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Model Train Scales and Gauges

When talking about model railroads, some people think that scale and gauge are the same thing, but they are not. Scale refers to the ratio of the model to the real thing and is usually expressed in fractions. A scale of 1/24 is a twenty-fourth the height, length, width, and depth of the real train. Another way to state this would be "one to twenty four", which means one foot of real measure equals twenty-four of the miniature. Gauge is the distance between the outer rails of the track in most cases. Some exceptions are when you are talking about "tinplate" or "scaleplate" such as Lionel, American Flyer, Marx or MTH train sets. Real world track gauge is 4' 8 ˝" between the rails.

When shopping for model trains and tracks you will encounter some terminology that you should be aware of. Most hobby kits will be labelled with a descriptive representation of the scale and gauge. For example, HOn3 would mean HO scale, narrow gauge with the rails 3 feet (36 inches) apart. HOn30 would be HO scale, narrow gauge with 30 inches (2.5 feet) between the rails. It is important to remember that this is what the real world equivalent track width would be. The model track would be much smaller, at a 9 millimetre gauge which is the gauge used for N scale models.

Model Train Scale and Gauge History

Model railways have not always been to scale. People became dissatisfied with the inaccuracies and developed standards where everything is correctly scaled to the real world counterpart. Standardization of miniature hobbies from model railroading to military miniatures has occurred over the past 100 years. Originally the code referred more to gauge than to scale. As trains went from toy to scale model the letter code changed from gauge to scale. There have been changes in how scales and gauges are noted over the years. Scales and gauges are also different for different types of hobbies.

model train trackModel Train Track With Rural City Layout

One general rule when interpreting scale is that when fractions are used, the accuracy of the scale is reliable. A scale of 1:6 would refer to a model where one real foot is represented by two inches. A six-foot figure would be twelve inches tall.

The size of model train engines varies by the scale and can vary from 27 ˝ inches tall to matchbox size for the smallest which is found in Z-scale. T Gauge is a scale that was introduced in 2007, which is basically half the size of Z scale. The most popular scales are G gauge, Gauge 1, O gauge, HO gauge, S scale, TT scale and N scale. A scale and T gauge are becoming more popular. Narrow gauge scales that are the most popular are Sn3, HOn3 scale and Nn3.

Some advantages of narrow gauge train sets are that they are unique and demand creativity to build them. Since they do not have the same wide support of the standard gauge the builder needs to make or improvise parts. When choosing the scale and gauge to work with, one consideration is how large of a space you have to build in. Another thing to consider is what kind of track you are building and how you want it to work. You also need to think about what kind of shapes and curves you want in your finished product. The different gauges of rail make various shapes and size of curves.

O, S, HO, N, TT, and Z Scales

O Scale

O is the largest of the traditional scales, with distance between the tracks measuring 1 1/4" (32 mm) apart. The O scale was first popularized around the turn of the 20th century and was introduced by the Marklin toy manufacturer.

S Scale

S scale is modelled at 1:64 and the space between rails is 22.42 mm. S scale is the oldest of model train scales which dates back to the mid 1800s. Modellers can find S scale sets that are AC and DC powered, which offers the builder a greater choice and flexibility with which to power his or her model railroad.

HO Scale

HO scale trains are scaled at 1:87.1 from real trains. Track gauge in HO scale is 16.5 mm in width from rail to rail. Most HO scale train sets are powered by DC current applied to both tracks. HO scale is definitely the most popular model railroad scale in both Europe and North America. The advantage to HO scale is that modellers are able to find a wide range of locomotives and rolling stock at many different price brackets. This makes it more affordable and scaleable than most other model railroad scales out there.

ho scale trainsHO Scale Railcars

N Scale

N scale model railroads are also very popular. The scale ranges from 1:148 to 1:160 depending on the country that the model train has been manufactured in. N gauge tracks are typically spaced 9 mm apart. One of the biggest advantages to N scale versus the more popular HO scale is that with N scale you can have long train runs which take up much less space. If space is a limitation for you, then N scale could be your answer.

n scale trainsN Scale Railcars With HO In Back

TT Scale

TT is the abbreviation for Table Top which is intended to be small enough for people with limited space. The scale is 1:120 with track gauge at 12 mm. This puts TT scale as not quite as big as HO but larger than N scale. TT is a popular scale for those railroad modellers who enjoy building their sets from scratch. TT scale is more popular in Europe and Russia than it is in either the United Kingdom or the United States.

Z Scale

The Z scale is perhaps the smallest model railroad scale available. The track gauge is 6.5 mm and the scale is 1:220. Like the S scale, Z scale is powered by direct current (DC) which powers the rails directly. The Z scale was first introduced by Marklin, a German toy manufacturer in 1972. Since then it has become very popular and model railroaders will find that it is easy to locate props, locomotives, and rolling stock in the Z scale. One big advantage of the Z Scale is that is small and can fit in a compact area of the home.

Large Scales

The largest common scale is 1:8, with 1:4 used for park rides. Garden (G) scale is 1:24 and is popular for backyard models. The scales most popular for indoor use are still S, O, HO and N gauge, as described above.

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