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How to pick the best Scale for you model railroad

Updated on February 12, 2014

Model Train Sizes Explained

Confused about what scale to use for your model railroad? Picking the right one is one of the most important decisions you can make before you start your layout. Which one is the best though? Size and available space are important, but so are other considerations. Are the trains you want to model available in a particular scale? Are you going to buy everything ready to run or do you want to build kits or even scratch build? Are you a "rivet counter" or an operator? Will children be playing with the trains or just adults? All these things have an affect on which one is best for you. Keep reading to learn about the pros and cons of each, and you'll have a better idea of which one is best for you and your layout.

Z Scale model train layout
Z Scale model train layout

Z Scale


Z Scale trains are the smallest commercially available railroad models. These trains are really tiny - 1/220 scale. A 50' box car is only about 2-3/4" long in Z Scale (it would be almost 7" long in HO). Even a Union Pacific Big Boy would only be about 8-1/4" long - about the same as an HO Scale Tyco Shifter (a small switch engine). Z's small size means you can fit more layout into a smaller area, or have more realistic distances between towns on a larger layout. Sounds great, and it is - if you can work its disadvantages. The small size that lets you fit all that railroad into such a small space also makes these trains hard to work with unless you have great eyesight and really steady hands. Also, equipment selection is limited compared to other scales.

N scale model train layout
N scale model train layout

N Scale


At 1/160 scale, N Scale trains still let you get a lot of model railroading into a small space. N Scale offers almost as much space advantage as Z Scale, but the slightly larger size is enough to make them a lot easier to work with - especially if you like to scratch build. Equipment selection in N Scale is very good and you can model just about any era you prefer, from steam to the most modern diesels. N Scale is especially good for modular railroading, using small (2x4 or 2x6) layout modules that can be combined to create huge temporary model train layouts.

HO Scale train layout
HO Scale train layout

HO Scale


If you don't have a basement (or attic) for your railroad and you don't want to model a modern Class 1 railroad, HO Scale trains are a great compromise between space requirements, level of detail, and workability. HO models are big enough to be easy to work on, even for a klutz like me. HO is also the most popular scale, so choices (and prices) are better than any other. Really nice layouts can be built as small as 1x6 feet, or 4x8 if you want continuous running (just don't expect to run the "latest and greatest" equipment). It's easy to model any era, even back to the first railroads built.

Track Plans


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    • Tricia Deed profile image

      Tricia Deed 4 years ago from Orlando, Florida

      We have both the N and the HO scale for indoor use. Your lens was sweet, short, and to the point.