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Which Model Train Scale Is Best?

A question I get constantly asked by people considering model trains as their new hobby is “Which model train scale (or gauge) is best?”

HO Scale Bachmann 44-tonner

This is a great question, but, let’s clear up a common mistake model train beginners tend to make…

And that is to confuse scale and gauge. I’ll explain…

Scale is the proportion of your model to the real thing.

An example is a HO scale locomotive. This locomotive will be 1/87 the size of the real locomotive.

Gauge in model trains is the width between the inside running edge of the track as shown in the drawing.

So How Does Someone Considering Model Trains Decide Which Scale To Start With?

This comes down to 3 deciding factors –

  1. How much space you have available for your model train layout,.
  2. The physical size of model train equipment you prefer working with,
  3. And the accessories available for that model train scale…

Let me explain these 3 points in detail…

1. How Much Space Do You Have Available?

Building a model railroad layout in HO scale will be about 1/2 the size of a similar model train layout in O scale.

The turning radius’ in HO scale will be tighter, the structures will be smaller, the detail will be less important and it is easier to hide mistakes in a smaller scale like HO scale.

It can 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.

A HO scale continuous loop model railroad will need a 3 feet 6 inch x 4 foot table, while a HO scale switching model railroad can be created on a 4 x 1 foot table.

A model train layout space of 6 feet x 4 feet would be enough to have an interesting HO scale layout with a continuous loop.

If you don’t have that much room available, then you should consider a N scale layout which can be built in less than 1/3 of the area required by a similar HO scale model train layout. .

2. Which Scale Do You Prefer Working With?

It can get very frustrating trying to work with a locomotive or car that you struggle to hold, or struggle to see the small fiddly pieces.

A big magnifying glass, bright lighting and tools to work with your trains can solve many of these problems, but often it’s easier to just model a bigger scale.

This hobby should be fun, so there is no need for frustration searching for the lost magnifier or your glasses…

Children will also 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.

3. What Accessories Are Available For The Scale You Are Considering?

At this stage HO scale is the most popular model railroad scale. Because of this the manufacturers have responded and are constantly creating a huge amount of accessories and rolling stock for HO scale.

The popularity has come from HO scale being just the right size for most people to appreciate the detail, the amazingly good running performance and the price.

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.

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About Dan Morgan

Dan Morgan is on a mission to encourage more people to give model railroading a go... There is just no better hobby in the world!

10 Responses to “Which Model Train Scale Is Best?”

  1. My grandfather started with model railroad and the family has continued. My father changed to HO scale and just four years before his death he changed to N scale. I continue with HO and this year i”m looking to add N scale to my HO layout as I have my first grand child. The hobby is the greatest.

    • Dan Morgan Reply Fri at 11:36 pm

      Hi Ray, That’s great that you are passing on to your grandchild a love that was handed down from your grandfather.

  2. Hi Dan
    Just starting ( and researching ) the hobby. Thanks for your advice. Like any hobby it can be made as easy or as difficult as you like. My current hobby of 55 years (guitar playing ) is a good example. Some of the biggest songs of all time have been the simple ones that people can relate to. I suppose ( and hope ) model trains are the same

  3. Hi Dan,
    One consideration in choosing a scale you did not mention in your article is: the distance and perspective of the viewer from the layout.
    My layout runs around a 12ft by 20ft room above the doors. This puts the layout board 6ft 6in. off the floor. This setup also puts the viewer at a distance of six to ten feet or more from the action.
    O or G were my only choices for scale. I went with O and installed two separate tracks of about 65ft each on shelving that varies from 10 to 12 inches in width. The four room corners were filled in at a 45 degree angle to allow for gentler curves and some space for scenery. The rear track (nearest the room walls) was raised 3 to 6 inches above the inner track to aid viewing when seated. Most scenery is flat against the wall. This is an interesting and challenging set up.

  4. Just to elaborate a little further – as there’s so many different transformer voltages (240 50hz, 110 60hz etc) it’s considerably more cost effective for a manufacture to supply the controller; which just regulates the track power; seperately for the transformer; which is the main current supply from the mains voltage. A lot of this has come about since outsourcing of product manufacturing from the eighties onwards

    • DALE KUECKEN Reply Tue at 9:24 pm

      hi Dan.. I have a 10″ by 8′ board and im putting 2 autorevering on30 scale on it .
      its to bad that I can”t use any turnouts
      any ideas ?
      thanks DALE KUECKEN

  5. Dozerdave Reply Sun at 9:57 pm

    Dan I am trying to find out if I can build an operating coal mine. I am @ this time building a N-scale on a 4×8.In the past I have built 2 ho layout’s, on was a 2 cab unit the other a four cab. They were both old school block and switch layouts. @ that time I was developing a working coal mine from the mine to0 the dump. I was abel to load my cars and take them to the coal dump and with operating doors on the coal car’s I could empty them. A coutinues convaer under the tabel kept the coal going back to the coal mine where it was lifted back into the tippller. I would like to creat this in N but I can’t seem to find operating door car’s in N scale. Also this will be my firest time to build in DCC. What books do you recomend that I read. And useing DCC can you,by compiter, Program a train to pick up and drop off a string of car’s to different location’s? Thanks for your help Dave Emert…

  6. Lose power never finished trying After laying new track this 55 year old 4-6-0  Atchison Topeka Santa Fa (Tyco) Locomotive would be the test loco to run on the new laid tracks, if it didnt derail  all others would run with no problem
        Michael, into HOs for 55 years now

  7. After laying  new track this was the first locomotive to run on the new line and if it didnt derail non of the other

  8. HO’s are the best to me     Started with HO trains when I was 6 years old 1956 with a 4-6-0 Tyco steam Locomotive and three cars set is 55 years old and running great.
    Back then Rrvarossi and tyco was king to me most of my Engines are over 50 years old and still working the rails 
     The set in the photo is the one that started  it all in 1956 and she is running to this day  

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