For people who aren’t involved in the model railroading hobby, there’s really no difference between “toy” trains and “model” trains. After all, both hobbies involve small trains that are controlled by some sort of power pack. There is a significant difference, however, to anyone who is an enthusiast. Calling a model railroad a “toy train” is like calling a classic piece of literature a “novel”.
Toy trains are generally marketing to children, and are the way many of us were introduced to the hobby. They tend to be quite plain looking and not based on any real-life trains. Model trains, on the other hand, are often a true art form with scale reproductions of real or potential trains and layouts (a technique known as prototyping).
Some of the earliest toy trains were available in the early 19th century. They often had wind-up motors or even steam-powered locomotives and were generally made from cast iron.
In the 1850’s a German company named Marklin, who made dollhouse accessories, introduced a box set of a train and track to try to broaden its market to include boys as well as girls. They also made extra tracks, rolling stock and building that were available as accessories.
Electric trains followed soon after, commonly believed to have been introduced by Carlisle and Finch in 1897 in the United States. The Lionel corporation revolutionized these model and they rapidly gained popularity and sophistication.
Things such as lighting, ability to change direction and “real” smoke were some of the earliest realism features that were added. There was still little distinction between “toy” and “model” trains until the 1950’s, however, when the modern emphasis on realism really started to take hold.
Today there are various gauges of model railroads, with a vast array of accessories available. They can be controlled by computer and entire railyards can be operated exactly the way they would be in real life. Many model railroading enthusiasts spend thousands of dollar and hundreds of hours creating prototypes of actual railroad lines, both past and present.
There are clubs and associations that offer resources for beginners and experienced railroaders alike. The internet has also helped to make it easier to find information on model railroading, as well as a much larger selection of trains and accessories than the average hobby store could hope to stock.