I grew up in Scandinavia, and had a Marklin brand electric train as a boy. I am considering purchasing a new set, and since I know live in the US, I am curious as to whether anyone can offer information on the quality and reputation of Marklin System vs. other systems available.
Maerklin's reputation is built on quality - robustness, longevity and compatibility over time rather than scale fidelity. They also offer everything to build a complete system from one catalogue. For that you pay a premium price.
Reality? Quality isn't consistant, robustness is there in the old models but not necessarily in the new models and compatibility between old and new isn't neccessarily retained. Ma aren't coping well with electronic technology, being well behind, failing to maintain quality control and often failing to create products that deliver their promise.
In my opinion, you would be better to purchase _good quality_ products from assorted manufacturers of HO 2 rail DC products. My pick would be Fleischmann (Germany) but you will have to go with whatever brands are available to you locally.
I still live in Scandinavia (Denmark) and I would like to give My comments.
Furst of alle Märklin products is excellent toys (as you know yourself from your childhood). Their 3-rail track system is expensive compared to similar 2-rail tracks. Thier running stock is expensive, perhaps high in quality, but not in details and running performance compared to other manufactures.
On "My" model railway We have a lot of different rolling stock - including Märklin-Hamo (older Märklin for 2-rail) and Trix (today Märklins 2-rail brand). None of it is comparable with for example Roco products. Roco engines is cheaper, they run better and they last longer before they need servicing.
Remember: all european manufactures offer their rolling stocjk in both 2 and 3 rail versions, so for that matter it dosn't matter much which system You choose.
How it is with US manufactures I don't know, I think others here has better knowledge for that issue.
Simple answer: if you intend to model US railways, you can't use Marklin. It will not work with other US model trains. Their Trix line does include some very good US models however, and these do work with other US model trains. If you intend to model European railways, my advice is to avoid Marklin, since it is too limiting.
The following long answer is in two parts: my opinions and observations about Marklin; and some comments on standards.
Well, first off, the Marklin "system" isn't one. That's just advertising hype. All it means is that they use their own standards for track, wheels, and propulsion current. They also use their own coupler design. They do not conform to international standards.
Thus, their trains do not work with any other HO trains. That means that if you decide to buy a Marklin set, you are more or less stuck with buying their trains when you expand. IMO that's enough to rule them out, but there are a few other considerations.
On the plus side, you can, for example, buy some other manufacturers' products with Marklin couplers, and/or buy conversion couplers. So you can use cars of other brands with Marklin trains. A few manufacturers made (and may still make) 3-rail versions of some of their locomotives. (Roco, for example.) But I haven't checked lately.
A few comments follow, based on my examinations of Marklin models in Austrian train shops, most recently in October of last year.
a) Quality: variable. Most of their older models have not been upgraded, and the die work shows it. It's just not up to current standards of detail, precision, and even overall proportions. Their more recent models are better, but IMO merely average. The mechanisms had a reputation of being very durable, but from comments I've come across here and there, quality has fallen off. But that's just rumour, so I wouldn't give it much weight.
b) Range of models: Currently, not very good, as Marklin went bankrupt a couple of years ago, was sold, and the new owners are not producing all of the range. Focussed on German railways, of course. They do have a website, so you can judge for yourself. There are rumours that the new owners will upgrade the line and produce new items.
c) Price. High, especially compared to models of the same quality offered by other manufacturers. Very high, when you consider that they are incompatible with the international HO standards. Outrageous when compared to models of better quality.
Marklin makes a two-rail line under the brand Trix. This consisted originally merely of two-rail versions of their regular line. A few years ago, Trix started offering N. American models made to a better than average standard. Their latest model is a PRR GG-1 electric locomotive. I saw one at the Toronto train show a while back, and it was superb. I didn't see it run, though. Note that these N. American Trix models do conform to international standards.
B) International standards
There are two, and the vast majority of manufacturers conform to them.
a) The ones promoted by the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA), a consumer group run by volunteers.
b) The ones promoted by NEM (I don't know what the acronym stands for. IIRC, there's some industry involvement in this group, unlike the NMRA.)
Common standards (HO) Scale of 1:87 Gauge of 16.5mm Two rail track system. Propulsion current 12V DC.
Different but compatible: wheel profiles and gauges, and turnout dimensions.
Different and incompatible: Axle lengths, truck (bogie) bolster height, body bolster height, coupler height, coupler mounting box.
Couplers are a mess, but in N. America the magnetic knuckle coupler pioneered by Kadee has become the de facto standard.
The NMRA's DCC (digital command control) standard is the de facto international standard, even though some manufacturers (including Marklin) have tried and are trying to promote their own systems. NMRA is contemplating adding to this standard, as electronics have become much more capable and cheaper since the original standard was developed. (It's based on Lenz's system, BTW, and Lenz based his system on one originally devised by Keith Guiterriez around 1980, and described in a series of articles in Model Railroader.)
NMRA's RP-25 wheel contour is becoming a de facto standard, partly because of the size of the N. American market, and mostly because it looks better than NEM's wheel profile. (Some people claim it also works better.)
In the US most model railroaders do not think of model railroads as a system. By this I mean that there are several manufacturers of Track, several manufacturers of Locomotives, several manufacturers of control or power supplies and the same for every other model railroad component. All the items from all of the manufacturers can be mixed with other manufacturers and work together. Rarely does anyone buy everything from one manufacturer. Therefore you cannot compare systems. I have never seen a Markin 3 rail layout in this country (There may be some). Markin's Trix brand is advertised and appears to be expensive. I am sure it is better than some and worst than some US manufacturers. You would have to compare on an individual basis, but still the idea of comparing systems does not apply.
For someone used to the European system, model railroading in the USA might be a bit difficult to comprehend.
Because European made models tend to use a standardized coupler mounting system, for decades Kadee produced just one coupler design that would convert almost any European made model to use Kadee couplers.
This standard was adopted because several different coupler designs were in use in Europe for a while (Marklin made two of them).
Here in the USA, many model railroaders prefer the Kadee couplers because they look closer to the real thing, but for many years models came standard with a molded plastic "horn hook" coupler.
In the USA, there are standards for coupler height, but not for the coupler mounting system. Thus, for the USA market, Kadee had to make many, many different types of couplers because of the many different coupler mounting systems in use on various locomotives and freight cars.
Thus, for someone used to the European system where just about anything can be made to work with the couplers in use there, the situation in the USA will look quite a bit more chaotic.
I think that it is possible to convert Marklin stock to Kadee couplers. However, converting freight cars made in the USA to Marklin's couplers is going to be quite complicated because of the lack of a standardized coupler mounting system here.
This is even worse when you consider that with the exchange rate the way it is, Marklin models in the USA sell for very high prices.
I would also add to your comments:
d) Availability. You can walk into any hobby shop in the USA and find models made by manufacturers in the USA or made in some other country sold by USA companies that conform to USA standards.
This is NOT the case for Marklin. There are only a few select hobby stores that sell their products, and you may have to travel a very long way to find someone that knows anything about their products. It is much better to find something that is more available locally.
Wasn't Trix originally a separate company?
I have an American prototype Minitrix (N scale) 0-6-0 that I purchased in the 1980s, so Trix was certainly producing American N scale stuff at that point in time.
Marklin sold two-rail versions of (some) of its models under the Hamo brand. I don't know when they bought the Trix brand, nor when they started using it for their 2-rail offerings.
The Trix brand has had a very chequered history, which is probably not worth sorting out in detail. Around 1950 it was owned by a British company, I believe that was a consequence of UK rights to the brand surviving WW2. Anyhow, British Trix made something called Trix-twin -
3-rail DC system in which the two running rails controlled two locomotives on the same track, with the centre rail as a common return (ground). I saw a set in England around 1950 - detail wise it wasn't as good as Hornby Dublo, besides being utterly incompatible with any other brand, so it's not surprising that it disappeared. By the late 1960s, there was a Trix Express brand owned in Germany, but how this relates to the UK brand or the pre-war German brand is unclear (to put it mildly.) I have no idea how Trix and Minitrix were related.
Trix Express started in 1935 after Bing (Jewish) was forced to close his factory in Germany. Bing had been supplying Henry Greenly with models for the British market so Bing went to Britain and started the separately owned British Trix Twin company with Greenly. They used Trix Express mechanisims etc to produce British outline. After WWII until the early 1950s they continued to co-operate. Both companies changed owners with monotonous regularity. MiniTrix was the brand Trix applied to their N gauge range to differentiate it from their HO range.