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.

THE TEST

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 PANEL

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).

****LEGO SYSTEM ELECTRIC TRAIN SET

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.

***HORNBY INDUSTRIAL FREIGHT ELECTRIC TRAIN SET

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."

*****CHAD VALLEY WOODEN TRAIN SET

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."

**PLAYMOBIL RC TRAIN SET

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."

**SUPERTRACK LARGE RAILWAY SET & BATTERY POWERED LOCO

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."

STOCKISTS

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.

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