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How To Get Started With Model Railroading - Part 1 of 3

Updated on July 16, 2012

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Which Way Do I Go?

Getting started with model railroading or toy trains as a hobby can be a daunting task. The range of different modelling scales and train gauges can be overwhelming. This series will attempt to distill some of the information out there to help you make an informed decision on which way to go with the hobby.

For most of us, our first exposure to model railroading and toy trains comes during the holidays when we are young. Since the early 1900s, toy trains have been a staple Christmas decoration, with set ups ranging from a simple loop of track around a Christmas tree to expansive Christmas villages. It is likely that we've received a train set for Christmas. During Lionel's hey-day in the 1950s, the latest ready to run outfit from the Lionel catalog was on the top of every boy's wish list. Today, model and toy trains compete with high end electronics and video games, which makes them less popular. However, with updated electronics of their own, and classic designs based on real-life prototypes, the look and feel of a quality toy or model will bring a smile to anyone's face, young and old alike.

We'll start with a definition of model trains and toy trains, creating two main groups. Then we will bring meaning to common terms, the understanding of which will help in your decision making. We will cover the most popular modelling scales and the most popular toy train manufacturers. We will talk about operating trains versus running (playing) trains. We will provide tips along the way and summarize at the end. With this information, you should be able to feel good about your decision to enter the hobby and get off to a great start.

O Scale trains operate on O Gauge track and have varying levels of details
O Scale trains operate on O Gauge track and have varying levels of details
Toy trains are usually not build to scale proportions, and can be brightly colored, like this one from the 1920s
Toy trains are usually not build to scale proportions, and can be brightly colored, like this one from the 1920s
These HO Scale boxcars feature details that are true to the prototype
These HO Scale boxcars feature details that are true to the prototype

Model Trains vs. Toy trains

Let's take a look at model trains versus toy trains. Generally speaking, a model train is a scale, detailed representation of a real life prototype. Model railroaders often refer to the real life trains as being 1:1 Scale, the inference being that even the real things are just big toys. Model trains come in a variety of scales, the most common being Z (1:220), N (1:160), HO (1:87), S (1:64), O (1:48), and G (1:29). Each primary scale has subsets, and subsets of subsets, typically based on a prototype's representation of narrower gauge track. Different manufacturers may produce equipment that is slightly off the standard scale as well. For example, LGB Trains, the most recognized G Scale manufacturer, produces their equipment in the scale of 1.22.5, whereas USA Trains produces their equipment in 1:29.

Two terms that are thrown around interchangeably are scale and gauge. Scale most commonly refers to the scale dimensions or proportions of the rolling stock. Gauge most commonly refers to the track and the space between the rails. For example, O Scale locomotives operate on O Gauge track. The track has a spacing of 1 1/4 inches between the outside rails. As long as the engines and cars have wheels set properly, they will operate on O Gauge track. Whether or not the rest of the model is properly scaled is irrelevant. Lionel produces what they call Traditional O Gauge locomotives and rolling stock. These cars are noticeably smaller and less detailed than their O Scale counterparts, however, they all operate on the same track.

Toy trains operate more based on gauge than scale. Prior to World War II, toy trains were far more popular than scale replicas. This held true in the early post-wars years as well. Today, the majority of hobbyists consider themselves to be scale modellers as opposed to toy train enthusiasts. O Gauge toy trains from the 1920s will operate on O Scale track from today. Today's toy trains are primarily found in O Gauge, though lower price point trains can be found in all sizes. The main differences between scale models and toy trains are in the size and proportions of the train and the details. In addition to being smaller, or less than scale proportioned, toy trains lack the fine detail of the scale models.

Who Gets To Be The Engineer?

A major consideration when choosing to go scale or toy is the operator. If the jump in to the train hobby is for the entertainment of children, then toy trains are the way to go, and the larger the scale the better. Young hands will do better with larger equipment and tracks, and much of the larger sizes are more durable than the small scale counterparts. Older kids, a.k.a young at heart adults, will appreciate the details and realism offered by smaller scales. When choosing a scale to operate in, consider how the trains will be run, who will be running them, and what your goals are for your setup.

Next Installment

In our next installment, we will define some commonly used terms in the hobby and take a look at the world of toy trains. We will provide tips for getting started in toy trains and how to avoid costly mistakes when setting up your trains.


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    • profile image

      Nenk 2 years ago

      forget to check out Part I, their Union Square Day Before Shoot, and their Engagement Session too! I love how they decorated the cake area. And these

    • profile image

      Sabre 2 years ago

      your special day! It has been such a pselaure working with you both for your engagement session and Union Square shoots as well. Congratulations to both of you and enjoy your first sneak peek and there is much

    • Jeff Gamble profile image

      Jeff Gamble 5 years ago from Denton, Texas

      Let me know when you're ready to go, I'll help you get started

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      This is actually on my bucket list of things to do when I retire....if I ever retire. LOL No, I'm thinking in three years when we move to the country....thanks for the great info!