Model Railroading – A Hobby for Young and Old!

Model Railroading actually has its beginnings in Great Britain during the early 1900’s when the elite began making models of local trains. This is perhaps a natural result of this early, efficient form of mass transit that was very popular in Britain. Model trains as a hobby has grown in popularity around the world as the spread of full size railroads continued.

So, how do you get started in this fascinating hobby? First thing we need to do is to learn about some of the terminology used in model railroading.


To better understand model trains, you will want to familiarize yourself with the common scales of model trains. The term scale simply refers to the size of items in relation to real life sizes. For example, HO is the most popular scale of model trains and are 1/87th the size of the real thing.

Among the most commonly used are the Z, N, HO, S, O, and Gn3 scale. To give you a feel for what each of these sizes mean think about a full size 50 foot boxcar, In the case of:

Z scale, ratio 1:220, Length 2¾ inches

N scale, ratio 1:160, Length 3¾ inches

HO scale, ratio 1:87, Length 7 inches

S scale, ratio 1:64, Length 9¼ inches

O scale, ratio 1:48, Length 12½ inches

Gn3 scale, ratio 1:22.5, Length 19 inches

Often times model railroaders will use the term “scale” and “gauge” interchangeably when they really mean different things. Scale as just explained refers to the size of the model with relation to the real thing. Gauge is always the reference to the distance between the rails. Standard gauge of North American railroads is 4 ft 8½ inches. For the different scales, the same ratio is applied to get the distance between the model rails. The exception to this applies when a “narrow gauge” railroad is modeled. Narrow gauge railroads in real life have a track spacing of 3 feet. This is identified in the modeling world by adding a small “n” after the scale letters. For example, HOn3 model will have all trains and landscaping at a scale of 1:87 but will have a track spacing of 1:87 of three feet.

Selecting a Scale

What is the best scale? There are a number of factors to weigh in making your choice. Do you have a train set already that you want to build onto? How much space do you have for developing your layout? Are you on a budget?

If you have a train set that either was yours or given to you and it is of a quality that you want to make as part of your layout, then you have your decision made for you.

The larger scale trains take more space and will likely cost more. The smaller scales take up much less space but may not be significantly cheaper. This is because material costs are traded for the cost of miniaturization and creating detail.

HO scale is by far the most popular and is where most hobbyists start. Hobby shops will have more HO scale items and the prices will be lower for the same items in any other scale.

To get started, pick a scale that feels right to you. You can always change your mind later after you have some practical experience.

Getting Started

Most model railroaders begin by purchasing a train set. This will give you the basic components needed to get started. The most important factor in selecting a train set is getting one that is reliable. In the case of model trains, you get what you pay for. Cheap discount store sets will most likely have poor running locomotives and track that will not hold up well. So, if you are on a budget go for the best locomotive and power pack you can afford and a few if any cars. Get the basic working components right and you will be much happier in the long run.

Not too many years ago track was the other item that required careful selection. However, in recent years most manufacturers have improved the quality to the point there are many good choices. Manufacturers like Atlas, Bachmann, Kato and Life Like produce track sections mounted on plastic roadbed which locks sections together creating a positive electrical and mechanical contact.

Once you begin to create a permanent layout you will want to use nickel-silver track. Nickel-silver, while it does slowly corrode, it corrodes slowly and the oxidation that forms is more conductive than that found on brass track. Also, purchase several turnouts and additional track sections allowing you to expand and vary your trains route. This will help keep your hobby fresh and exciting.

Final Thoughts

Time to break open that train set, set up the track, plug in the power pack and get your locomotive rolling! Once you have done that, you can call yourself a model railroader. Have fun and enjoy your new hobby.

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