The flying Scotsman

Hornby Trains And All You Needed To Know About Collecting Them

Published 9th November 2020

Ever since the first steam-powered trains puffed their way out of train stations in the Victorian Age, children and adults alike took one look at the coal-fired behemoths and thought "I wish I could own one of those," and so model trains were born.

Hornby is one of the oldest model train companies around, having been founded in Liverpool in 1901. Since its founding, Hornby has come to dominate the market and become a household name famous for their brilliantly detailed trains and high-quality tracks. If you're interested at all in collecting model trains, Hornby is one of your best bets.

Collecting Hornby steam trains is a fantastic, engrossing hobby that will provide hours of fun, but with so many different things to think about - from train selection to building your own tracks to controlling the trains - this complex pastime can feel a little overwhelming. Well not, to worry, we're here to help!

Whether you're planning on taking up this hobby yourself or buying a set for a special locomotion fan in your life, this buyer's guide will give you the complete rundown of everything you'll need to know about collecting Hornby trains sets.

Hornby starter sets

Hornby trains
Hornby is well aware that getting started with their model train sets can be intimidating, so they've made a series of starter sets that give you everything you need to get you up and running. Each starter set contains a model train, tracks for you to lay down, a power supply, wiring, and a controller to galvanise and control your Hornby locomotive.

You aren't tied into any single Hornby train model, as each starter set features a different train. Whether you're into classic coal-fired steam engines or sleek, fully electrified modern machines, there's a Hornby starter set for you!

Laying down the track

Hornby train tracks

The first Hornby trains used tiny, hand-wound clockwork engines for power. Now, it's all about electricity. Modern Hornby trains are powered through an electric current that runs through the miniature rail tracks. This means that you should think carefully about how best to place your track, as loose connections or other breaks in the circuit will cause your Hornby steam trains to slow down or stall completely. 

In order to ensure the track runs smoothly, you'll have to lay it onto a baseboard. You can make a baseboard from all kinds of materials, from MDF to plywood, and some modelling companies make custom baseboards for any room configuration that you need. For beginners though, Hornby recommends making a baseboard from insulation board, as this has a good balance between sturdiness and cost-efficiency. Theoretically you can lay the baseboard on the floor, but it will be more level, easier to build on and more pleasing on the eyes if you fit it to a supporting stand that keeps your railway off the ground. Hornby recommends making this stand from softwood slats 50mm wide and 25mm thick. To make sure the baseboard is level you'll want to run them along and across the underside of the board, with a maximum gap of 60cm between the slats.

Every Hornby starter set comes with a set of tracks that create a simple oval. This is a great beginning point, as you won't have to worry about messing up the connections. But we're sure you won't stop there! Hornby also includes in their starter sets an overlay that they call the TrakMat. As well as providing a basic diorama, the TrakMat marks out clearly where you should lay the track that you got in the starter set, as well as providing ideas for the future.

To build those new lines you'll need to buy new track. A great place to start are the Hornby extension packs. Each pack has its own name, from A to F, and has a mixture of straight pieces and curves in different radiuses, as well as curved points that allow you to split single tracks in existing lines. They're designed to be used with the TrakMat to complete the lines that are left unfinished from the starter set. 

Once you've completed the Trak-Mat, you can expand further with the individual track pieces that Hornby sells. You can simulate your trains going uphill with inclined piers and elevated track supports or allow roads to cross your tracks safely with level crossings. You can also pick isolating tracks that allow you to run multiple trains on an analogue system (more on that later).

If you see a track from another manufacturer that you'd love to incorporate into your miniature railway, don't worry. You can use third-party tracks, so long as you double-check that they use the same gauge as Hornby. 

Rail gauges

Hornby train parts

The gauge of a railroad is the distance between the two tracks. In the early days of railways there were many different railway gauges used over the world, from the 4 feet 8-1/2 inches preferred by the British engineers, all the way up to extra wide 6 foot-long tracks. Always sticklers for authenticity, model train manufacturers followed suite, and came up with their own track gauges for their trains. 

Hornby uses the OO gauge for all of its models, which measures 16.5mm across. It's the most popular gauge of model railway in the United Kingdom, so if you decide to expand your Hornby trains collection with models from other companies, you shouldn't struggle to find trains that will run on your tracks. 


Full train set

Of course, laying down track is only part of the process in creating a realistic replica of a railway! You'll also want to populate your diorama with scenery as well! This is where your imagination can really go wild: as long as no scenic accessories get in the way of the tracks you can include as many or as little of them as you like.

Hornby produces all kinds of scenery and accessories to accompany its trains. You can buy all kinds of buildings, plants and roads that are normally seen around a railway, from simple footbridges and trees all the way up to grand suspension bridges. 

You can also adapt scenery designed for other hobbies to your model railway. Many companies make felt grasslands and other terrain for wargames that are perfectly suited to Hornby train sets. There's the DIY option as well: creating your own buildings from plastic or cardboard adds another dimension to the hobby!

Digital Versus Analogue

The argument over digital versus analogue isn't limited to music fans, it's also a lively debate among model railway enthusiasts! When you first begin choosing products for your model railway, you'll need to choose between a digital control system or an analogue one. Both methods have their advantages, as you'll see, but you will have to choose: you can't use analogue and digital trains on the same tracks.

Analogue, or DC, controllers use good old-fashioned electrical power to control the speed and direction of the rail cars at once. Setting them up is easy and they have only a few controls (typically a power dial and a directional switch). Their simplicity makes DC controllers brilliant for beginners, as there're very much plug and play. 

However, they do get more complicated as you expand. The default Hornby analogue controller only allows you to power a single track at a time. More expensive, upgraded DC controllers are available that let you power two tracks simultaneously, but even then the controls are limited. If you want to run multiple trains in different directions, you're going to have to buy isolating tracks and additional controllers.

On the other hand, digital, or DCC, controllers are more complicated to set up but yield superior control. With a digital controller you can program each of your Hornby trains to move independently around the track without using isolators. Many modern model trains take advantage of digital controllers to add features for extra immersion. Directional headlights will flash on and off and a steam train will puff and whistle realistically as it drives around your track.

The downside to digital is that all of your trains need a special microchip, called a decoder, to run in a digital system. Some trains built for digital systems already have an encoder, but if they don't, you'll have to insert them yourself. This is no trouble for people familiar with electrical engineering, but for those who aren't (particularly junior railway conductors) this can be an unwanted hassle. You'll also have to buy the decoders separately, and the price can soon add up.

How much are Hornby trains worth?

Hornby train sets

There are many wonderful things you can say about collecting Hornby trains sets, but we're sorry to say that cheap isn't one of them. As so much work goes into every aspect of creating Hornby trains - from the precision design needed to produce authentic trains to the high-quality metals used to build them - they can be quite expensive. The least expensive entry level models start from about £35, but most Hornby trains cost at least £100 pounds, while special-edition trains can cost as much as £500 brand new. Starter sets are similarly priced - the most impressive kit in our collection will set you back around £200. Considering all the additional extras you get in each set besides the train, these starter sets are still pretty great value, but you should be aware of the price tag.

That being said, investing in Hornby trains sets now may pay dividends in the future. Your train can end up on the list of most expensive toys in the future. Classic Hornby trains are in high demand by serious collectors with deep pockets. If you decide to ever part with your collection, whether selling it at auction or via the internet, you could stand to make a great deal of money.  

Now that we've covered the basics, it's time to chug onto the trains themselves. We've picked out some of the Hornby starter sets that we think make the best starting point. One of the first additions you're going to want to make to your collection is an extra train or too, so we've included a few of our favourite standalone Hornby models as well! 

Best massive starter set: Family Fun Starter Set!

Paddington Junior Train set

Pros: Includes plenty of scenery, extra Hornby Track Plans book

Cons: more expensive than other starter sets, not the coolest train

The Family Fun Starter Set is a big, beautiful and brilliant place to start. Like all the starter sets in our buyer's guide, it includes everything you need to create a fully working model railway track: You get a model steam locomotive with three attachable cars, enough track to construct a basic starting loop and Hornby's standard analogue controller. Where the Family Fun Starter Set shines is in all the extras you get besides. Pick up this starter set and you'll get an entire scenery diorama to send your trains whizzing around. This set features a collection of plants, buildings and even model people to complete the scene. 

The downside to this product is that the train engine itself isn't the biggest draw. While it's made to the same high quality as all Hornby trains sets, it isn't a famous train, and it can't stand up to some of the other amazing locomotives on this list. It's also more expensive than the other starter sets on this list by some margin. It's still terrific value for money, it just asks you for a little extra investment.

Best analogue starter set: Eurostar Train Set

Eurostar Hornby

Pros: Fantastic modern design

Cons: Analogue controller is pretty basic

One of the simplest sets in this Buyer's Guide is also the sleekest! The Eurostar is Europe's premier high-speed rail service. Travelling at a whopping 300 kilometres per hour, it can get from London to Paris in a little over two hours, so it's no wonder that Hornby have created the Eurostar Train Set!

The Eurostar looks amazing in miniature form thanks to careful attention from the designers at Hornby. This model train features the latest colour scheme, a deep-sea blue with striking yellow highlights and a scale accurate reproduction of the Eurostar logo printed on its side. Not only are the colours correct, but the fine details are expertly rendered as well. The saloon cars boast flush glazed windows, and every car features a set of brilliantly detailed roof panels and simulated pantographs (the technical term for the roof-mounted electrical conductors that collects power from overhanging power cables).

Unfortunately, the analogue controller used to manipulate the Eurostar isn't as sophisticated or elegant as the train itself. With only a single power dial and directional control switch, you'll have to replace this controller with a more expensive version, or buy multiple controllers, if you want to run the Eurostar around a complex track or expand your railway with additional trains.

Best digital starter set: Mixed Traffic Set

Mixed train set Hornby

Pros: Two trains instead of one, powerful digital controller, pre-installed digital decoders

Cons: The steam locomotive isn't as reliable as other Hornby train models

If you're looking for an introduction to the benefits of digitally controlled Hornby trains, the Mixed Traffic Set is a perfect choice. 

Like the other starter sets in this buyers guide the Mixed Traffic Set includes a controller and simple track to get you started, but with this set you get not one but two trains to play with! These trains are a classic steam powered locomotive and a more modern diesel shunter.

Remember when we told you that installing the decoders was complicated? Well Hornby have been generous enough to fit both of the trains in the Mixed traffic set with their own 8-pin chips right out of the box, so you won't have to worry about fiddling with any electrical wires - lovely!

The digital controller comes with a booklet that will teach you how to control each train individually, as well as other digital-only tricks. With the Mixed Traffic Set you'll soon become a digital whizz kid!

While the Mixed Digital Traffic Set is an excellent introduction to the world of digital train sets, we should warn you that Hornby fans have reported that the steam locomotive can be a little unreliable, occasionally getting stuck on some of the track points. It's a fairly minor issue for such a great value piece of kit, though.

Best train for history buffs: LNER Gresley Class A3 Pacific 4472 Flying Scotsman

Flying Scotsman Hornby

Pros: Excellent reproduction of one of the world's most famous trains, brilliant digital features

Cons: requires two decoders to get the full experience

You've already heard of The Flying Scotsman, it's the most famous train in the world! Built in 1923, this steam powered titan covered more than 2,000,000 miles in 40 years of active service, and is still puffing away today, often the starring role at National Railway Museum events. This record-breaking train was the first steam locomotive to reach 100 miles an hour. It's a testament to engineering and the power of steam trains - of course, Hornby created their own replica! 

Beautifully recreated with efficient, hard-wearing drive mechanisms with pickups on all drive wheels, the Hornby Flying Scotsman soars just like the original. Unlike the original, however, Hornby have fitted out their version of this great train with DCC functionality. Add a compatible decoder chip and the Flying Scotsman will truly come to life! Its unique sound decoder is filled with accurately recorded sound effects, from background steam to coal shovelling - there are even four different chime whistles sounds to play with!

The only issue with the Flying Scotsman is that you'll need to buy two separate decoders to unlock all of the functions, as well as having an existing digital control scheme set up.

Best for young children: Hornby Junior Paddington Train Set

Paddington train set junior

Pros: Significantly cheaper than other starter sets, easy to use

Cons: No expansion possibilities

Due to the expense and complexity involved, ordinary Hornby steam trains don't make the best presents for young children. But don't worry, with a little help from a certain marmalade-loving bear from Peru, Hornby has designed the perfect train set to get little ones interested in the hobby: the Hornby Junior Paddington Train Set

This electric train set is simple but sweet. A power switch on top of the train's front carriage sets it running and turns it off again. The train itself is a sleek modern design painted the same colour as Paddington's famous blue raincoat. It also has a yellow nose, just like the bear himself. A little waving picture of Paddington painted onto the train's side completes the look.

The Hornby Junior Paddington Train Set is incredibly easy to set up. Rather than using traditional electrical wiring to power the train, the Paddington set uses a pair of AA batteries to run. You won't have to use any glue to set down the tracks, either as they snap together easily. 

You'll also find some simple scenery in the box, including a tunnel and station made of cardboard to add a little excitement to the track.

Although it's a good starting point to get young children interested in the hobby, this model rail kit lacks many of the features that make collecting model trains interesting in the first place: there's no way to customise the track or add new trains to the circuit, so if your child decides they want more trains or a larger track you'll have to buy an entirely different starter set!

Most magical train: Hogwarts Express

Hornby Hogwarts train

Pros: Brilliant for Harry Potter fans

Cons: A bit of a gimmick for Muggles

As if a regular Hornby steam train wasn't magical enough, Hornby have released a model version of the Hogwarts Express. With it, all Hornby train sets can make their way to the wizarding world.

The Hornby Hogwarts Express is a loving recreation of the film version of the train. The distinctive red paint with gold trim has been kept, along with the properly placed decals and signs - even the Hogwarts crest on the front of the engine has survived intact!

It's available as a standalone engine or as a kit featuring two of the passenger cars that Harry and his friends travelled in. With DCC functionality, inserting a compatible decoder chip will activate the front lamp, illuminating the path in front of the train. 

Of course, if you're not a massive Harry Potter fan, the Hogwarts Express has limited value. As this train is based on real steam trains, it won't look massively out of place next to other trains, but the wizarding world paraphernalia might turn you off if you're not a fan of the franchise.

Most friendly train: Thomas and Friends Edward Locomotive

Old advert Hornby

Pros: Great nostalgic factor for Thomas the Tank Engine fans

Cons: Cartoony nature doesn't fit in well with traditional Hornby trains

If you liked trains at all when you were growing up in the UK, the chances are good that you devoured episodes of Thomas the Tank Engine. This cult children's show featuring colourful anthropomorphic traction engines was the beginning of many a child's love of locomotives. Hornby is well aware of this and cannily rolled out model trains of Thomas and his friends.

This particular model train is Thomas' old friend, Edward the Blue Engine. Best known for his easy-going nature and loyalty to his friends, Edward will make a wonderful addition to any Hornby railway. 

Just because he's a cartoon character doesn't mean that Edward is given any less attention than other Hornby trains. His sky-blue paint and trademark red trim are faithfully recreated, and his moulded plastic face bears a cheeky grin. 

Of course, only fans of Thomas the Tank Engine will truly fall in love with Edward, and unlike the Hogwarts Express, his cartoon face means he'll stand out like a sore thumb if he runs on the same tracks as traditional, realistic Hornby steam trains.

Best starting accessory: Hornby Track Plans Book

Hornby Track Plans Book

Pros: Excellent reference material for planning new track designs

Cons: Usefulness trails off as you grow more experienced

It can be tempting to go wild with your track designs, but every inch of track you lay down costs money, and you don't want to waste cash on your fantasy track design only to discover you don't have the space to pull it off properly. That's where the Hornby Track Plans Book comes in!

This book can be essential reference material for any Hornby fan who's graduated from the TrakMat and is starting to plan out their tracks. It's full of proven track layouts created by model train experts, so you can rely on their expertise to build a track that's certain to work.

You don't have to follow them to the letter, though! Studying the layouts in these books will teach you the limitations of Hornby rail tracks, as well as tips and tricks you can apply to your own track designs at a later date.

The Hornby Track Plans Book is fantastic for beginners, but eventually you'll grow out of using it once you become confident in how to design your own layouts. Though until you do, you'll find plenty of value.

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