Whenever this topic comes up on any 3 rail train forum, it’s time to get out the popcorn. And I’m sure more than a few of you have raised eyebrows right now. So, I’ll get right to it–the answer to the question, “Are they toys or models?” is “Yes.” The hullabaloo arises because we have 2 distinct camps: those who wish to embrace the toy in the train and those who view themselves as model railroaders. However, one doesn’t have to preclude the other.
In the early 1950’s, the magazine, Toy Trains, featured Lionel and American Flyer trains. Back then, there was no issue with that moniker. We knew what we had and it was certainly not the stuff that filled the pages of the scale magazines—Model Railroader and Railroad Model Craftsman. Still, we considered ourselves model railroaders. To that end, Lionel had put out a magazine from 1944 to 1949 called Model Builder. In 1950 Lionel published a book called, Model Railroading. Subsequent editions appeared through 1961. For many of us that book was the bible. As Joshua Lionel Cowen stated in the book’s Introduction, The fascination of model railroading—the urge to build and operate a miniature railroad system—is typically American. Each individual has the opportunity to inject his own personality into his work, to create a railroad system unlike any other in the world.
So what happened? We grew up and so did our trains. Some of us are now creating the realistic empires that we used to dream about. Others are perfectly happy resurrecting the flat green tabletop. Many fall somewhere in between. Why does that matter? Model Railroading is a hobby and a hobby as defined by Merriam Webster is a pursuit outside one's regular occupation, engaged in especially for relaxation. The argument about toys trains verses models is silly. It seems to me that the labels are simply being used to justify one’s approach to the hobby. It’s a distinction without a difference.