to-Play" version is still made).
Ironically, the track circle that comes with these is just slightly larger (about 50"-diameter) than the track circle that comes with all the other trains on this page.
Sadly, this line was discontinued when the "Ready to Play" sets emerged. Still, some of the "Ready to Play" sets use the same molds as the G gauge sets, so if you want to buy an extra car for a G gauge set, and you don't mind converting a "Ready-to-Play" car to G gauge, you still have options. Converting the other way would NOT be easy, in case you were wondering.
The photo below shows a Lionel G gauge Hogwarts Express with two extra coaches running on Paul Race's New Boston and Donnels Creek railroad. Click on it to get a better idea of how it looks on Paul's railroad.
For more information about the full-sized Hogwarts Express trains, as well as Lionel's O gauge, G-Gauge, and "Ready-to-Play" sets, click on the little picture to the right.
To see an article on those trains, with photos and detailed descriptions, click on the picture above right.
If you shop the used market, you can still find used Lionel toy train sets that run on G gauge track already. Be certain to buy only trains that have the remote and are guaranteed to run. These do NOT run without the remote. And many, if not most, eBay vendors who say their trains are "untested" have actually tested them and know they don't work, so they play "dumb." Don't ask me how I know.
The Scientific Toys/Ez-Tec trains have been made off and on since the 1980s. They tend to be sturdier than the New Bright, Echo, and clone trains discussed above. They are also the only manufacturer in this class to make a relatively modern-lookinig locomotive.
The photo to the right shows two EZ-tec locomotive from Robert Taylor's collection. You can see that one follows the "Narrow Gauge," "Old-Western" tradition of most of the other photos on this page. (BTW, the yellow caboose is from another line altogether. Ez-tec cabooses have really big windows.)
New Bright and its ClonesSoon after LGB came out with their line of Garden Trains, New Bright came out with a line of toy trains that also ran on G gauge (45mm) track. Soon other companies like Echo came out with nearly identical toy trains. Nowadays, there are countless "brands" of these. Many of them are still almost identical to the original New Bright trains. They are sold in department stores and hardware stores with the Christmas decorations. And, frankly, most of them aren't expected to last past the first Christmas. After Christmas, they almost all go down to half price.
A typical New Bright train is shown at the right. This locomotive has the most common 0-6-0 wheel arrangement. It also has vents in the boiler to help keep the motor cool, something a real locomotive would never have.
The wheels on the cars are much smaller than the wheels on garden trains, and their rims are almost always painted silver. This relatively long caboose with three windows on each side and an offset cupola is typical of New Bright trains.
Over the decades, New Bright has issued sets that are different from this one in one or more points. For example, most New Bright locomotives have "diamond" smokestacks like the Echo locomotive shown below. And they may have different cars and road names. But they tend to have similar features.
Don't Lose the Remote - Starting about twenty years ago, most New Bright trains (and their clones) came with a remote. Don't buy a used set that is missing the remote. Every brand's remotes operate differently, and if you have to buy a remote separately, it may cost as much as the train set. There's more information about remotes in general further down the page.
Clones - Countless other manufacturers have created clones that are nearly identical to New Bright or Echo trains. And some of them don't entirely suck.
But if you go shopping the New Bright clones, be certain you have recourse if the train you bought fails out of the box.
Long Discontinued But Worth ConsideringIn the 1980s, Bachmann, who makes more model trains than anyone else in the world, came out with their first G gauge locomotive, a battery-powered 4-6-0 that ran on plastic track and had a remote control. more model trains.
By the standards of later Bachmann G Gauge trains, it feels and runs like a toy. However, it is a scale model.
Since any you come across will be at least 35 years old, they may be in bad shape. If nothing else, the rubber that lines some of the driver wheels may have rotted away, and the vinyl handrails may have turned brittle and failed. But if you see one that works and is in good condition, that's worth considering as well.
Like all of these trains, it DOES run better on wide-radius metal track. By the way, this was my first Large Scale train, and I did use it in my garden for a while. Check out our Little Railroad that Grew article for more information.
A Note about CouplersMost of these trains use "hook" or "hook and link" couplers that are more-ore-less compatible with LGB's. (Lionel's G Gauge toy trains are the exception - they use something shaped a little like knuckle couplers.) The size and height of the "hook and link" couplers may vary between brands, but if you want to mix and match brands, you can usually find a workaround if that causes a problem.
A Note about TrackExcept for the Lionel "Ready to Run" trains, all the trains discussed above run on track that has the rails 45mm apart (1.775"). As a result, you can run New Bright trains on Scientific Toys track and vice versa. In addition, they will all run on garden railroad track by LGB or AristoCraft. In fact, they'll all run BETTER on better track.
If you stick with plastic track, you'll soon learn that most brands of plastic track don't fasten together. with most other brands of plastic track. If you're fastening your track to a board or something, you can usually get around that problem by cutting off any dohickies sticking off the end of the track, butting the rails up together, and screwing the ties to the board. But if you're just putting together a temporary railroad around the Christmas tree or some such, you'll want to try to stick to one brand of track.
About the RemotesMost of the trains on this page come with a remote. That said, they all using the same one or two frequencies - the same frequencies that toy walkie-talkies use. If you try to run two trains from the same line within 20-30 feet of each other, one remote will control both trains. If you try to run two trains from different lines too close together, the remotes probably will mess up the operation of the other brand train.
One exception was the battery-powered Bachmann Big Hauler, which had a set with the locomotive numbered 7 and a set with the locomotive numbered 9. Those two sets, with the appropriate remotes, could operate on the same railroad.
Using Toy Trains OutsideUnlike name-brand garden trains (LGB, Piko, USA Trains, etc.), the battery-powered, plastic track-equipped sets we described above were not actually made to be used outside. The plastic is not uv-resistant, and the mechanisms are not moisture resistant. However that has not kept many people from attempting to use these sets (or pieces from these sets) outside.
Track Issues OutsideTrack Life - One surprise is that the black plastic track holds up fairly well outside. I would recommend spraypainting it with gray or rust primer to give it some UV resistance, but several friends have reported using it unprotected for up to three years before it started to get strange. That said, the plastic track turnouts (switches) don't resist the sun's heat well in hot climates - one friend in Florida had his EZ-tec turnouts literally melt down in the sun. Others have told me that New Bright turnouts are even less sturdy.
Track Support - Because the plastic track doesn't have big metal rails keeping it straight, you should consider mounting the track to something solid, such as the 2x6 "roadbed" described in our Simple Raised Railroad article. Most of the trains we're discussing in this article come with curves that make a 48"-diameter circle, so you should be able to reuse the same roadbed if you convert to metal track in the future.
Consider Aluminum Track - If you plan to stick with battery power for the foreseeable future, you will have better luck over all if you go from plastic to aluminum. If you can go to wider curves as well, such as 8' or 10'-diameter, you will be surprised how well your trains run on it. Dave Knoch, who helped me with information-gathering on this article, converted to aluminum after several years and appreciates the smoother operation and lower maintenance compared to plastic. Again, these trains will run better on metal track (especially wider curves), but I'm not necessarily recommending that you install hundreds of dollars in track to run a $50 train, at least at first.
About OperationsIf you stick with plastic track, you probably won't have any turnouts, so you won't be doing any "operations" besides having the train go around the track (or starting and stopping if you have a remote control). Still, most people who have expensive, name brand garden trains run them in circles most of the time, so don't feel too bad about that. If you have a start-stop mechanism, and you want to let the kids start and stop the train at the station, that will give them something to do instead of watching the train go in circles.
About SceneryIf you look at old toy train catalogs from companies like Lionel, you'll notice that no matter how toy-like the train was, it was always running on a railroad with realistic scenery that would have done credit to any "serious" model railroad. Lionel realized early on that realistic settings gave their trains "cred," at least in advertising.
If you have room, time, and inclination to create a true garden railroad, say with appropriate groundcovers, little trees, and water features, you'll discover that a more realistic and charming setting can give your toy trains a lot more "cred" than you might think.
For more information on how Hans-Werner painted and detailed the Playmobil vultures and cacti, click on the little picture to the right.
About AccessoriesOne thing that really gets most kids involved with model trains is a good set of accessories, such as buildings, little people, animals, street signs, etc., that they can arrange. Nearly all accessories that are made for garden trains will work with toy G-gauge trains as well - in fact they'll generally give your railroad a little more "believability," in addition to adding "play value." But you don't have to go with expensive, name-brand accessories. You can also use dime-store farm animal sets, bird feeders, etc. to provide your trains with communities to serve.
Sadly, most stations and other accessories that come with toy "G-gauge" trains are O scale or smaller, and they won't last long outside unless you paint them with 'outdoor paint.' (Click here for an article on Painting Plastic Structures..
The good news (around Christmas) is that most Lemax-brand figures are about the right size for your trains (I always stock up at after-Christmas sales, trying to find the ones that aren't dressed for a snowstorm.)
For more tips about obtaining accessories and figures that don't cost more than your train, check out the "Use Your Imagination" section of our "Garden Railroading on a Shoe-String" article.
About Storage and SchleppingBecause you can't leave your trains outside, consider finding a dry, reasonably temperate place to store them and a good way to schlep them in and out. For the Large Scale trains I schlep in and out, I often take them out of the boxes, roll them in fine bubblewrap or soft dishtowels, and store them in those clear 56-quart storage containers. I can take a whole (small) train in and out in one lightweight container, and it only takes me a couple minutes to get them on or off of the track.
About BatteriesFor trains powered by D or C cells, I would consider investing in a battery charger and a bunch of rechargeables. If you can store that near where you store the trains, you'll be more likely to remember to charge the batteries in between running sessions. NiMH batteries (the kind they use in digital cameras now) are much more expensive than the old Ni-Cad batteries, but your trains WILL run better and longer with them. Ni-Cads will work if you get a deal on them, though. Just be sure to use the appropriate charger - some Ni-Cad quick chargers will make NiMH batteries explode.
Some folks running this kind of train make "battery cars" by putting a battery pack into a boxcar or something. Then they figure out a plug-and-wire system so they can just charge one unit (and have one in reserve) to run all of their trains. If you do this with the Bachmann, I would recommend adding weight to the locomotive - without batteries it is almost too light to stay on the track.
Dave Knoch has rewired an AristoCraft 4-wheeled "Critter" diesel locomotive to run on battery power, and he uses it to pull his New Bright and EZ-tec cars.
Because these are made of the same injection-molded plastic as the "real" model trains use, they can be painted and reworked just like a model train. In some cases, like Malcom Furlow's New Bright set to the right, visitors would be hard-pressed to realize that the train passing them was a $50-$90 toy. Painting, weathering, and superdetailing topics are beyond the scope of this article, but they are most definitely not off-limits.
About Landscaping, Roadbed, Water Features, Building Lighting, etc.Once you get past the plastic track and the operation and control issues, all of the other aspects of garden railroading are essentially the same as they are for more expensive trains. This can be good or bad, depending on how good you are with a shovel. We have lots of articles you will find helpful, and most of them include hints for saving money when you make your decisions.
However you proceed, though, you'll notice that lumber, patio stones, and dirt cost the same whatever kinds of trains you are running.
About PhotographsSadly, I have yet to find many photographs of a well-established, attractive garden railroad using plastic track and battery-powered New Bright or similar trains. That's not to say that they don't exist. But folks running $50 trains often feel a little sheepish showing off their railroads in the same towns where folks are running $2000 trains. If you are running any of the trains on this page, send us some photos and I guarantee you'll encourage lots of other folks who are also either trying to get by on a shoestring or running these trains just because they get a "kick" out of it.
ConclusionI hope this article gives you some ideas and helps you start thinking about other ways to work around budget issues.
Do you have any new finds, techniques or recommendation you'd like to add to our information? If you do, especially if you can come up with how-to descriptions and photos, please get in touch. I'd love to post them here.
Here are other articles with tips and tricks about running battery-powered toy trains outside.
Lionel's Battery-Powered Holiday Trains: If you're thinking about setting up trains for a holiday display, you should find this overview of Lionel's battery-powered holiday trains helpful.
Reader FeedbackSome of the notes below were actually received while I was still working on this article, but I included them to show the different approaches and interests people have for these trains. Again, please get in touch if you have any suggestions or questions for any of our other contributors.
Dave Knoch (from California) writes:
I would REALLY like a section devoted to both aluminum and plastic track and simple methods to convert inexpensive small engines to battery power. I have converted about 5 engines so far (rather crudely, since I am not an electronics guy--far from it), and they all ran. I would be happy to put in my two cents worth, if it would help. I agree that aluminum track (which I have finally converted to) has the BIG advantage of wider radius curves, altho a lot of us who have a limited budget also have a limited amount of space to work with, so sometimes we have to settle for very tight curves. One BIG advantage of most plastic track systems is the way each piece locks together with the next one. This usually works better than rail joiners. Combining plastic with aluminum or brass is also an option, which I had to do in order to have a crossing on my layout. It is not difficult to tie the two together, and even different brands of plastic track can be linked together by making a special piece which puts one type of track on one end and the other on the other, with the two spliced together and mounted on something like bender board to keep it all lined up.
I do recommend using an inexpensive Aristocraft (or similar) engine at the front end, followed by a battery box car, rather than trying to make do with the very inexpensive engines that come in the $29 sets. Give those to the grandkids! (But let them run them on your layout!) . . . I used plastic track for more than ten years in California weather, never painted it, and most of it is still quite usable. It greys a little, but that only makes it look more realistic.
Incidentally, I noted that this Christmas (2007), Newbright was again selling their inexpensive $34 sets, battery operated, with quite a generous amount of track. If a person is REALLY on a tight budget, you can build quite an empire for very little money. I do recommend getting a little more durable engine to pull your Newbright cars. I use Aristocraft's Lil Critter and it looks small enough.
Dave, in Reading, Pennsylvania, writes:
I picked up three sets at flea markets over the summer. I paid $5 for one box of Scientific toys, $10 for a complete New Bright with Sounds, and $15 for a complete Scientific with Remote. I ended up with 3 engines, 3 caboose, Cabeese ?, 3 Gondolas, and 3 boxcars plus lots of plastic track.
First I found out that New Bright and Scientic Toys Track are not compatible, the joiner is on the oposite side. I felt the New Bright was inferior though it did have chuff, Whistle, Bell, and All Aboard sounds. Corny but the kids and cat love it.
I sold the New Bright and track and caboose on E-bay for enough that the Scientific Toys were essentially free. I will weight, repaint, weather, and probably add a 9 volt rechargable cell to the tender. This will keep my "G" gauge Jones under control until I see if it's for me. If it is, then I'll probably go Hartland. With the sale of the New Bright I essentially have nothing in this but time. The Scientific runs better and seems more substantial than the New Bright. . . . Like someone else said, for now I'm having fun, and have very little invested into it. Thanks for the forum and this thread.
Chris Walas writes:
While the weights really do make a huge difference in keeping the Scientific Toys Mogul on track, I've found (in my experience) that it's more important to take the flange off the center driver. The ST mechanism doesn't have the side to side play that better three axle drives have and on the tight radius plastic track, there's a lot of stress on the chassis, which pushes the front driver to walk over the outside rail. It's easy to take down the flange; turn the loco upside down and turn it on. Simply apply a file to the flange and wait till it's even with the rest of the wheel (i.e. track level) or use a Dremel sanding disc if you're in a hurry. As long as the wheels are turning, it's relatively easy to get an even result. I've done this on four or five of these locos and it works better than adding weight (IMHO). Hope this helps.
Mitchell K writes:
I was wondering if you could update the toy train garden railroad article with 2 newcomers to the hobby you havent discussed yet.
Good read about the Echo Toys rolling stock, l've fitted mine with standard Bachmann couplers, so they can run with my fleet of rather old-fashioned electric cars. These l've converted from Bachmann passenger cars. Power comes from overhead wires. My railway has to be indoors because of where l live, and fills a 20x20 foot room
[Note: River has sent me some photos of the traction cars that he converted from Bachmann coaches, and we hope to be able to put together an article on the subject. Stay tuned. - Paul]
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