Toy lab

Playroom dreams: ride-on model trains

Railway to sit on by Balson AG (Copyright: Balson)
Little boy plays with the colourful ABC train from VTech
Pre-school children can have great fun with the Alphabet Train from VTech (Photo: VTech)

Bobby Car-style ride-on vehicles are available from lots of manufacturers in countless shapes and sizes - some of them even in the form of a locomotive, such as the Vtech Alphabet Train. It is 77 centimetres long including the detachable trailer and features a number pad, five illuminated piano keys, an adjustable learning clock on the front of the train, 13 letter blocks stored in the trailer and lots more. This versatile educational toy for children under three can even play ten children's tunes, four sing-along songs and make lots of different sounds. 

Little girl playing with the Steam Train from Rollplay
The battery-powered Steam Train from Rollplay. (Photo: Rollplay)

Round the playroom by rail

The Steam Train from children's vehicle manufacturer Rollplay runs on real tracks. It has now been launched on the European market and comes in a set consisting of a 56-centimetre-long locomotive, a 26-centimetre-long freight wagon and 22 robust plastic tracks with a gauge of 148 millimetres to form a 7.2-metre oval circuit. The standard radius of the curved segments calculated to the centre of the track is about 52 centimetres and a straight track is about 32 centimetres long. This battery-powered locomotive has a 6-volt rechargeable battery and runs at a maximum speed of around three kilometres per hour. Authentic engine and horn sounds as well as LED lights add to the thrill of driving. It also features a cold water steam unit that can be switched on to produce real steam as you drive along. For larger playrooms, extension sets are available with either four curved tracks or four straight tracks. Unfortunately, there are no definite plans for points for sidings or a station. 

Little boy playing with the Santa Fé Train by Peg Perego
The Santa Fé Train from Peg Perego is now available in lots of different colours and designs. (Photo: Peg Perego)

Peg Perego has gone a step further in terms of track size with the new extension set for the 95 cm long Santa Fé Train. The 14 additional tracks extend the 195-centimetre rail circuit to form a figure of eight measuring 4.3 metres with a crossing. The train with its 32 centimetre-wide tracks has been on the market for years but has little in common with a classic railway as the locomotive doesn’t run on wheel flanges. Instead, it has wide wheels that rest on the track surface outside the rails. On the positive side, this means that, in principle, the train can also run without tracks.

The Köf II shunting locomotive from Lok- & Waggonbau Klaus Wagner runs on rails
The Köf II shunting locomotive, measuring just under 60 centimetres, is available from Lok- & Waggonbau Klaus Wagner and can haul three people and four to five carriages. (Foto: Klaus Wagner)

An upmarket hobby

Of course, toy trains running on plastic tracks are only designed for private homes and for just one toddler. If you want to carry more people, heavier locomotives are required which are then no longer in the price range of a toy. But to start off, you don’t have to spend much more than you would for a small-series gauge 1 train with a scale of 1:32. Lok- & Waggonbau Klaus Wagner from Mainz, for example, offers the Köf II diesel locomotive for 5-inch gauge tracks (127 mm) for EUR 5,000. The steel model on a scale of 1:11 is just under 59 centimetres long and weighs 35 kilograms. The shunting locomotive has four 12-volt rechargeable batteries and two 150-watt motors and can pull four to five carriages plus the driver plus two children as passengers. The driver usually sits on an operator's wagon directly behind the locomotive. Klaus Wagner started up with his wide variety of locomotives and rolling stock for 5-inch gauge tracks in 2002. His largest model is a Class V 188 double diesel locomotive with eight electric motors and an impressive length of 2.45 metres. Klaus Wagner also works throughout Germany on the construction of large-scale railway layouts in parks.

The class 99 coal-fired locomotive of the Zimmermann steam railway in the colours red, green and black.
The coal-fired Class 99 locomotive from Dampfbahn Zimmermann weighs 450 kilograms. (Foto: Rolf Zimmermann)

The number of suppliers of large-gauge model locomotives has reduced quite considerably over recent years as demand has also declined. One of the few manufacturers still on the market is Dampfbahn Zimmermann in Öhringen which started up over 50 years ago and is now run by Rolf Zimmermann. The company offers locomotives and accessories for 5 and 7 ¼-inch gauges, powered either by battery, petrol, coal or oil depending on the locomotive. The 5-inch version of the Class 99 steam locomotive is 97 centimetres long and has a net weight of 105 kilograms. Its big sister for 7 ¼-inch tracks (184 mm gauge) is 1.6 metres long and weighs an impressive 450 kilograms. The accompanying four-axle operating or seating carriages are up to two metres long. With a net weight of over 100 kilograms, they can safely haul up to six adults or eight children.

Charles Ball of Balson AG during a test run with an RhB Ge 4/4 III for 7-1/4 inch gauge
Charles Ball from Balson AG during a test run with an RhB Ge 4/4 III for 7 ¼-inch gauge. (Foto: Balson AG)

Far more than just steam locomotives

Balson AG in Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, has been building fully-functioning steam locomotives with 5 to 15-inch gauges (127 to 381 mm) for 44 years. The rolling stock to go with them are designed either as highly simplified functional vehicles for passengers or as display vehicles with authentic details. From the outset, the company did not only produce steam locomotives with real coal or gas firing, but also electric locomotives with rechargeable batteries, some of which are real heavyweights The four-metre-long modern Rhaetian Railway Ge 4/4 electric locomotive, for example, weighs in at a proud 1,160 kilograms. True to the 1993 prototype, it was built on a scale of 1:4 for use on 7 ¼ /4 -inch tracks. It requires a minimum radius of 12 metres and even has a real air brake and a spring-loaded emergency brake for safe operation. 

Balson also supplies the corresponding tracks, either ready-to-use or as a construction kit. Knupfer Modell- und Feinwerktechnik from Schorndorf is another supplier of large-gauge model railways. For 40 years, the company has been manufacturing track and point kits for 5-inch gauge as well as steel rail profiles, rail chairs and clamping plates made of bronze using the lost wax casting method for the individual construction of detailed wooden sleeper tracks. Modellbau MaLu from Hülben has also been on the market for decades, producing a wide range of large-scale railway track systems and locomotives. Their track profiles are made of folded sheet steel or hot-rolled steel. The sheet steel sleepers are available either for 5 or 7 ¼-inch garden railway systems. On request, sleepers are also available for tracks combining the two gauges.

Girl driving a locomotive on the public driving day of the steam train club Aßling
Aßling Steam Railway Club near Munich organises an open day several times a year. (Photo: Peter Pernsteiner)

Family outings to club layouts

Operating large-scale locomotives and carriages is, of course, a question of space and is generally not an option for private individuals. That is why a lot of clubs have been set up in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and elsewhere. Railway enthusiasts not only bring their rolling stock along, but also sacrifice a large part of their spare time to building and operating the club layout. Several times a year, the clubs organise open days which are attended not only by enthusiasts from other clubs but also by families and their children from the local area. Generally the clubs offer train rides for a small charge, which are fun for young and old.
7 ¼-inch tracks (184 mm) are mainly used to carry passengers on club layouts as the ride-on carriages are then wide enough for tilt-proof operation. However, a lot of clubs use multi-rail track systems so that other locomotives and trains can also be operated. Aßling Steam Railway Club, for example, has built its track layout very intelligently using four different tracks. Trains with the standard large-scale 5” and 7 ¼” gauges can run on them, as well as 1:10 scale vehicles (144 mm gauge) and even smaller locomotives and rolling stock with a 3 ½” (89 mm) gauge. A round trip on the club premises, located 30 kilometres east of Munich, is about one kilometre long and takes about ten minutes.

Video documentary by Peter Pernsteiner about a family day out at Aßling Steam Railway Club.

A good overview of German clubs can be found on the Dampfbahn-Club Deutschland website at or on the homepage of Gerhard Karl where information about a variety of German and international clubs including event dates as well as suppliers and manufacturers of large railways can be found.

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