Sizes and Scales of Christmas Village Trains - Although Christmas villages (often with trains running around them) go back more than a century, most people setting up a Christmas village today started this practice some time after Dept. 56® introduced their china and porcelain houses.
The good news for anyone who wants a train for their Christmas village is that there are only two basic kinds of trains that are suitable, but within those overall options, there are many great choices.
Before we break it down in more detail, though, let's take a look how the average size and scale of holiday village buildings has influenced what kinds of trains we use with them.
Holiday Villages and Model Trains
Most name-brand ceramic holiday village buildings average between 4.5"-8" in each direction, with a few taller pieces being 9"-10". This makes them small enough to fit a nice village on a table-top, but large enough to be seen clearly.
O Gauge Trains - When folks tried setting trains up with the earliest Dept. 56® structures, they decided that the buildings looked better with O gauge trains than with HO scale trains, the only other widely available choice at that time. Technically an O scale model is 1/48th the size of the real thing, but actually most O gauge trains are smaller than that, especially in length. As an example, an 80' passenger coach modeled in O scale would be about 20" long and would require at least a 6'-diameter circle of track to run on. But the Lionel version is about 11" long and will run on a 3'-diameter circle of track. That said, Lionel train sets bring back a lot of memories for a lot of people, and they're still very popular, especially at Christmas, when accuracy of the model is less important than family fun.
If you grew up with Lionel and want a train you can use under the tree or with a Christmas village, a Lionel train set may be a good choice for you. They are available in traditional railroad names and with special Christmas paint jobs:
On30 Trains - After commissioning a couple of toy-like and HO train sets under the Dept. 56 name, the Dept. 56 people finally contracted with Bachmann to produce the first train set designed to look good with Dept. 56 structures. Bachmann introduced a line of trains that are about 3/4 the size of Lionel trains but run on HO track. Their level of detail and realistic paint jobs make them an especially good match for most of Dept. 56's Heritage Village collections (as well as similar collections by Lemax and others).
On30 Christmas train set
But it's worth reviewing how model railroading scales and sizes "work" and how they relate to holiday village structures and accessories.
How Model Train Scales Work
A "scale" refers to the relationship between a model and the real thing. For example, an HO scale model of a 40' box car is 1/89 the size of the real thing. Modelers call ta
O Scale and O Gauge - Because lots of folks have used O gauge trains with holiday village structures, newbies often get the false inpression that holiday villages are built to O scale. (Scale refers to the relationship of a model to the real thing.) That's not exactly true . . . .
- Technically, O scale refers to trains and products that are 1/48th the size of the real thing. Model railroaders describe that relationship as 1:48. True O scale trains are big, and relatively hard to come by. So while you
- O gauge train sets run on O scale track, but they are almost all smaller than true "O" scale, because full-sized O scale trains take more room than most people can give up for a train set. That's why I call Lionel train sets "O gauge" instead of O scale. On the box they sometimes write "O-27", but that refers to the kind of track they run on, not the scale of the trains.
One very popular kind of holiday village train is O scale - the On30 trains we will discuss later - but they are all models of very small real-world trains, so they fit in wherever an O gauge train would, too.
- S Scale - The next smaller model railroading scale is S scale, 1/64th the size of the real thing. Hardly any trains are now being made in S scale (although American Flyer S scale trains were once pretty popular). But most O gauge train sets made over the last seventy years have actually been closer to S scale than to O, so it's a more influential scale than you might think. In addition, most holiday village buildings built since 1980 are closer to S scale than to O, and some have approached even smaller scales.
In fact, project designer Howard Lamey, who designs free building projects for using with old fashioned cardboard Christmas Villages and antique O gauge "tinplate" railroads has discovered that S scale buildings fit in both settings better than O scale buildings. So "S scale" is alive and well, even if "S gauge trains" are somewhat less, er, prominent.
- HO Scale - The next smaller model railroading scale is HO, which is about 1/87th the size of the real thing, or roughly half the size of O scale. HO is the world's most popular model railroading scale, but HO trains are too low in profile to look good with most holiday villages.
Based on that assessment, you'd imagine that the best trains for holiday villages would be O scale, S scale, or somewhere in between. Narrows things down, doesn't it?
Note about Accessory Scales - Before you get thinking that this is an exact science, you should know that most holiday village figures and accessories are larger than O scale. This keeps the figures from being dominated by the buildings and keeps the smaller accessories from getting lost in the clutter. This really has no practical effect on your options, but I just want to point out that these are guidelines, not "rules," and you are the person ultimately responsible for combining and arranging your trains, towns and accessories for the most pleasing effects.
Christmas-Themed Trains for Christmas Villages
As alluded to earlier, if you want a Christmas-themed train that will work with a Christmas village, you have two basic choices:
On30 Trains or Train Collections
Most of the Halloween-themed trains you can buy are On30 trains that are sold as collections by Hawthorne Village®, a Bradford Exhange® subsidiary.
On30 trains are O scale (1:48), but they run on HO track and tend to have much finer detail than most O gauge three-rail train sets. In addition, the line of On30 trains that Hawthorne Village trains are based on was invented to look good with holiday villages. So unless you already have trains in your attic, Hawthorne Village collections should be a consideration.
One thing you should know is that these are "collections," not train sets, per se. That is, you order and pay for one piece at a time, starting with the locomotive. By the time you have received the third piece, you have enough track and a power supply to run your train, and usually other accessories besides. Most trains have at least four pieces, although some have more, if they're very popular. This also means that you should think about "subscribing" to the collection by August if you want the first four issues (the "whole" starter set) by Halloween, so every year I post an "alert" in my newsletter. Fortunately, these trains will work with most HO track and power supplies, so you aren't entirely "stuck" if you just have part of the train by Halloween.
You can check these collections out by clicking on the graphic above right.
Halloween-Themed O Gauge Trains - Lionel's O gauge train sets, usually labeled O27, are actually a bit smaller than O scale - but they are a good match size-wise for most holiday villages. Occasionally they make a halloween-themed train or car, such as the old-fashioned 4-4-0 locomotive shown at the right. These come and go, and I don't have any vendor links at the moment, but if you're already familiar with Lionel trains, it may be worth tracking them down.
If you want to see an exceptional O gauge train set that works well with Halloween (and Christmas) villages, check out the Lionel O Gauge Harry Potter Hogwart's Express(r) train. To learn more about this train, click on the picture below.
Other Trains You can Use with Halloween Villages
In case you're just shopping for trains in general or thinking about using a train you already have access to, here are some other choices:
Bachmann On30 Trains
You can also buy "non-holiday" On30 trains made by Bachmann corporation, the company that makes the chasses and mechanisms for the Hawthorne Village trains. Bachmann invented On30 to look good with holiday villages, and one or more of them might look good with your Halloween village. To see Bachmann's current line of On30 train sets, click on the graphic to the right.
O Gauge Trains - As mentioned above, Lionel's O gauge train sets, usually labeled O27, are actually a bit smaller than O scale - but they are a good match size-wise for most holiday villages. If you'd like to investigate non-holiday trains that would still be a good visual match for your halloween village, check out our Lionel Train Sets page by clicking the graphic at the right.
In addition, the Lionel O Gauge Polar Express train set looks very nice with many Halloween Villages - it's actually realistic enough for year-round use, too. So if you have one of these, or have been thinking about getting one, it could very do "double duty" for you in the fall as well as the winter.
To learn more about Lionel's O gauge Polar Express train set, click on the picture below.
Collectible Tinplate O Gauge - If you have an old O gauge set in the attic that runs, it may also work well visually with a Halloween village. My friend and co-conspirator Howard Lamey uses an ancient Marx set with his, with great effect. Of course you can't order these new, but stores like Trainz.com often have a few pieces to sell.
S Scale/S Gauge - American Flyer S gauge trains are very close to 1:64 in scale, which would make them a good match for most holiday villages. Again, most American Flyer trains are collector's items today, so you don't necessarily want to start collecting them just for that purpose. But if you already have a set in your attic, you'll see that the trains work well with collectible villages, except for one thing - American Flyer track circles are wide, requiring a 48" table. They did make a kind of track called Pikemaster which fits into tighter places, though.
HO Trains - As mentioned earlier, HO trains are not tall enough to look right with most Halloween village collections. However, if you have a set you want to try, go for it, it might work for you.
To visit the Halloween Trains and Towns Primer page, click here.
Related Articles and Links
As you know, Halloween villages and trains are at least a century newer than Christmas villages. So to help you get the most enjoyment out of your Halloween village and railroad, we've provided references both to historical holiday village information and brand new Halloween projects you will enjoy. We usually have a couple more projects in the works at any given time, so Join our Mailing List to be notified when new articles are posted.
In addition, you can help by sending us project tips, article ideas, and photos of your railroads and villages. We want our pages to be as useful as possible to as many people as they can be. As the hobby grows, we all benefit.
For more information about the centuries-old tradition of setting up holiday villages, check out the Family Christmas Online™ article A Brief History of Christmas Villages
Introducing Spook Hill™, a series of free, 100% original Halloween building projects in O or S scale, enough to give you a complete Halloween village, including:
Spook Hill #3, a unique, easy-to-build Water Tower to serve another great project, the Spook Hill™ Station This is another 100% original, 100% unique project from project designer Howard Lamey. With a little adjustment, this could serve any holiday, O gauge, or On30 model railroad. Free, downloadable plans and graphics.
- Spook Hill™ Billboards, the easiest Spook Hill™ project yet, a great way to add last-minute fun to your Halloween or Autumn village. Free, downloadable plans and graphics.
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