|This page lists sturdy, kid-friendly garden trains you can use to get and keep the kids involved. This buyer's guide page is a supplement to the "Garden Train Store" buyer's guide and the article "Getting and Keeping the Kids Involved."
Kid-Friendly Trains - I have raised my children with trains, including toy trains, model trains that were sturdy enough to be handled by children, and "real" model trains. Every year since my kids went off to college, I've had "open railroads," where I ran my "big trains" for the "big people" and set up multiple "kid-friendly" trains for visiting children to run. So I have a pretty good idea what will work and what won't.
Garden-Friendly Trains - These trains can be used indoors or out. Most of them are made by companies that build trains to be used outside in garden railroads. If you don't know what Garden Railroading is, my article "Go Outside and Run Your Trains," on the Family Garden Trains Primer page will give you some idea. That said, these trains also look good indoors (if you can spare the room) or around the Christmas tree.
Update for August, 2013 - So many of the trains I once listed here have become unavailable that I got ridiculously behind on keeping the page updated last year. For that I apologize, but it's a reminder that trains come and go, especially in a volatile economy, and just because I put up a description today doesn't mean you can count on getting them if you wait a month or three.
I have moved the descriptions for some of my favorite discontinued trains to the end of the article in case you come across one and wonder if it's worth bringing home. I've also added some "low end" battery-powered trains that will run on garden railroad track, in case you mostly want something for the kids or grandkids to run when they come over.
But the best news is that Bachmann, probably the world's largest model train manufacturer, has "filled the gap" with a garden train-quality line built just for kids, and a Thomas the Tank(r) line that will delight youngsters.
The big caveat is that some of these trains on this page in short supply already, and as the economy shows signs of improvement, I expect many of these trains to "jump off the shelves" this fall. So if you see a set you want, don't wait too long to order.
Note about Availability and Pricing: Although I try to keep an eye on things and to recommend products that are reasonably available, the model train market does fluctuate, and any product on this page may change price or become unavailable without prior notice. For more detailed information about why model and toy train products come and go so quickly, and why I have stopped listing prices for products, please see my article "About Pricing and Availability."
Note about Suppliers: While we try to help you get the products you want by recommending suppliers with a good record of customer service, all transactions between you and the supplier you chose to provide your trains or other purchases are governed by the published policies on the supplier's web site. So please print off any order confirmation screens and save copies of invoices, etc., so you can contact the appropriate supplier should any problems occur. (They almost never do, but you want to be on the safe side.)
Kids Trains from Bachmann
Bachmann's "Li'l Big Hauler" line and "Thomas and Friends"(r) line are less detailed and more rugged than their model train lines, as you would expect for kid-friendly trains. They run on any garden train track, with just about any DC model train power supply, so they're a great way to get started in garden railroading, or for giving the kids or grandkids something to run indoors or out. One caveat - these trains sit a little higher than LGB OR Bachmann Big Hauler trains - their coupler heights match Bachmann's top-line (1:20.3) trains. That won't cause most people any problems, since Thomas doesn't really look right pulling scale US-style 40' boxcars anyway.
The Bachmann Thomas and Friends(r) line is a little bigger, and slightly more detailed than the Li'l Big Hauler line, but the two trains are completely compatible. (They have the same coupler heights, run on the same track, use the same power supplies, etc.) So there's no reason not to get one set now and the other one later. Or you could buy Li'l Big Hauler cars to go behind Thomas. Or you could buy one set for each kid if you have multiple children. :-)
Bachmann's Thomas with Annie and Clarabel - Bachmann's Large Scale Thomas the Tank line is pretty solid and lots of fun. The four-wheeled Annie and Clarabel coaches are also easier for kids to put on the track than most trains.
Years ago, a similar Large Scale Thomas the Tank line was made by Lionel. They were nice solid little trains, too, so don't rule them out if you come across one.
Our article Thomas the Tank Shootout reviews both sets and describes the differences.
Bachmann's Percy with the Troublesome Trucks - Bachmann's Percy is an excellent companion for Thomas. The Troublesome Trucks are actually no trouble at all, and kids enjoy putting stuff in and taking it out of them.
Their 4-wheeled format also makes them easier for kids to put on and take off of the track.
By the way, this is the only Large Scale Percy ever made. So even if you have the Lionel Thomas and James, you need this locomotive. :-)
Li'l Big Hauler Short Line Train - Bachmann's Li'l Big Hauler Short Line train includes a kid-friendly locomotive and two "shortie" passenger cars. No, they don't have a lot of little pieces for kids to break off, but they look pretty charming circling a kids' bedroom floor, a Christmas tree, or a pond. If you are interested at all in garden railroading, and you want the kids to have a train they can run outside (or inside) without having to supervise too much, this is the line to consider.
Li'l Big Hauler Short Line Train - Bachmann's Li'l Big Hauler freight train includes a kid-friendly "tank" locomotive, two "shortie" freight cars and a "shortie" caboose. Like the passenger train above,
they don't have a lot of little pieces for kids to break off, but they are charming and loads of fun for (dare I say it) - kids of all ages.
Battery Powered Alternatives
Every autumn, cheap, battery powered toy trains hit the stores, trying to snag folks who want a train around their tree at Christmas, but who don't want to spend "real money" on a train. (There are few folks alive today who remember that during the heyday of Lionel and American Flyer, a "starter" train set cost as much as a stove or refrigerator). If I had a dollar for every person whose kids tore up or wore out a $50 or $100 set, then told me that they "tried trains" once and it "didn't work out," I'd have a retirement home in Barbados by now. Well maybe Nags' Head. (This is right up there with the folks who buy their kid an unplayable $50 guitar then say "I told you so" when the kid gives up after a week.)
The sets in this list are toys, but they're made by actual toy companies. If they're used properly, they will last until you can trust your kids with "real trains." The big caveats are:
- Show kids the proper way to play with trains. Have them set up Duplo or Kleenex-box stations and industries for the trains to serve. Explain that staging train wrecks is not appropriate.*
- Buy fresh Alkaline batteries when you buy the trains, even if they say they come with batteries. Those batteries probably went into the box in China a year ago - don't press your luck on Christmas morning.
Discontinued, but Great for Kids
The following section lists kid-friendly trains big enough for garden railroads that have been discontinued. Sadly, I don't have any access to these, or know anyone who does, but I wanted you to be aware of them in case you stumble across them.
Lehmann Toy Trains - Lehmann is the German toy company that created LGB trains, the trains that resurrected Garden Railroading as a worldwide hobby a few decades back. In 2002, Lehmann introduced the "Toy Train" line to identify sets that are specifically targeted to young people. Then the company fell on hard times. The Toy Train line was more-or-less discontinued by 2005, and the company has fallen on very hard times since. So I don't know if the Toy Train line will ever be reintroduced. If you come across one, you should know that the labels claimed that Lehmann Toy Trains are safe for Ages 6 and up. However, if you plan on putting the track together, putting the trains on the track, and plugging the electrical control in, children younger than six can operate the train successfully with minimal supervision.
Occasionally a Lehmann locomotive will turn up by itself. Most small Lehmann locomotives are useful for children 8 and up.
Back in 1988, PlaySkool made a very solid child's train that was battery powered, and had a nice figure-eight track setup. Best of all, the train itself would run on Large Scale (45mm) track, although it wouldn't run over turnouts (switches), rerailers, or crossovers. So at open houses, I can put it on a simple garden railroad, let the kid hit the switch (on the smokestack) and let-er-rip around the track, without worrying about little kids doing any damage to a model. Unfortunately it is out of production now, but if you see one at a garage sale, it's the perfect "bridge" from kiddie toy trains to Large Scale trains.
Lionel once made Large Scale Thomas and James sets and a few other pieces to go along with them. Thomas and his Large Scale Friends negotiated ordinary garden railroads just fine. Many folks who still have them use them for "kids's layouts" at open houses.
Bachmann's set is similar and still made, so it has an advantage, but don't rule one of these out if you come across it. Our article Thomas the Tank Shootout reviews both sets and describes the differences.
AristoCraft used to make a diesel set called the "critter" that was very sturdy. For a while they included a radio remote control in the sets so that once someone "big" set things up, little people didn't have to touch anything with wires. I have a Christmas-themed Critter that I run every year, and I would recommend them to anyone looking for a sturdy, realistic train that, say, eight-year-olds on up could run with no problems.
AristoCraft's most "kid-friendly" product was probably the "Eggliner." These were little oval-shaped locomotives that looked like tiny passenger cars moving under their own power. Some were in "normal" railroad paint colors; others were just for fun, like the ladybug version shown here. There is amost nothing breakable on these, and they are very solid. Again, if you see one, and you're wondering if your kids would like it - they would. So will you.
Although I've recommended specific products, and I do urge you not to confuse flimsy seasonal toys with well-made trains from reputable manufacturers, the big "takeaway" should be that there are any number of ways to help your kids get involved with toy, model, and garden trains, and several products that are designed specifically for that purpose.
The real value of trains, of course, is a reason to spend quality, creative time with your kids. Make tunnels out of cardboard boxes. Set up communites for the trains to serve, using their play sets, or buildings you buy or make. Let them arrange the little people and accessories. Sadly, a train set in a dust-covered box under the bed is no more use or fun than a dust-covered catcher's mitt forgotten on the shelf. But a train set that is played with and shared by the whole family, can offer the best kind of creative play, the kind that stimulates imaginations.
Please contact us if you have any questions or corrections or would like to add any tips, tricks, suggestions, or recommendations.
* Okay, I have to share this. When my kids were little, a family with kids the same ages came to visit. Our kids got our first, battery-powered Big Hauler out to set up and run, along with the Fisher Price and PlaySkool play sets, and my antique Matchbox cars that my kids used to set up communities for the train to serve. To my kids, the cars were for arranging on the railroad, or for pushing around when someone else was running the train, so I never minded them getting out the rare, old-timey ones I had collected as a kid. After the "big people" had visited for a spell, I went to check on the kids, only to find out that, to our friends' children, the appropriate way to play with collectible toy cars and model trains was to have a breakage contest. It went like this - they would drop the cars from three feet up onto the moving train and see who could get the most pieces to break off. Whether the pieces broke off of the train or the car was inconsequential - whoever got the most pieces to break off won. Needless to say, I stopped the contest, even though a couple of the kids whined that they hadn't had a "turn" yet. Fortunately, in spite of their best efforts, the kids hadn't done any irreparable damage. But it's a reminder that you can't assume that kids new to trains will automatically know how to play with them. (I've even had adults who remembered The Addams Family ask me why I didn't deliberately stage train wrecks or explosions, so I guess ignorance has no age limit.)