What You Should Know About Model Train Scale

Model train scale can be somewhat confusing. This can be true for those who are new to the hobby, and can also include model train enthusiast who have been involved in the hobby for awhile. The confusion specifically relates to the difference in the definitions of scale and gauge, and actually ends there because there are no other issues to confuse these two terms. With that said, however, it is not unusual for the two terms to be applied incorrectly.

This confusion can be cleared up by simply reviewing what each of these two terms represents in the world of model railroading. So, with no further ado, let’s take a look at these two very different definitions.


Gauge: This is actually the measurement which is taken from the inside of a rail to the inside of the opposite rail. This is very important when matching a scale you may be working with to the train track you purchase.

Scale: This term relates to the scaled down size of the model you are working with as compared to the real life prototype. Scale is always represented in fractional form. For example a 1/87th scale which represents the HO scale is 87 times smaller than the real train.
How To Choose A Model Train Scale

If you’re new to the hobby, the challenge of choosing the right model train scale is something which will cause the new enthusiast to pause, and they’ll certainly wonder if there is some frame of reference or a guide which will assist them in making this important decision. In truth, there really isn’t, but there are certain factors which come into play which allow the model train enthusiast to make a choice that will be best for both their wants and needs.

Does budget play a role in making this decision? Not really. However, if you have a limited budget you will want to only invest in a good locomotive and a few rail cars in the beginning.

If a model train layout is being built with children in mind, one of the larger scales would be a more preferable choice. They are much easier to handle, and their larger size reduces the possibility of damage through routine handling.

The location and the amount of space you have available can definitely be a deciding factor regarding the particular scale you choose to model in. If in fact, the space you have available is rather small, then it would only make sense to select one of the smaller scales to work with.

On the other hand, if you have a rather large space such as an area which is the size of a full sized garage, basement, an attic space which allows someone to stand comfortably with more than adequate headroom, or a rather large room in you home, then you can choose to work with whatever scale you prefer, and the selection of a specific scale may be more one of personal choice.

In order to select a scale, however, you must have a solid familiarity with all of those which are available to the model railroading enthusiast and they are as follows:


HO Scale Trains: We begin with the HO scale which is one of the most popular among model railroaders. However, there are some hobbyist who may argue with this. The scale you work with may be simply a matter of personal preference, or it may also have to do with the space you have available in which to build your model train layout, or for that matter the size of your budget can be a contributing factor.

This scale has been around for awhile, and was first introduced to hobbyist following WWI, but not as we know it today. Over the years and up to current times, this scale has been worked and improved and has become one of the more sought after by hobbyist worldwide.

The HO scale can be run on two rail track using direct current or it can be run using a Digital Command Control system. How this scale is powered depends on the wants and personal preferences of the hobbyist.
An additional advantage in working with the HO scale is that there is no shortage of accessories for your layout or rolling stock, and this certainly has an appeal for many hobbyist. This scale is of course will adapt with ease to smaller spaces. The HO scale is 1/87 in comparison to the real life prototype, or 87 times smaller than the real train.

O Scale Model Trains: The next scale that appeals to many model railroaders is the O scale which is sometimes referred to as O gauge (a contradiction since we now know that there is a difference between the definitions of scale and gauge).

There was a time, in fact, in the United States when this particular scale was much more popular with hobbyist than the HO scale. This of course, has changed as the years have gone by. The scale is considered more of a toy train, and those hobbyist who choose this scale are typically less interested in the facets and activities of model railroading than the more serious hobbyist.

This scale is a bit larger than the HO scale and is 1:48 the size of the actual train. It will run on the same gauge track as the HO scale, and is generally modeled after British trains.

N Scale Model Train: Coming in directly behind the two previously mentioned scales, is the N scale, and arguably just as popular as the previously mentioned scales. First introduced in the 1970s as only a niche market train, the scale has risen to unrivaled popularity among model railroaders. This is a scale that is definitely a solution for model railroaders who have a limited amount of space to build their layouts. Although diminutive in size (when this scale first came available it was temporarily the smallest scale available for hobbyist).

One distinct advantage of modeling in the N scale is that it presents a very high level of detail and has numerous accessories for hobbyist to choose from. It’s size is 1/160th compared to its prototype and runs on a 9mm track.

There is one disadvantage in working with this scale however, and that is the smallness of its size may make it difficult to work with for some model railroaders. That said, if this characteristic isn’t a disadvantage for you, you’ll be pleased to know that the cost for working with N scale is comparable to pricing for HO scale products.

G Scale Model Trains: The G scale also holds it’s own special place in the hearts of model railroaders, but is meant for large rooms or the outdoors.

In fact, it is frequently referred to by the phrase “garden railway,” as it can come in a size which is large and sturdy enough to build in an outdoor area. Although it may be uniquely enjoyable to construct an outdoor model railroad, there are some drawbacks that come with this type of endeavor.

For example, the hobbyist will have to deal with climate changes which can effect their trains if they are not protected, and foliage can grow and tangle itself in the tracks.

You also have to consider protecting your railway from your household pets and other creatures whose environment you are now invading. Never-the-less, this is still a very popular scale. It’s size begins at l/22 and to make matters a little confusing or to the delight of some hobbyist the scale actually increases in size.

Other scales which are worth considering, and each of these are also meant for modelers who have limited space or who are simply attracted to these scales includes the following:

S scale model trains: The size of this scale is 64 times smaller than its prototype or a ration of 1:64. Its origins were at the turn of the century and the scales home of record was originally in England. Today, it still holds a high level of popularity in England, but the scale is now enjoyed world wide. This scale can be powered with both AC, DC, and Digital Command Control systems. It is also another scale which is considered to be by some in the family of toy trains.

TT scale model trains: If you’re looking for a scale that is little larger than the N scale you’ll find it in the TT scale, which is 33 percent bigger than its counterpart. Still, it is a scale which will more than satisfy the needs of the model railroading enthusiast who is restricted by limited space.

First introduced in the United States by Hal Joyce who was an automotive engineer, the TT scale was welcomed with open arms. However, because of poor marketing strategies the interest in this scale began to steadily decline, while at the same time interest in the scale in Russia began to peak.

Over recent years, the interest and enthusiasm expressed by hobbyist has reached a balance, and it is fair to say that it now enjoys reasonable popularity on an international level.

Z scale model trains: The most unique quality of this scale relates to the fact that it is the smallest of all the scales. The scale was introduced to the model train community in 1972 by Marklin model trains, and the scale ratio when compared to the prototype is 1:220.