It has just occurred to me that model railroading, this popular and enjoyable activity, has nary a writeup here on E2. As a past model railroader myself, I have decided to make a comprehensive writeup about model railroading; its methods, scales, and requirements, for the model railroader in all of us. This is going to be a big writeup, but model railroading entails a vast subject area, and I don't want to leave anything out.

First of all: What is model railroading?

Many of you have no doubt assembled a little christmas train, revolving in endless loops around the christmas tree, with an engine and a small complement of cars. Well, this is model railroading at its most basic form. Model railroading is an attempt to miniaturize the world of trains, to create more than just tracks, but a world around it; cities, scenery, even mountains are necessary for a quality train layout. Some model railroaders take it to such an extent that they even have dispatchers and cards for their trains, describing their arrival times at switchyards, where to carry the cargo, etc. Although these hardcore hobbyists take their hobby to great lengths, the average person can put together a decent layout provided they know what they're looking for.


So you like trains a lot, and have decided to commit yourself to building a layout. Well, the first thing you have to decide is what scale you want your track and cars to be in (scale is the size ratio between a model and its real life subject). There are many to choose from - everything from the large G scale, which requires huge layouts (often outdoors), or the tiny Z scale, of which an entire layout can fit on a coffee table. I will outline the main scale types below, from largest to smallest:

G Scale
Ratio: 1:22.5
Scale mile: 234.7'

G scale has several upsides and downsides. If you prefer to have an outdoor layout, where the scenery and water (eg. creeks) is actually real, then G scale is for you. However, since these are so large (a boxcar is over two feet long), the trains are expensive, as is the track. G scale is also fairly hard to find - only the largest model train stores will carry G scale. As well, it is only made by one manufacturer - LGB trains, so if you're looking for variety in railroad types, you'd best look in another scale.

O Scale
Ratio: 1:48
Scale mile: 110'

O scale is the third most popular scale, with approx. 8% of all model railroaders using it. The large O scale was originally the most popular back in the 1920's, but later on it was superceded by the smaller and more manageable HO scale (Half of O). However, in the 1970's O scale experienced a renewal of sorts, after model train companies (such as Atlas) began offering O scale products. O scale is the second largest scale, though if you have enough room in your house it can be built with relative ease (though you'll need about 1000 sq. feet, minimum). O scale is popular for several reasons; it provides a sense of realism due to its large size, and unlike other large-scale scales (like G and the nearly-extinct No.1) products are relatively easy to find and inexpensive. O scale also provides the opportunity for detailed, large trackside scenery, for those who enjoy such a thing. The problem is, for most people, O scale is just too big.

S Scale
Ratio: 1:64
Scale mile: 82.5'

S scale, first developed by American Flyer in the late 1940's, is midway in size between HO and O. S scale has many advantages - it is smaller than O scale (so it will fit in a smaller space), but is still large enough to do detailed scenery. As well, S scale is large enough to provide a sense of realism, but it not unwieldy or bulky. Overall, S scale is generally regarded as one of the best scales to model in, but it is plagued with the problem of availability; S scale trains and tracks are manufactured by only a few companies, so they are expensive with little selection in car or railroad type. Many S-scalers build their own cars and engines, as well as track and buildings to counter the its low commerical availability (this is called scratchbuilding).

HO Scale
Ratio: 1:87
Scale mile: 61'

HO scale is to model trains like Windows is to computing; HO is by far the most popular scale, with over 77% of all model railroaders using this scale. It is popular for a variety of reasons; it can be easily fit in a relatively small space (4x8 feet should be enough), and it has a huge abundance of equipment; anything you want railroad-wise can be found in HO scale, from cars of any railroad line to a large variety of buildings (even model people!). Since HO scale is so popular, the prodcuts in that scale are usually less expensive, and in some cases an entire train engine can be purchased for as little as $30.00. Because of its ubiquity, low price and ease with scenery, HO is generally the scale most beginners start with.

N Scale
Ratio: 1:160
Scale mile: 33'

N scale, so named because its track gauge is 9 millimetres, is second in popularity behind HO scale, with over 16% of model railroaders using it. I myself used to use N scale, for a variety of reasons; it is small, so a small 4x5 table will support a fairly detailed layout. As well, N scale products are fairly common, so I found that it wasn't a problem purchasing the cars and engines I wanted at my local hobby store. The one thing that turns people off from N scale is the small size - it leads to problems for accurate scenery, as well as keeping the engines clean. An HO scale engine can take a beating and keep on running, but N scale parts are smaller and more delicate, and more susceptible to getting dirt and dust in the engines. Nonetheless, for the cash-strapped beginner with little space, I would recommend N scale.

Z Scale
Ratio: 1:220
Scale mile: 24'

Tiny Z scale was developed by Marklin trains, a German company, in 1971, to assist European model railroaders where space is often limited. It was introduced to North America soon after, though it never achieved the popularity of N scale, another European import. There are many things going against Z scale; its track, cars, engines and accessories are manufactured almost exclusively by Marklin, so prices are generally high and selection is limited. Z scale trains are also tiny; a full-sized engine is the size of an average person's thumb. This small size makes scenery a very tedious and careful task, and the small size of the engines means that even the smallest particles of dirt and dust can jam the engine. The only thing going for Z is the fact that a layout of modest size can be fully built on a 2x3 foot coffee table.

SEF says re Z scale: it is no longer exclusively made by Marklin; there are several competitors. My toy train dealer (in San Francisco) advises me that it's the most popular gauge of all now: he can't keep stock in. This may - and probably does - reflect the reduced size of living spaces in an urban area (I'll bet New York is the same) but probably isn't true in more rural areas. There's now a huge selection of stock. They really aren't more expensive than quality O scale, it just SEEMS so because the rolling stock is so tiny! You do need to keep the wheels clear of hairs and dust and stuff. Track, too, must be very clean, to transmit the tiny current involved. But for me it's the only scale - I'm enchanted by the tiny engines, and I've built a whole tiny town, with industrial section, for them to run through. Scenery cannot be as detailed, obviously, but is thereby easier to make. Scenery modelling nuts need a bigger gauge. If you just want to run model trains, you want a complicated layout, and you don't have a whole room to devote to it, Z's the scale for you.


Gauge is the distance between the rails, measured from inside running edge to inside running edge. The rails on every train track in North America are spaced 4 feet, 8.5 inches across (you can check yourself if you don't believe me) - this keeps trains running smoothly regardless of the rail line it's on. However, towards the end of the nineteenth century, many narrow gauge railways were popular, especially in mining and rural railroads, where the width of the track was only 2 or 3 feet. Many model railroaders prefer to model in narrow gauge track and cars, so most scales are available in narrow gauge, with its own naming system. For example, most HO scale narrow gauge track represents 3 foot gauge, so this would be called HOn3 (where HO is the scale, n signifies narrow gauge and 3 signifies the gauge of the track). The two most popular types of narrow gauge track are Sn3 and HOn3, though both have limited availability and usually require the modeller to build their own track and accessories.

The Layout

Now that you know the scale you're modelling in, you can build your own personal railway, called a layout. A layout is built in several different stages - building terrain, laying track and wiring, and scenery. But before you do any shopping, you have to decide what type of layout you want. I will outline the basic layout types below:

You are a beginner. Remember that the next time you attend a rail show with eight different rail lines intersecting with each other on graduated piers, trestle bridges and tunnels carving through mountains. For the purposes of this writeup, I'll show some of the more basic layout types, for those of you who aren't master electricians (these are layouts which I have either constructed or seriously considered constructing in the past).

Loop with passing track<

This is your basic, bare-bones layout type. Basically, all it is is a loop of track, with a small passing track branching out and re-connecting at either end of the circle. The passing track can be used as a siding, or if you're really adventurous, a docking point for a second train on the same track. For the easily occupied beginner with little money or space, this is ideal.

Loop with passing track and sidings

For those who would easily tire with the simple loop above, there is this layout. Basically, it's an oval with the passing track, but with several sidings jutting out on the straight sides of the oval. This adds another dimension to the layout - the sidings offer opportunities to build factories or other buildings as part of the layout, and the main oval acts as the "main line", with the larger passing track acting as a holding place for a secondary train, if desired. This was the first layout I built - I had lots of fun with this one, with relatively little money or space required. This can be modified to add a second main line running alongside the oval, which needs no addition in table size.

Figure Eight

Figure eights, the staple of christmas trains, can be easily modified to create a better layout. All you need to improve is a pier set and a bridge, to create a figure eight that loops over itself. Throwing an extra couple sidings on the straight track sections will allow this layout to perform its full functions train-wise.

The Railyard

If you want to upgrade the second option even more, all you have to do is increase the size of the oval, and turn individual sidings into large railyards by buying lots of switchers (track pieces that hook two straight lines together), and just building straight lines outward from each switcher. If you like trains, you'll love trying to switch and re-switch cars back and forth, then carrying them on the mainline to the other siding, which houses maybe an industry or business. I really liked this one when I built it a few years ago.

Buying the stuff

Here's the hard part, trying to assemble a layout once you've visualized it. Some companies (like Atlas) will publish hepful guides and pre-assembled layouts, so you know what and how much to buy. However, you may want to build your own layout, so you're going to know what you need. The following is a list of supplies every model railroader will need to build a layout (most of which should be available at a local hobby store).

  • Engines: These small, motorized train engines which pull cars along are the backbone of any layout. Much like cars, you have a large selection of different engine types and railways, including powerful diesel engines to the slow, but durable railyard switchers. Generally, engines receive their power by electrical current which runs through the rails, and each engine on your layout must be guided with separate controllers, unless you want them all going the same direction at the same speed.
  • Track: This may be stating the obvious, but you need track for your layout. Tracks usually come in two types - nickel and brass plated; from personal experience, I like nickel-plated track - it gives a nice silvery shine, and looks and feels more realistic (Atlas makes nice track). Track also comes in many different lengths and radii (for curved), which means that you can build practically any layout you want. Track usually comes in packets of between ten and twenty track pieces (though specialty pieces like bumpers and track rerailers come one per pack). Switchers are also essential to a layout - they connect two straight pieces of track, and can be switched back and forth depending on which line you want your train to go. These come in left and right turns, so it's best to plan these things in advance.
  • Scenery: If you want to jazz up your layout, there are endless scenery supplies. You can buy bags of different colored foam (for grass), you can buy trees of most types, and you can buy scale fences, cows, people, barnyard animals, buildings, etc.
  • These supplies will run you over three hundred dollars for a small layout, so you'd best not get too involved in model railroading if you can't afford it (like I did).

    Assembling the Layout

    Ok, so now that you have your supplies, it's time to build the layout. You'll need a sheet of plywood or particleboard a little big bigger than your planned layout size (to provide periphery scenery). You'll also want to paint it a dull neutral colour, like dark grey, brown or green (this makes it easier to add scenery). If you have any mechanical prowess, you can build a table yourself, or you could just put the plywood on top of another old table.

    To lay the track, you have to buy cork roadbed. Lay down your track on the table and mark its outline with a soft pencil, then cut your roadbed to match your ouline and lay it down, using small nails to hold it in place. From there, you can lay down your track on top of the cork, keeping it down with small nails.

    Now where wiring is concerned, this is difficult. This is precisely why, when I needed wiring, I went to my dad, who was a college professor of electrical engineering. Not all of us have fathers so adept at wiring, so for those people there are many books available, geared towards beginners, which explain all about wiring, how to do it, where to do it and what wire to use, available at your local hobby shop. I do know that there is much more wiring than you think - all electrical switches must be wired, as do all power boxes and connectors (for insulated track pieces). I found this to be the most complicated and least enjoyable part of making a layout, but once it's over you can focus on the real fun: scenery.


    Once you have your track laid and is operational, you can focus on scenery. This is the difference between a crappy layout and a great one, so you don't want to skimp on it. The following can be purchased or made yourself to make a truly great layout:

    • Trees: Usually, these are sold as brown plastic frames with separate green foam - cover the frame in glue and dip it in the green foam, to create instant deciduous trees. Coniferous trees are also sold like this.
    • Grass: depending on your layout setting, you can buy grass of almost every shade of green. These are bags of foam, which are crumbled, put in glue and attached to your layout. Beleive me, you'll need a lot of grass.
    • Water: Creating realistic water is tricky. Most hobby shops will sell water-making kits, in which you can form strips of "water" (for creeks) from a synthetic gelatin substance (warning, this stuff usually smells really bad until it dries).
    • Mountains: There are some kits for mountain-building, but I use my own method: I create a cardboard cutout roughly shaped like the mountain I want, then cover it in plaster (which can be bought at any hobby store) and paint it acordingly.
    • Buildings: This is an extremely fun and interesting aspect of model railroading. If your layout is set near or in a city, then purchasing scale-model buildings is necessary. You can buy buildings of almost any sort - grain silos, farms, houses, office buildings, train stations, shacks, corner stores, etc. Or, if you're so inclined, you can engage in scratchbuilding, which is making buildings from scratch, so you can have whatever you want. I like to stick with the building kits, though.
    • People and Animals: That's right, you can even purchase scale model people and animals, to give your layout that realistic touch. As well, you can also transfer from scale to scale; an adult in HO scale could easily be a child in S or O scale, etc.
    • Weathering: Sometimes, model railroaders like to give their cars and engines a worn look, rather than a just-out-of-the-box look. This can be accomplished by buying a weathering kit, which includes a brush and assorted poweders, to give the illusion of dirt and age.
    • Background: TO give the illusion of sky, some model railroaders paint the walls of their train room sky blue, sometimes with a few wispy clouds. This is more reserved for larger layouts, though.

    A layout, when finished correctly, can provide years of fun, if your mind is so inclined. For me, I just loved the infinite combinations of cars and engines going around and over trestles and curves, and creating little scenarios for them. I only stopped because I ran out of money, and my attention was diverted in other things (I still keep a big box full of my railroading supplies in my closet, though). I still love trains - I just don't model them. I might take up the hobby again, though, sometime in the future.

    History of model railroading

    The very beginnings of model railroading were in 1825, when Josef Ritter von Baader built a model in the park of the Nymphenberg castle to interest the king of Bavaria in a real railroad project. This failed, but it set a precedent for the next seventy years or prospective railroad contractors building models for their employers. Until 1904, there were no model trains per se as a hobby, just as small-scale prototypes for a real train for promotional uses.

    The first use of model trains as a hobby occurred in 1904, when English hobbyists collaborated with the German company Bing to create many prototype models of English trains. A magazine, Model Engineer, was introduced, as well as the first scales: 0 (1:43.5), 1 (1:30), 2 (1:27), and 3 (1:23). These scales correspond roughly with today's O and G scales. However, these were not table-top trains, as they were made on house floors, not tables (due to their large size).

    This method survived fairly well until World War I, when most German industry was destroyed. This forced British and American companies to create their own scales, and in 1923 British model train maker Bassett-Lowke created what it considered the first table-top scale, OO (1:76), a little larger than today's HO scale.

    By 1935, the scales we know today started taking shape. The NMRA (National Model Railroading Association) in the United States standardized O and HO scales, adjusting HO scale to 1:87 and O to 1:48. Around this time, thanks to new manufacturers such as Trix, Marklin and Bachman, HO scale started to rise in popularity, mostly because of its small size.

    However, many Americans found HO scale too small and O scale too big, so in 1946 American Flyer trains offered S scale (1:64). Unfortunately, after the war homes got smaller, and because of the smaller space HO scale became the most popular, "King of Scales". S scale remained, though, and today attracts a small (2% of railroaders), but devoted group of modellers, who publish their own magazine called S Scaler monthly.

    This dominance by HO scale remained pretty constant until the early 1970's, when a great new import arrived from Europe. N scale trains (1:160) were much smaller than HO, but were still large enough to attract attention on the American markets. Within 15 years, N scale attracted 10% of all model railroaders, and today that number is around 16%. N scale was advantageous because it attracted many beginners, due to its small size, and relatively inexpensive but quality parts. At the opposite end of the spectrum, O scale also experienced a surge in popularity after the reknowned Atlas train company added O scale products to its line.

    One more player has showed up since then: tiny Z scale. Marklin trains introduced this tiny (1:220) scale to America in 1971, but never caught on due to its small size, scarcity of parts and delicacy of engines. Less than 1% of all model railroaders model in this scale, though in recent years Marklin started an aggressive advertising campaign in such magazines as Model Railroader.


    Model railroading is a popular hobby, so there are many magazines available. Every scale has its own magazine, as do specialty modelers (Garden layouts, steam engine layouts, etc.), but the mother of all railroading magazines is Model Railroader, which has been around since the mid-1940's and has a monthly subscription of several hundred thousand. This is an excellent magazine, as it profiles layouts (with layout drawings and pictures), gives tips for beginners and offers scenery tips and suggestions. I used to buy Model Railroader magazine, and I loved it. Any model train aficionado should have a subscription to this magazine.

    Encyclopedia Britannica 2002
    Introduction to N Scale Model Railroading
    Several issues of Model Railroader
    Lots of personal experience