If you are a model train beginner then you might be asking…
“Which model train scale is best suited for me?”
A common mistake for model train beginners is to confuse scale and gauge.
Let me explain…
Scale is the proportion of the replica to the real thing. For example, HO scale locomotives are 1/87 the size of the real life locomotive. Model train gauge is the width between the inside running edge of the track.
Model trains are obviously scaled down replicas of the real thing. The main model train scales and their minimum turning radius’s are:
O scale 1:48 – Minimum Radius 24 inches
S scale 1:64 – Minimum Radius 22.5 inches
OO scale 1:76 – Minimum Radius 21 inches
HO scale 1:87 – Minimum Radius 15 inches
N scale 1:160 – Minimum Radius 7.5 inches
Z scale 1:220 – Minimum Radius 5.75 inches
O scale is the largest scale, to Z scale being the smallest scale. An O scale model train set is 1/48 the size of the real thing, while a Z scale model train set is 1/220 the size of the real thing. All the trees, bridges, roads, buildings and other accessories are all scaled to the relevant size.
HO scale has become the most popular scale which is known as OO gauge in the UK.
So which scale should you choose?
This comes down to 3 deciding factors -
- How much space you have available for your model train layout,
- The physical size of model train equipment you prefer working with, and
- The accessories available for that scale.
1 – How Much Space Do You Have Available?
Building a layout in HO scale will be almost half the size of the identical layout in O scale. Turning radius’s in HO scale will be tighter; tunnels will be smaller and, most importantly, it is easier to hide mistakes in a smaller scale.
Larger scales need more detail and it can often be very hard to create a realistic looking layout in a large scale. HO scale has become very popular because it is a “middle-of-the-road” scale and easier to make look realistic.
An HO scale switching layout can be created on a 4 x 1 foot table, while a continuous loop railroad will need a 3 feet 6 inch x 4 feet table. A layout space of 6 feet x 4 feet would be enough to have an interesting HO scale layout with a continuous loop.
Still don’t have that much room available? Then consider an N scale railroad which can be built in 30% of the area required by a similar model train layout in HO scale.
2 – Which Scale Do You Prefer Working With?
Fat finger syndrome or bad eyesight can sometimes force us to consider the larger scales. It can be very frustrating trying to airbrush a Z scale carriage or manipulating N scale rolling stock. They can be very fiddly!
Children will find it easier operating and manipulating the bigger scales, from HO scale upwards. Bigger scale rolling stock tends to be heavier and less likely to derail.
The ladies seem to prefer the intricate smaller scales, while the men tend to go with the HO scale and larger scales.
3 – What Accessories Are Available?
Over the years the HO scale has become the most popular model train scale and the manufacturers have responded to the demand by producing more accessories and rolling stock for HO scale. HO scale is just the right size for most people to appreciate the detail and running performance without being too cramped.
If you decide to run digital controllers and have lots of switching operations then HO scale is usually the preferred choice. Check with your local hobby shop to see which scale they have the most accessories for. It is often easier to buy from your local hobby shop initially… or at least until you know exactly what you want.