Written by Jack Bowles
Many people start their hobby of model railroading with a pre-packaged train set. The specific contents of train sets vary greatly, but they usually include a locomotive, some cars, enough track for at least a small circular track, and a power supply.
This is everything you need to get started. But very quickly, you’ll probably want to expand upon these basic offerings, and that is why it’s important to choose an introductory set that conforms to one of the common modeling scales and gauges.
How Model Trains Are Categorized
Model trains are available in different sizes, or scales, based on their proportions to the actual train (the prototype). There are six common model train scales, each identified by letters and a numerical ratio that compares the size of the model to the prototype. For example, an HO-scale train has a ratio of 1/87 or 1-to-87. This means that the length of a real boxcar is 87 times larger than a model HO boxcar.
The distance between the rails is known as the gauge. In a real-life prototype, the standard gauge is 4 feet 9 1/2 inches between the inside faces of the rails. Each model train has a proportional gauge that is stepped down from dimensions of real-life train tracks.
Model Gauge Proportion Ratio Rail Gauge
G 1/25 1.75 inches
O 1/48 1.25 inches
S 1/64 0.875 inches
HO 1/87 0.625 inches
N 1/160 0.375 inches
Z 1/220 0.25 inches
In addition to these six standard scales, there are a number of less common scales used by some model railroaders, especially those in Europe. These include OO-scale, On30-scale, O-gauge, and G-gauge.
Choosing a Model Train Scale
The best scale for you depends on your personal preferences and needs. For example, if space is at a minimum, Z-scale trains may be the right choice for you because they are the smallest and set-up takes up little space. The tiny size of Z-scale trains, may, however, may be too small for those with eyesight difficulties.
There are great products available in every scale. Once you choose a scale for your beginning setup, you’ll need to expand your set using only products in that scale, but you can mix and match products from different manufacturers in the same scale. Model train manufacturers tend to be stable companies, and most have been around for years. Even when a manufacturer goes out of business, their products are usually available almost indefinitely from online retailers and exchange networks devoted to model train enthusiasts.
When selecting a manufacturer, it’s important to consider more than just cost. Read customer reviews and closely examine the details of the components. If buying online, make sure to purchase from a retailer with a liberal return-and-exchange policy. Top-quality train cars can be a significant investment, so make sure you are getting items you know you want.
Z Scale, the smallest of the model trains, has a scale-to-foot ratio of 1/220. Manufacturers that sell Z-scale model train sets include:
American Z Line
N Scale’s scale-to-foot ratio is 1/160. Manufacturers that sell N-scale model train sets include:
Arnold by Hornby
Broadway Limited Imports
Fox Valley Models
HO Scale trains have a scale ratio of 1/87. Manufacturers that specialize in HO scale train sets include:
Broadway Limited Imports
Fox Valley Models
While the majority of model training is done with these six scales, there are several different scales used by specialized enthusiasts.
OO-Scale trains sets have a scale ratio of 1/76.2. This scale is the most common scale in the UK and is modeled and UK prototype trains. Manufacturers include:
On30 trains are O-scale in size, but they use an HO-gauge track. They are sometimes called HOn3 trains. Manufacturers include:
O-Scale train sets are modeled on a three-rail electric train system and were originally made popular in Germany. The scale ratio is 1/48. Manufacturers include:
Industrial Rail (Atlas-O)
G-Gauge model trains have a scale ratio of 1/22.5. These large models are frequently used outdoors. Manufacturers include:
Hartland Locomotive Works
Marklin (No. 1 Gauge)
Whether it’s big or small, steam or diesel, freight or passenger—your introductory train set can be the start of a long and pleasurable journey. You can expand your set with more track, trains, and accessories as you grow, or switch scales if your interests or needs change.