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Guide to model railroading scales and gauges

Learn the basics about the most common modeling scales used by model railroaders.

You don’t have to spend much time with model trains to realize that they come in a number of different sizes. These differences are one of the things that make model trains so much fun because there are advantages to each size. Let’s take a look at them so you can think about which size may be best for you.

Model and toy trains are classified according to scale and gauge. “Scale” describes the size of a miniature in proportion to its full-size prototype. “Gauge” refers to the distance between the rails of the track.

From the largest
The largest model trains are collectively referred to as “large scale” trains. These big trains often operate outdoors on what are called garden railroads, though of course they can be run indoors, as well.
These models are offered in a range of proportions, including 1:32, 1:22.5 (called “G scale”), and 1:20. But all of them operate on Gauge 1 track, which measures 45mm between the rails.The next largest popular scale is O (1:48 proportion; pronounced “oh”). Track in O gauge measures 1¼” between the rails. This gauge is used for both toy (non-scale) and model trains. Lionel’s O scale trains have been produced for almost 100 years and, at their peak in the 1940s and ’50s, helped introduce millions of children to their lifelong hobby.Slightly smaller than O scale is S scale (1:64 proportion). These locomotives and cars, originally popularized by American Flyer, run on rails spaced 7/8″ apart. Unlike their toy predecessors, today’s S scale models are as highly detailed as trains in other scales.
To the smallest
Overshadowing the larger scales in popularity are models built to be approximately half the size of O scale models (that’s why they are called “HO” – pronounced “aitch-oh”). These trains are 1/87 the size of their real-world prototypes, and HO gauge track measures 16.5mm between the rails. HO trains are small enough to allow a satisfying layout in a compact space, say a 4 x 8-foot sheet of plywood, while still being large enough to show great detail. No wonder HO railroading is the most popular of the scales, with more than two-thirds of modelers making it their choice.Smaller still is N scale. Rolling stock and locomotives of this size are 1/160 the size of their real-life counterparts. The track gauge is 9mm between the rails. N scale works well for modelers who don’t have a lot of space or who prefer to run trains through truly expansive scenery.
Even smaller are Z scale trains. Their proportion to the real thing is 1:220, and they run on track whose rails are just 6.5mm apart. How tiny are these trains? Well, a model of a real-life 50-foot locomotive measures just 23⁄4″ in Z.
Which size is best?
No one scale is right for everyone. Look at several scales and consider how much space you have to devote to your trains, whether you want to run longer trains amid towering scenery, and how much you can spend on your hobby. Talk with experienced modelers, club members, and local hobby shop employees. Don’t worry if you change your mind and later decide that a different model railroading scale is a better choice for you. They’re all great.
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What is DCC?

Digital Command Control

NMRA command control standard supported by multiple manufacturers. Offers a simplified lower cost wiring system. No computer experience needed. Basic and advanced systems available. Low $ entry level to full club systems.

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Click here to get more information.

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Model Railroading Supplies You Need

Written by Jack Bowles
Updated 04/17/2020

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 Manufacturers
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
Micro Trains
N-Scale Manufacturers
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
Micro Trains
Scale Trains
HO-Scale Manufacturers
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
Model Power
Non-Standard Scales
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)
Williams (Bachmann)
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)
USA Trains
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.