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How to buy a toy train

By Roger Carp | April 22, 2022

Do your research before buying a Lionel, American Flyer, Atlas, K-Line, MTH, Williams, or Weaver item

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Yellow diesel toy train set

How to buy a toy train is a subject I’m frequently asked about. My focus is on trains and accessories from the post-World War II era, but I venture into the prewar and modern periods, too. In the past 25 years, Atlas, K-Line, Lionel, MTH, Williams, Weaver, and others have produced locomotives and rolling stock that are highly collectible.

I’ve been buying toy trains for a long time – more than 30 years – to build a collection to display and operate. Many people have shared advice along the way, and I’ve picked up a few insights from experience. I hope my ideas will shed light on what can be a challenging experience and help you avoid disappointment and frustration.

Everyone will make a mistake or two and end up with a model that really isn’t what was expected or desired. The best thing to do is figure out what went wrong and learn from this. The best advice I can offer: Gather plenty of information and be patient.

What do you want?

Yellow diesel toy train set
What do you want to buy: A true star of Lionel’s golden anniversary year of 1950 and the train whose coloring reminded customers of the firm’s 50th year in business was set no. 1464W. This new O-27 outfit – known as the Anniversary Set – introduced an elegant pair of Alco diesels and included a trio of matching streamlined passenger cars in the Union Pacific’s Armour Yellow and Harbor Mist Gray paint scheme. Models courtesy of Joe Algozzini; photo by Bill Zuback

The first step of adding to a toy train collection is deciding what you want to acquire. For me, the desire is sparked by something cool and exciting I’ve seen in another collection or heard about in my position as senior editor at Classic Toy Trains magazine. Other times, my curiosity will be piqued by models I see while skimming through old catalogs and hobby publications like Model Builder, Electric Trains, or Toy Trains. Additionally, I pay close attention to what contemporary manufacturers are making and retailers are stocking.

There are some easy ways to keep abreast of what’s happening in our great hobby. One is to visit hobby stores near you. I make regular visits to ones near our offices, particularly  Sommerfeld’s Trains & Hobbies. Besides being lots of fun, visits to these shops provide lots of information about the latest and greatest locomotives, rolling stock, and sets.

Next, I study the advertisements in CTT by major retailers, notably Charles Ro Supply Co., Grzyboski’s Trains, Nicholas Smith Trains, Roundhouse South, and TrainWorld. If something listed catches my eye, I immediately head to their respective websites to learn more.

How do I learn more?

Once I set my sights on an item, I acquire as much information about it as I can: when it was cataloged; features it has so I can make sure they’re intact; and any variations of the model. The latter may relate to differences in paint and lettering or assembly.

Here are the places I look for details about items:

The Internet – Searches are easier if I have the manufacturer name, type of model, railroad name, and product number.

People in the hobby – I seek out authors or dealers who might have information to share about the pieces.

Lionel Pocket Price Guide cover, 2022 editionReference guides – The sources I trust most are the books put out by Greenberg Publishing in the 1980s and 1990s. They cover virtually every manufacturer from the prewar and postwar periods, along with Lionel for the first two decades of the so-called modern era (1970-present). More recently, Bruce Greenberg has finished comprehensive volumes focusing on Lionel Standard and O gauge trains from the prewar decades.

In addition, there are a number of books concentrating on toy train makers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries as well as contemporary ones, notably K-Line and MTH Electric Trains.

Pocket price guides – When dealing with American Flyer and other S gauge trains as well as Lionel Standard and O gauge pieces, I refer to the latest editions of their respective pocket price guides. I want to be sure that I pay a fair price for an item, and these guides provide a wealth of information based on the condition of the piece.

Once I have all the knowledge I can find and have jotted down notes about what I’ve learned, I can search for and ultimately find the next treasure in my collection. In theory, doing my homework should help me make intelligent buying decisions and avoid serious mistakes. Hopefully it will help you avoid some pitfalls, too!

One thought on “How to buy a toy train

  1. Thanks for the article on collecting model trains. I like the fact besides doing basic fact finding about trains you would like to add to your collection, you mentioned to be patient. Like you I have operated a relatively large O gage train layout and have added to my collection over the years. As an example of what you said, one of my favorite freight cars, the illuminated chicken car got badly damaged and I ended up scraping it but saved the base for future possible repairs to other cars. I badly wanted to replace that car. I checked the price in Greenburgs book on Lionel trains as my starting point. I checked with my local train stores but no one had that car. I also regularly attended train shows. At several train shows I saw that car but in most cases they were charging more than I thought the car was worth. However after going to shows several years I got lucky, a collector/ operator was selling the car I wanted and it was below what I felt it was worth. It was in good condition with only one small piece of the car missing that was so small that it did not hurt how the car looked. At that same show I saw two other people that had that car but were charging a much higher price and one was in worse condition than the one I bought. So do your research and be willing to wait to get the best deal, especially if you are a train operator more than a collector.

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