One of the hardest decisions a newcomer to model trains has to make is what scale layout they are going to build. The Wikipedia page for rail transport modelling lists over 45 different scales which can be rather confusing if you are new to the hobby.
With all the various scales available it would be frustrating to purchase a train set only to find that additional parts and accessories in that scale are rare or non-existent. Therefore the popularity of the different scales is something you need to consider when choosing a scale.
Common model train scales
Scale = relative size compared to a full size prototype
Gauge = refers to the distance between the two tracks
G – 1:22 scale / 45mm gauge
G scale is the largest commonly used scale for trains that would still be considered models and not miniature trains. G scale offers great detail and durability and for that reason they are commonly used in garden railway layouts.
O – 1:43 scale / 32mm gauge
O scale is popular amongst hobbyists that like to focus on detail rather than operation. O scale grew in popularity as many childrens toys originally used this scale for its size and durability. There are many people who collect vintage O scale models.
HO/OO – 1:87 or 1:76.2 scale / 15.5mm gauge
HO (OO in Britain) is the most popular scale. There is a large amount of ready to run sets available in HO scale making it a great scale for beginners. HO scale is large enough for you to build detailed custom scenery but does require a decent sized area for the layout.
N – 1:160 scale / 9mm gauge
N scale allows you to create decent sized layouts yet still have plenty of space for scenery, the downside is N scale trains are not as detailed as larger scales. The focus for many N scale enthusiasts is to create broad open countryside layouts as opposed to detailed lifelike scenery.
Z – 1:220 scale / 6mm gauge
Z scale is a micro scale suitable for people who have extremely limited space. Z scale does have some drawbacks, due to their weight trains will struggle to climb gradients over 2%, the size of Z scale also makes them prone to derailments as the smallest obstruction on the track can be hazardous.
The scale chosen is often dictated by the amount of space available to build a layout, larger scales squeezed into smaller spaces are never going to be as aesthetically pleasing as a layout built to suit the space available.
When you have a limited amount of space you also need to take into account the turning radius of the scale you are using. For example a HO scale train will require around 24” for each curve (more if you are using large carriages or engines) so your bench would need to be at least 48” wide, not taking into account space around the edges. Tight radiuses can lead to train derailments and appear less realistic.
Space however is not the only consideration that should be taken into account when selecting a scale. Larger scales allow a modeler to more easily create custom buildings and scenery, if you are interested in creating buildings and scenery from scratch then a larger scale will be better suited to your interests.
If there is a particular make of train you are interested in running you should find out what scales it’s available in. Many of the popular train makes are available in multiple scales but if you are interested in a very specific make of train your choice of scale may be limited.
Costs of building a layout generally increase as the scale increases. Before choosing a scale factor in the cost of buildings, landscaping and additional trains. Model trains can be an expensive hobby so choose a scale to fit your budget.
Remember building a layout is a time consuming process so its worth taking your time and carefully considering all options before starting. It should also be noted that there is no “best” scale, choose the scale that meets your individual requirements and enjoy!