Everyone who wants to get into model trains has seen a train show – the huge, elaborate layouts, the breathtaking miniaturized scenery, and the rows upon rows of tracks. One of the biggest mistakes made by beginners is to think they can build something like that right away. You can’t. You’re going to have to work hard just to learn to build your first small layout. But if you want a jump ahead, there are a few things you should remember.
When you're starting out with a model train, it seems like everything takes too long, but the most important thing you can do is take your time. Everything in building your model is going to be a little slow; that's because you're trying to build perfect miniature examples of the world around you. You can’t do that fast and have good results. Take your time with each piece, get it right, and then go on to the next.
Start small. Don't go into model railroading with grandiose ambitions to have a track that fills the room. That will come later. Instead, settle for something less than ten feet wide, and don't get too fancy with the track layout. A simple oval or figure eight with maybe one side track is okay for starting out. Look at your first layout as your training wheels. You can take everything apart and put it together again for this one because it's small; but if you screw up a large model set, you may give up because of the vastness of the job of putting it right. The large layouts, in fact, are so difficult that many people who have been into modeling for years have never built anything larger than 8 feet by 10.
Haunt hobby shops, toy stores, and other places you can find models. You don't have to buy them, but you can get some great ideas for building your own versions. One modeler I know build a great layout with a gorge and a wooden bridge over it made entirely from popsicle sticks and wooden dowels. It's huge, it's perfect, and it's gorgeous. And it didn't cost $60 like the one he saw in the store.
Get a basic tool kit. Nothing fancy, but at least have a hobby knife, a set of jeweler's tools, needlenose pliers, needle files, fine tweezers, and a scale rule. A great idea is to periodically visit the tool section in Sears or another store that has really great tool selections; this will give you fresh ideas for things you can do to improve your site.
Never, never, never run your trains on the floor. Fuzz is hard to get out of the wheels, and you'll ruin the whole set. Keep the animals and small children away too; dogs love to chew things that smell like their owners, and cats shed. And small children do many things that are very bad for model train sets. Only allow children with adult supervision.
Keep your tracks clean. Because electric trains depend on electricity conducted through the rails to the locomotive's wheels and then to the engine, a dirty track or dirty wheels will hinder your train from running. Keep it dusted, at a minimum, and keep debris off the tracks. When the tracks are dirty, rubbing them down with a clean, dry cloth will sometimes work. If you need more to remove dirt, try a pink pencil eraser, or a typewriter or pen ink eraser. You can purchase a special rubber eraser with abrasive made specifically for model trains, too. Never clean your track with sandpaper or any other harsh abrasive; it will do more harm than good.
One of the most common problems encountered by model train hobbyists is the train jumping the track -- either cars or locomotive derailing. Usually, you'll find the problem in the track, the wheels, or the couplers. Check the tracks for alignment, and make certain all the sections are firmly pushed together and that their joints align smoothly. If you have a model board that's in pieces, especially check the joints along the edges of the boards. Anything angling your tracks can cause derailments, so pick up a pocket leveler (you can find them at hardware stores) and make sure your board is perfectly flat.
Tiny bits of debris on the track can derail your train -- remember the old urban legend about putting a dime on the tracks to derail the 5:00 Express? Well, it works on the scale of model trains. Examine the track carefully with a bright light. Check your wheels for defects. Any wheel that has a broken flange (a common problem) must be replaced. Wheels that are twisted or forced too close or too far apart will also derail. Defective couplers can also force your train off the track. If the coupler won't move at all when yuo try to move it from side to side, it needs to be unstuck or replaced.
The most important thing to remember as a beginner is to have fun. When you stop having fun, the hobby ceases to be a hobby and becomes something else. Take your time, use your imagination, and enjoy!