Wooden trains make a great toy for young children. They are solid and well built, generally have few small parts, and can grow as their owner does. Although the trend in modern times has been toward battery-operated engines, classic wooden trains remain manually-hauled, helping children to develop important motor skills, along with their imaginations.
Almost all wooden railway brands are compatible, thanks to a standard known as the Variotm System. There are two major brands - BRIO, Thomas & Friends (made under license by RC2 Brands Inc) and Eichhorn (a Simba-Dickie brand) as well as a host of lesser brands, some of dubious quality.
Despite the fact that BRIO and competing products are marketed primarily toward a young audience, they can be more than a toy for children. My collection is larger than many electric model railways, and has distinct advantages; not only is it fully portable, it also does not require a baseboard and can be easily remodelled at will. In addition, expansion is comparatively easy (space problems excepted) - one can simply purchase the new pieces and add them in.
A problem I have found with the newer sets in recent years is that the various manufacturers are gradually converting both accessories and rolling stock from "scale" (I use the term loosely) models into products that are more identifiably toys, complete with cute Lego-esque figures. This is fine for children, but is disappointing for older collectors such as myself.
About the collection
I was given my first BRIO train set when I was five. It was a small collection of second-hand pieces, including two red express trains, two goods trains and a reasonable amount of track to run them on.
Over time, my collection has expanded to mammoth proportions. I now have almost 150 metres (490 feet) of track, over 100 pieces of rolling stock and countless accessory pieces. Although my rolling stock is entirely comprised of BRIO products, I do own BRIO-compatible track from Eichhorn and the now-defunct Sesame Street Railway, as well as a growing collection of accessories from various sources. I also have some custom-made pieces (although I was not the custom maker!), including some special pylons, a signal box, and a flyover bridge. I have shied away from Thomas & Friends products because they often look strikingly different to those on offer from competing brands.
My favourite pieces of rolling stock include my beautiful green tender engine, trusty red express trains - from my original set - and fantastic 19th-century style passenger cars. My favourite track pieces include some wonderful arched bridges, and some custom-designed pylons that can support two rail lines at once.
My set has grown so large that it has completely outgrown our house. In fact, the last time I set it up in our church hall, it became apparant that it had just about outgrown that as well! Let that be a warning to all model train lovers!