Garden Trains for Kids
This buyer's guide lists sturdy, kid-friendly garden trains you can use to get and keep the kids involved. It 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 - Most of the trains on this page can be used inside or out. That said, they also look good indoors (if you can spare the room) or around the Christmas tree.
Update for 2014 - Last year, I had to completely revise this page because so many of my favorite kids trains were discontinued. But the good news was that Bachmann, probably the world's largest model train manufacturer, "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 really good news is that most of the piece I posted last year are still available.
Of all the trains on this page, I recommend Bachmann's Li'l Big Haulers as the best investment in your kids' or grandkids' love of trains. That's why I listed most of the individual add-on pieces I could find.
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 stopped listing prices for products long ago, 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 freight 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.
Note: - Years ago, a similar Large Scale Thomas the Tank line was made by Lionel. They were nice solid trains, too, so don't rule them out if you come across one. (Our article Thomas the Tank Shootout compares the Lionel and Bachmann versions.)
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 it relatively easy for kids to put cars on the track.
By the way, this is the only Large Scale Percy ever made. So even if you already have the Lionel Thomas and James, you still need this train. :-)
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 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. (Frankly, a lot of adults have bought this train for their own use, too, but I'm not supposed to know that.)
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.
Li'l Big Hauler Add-ons - To make their Li'l Big Hauler line as useful and flexible as possible for families, Bachmann offers individual cars and locomotives you can use to expand your kids' empire or to add a few kid-friendly pieces to any garden railroad. I'm listing the ones that are reasonably available as of August, 2013, with the caveat that these have been made in fairly small "runs," and that a number are already in short supply - especially the coaches. Seems like lots of folks who buy the passenger trains want to have two to four passenger cars, but don't see the need for more than one baggage car, so the coaches in every color are selling very fast, hint, hint.
Update for September, 2015 - Nearly every product shown below is out of stock most places. I said last year that demand would be high, but that was apparently an understatement. I'm leaving these online because I hope that Bachmann takes the hint and orders another boatload of them. In the meantime, I apologize for any inconvenience.
Lots of the "play value" with trains involves setting things up, moving things around, giving the trains reasons to stop and start, and so on. From time to time, companies that make garden trains have made kid-friendly buildings and accessories. I have posted those here in the past, and will try to post them again if they become available. But most of the most appropriate sets I can find are by Playmobil, a European toy company. Playmobil has made many buildings over the years that go very well with Large Scale trains. (In fact the first Playmobil train set was made by Lehmann, the manufacturers of LGB.) And Playmobil's sets offer fantastic play value in conjunction with any train on this page. That said, Playmobil sets come and go like any others. So if you see a set you think your kids would like to use with their train, don't wait too long.
Note: Playmobil's little people and many of their accessories can easily be pulled apart and the pieces swallowed. For that reason, keep all Playmobil out of the reach of kids under 4. In the US they'd probably say under 6, but Europeans are less likely to sue companies for dumb stuff their five-year-olds swallow than Americans.
I used to list several Playmobil sets, but some of my favorites have become nearly impossible to find. I've left the Amazon link for the Western Town set up (below) because it's a good starting point.
For about a decade, Lionel made battery-powered toys that will run on Large Scale track, so they were marketing them as Large Scale trains. They were toys, not model trains, although I found them useful for things like setting up temporary railroads where visiting children could run the trains.
For a review of these trains, click here. As the review says, they were fun, even though they are almost 100% plastic and much smaller than the electric trains on this page. Unfortunately, when Lionel discontinued production, certain "scalpers" bought up a lot of remaining stock and started selling them for 3-5 times what they sold for in stores. So if you see a battery-powered "Large Scale" or "G Gauge" Lionel train listed for more than, say, $80, don't waste your money.
Conversion to 2" Track - Lionel has now changed the line over from running on 45mm track (about 1 3/4") to 2" track. They are essentially the same trains I reviewed and own, but nobody else makes track for them, so you're stuck with the chintzy track that comes in the box or paying ridiculous amounts for add-on pieces. That said, they are a good value if all you want is a single train set to run around the tree or for the kids to play with in the basement.
If you order a set, be sure and pick up some extra alkaline batteries. Six alkaline C cells run the train (get 12). That said, these trains have great play value for youngsters and are far better made than most plastic toy trains. In fact, the price of plastic toys has gone up so much in 2018, it's hard to find an $80-$120 toy that will provide as much value or hold up better than these.
The Thomas the Tank set is especially worth noting - it's a kid-friendly alternative to G gauge or O gauge sets that cost several times as much and - in the case of the O gauge set - have more breakable pieces.
The following links show the most popular versions of these as of December, 2018.
Lionel has introduced several more Ready-to-Play sets in smaller batches, so they come and go quickly. If you want to see what else is available, including a diesel passenger set, click on the button.
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, resurrecting 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. 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 how long it will be before the Toy Train line is resurrected. In the meantime, 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.
By the way, the original Playmobil train was very similar to this line, and I give it the same recommendation. Be sure you're getting the set with the brass track, though.
Occasionally a Lehmann locomotive will turn up by itself. They aren't all as kid-friendly as the Lehmann Toy Train, but they are well-made and very useful for children 8 and up.
Back in 1988, PlaySkool made a very solid child's train that was battery powered, and had a 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 railroads and club displays.
Bachmann's Thomas set (above) is similar and still made, so it has an advantage, but don't rule out one of the Lionel Large Scale Thomas or James sets if you come across it. Our article Thomas the Tank Shootout reviews both sets and describes the differences between the Bachmann and Lionel versions.
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. Update for 2014 - although AristoCraft went out of business in late 2013, the family members that inherited some of the product lines still have some Eggliners available. They're not cheap, but they are fun. Take a look here for more information.
Honorable mention goes to "Toots the Train," Fisher Price's 1999 parallel to the very useful PlaySkool Express (above). I don't give full points because the track could only go together one way, taking away the fun of making your own railroad layout. Plus the wheels are too wide to work on G gauge track OR on the PlaySkool track, so you are stuck with the original configuration. It does have a lot of interactive functions and makes all kinds of racket, if that counts for anything.
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. Again, our article on Getting and Keeping the Kids Involved will give you some useful tips.
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 - even the ones that were worth "real money." 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 wouldn't deliberately destroy my trains with staged wrecks or explosions, so I guess ignorance has no age limit.)