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Picking The Right Model Railroad Scale Track Size For You

Updated on May 24, 2011
The tiniest working model railroad - T gauge!
The tiniest working model railroad - T gauge!

Train Sets of Various Scales

G, O, S, HO, N, Z, T - which scale should I choose?

If your thinking about making the leap into the fascinating hobby of model railroading one of the first decisions you need to make is in what scale will you be modeling.

Scale refers to how much "scaled down" the model are from the real trains. For example in O scale the relationship between the model and the prototype is 1:48. One foot in real life would equal 1/4 of an inch in O scale. HO scale is half the size of O scale and N scale is half the size of HO. Here are the ratios some of the scales in the hobby of model railroading:

  • G Scale - 1:22.5

  • O Scale - 1:48

  • S Scale - 1:64

  • HO Scale 1:87.1

  • TT Scale - 1:120

  • N Scale - 1:160

  • Z Scale - 1:220

  • T Scale - 1:450

Size Matters: The Most Popular Scales in Model Railroading

Popularity does matter in the world of model railroading simply because the scales with which most model train enthusiasts are most attracted to also attracts the most manufacturers. Thus the most items (trains, buildings, detail parts) are available in the popular scales. The equipment available in the more popular scales are also less expensive because the tooling costs of the models can be spread over a much larger customer base. More customers, more products, more sales, less cost.

The most popular scale is HO. HO modelers have the most trains, buildings, etc to choose from as the offerings mammoth phone book size Walther's catalog can attest. The other scale that is very popular especially among space challenged modelers is N scale. At half the size of HO, N scale modelers can fit in a lot more track or run longer trains in the same space that an HO layout would require. N scale has grown considerably as the quality of the motors in the models has improved over the years and electronics have shrunk. As you can imagine as the models get smaller they pose a challenge to manufacturers but these challenges have gotten easier over the years.

If you want to model a specific railroad and run certain trains, HO or N is you best bet in finding rolling stock, locomotives and equipment that meets your requirements. Also the mainstream magazines such as Model Railroader Magazine will mostly feature layouts in HO or N scale and your local hobby show is most likely to stock HO and N scale.

G scale or large scale or gardening scale is the very large trains that you might find running around a Christmas tree or in a garden railroad. The trains and rolling stock in this scale are very expensive but you might only have one loco running in a garden railroad. There are a number of manufacturers mostly from Germany producing products in this scale including buildings and detail parts. Lots of modelers find this scale a lot of fun because with its doll house size dimensions is allows one to create very detailed scenes.

O Scale can be confusing because its the scale of Lionel Trains that many modelers think of as "toy" trains. Lots of Lionel Train fans like the retro feel of these trains flying around "store window" type layouts at super sonic scale speeds. They like to capture the feeling that these trains gave them in their youth. But there are a lot of more serious modelers in O Scale especially in the last few years with the grown of narrow gauge On30 which is O scale running on HO track.

O Scale even has a few magazines - O Gauge Railroading and O Scale Trains magazines. These larger scales O & G seem to be having a rebirth as the baby boomer modelers are starting to age and their eyesight changing.

The most unpopular scales are probably TT (mostly only found in Russia and Eastern Europe) and S Scale. S Scale was the scale of American Flyer trains from years ago. It gives you a step up in size so you can have more detail than HO but if you pick this scale plan on spending more money on rolling stock and doing a lot of scratch building.

T Scale is the smallest gauge working model railroad size on the market and one of the newest. Its not really very practical but it certainly is very cool and of course from the miniaturization experts of Japan. T Scale was to the world introduced in 2006 and is sold by KK Eishindo. This scale is so small that it can be used as a backyard train using G scale figures.

In addition to these standard scales, there are also a number of Narrow Gauge scales that are popular with modelers. Short lines, industrial, mining or logging prototypes often ran on their own scale down versions of the standard rail gauge. While the American standard of approximately four feet between the rails, narrow gauge lines ran on smaller gauges in some cases as with the Maine Two-Footers, slim railroads were laid with as little as two feet between their rails. The resulting scaled down equipment of these funky little railroads appeals to a lot of modelers. On30 as I mentioned is O scale running on HO track and HOn30 is HO running on N scale track. I'll discuss the narrow gauges further in another article.

The Trade Offs

There is a lot more to the actual scales of the various gauges but for the purposes of choosing a scale it really comes down a few things:

  • How is your eyesight? Sure you can build a huge Z scale layout but will you be able to enjoy it if you can't see it? Do you like to build models? Do you want to use surgical techniques? This is the question my local hobby shop posed to me when I said I was considering N scale. I ended up with a On30 layout!
  • Which protoypes do you want to model? Are they available in your scale?
  • How much space do you have for your layout? Smaller scales such as N scale will allow you to put more track down and run longer trains at the trade off of less detail.
  • Standard or Narrow Gauge? Narrow gauge involves running trains on smaller track. You can fit in more track and tighter curves but buildings will be larger.

Choosing between the two most popular scales of HO and N will come down to a debate with yourself over how much you value running longer trains over having more detail. It might also involve a realistic assessment of your layout space. You can fit more layout in a smaller space using a smaller scale but then again you might value scenery and model building over trackage. If you have small children you might also consider their little hands picking up the trains. HO trains might be easier for them to place on the rails and HO trains can be had for less than the smaller N scale in most cases.

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Copyright 2011 - Edward M. Fielding


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    • bn9900 profile image

      Clayton Hartford 4 years ago from Alger WA

      Short but informative HO is by far the most popular, there is so much you can do. It is the perfect size and has a very large varity of modeling choices.