Electric trains have captivated children and adults alike since 1896 when Carlisle and Finch developed the world’s first electric-powered train designed to run on a metal track. These beautiful electric trains are far more than just toys; for collectors, they are a creative outlet and an expression of the imagination. Below, you can learn more about the top 50 electric train starter sets along with some history of these amazing collectors’ items.
A Brief History of Electric Trains
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The very first model trains that were developed for the mass market were created by a company called Marklin in Germany in 1891. A few years later, Carlisle and Finch released their electric version, which ran by itself on a metal track and captured the hearts of people around the world. Lionel, which remains one of the biggest and most popular names in the electric train market to this day, released its first offering in 1901.
The 1920s were considered the “Golden Age” for model trains because the technology and creativity used by the manufacturers exploded. By 1930, these manufacturers had created a diverse line of products, so they began to accessorize. The first HO and O scales were introduced in the 1930s, which added brand-new novelty to the hobby. Unfortunately, due to supply shortages during WWII, model train production halted completely between 1942 and 1945, but resumed again afterward. In fact, by 1950, model trains were the top-requested toy among boys.
By the mid-1950s, plastic had replaced metal as the primary component for electric trains, which made them more affordable and lighter than their metal counterparts. The N, G, and Z scale trains were introduced in the 1960s and 1970s, and the 1980s brought digital control systems and realistic sounds, which drove even more interest in the hobby. Today, there are more than half a million model train collectors in the United States and Canada alone, and there are several million around the world.
The Best Electric Train Starter Sets
When buying electric train starter sets, the main factors people consider are quality, price, scale, and selection. We can break down the 50 best electric train starters sets by scale.
A Z-Scale electric train has a scale-to-foot ratio of 1/220, and there are three major manufacturers that sell them. Of these three, American Z Line and Marklin, a German brand, offer starter sets.
American Z Line
American Z Line offers an extensive selection of electric train sets that include locomotives, freight trains, heavyweight and lightweight passenger trains, name trains, Amtrak passenger trains, cabooses, and more. Some of their most popular starter sets include the following.
- ATSF EMD GP7 Starter Package – This package comes with the ATSF EMD GP7 locomotive, three freight cars, a Rokuhan R028 track oval, a Rokuhan RC02 controller, and a Rokuhan A002 rerailing ramp.
- AZL Southern Pacific 2-Train Operation Set – This massive package comes with everything you need to set up a two-train Southern Pacific set, including (but not limited to) items like the gondola, beer car, 2-bay hopper, C-30-5 caboose, and tracks. It also comes with an Archistories interlocking yard tower kit, which allows you to build a tower with two different configurations based on your preferences.
- C&O EMD GP7 Starter Package – This C&O kit includes the GP7 locomotive, three freight cars, and the Rokuhan track oval, controller, and rerailing ramp.
Marklin is another huge provider of Z-Scale electric trains, and while their catalog is not quite as extensive as American Z Line, their products are known for quality.
- Freight Train Starter Set – This set comes with a German Federal Railroad (DB) class 89b steam locomotive, a DB low side car with a tarp, and a boxcar along with an oval track, a controller, and a power supply. It is a very simple set at an extremely competitive price.
- Christmas Starter Set – Marklin’s Christmas starter set comes with a steam locomotive, a boxcar, a gondola, a passenger car, and some miniature Christmas-themed accessories along with the track, controller, and power supply.
- Museum Passenger Train Starter Set – The Museum Passenger Train Starter Set is a little on the pricier side, but it is a slightly larger set that comes with the museum steam locomotive, a baggage car, a corridor car, a first/second class car, and a refreshment car. These trains are exact models of their real-life counterparts, and they include the track, controller, and power supply to get you started.
- MHI Anniversary Starter Set – The priciest of all of Marklin’s starter sets, the Anniversary Starter Set is an exclusive offering that includes a class 216 diesel locomotive, baggage car, first-class compartment car, and second class compartment car in the “Pop” colors that were common in Era IV. As with the other sets, an oval track, controller, and power supply are included.
N-Scale trains are some of the most popular electric trains on the market today, and they have a scale-to-foot ratio of 1/160. There are numerous manufacturers that sell them, but not all of them offer starter sets that include everything you need to get your train up and running. Some of the best N-Scale starter sets are listed below.
Bachmann offers DCC sound-equipped train sets as well as standard electric train sets in the N-Scale models.
- Roaring Rails with Digital Sound – This is a digitally-controlled electric train set including a DCC sound-equipped EMD GP40 diesel locomotive with a working headlight. It also includes a boxcar, gondola, and wide-vision caboose along with the E-Z Command® Control Center, couplers, track, and an illustrated instruction manual that makes it easy for even first-time enthusiasts to get started.
- Whistle-Stop Special with Digital Sound – The Whistle-Stop Special is popular because of its true-to-life whistle blast. It comes with a DCC sound-equipped 4-6-0 steam locomotive with a tender and working headlight, boxcar, single-dome tank car, and off-set cupola caboose, along with the control center, couplers, track, and illustrated instructions.
- Empire Builder – The Bachmann Empire Builder focuses on the early days of the American railroad system and its role in developing the nation’s wealth. The set comes with a 4-8-4 steam locomotive with a working headlight, wood reefer, single-dome tank car, center-flow hopper, plug-door boxcar, wood stock car, wood-braced gondola, open quad offset hopper, and offset cupola caboose. It also includes a 44” by 24” oval of track along with all telephone poles, railroad signs, and street signs. The kit is complete with the power supply, controller, and instruction manual.
- Thomas with Annie & Clarabel – For the littlest electric train enthusiast, this set based on the popular Thomas the Tank Engine™ series is one of Bachmann’s most popular offerings. It comes with Thomas the Tank Engine, Annie and Clarabel coaches (with the knuckle couplers), a 24” circle of track, a power pack, and a controller.
- The Stallion – The Stallion is another beautiful electric train set that is perfect for beginners! It comes with an F7-A diesel locomotive with a functional headlight, gondola, single-dome tank car, wide-vision caboose, 24” circle of track, power pack, controller, and instruction manual.
- Merry Christmas Express – There’s no better way to celebrate the holidays than with the Merry Christmas Express electric train starter set. This one features a USRA 0-6-0 locomotive with a tender, boxcar, hopper, bobber caboose, 24” circular track, power pack, and controller. The red and green color scheme along with the words “Merry Christmas” and a big yellow bow make this the most festive electric train out there!
- Durango & Silverton – The Durango and Silverton line was originally designed to be a mining line, but the scenery was so beautiful that it was later converted into a passenger line. It’s still in operation today! This set comes with an 0-6-0 locomotive and tender, an old-time combine, two old-time coaches, a 34” by 24” oval track, controller, power supply, and a detailed instruction manual.
Kato’s selection of electric train sets is relatively small, especially in the N-Scale. However, they do provide two very popular train sets that are easy to upgrade as you collect more bits and pieces.
- Silver Streak Zephyr – The Silver Streak Zephyr set includes the E5A Silver Bullet locomotive, the Silver Sheen baggage car, the Silver Light baggage car, the Silver Gleam coach, the Silver Glow coach, and the Silver Spirit observation car. Unlike the other sets on this list, Kato does not include tracks, controllers, and power supplies, but their electric train sets are still great for beginners who want to take a build-your-own approach.
- Operation North Pole Sets – Kato’s Operation North Pole sets once again come only with the trains, but tracks, controllers, and power supplies can all be purchased separately or in bundles. These sets are part of Operation North Pole, a charity designed for children in need. Each year’s sets are slightly different, so be sure to choose your favorite.
Trix is a lesser-known brand, but they do offer a few affordable starter sets that can help you get the feel for electric trains.
- DB Freight Train Starter Set – This classic freight train set comes with a 216 diesel in crimson red paint, a flat car with two containers, and a German Federal Railroad refrigerated car. It comes with a controller and powerpack along with an oval track to get you started.
- DB AG Electric Freight Train Digital Starter Set – This set is another prototype of the German Railroad and features a class 185.2 electric locomotive, a Rils sliding tarp car, and a Res flat car. It offers operational headlights, four-axle power, close coupler mechanisms, and the power supply, controller, and track you need to set it up right out of the box.
- Oceanogate Class 483 Freight Train Starter Set – Fans of the Oceanogate locomotive will love this set, which includes the class 483 locomotive itself along with a flat car and sliding tarp car, all of which are fully functional. Like the other Minitrix sets, it comes with everything you need to get rolling right out of the box.
- SBB COOP Freight Train Digital Starter Set – Swiss Federal Railways have unique trains, and the COOP trains from 2015 are iconic. In this set, you’ll get the locomotive and the container transport cars that are loaded with refrigerated containers. It comes with the track, controller, and power supply, as well.
- GYSEV Freight Train Starter Set – The GYSEV multi-system electric train set comes with the amazingly painted locomotive, a flat car, and a sliding tarp car along with the track, controller, and power supply.
- DB AG Regional Express Starter Set – Fans of passenger trains will love the bright red DB AG Regional Express set! It comes with the diesel-electric road engine and two bi-level cars to mimic the way these trains looked in 2013. Everything you need is inside the box.
O-Scale electric trains are even larger than the S-Scale models, and they come in with a scale-to-foot ratio of 1/48.
Lionel is well-known for its huge selection of O-Scale electric trains, and they offer dozens of starter sets to suit every taste, whether you like zombies or classic rail lines.
- Silver Bells Remote Control System Set – This is everything you need for a classic Christmas-themed remote control electric train set. It has a 2-4-2 locomotive with tender, a gondola with bells, a double-door boxcar, a caboose, plenty of track sections to get you going, a power supply, and a remote. It’s perfect for giving as a Christmas gift or for setting up as a holiday decoration.
- Pet Shop Express Set – The Pet Shop Express train set is designed for little ones who love pampering and grooming their pets. It features a diesel switcher, boxcar, gondola, bobber caboose, track pieces, power supply, and remote, and it’s painted in a cute purple, pink, and light blue color scheme to make your little one smile.
- Zombie Apocalypse GP-38 Lionchief™ Set – This set is a fantastic gift for anyone who’s into zombie apocalypse! Its unique paint job and user-activated alien sounds make this set frightening and fun. It comes with a GP38 diesel locomotive, transparent stock car, flatcar with a helicopter, flatcar with a water tank, security caboose, track, power supply, remote, and a pack of zombies and military figures for good measure.
- Amtrak FT Passenger Set – Amtrak electric trains continue to grow in popularity all across the United States, and this Amtrak FT Passenger Set is one of the best starter sets out there. It comes with the classic FT diesel locomotive that you know and love alongside two coach cars, an observation car, a mix of curved and straight track pieces, a power supply, and a locomotive remote.
- Hogwarts Lionchief™ Set – Harry Potter fans will love this ready-to-run set that includes a 4-6-0 steam locomotive and tender, two passenger coaches, a combination car, a large oval track, a power supply, and a specially-designed Lionchief™ remote for the locomotive. The locomotive features chuffing sounds in sync with puffing smoke, interior lighting, an operational headlight, and horn, bell, and whistle sounds!
- Lionel Junction Pennsylvania Diesel Set – This is a classic Pennsylvania diesel switcher set that comes with everything you need to set up and start rolling. It includes the diesel switcher, a boxcar, a gondola, a bobber caboose, several curved track pieces, a power supply, and a remote for the locomotive.
- BNSF Tier 4 Set – If you prefer electric trains that look like the real deal, it’s hard to go wrong with the BNSF Tier 4 set. It includes the classic diesel locomotive, unibody tank car, Burlington Northern hi-cube boxcar, BNSF maxi-stack, track sections, a power supply, and a remote. The locomotive boasts an operating directional headlight, operating couplers, and an illuminated cab interior to look just like the real locomotive!
- Rio Grande 0-4-0 Switcher Set – The D&RGW roars to life with this amazing and beautiful starter set from Lionel. You’ll get the 0-4-0 steam locomotive and tender, the gondola with containers, the boxcar, the caboose, and plenty of track pieces to get you started. It also comes with a power supply and remote, and it’s equipped with sound for a lifelike experience.
- Pocahontas Passenger Set – One of Lionel’s Legacy trains, the Pocahontas Passenger Set comes with the J-class locomotive and tender, a combination baggage and chair car, two coaches, and an observation car. You’ll also get everything you need to run it right out of the box.
- Winter Wonderland – This set is another holiday-themed set that boasts gorgeous white, green, and red paint. It comes with an 0-8-0 steam locomotive and tender, a Sleigh Bells & Co. boxcar, a Whimsical Winter Mix tank car, and a Winter Wonderland caboose! It has everything you need to run, including track, controller, and power supply.
- Union Pacific Flyer – Union Pacific is a popular name, and this starter set aims to please. It comes with the power supply, controller, and track you’ll need to run the 0-8-0 steam locomotive and tender, boxcar, tank car, and caboose – all painted with the Union Pacific name.
- Alaska Freight – The gorgeous blue and yellow Alaska Freight set boasts an Alaska GP38 diesel locomotive, a 4-bay covered hopper, a King Crab Aquarium car, a tank car, and a wide-vision caboose. It’s a fun set with unique appeal!
- Norfolk Southern Tier 4 – Norfolk Southern is another popular rail line that you can bring home to your hobby room today. It comes with the Norfolk Southern ET44C4 diesel locomotive, hi-cube boxcar, TTX maxi-stack, and autorack along with the track, controller, and power supply.
- Pennsylvania Keystone – This set is a favorite among hobbyists, and Lionel recently upgraded it to include all of their latest technology. It comes with the Pennsylvania 0-8-0 steam locomotive and tender, boxcar, searchlight car, and caboose along with the track, controller, and power supply.
HO-Scale is also quite popular among collectors; it sits right in the middle in terms of size with a scale-to-foot ratio of 1/87. There are several brands that manufacture HO-Scale electric train sets, including Bachmann and Trix.
Bachmann offers several HO-Scale starter sets for electric train hobbyists and enthusiasts, and they are designed to be replicas of some of the world’s most iconic rail lines.
- The Chessie Special – Modeled after the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, this line ran through 10 states. The set includes the USRA 0-6-0 locomotive with tender, stock car, three-dome tank car, gondola, offset cupola caboose, track, controller, and power supply.
- The Chattanooga – It’s named after the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railroad and it comes with a full 155 pieces to recreate the atmosphere! You get the 0-6-0 steam locomotive, the plug-door boxcar, the open quad hopper, the single-dome tank car, and the offset cupola caboose. It also comes with miniature people, buildings, and other structures you need to bring the scene to life along with the controller, power supply, and track.
- Denali Express – Fans of the Alaskan wilderness are sure to love the Denali Express electric train set that features some of the most luxurious dome passenger cars ever made. You’ll get the EMD GP40 diesel locomotive, two Ultra-Dome passenger cars with lit interiors, couplers, track, controller, and power supply.
- McKinley Explorer – The McKinley explorer is another Alaskan train boasting special vista-dome cars. The set comes with the EMD GP40 locomotive, two of the iconic Colorado Railcare full-dome passenger cars (the largest dome cars ever made), and all the track you need to set it up out of the box. It comes with the controller and power supply, as well.
- North Pole Express – The North Pole Express is an excellent Christmas set that you’ll love to display for the holidays. It comes with a 2-6-2 steam locomotive with smoke, headlight, and tender, a heavyweight coach, a heavyweight observation car, and a large oval track. You’ll get the controller and power supply, too. The stunning blue color of the passenger cars will take your breath away!
- Norman Rockwell Freedom Train – Designed after Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms, this train is a sight to behold. It features an F7 diesel locomotive, a smooth-sided baggage car, a wide-vision caboose, an oval track, a controller, and a power supply.
- Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey™ Greatest Show on Earth Special – Fans of the circus can rejoice! This amazing electric train starter set comes with the F7-A diesel locomotive, the 85’ smooth side coach, the 85’ smooth side observation car, the powerpack, the controller, and the track. You’ll be rolling the circus into town in no time!
- Strike Force – Bachmann’s Strike Force electric train starter set comes in a beautiful tan and brown military camo theme and is ready to run right out of the box. It includes an EMG GP40 diesel locomotive, a flat car with crates, a center-depressed flat car with a camo missile, an offset cupola caboose, the power supply, the controller, and the oval track.
Trix is a company based in Denmark, and while they only offer one true HO-Scale set, it’s an amazing set that you won’t want to miss. It is estimated to be in stock during the 4th quarter of 2024, so keep your eyes out for it.
- The ICE 3 Powered Rail Car Train, Class 403 – Known as Railbow ICE, this bullet-style passenger train took the German Railroad by storm. The kit features the bullet locomotive, the end car, two transformer cars, and a dining car with working LED lights. There’s even an optional expansion kit!
Lionel is the most well-known manufacturer of S-Scale electric train sets, which have a 1/64 scale-to-foot ratio, and they offer some iconic options that are sure to please.
- Canadian Pacific Mixed Freight Set – This large set is ready to go out of the box. It includes the Canadian Pacific Baldwin Switcher, the classic CSX waffe-side boxcar, the American Flyer “Air Service” single dome tank car, the New Haven log dump car, and the Boston Federal Reserve Mint car. It comes with plenty of track to get you going and a transformer to control movement.
- Union Pacific Mixed Freight Set – This is another of Lionel’s conventional sets featuring a Union Pacific Baldwin Switcher and boxcar, a No. 22 scenery gravel 3-bay hopper with the load, a PRR gas unloading car, and a No. 23 “Artificial Coal” 3-bay hopper with the load. It also features plenty of track and everything you need to roll out of the box.