Tried & Tested: Just The Ticket

Trains really can run on time - in your living-room. We track down the most reliable sets for railway children

MOST MODEL train sets are on a one- way ticket to the attic, but some enthusiasts never run out of steam. You don't have to wear an anorak and camp out at Clapham Junction to appreciate a fine locomotive when you spot one, and you'll find introducing children to train sets the perfect excuse to reminisce about Thomas the Tank Engine.


If you're unfamiliar with train sets, you'll want to know which will provide the most entertainment. Ranging from simple push-along wooden carriages for infants to sophisticated metal miniatures for adult collectors, the prices of model railways and their myriad accessories vary greatly. The most expensive sets are not necessarily the ones which will retain their appeal longest. We tested starter sets aimed at toddlers through to teenagers, and found most hugely enjoyable.


The Gole family - father Vivek, mother Mala and son Arjun (four) led our panel of testers, being "mad keen" model railway enthusiasts and the owners of many sets. Other participating families included the Greenbergs, Matthew and Helen with Oliver (seven) and Anna (four); Pip Hanson and her son Cassidy (three-and-a-quarter); Jane Sykes with Jessica (four) and Matthew (seven), and their friend Pascoe Lintell (11).


pounds 109.99; ages 7 to 12

With all the fun of building the carriages before you even start to play with the set, this was a firm favourite with the older children (though most of their mothers' hearts sank at the prospect). It took Pascoe Lintell, Matthew Sykes and Matthew Greenberg "about six man-hours" to construct the train from thousands of tiny Lego pieces. Matthew Greenberg disagreed with Pascoe that the Lego pieces should be sorted into different bags according to which vehicle they are for. "Looking for them is half the fun," he insisted. There's no denying how impressive the set is once up and running. It is astonishingly detailed: in addition to two dining cars and many little passengers, there is a mail carriage with a slot for tiny letters and a safe containing minuscule banknotes. "It's very well made," said Matthew Greenberg, "but I think the minimal amount of track provided is a bit of a swizz. If they told you on the box how little you get, you'd buy some more to assemble it." Most importantly, the Lego train was rock solid on its rails, whizzing round at high speeds with-out falling off - until the boys decided to throw something onto the line to achieve the desired crash.


pounds 40; age 3 plus

Manufactured by the company famed for its serious model railways, this starter set comes with a picture mat, an oval of fine metal track and four well-made vehicles. Arjun Gole was thrilled by it, even though his house is full of similar sets. A locomotive pulls the carriages, all coupled by a series of very delicate hooks which frequent-ly became dislocated. "This set is great and the kids loved it," said Jane Sykes, "but it's just too fragile. It's frustrating to have so many derailments - you put the track on a board and you end up moving the whole thing into the loft." In a "race" against the Lego set, the Hornby derailed frequently. The set best suits a patient, enthusiastic child, "one who has learned to share," remarked Pip Hanson, "because only one kid can work the controls at a time and they squabble over them."


pounds 14.99; age 3 plus

The simplest and cheapest of the sets,Woolworth's own-brand wooden push-along train set was voted the overall winner because of its low price and universal appeal. Like the Supertrack version, it reminded parents of the well-known Brio sets which, as Helen Greenberg pointed out, "are really expensive but much the same". The carriages are coupled by magnets and even the youngest children could build the figure-of-eight track with its central bridge and tunnel, as pictured on the box. Primitive wooden trees, signs and animals are also supplied; these were deemed "a waste of time" by some of the children, but others played happily with them and were quick to find other toys to complete the landscape. The set's main "drawback" - no power - was acknowledged as an advantage by the mothers. "We've never bought an electric engine, and the kids have played with these wooden sets for years. It's all in their imagination," said Helen Greenberg. Mala Gole agreed: "These are classics which they get out time and again, and as you always construct a different-shaped track, it always seems novel." By way of demonstration, the children stole track from another, electrified set to build an undulating track in the shape of a flower. "You need junctions as well," complained Oliver Greenberg, "otherwise you can only go round and round."


pounds 149.99; age 5 plus

The biggest and most expensive train set tested was from the Playmobil stable, whose flexible human figures generally captivate children. It has been heavily advertised on children's television, as Oliver Greenberg pointed out, but he had to admit that the set "isn't as great as it looks on the telly". Two large, bullet-style locomotives slot lightly onto a flat engine, which is powered by a rechargeable battery. There are two problems with this arrangement: frequent derailments because the whole train, as Cassidy Hanson pointed out, "is a bit wobbly," and frequent loss of power, despite charging up the battery overnight. Could this be a general problem? The Goles witnessed the same phenomenon during a demonstration in a toy store. Ironically, despite the appeal of the large track, which is virtually indestructible and can even be set up in the garden (leaves on the line and the passage of toy wheelbarrows did no damage), the children most enjoyed stage-directing the Playmobil figures and rearranging their hats. They were unable to reposition the train on the track successfully after it fell off, which lead the parents to conclude that they'd have no peace with this set. Vivek Gole summarised: "It's much too big for indoors and at pounds 150 is too expensive for outdoors, where the children are clearly more interested in shovelling leaves on top of it."


pounds 35 and pounds 9.99 respectively; age 3 plus

This wooden railway set from the Early Learning Centre seemed good value, but was still more expensive than the Chad Valley kit. You get a little more track, but the central feature - a bridge supported by four simple pillars - was a constant annoyance. "One push and it's down," noted Helen Greenberg, "although you can stop that with superglue." The set includes three wooden carriages (but no landscaping props), so we decided to add the battery powered engine to pull the carriages. It was greatly enjoyed by the toddlers who were too young to play with the railway sets per se. They quickly grasped that by moving the driver's head either backwards or forwards, they could change the direction of the train. But on the whole it was disdained by the older kids, who preferred to push the train by hand. "They stand and watch when the engine's switched on," said Pip Hanson. "It doesn't encourage them to get down on the floor and engage with it in the same way as others."


Chad Valley from branches of Woolworth's (01706 862720 for your nearest); Hornby information on 01843 233525; Supertrack from Early Learning Centre (01793 443322); Lego on 01978 290900; Playmobil on 01268 490184.

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible