Monday, 13 September 2010

Who needs a train set ?

When I was a kid, I had a train set. I loved it, but it was fiddly and fragile (admittedly in part because it was an N-gauge set which is quite small scale). Another problem was that additional locomotives and coaches were really expensive. To hold the rails in place, my dad nailed some track down on a large wooden baseplate, and I spent many happy hours watching my 2 locomotives and 5-6 coaches going round in circles.

I was reminded of this when I recently took delivery of one of the new LEGO trains. Set 7939 Cargo Train is actually not just a cargo train at all - it's a complete LEGO train set in a box, consisting of a locomotive, 3 freight coaches and freight for them to carry, a cargo loading crane, an articulated lorry, and an oval of track plus 2 sets of points and extra track to make a couple of sidings.

Set 7939 Cargo Train - as good as a traditional train set ?

Critically, the set also contains a motor, an infra-red receiver and a remote control unit, so unless I'm missing something, the set basically contains everything and more than a similarly-priced 'proper' train set might contain. It got me wondering why anyone would actually buy a 'proper' traditional train set anymore. 

Some would argue that a major downside of LEGO trains versus a traditional train set is a lack of realism. The trains and rolling stock from a traditional train set certainly look a lot more like 'real' trains and rolling stock, as do the various trackside buildings that you can buy. There's also not much choice if you go down the LEGO route - I think that there are only three LEGO trains (7939 Cargo Train, 7938 Passenger Train and the magnificent 10194 Emerald Night Steam locomotive) and 2 dedicated trackside buildings (a station and a level crossing) currently available at retail, against literally hundreds from a company such as the much-loved Hornby who specialise in train sets. Even if you factor in the many retired LEGO trains, coaches and trackside buildings which can still be obtained via Ebay and Bricklink, a company like Hornby still offers more choice.

The beautiful LEGO Emerald Night locomotive and coach

The big upside of a LEGO train set is versatility, however. Once you get tired of playing trains, you can take the set apart and use the parts for something else, so it's unlikely to become obsolete. Someone once wrote that LEGO is the ultimate recyclable toy, and its certainly less likely to be left gathering dust somewhere than a traditional train set. The realism gap is also starting to close - just click on the picture of Emerald Night above and take a close look if you don't think LEGO trains can look authentic. I have to say I was astonished by the level of detail on this set, and the love that was lavished on it by the designer(s) is obvious. LEGO trains will never entirely match the level of realism that Hornby et al can offer, but the difference is nowhere near as glaring as it used to be.

When I was a kid, the LEGO trains looked much less realistic than they do now (although I did love my Set 171 Train Set without Motor......) and they couldn't be controlled remotely, so my traditional train set did the job much better. If I was a kid now, however, I suspect I might be tempted to choose a LEGO train set over a traditional set given the improved realism, ability to control the train remotely and the fact that it obviously integrates with other LEGO (both the pieces, of course, and also as a whole as part of a LEGO town). Perhaps therefore the LEGO organisation should consider working a bit harder to capture some of the traditional train set market, as their efforts in this area seem a bit half-hearted to me - relatively few products and little marketing spend. You can't even buy extra coaches or rolling stock as standalone items at present which is a major issue for enthusiasts. The LEGO train-related products that are available are great, but more choice really wouldn't go amiss...


  1. Anonymous20/12/11

    my son and I are both railfans and Lego fans. we have ho scale model trains and lego trains. i can say first hand that the attraction of model trains is the realism, the exact detail. At minifig scale, no MOC, no matter how good, will exactly replicate the prototype, ever. So if you're a 'rivet counter' to any extent the only way to satisfy that need for exactness is with scale models. But obsession is like that. Consider beer snobs - they taste subtleties that make a some beers great and others terrible, but the casual consumer figures 'all beer is the same'. And how about Lego purists; who would ever dare mix in 'Mega Bloks' with their Lego collection? :) Lego trains are great, but they do not meet all the needs of hardcore railfans.



  2. Fair comment, James - even sets like Emerald Night and the Santa Fe Super Chief can't compete when it comes to sheer realism, although for me the joy of actually building the trains and rolling stock and the sheer versatility of a LEGO layout wins out over the increased realism of a traditional train set.

    Have you seen the work of Carl Greatrix (bricktrix) ? His trains and layouts are about as realistic as LEGO gets - the guy's a genius ! You can find his Flickr stream at :