If you are just starting out in the model train hobby and you want to get some guidance you’ve come to the right place. In this guide, we will walk you through some of the major categories and propose some questions you will need to think about. So, if you want to enjoy one of the U.S.’s most popular hobbies around, then read on because this guide’s for you.
Model trains make for a great hobby. Some put them up during the Christmas season, while others embrace them all year round, perhaps developing a lifelong passion even. What makes model trains special is their higher complexity than most toys, stunning engineering, realistic dioramas, and limitless imagination.
But let’s face it, these marvelous creations are not everyone’s cup of tea for several reasons. Yet, it is also easy to see why one would be an ardent fanatic. For those who are starting to get into it, this article is for you.
When deciding on getting your first model train, you need to account for the different factors to know you’ll land the right one.
Trains must have captivated you beyond imagination as a kid. However, not many people outgrow their love of railways and ultimately end up collecting miniature trains as a pastime. They invest a great deal of work and energy into every aspect, from the rails on which their priceless trains will travel to the landscape the passengers will see on their short (or long) voyage.
It’s very important to have somewhat of an idea of how you would like your finished layout to look before getting started. You don’t want to spend all your time and money building a layout just to find out halfway through that you should have used a smaller scale for space, or that a bigger scale would have looked better. It’s like the saying, “those who fail to plan, plan to fail.” We’re going to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Before you can actually immerse in the world of model trains, you need to understand them. The following will help you do just that:
Types of Model Trains – Scale Types
For just about every train built, there is definitely a replica that you can buy. Whether it’s a locomotive or a modern diesel train, online and regular hobby stores will have what you seek. However, you should keep in mind that trains are classified by their scale and the gauge specifications of their tracks
What is scale? Does scale matter? What scale is right for me? These are probably the most important questions when starting out. The scale you are working in will decide everything you do from this point on. So, does scale matter? Yes.
What scale is right for me?
It depends. There are quite a few different scales: G, O, OO, S, T, TT, HO, N, Z, ZZ and even more. We carry a subset of these scales that are more popular to work with. The scale is basically a ratio between the real thing and the model such as 1:24. Most people have heard of this because of scale model houses; where 1 inch on the model house would be equal to 24 inches in the real house. Model trains have the same thing, but it’s just represented with letters instead of the ratio of the scale.
Some places will substitute gauge for scale; this is incorrect. Gauge is the ratio of the distance between the rails of the real thing and the model. But wouldn’t the gauge of the track be the same scale ratio as the train? Not necessarily. While the train may be one scale, it could be running on track that is narrower than what it should be. This is called narrow gauge, but we’ll get into that later. Let’s show you some of the scales we carry:
- G Scale Trains – this is the biggest scale we carry; it’s a 1:22.5 ratio to the real thing, with a 45mm gauge. This scale is also known as Garden scale, because of its size, it can be run outside through your garden. Not many people will be interested in this scale, because of its size and its price, which can be just as big. You really can’t get a very good layout if you don’t have space the size of a garden. Some skillful people make shelves near the top of the rooms, and have a G scale train running throughout their house.
- O Scale Trains – this is a 1:48 scale with a 31.8mm gauge. This is the next biggest scale we carry but is also a popular scale. If you have a fair amount of space you can dedicate to your hobby, O would be a nice scale to work with. The size is big enough that you can handle it easily, and you will also be able to enjoy the realistic fine details of the train.
- On30 Scale Trains – remember narrow-gauge mentioned earlier? This is an example of that. On30 scale an O scale train (1:48) on HO gauge track (16.5mm). So the “O” stands for the scale, the “n” stands for narrow gauge, and the “30” means the gauge is based on a real 30-inch gauge track. This is like the best of both worlds because you can have bigger more detailed trains running on smaller track that is more versatile at utilizing space than O gauge track.
- S Scale Trains – a 1:64 scale with a 22.4mm gauge. S scale originated with American Flyer, and is like a midway point between O scale and HO scale. It’s not as big of a train as O scale, and the layout space needed is only slightly more than you would need for an HO scale layout.
- HO Scale Trains – a 1:87.1 scale with a 16.5mm gauge. It is arguably the most popular scale in model railroading, with a vast selection of products from many companies. The name HO comes from Half O, because the scale is about half of O scale. Why is HO scale so popular? It’s kind of like the sweet spot between size, price, and space utilization. It’s big enough to still enjoy a great amount of detail, and not have to worry about small children swallowing the pieces. The price is lower than the bigger scales due to its size and its popularity to provide competition between manufacturers. And you can get complex and elaborate layouts in a reasonable amount of space.
- N Scale Trains – a 1:160 scale with a 9mm gauge. N Scale is the most popular when it comes to small-scale modeling. It’s about half the size of HO scale, and is called N for its 9mm gauge track. N scale is great for those who don’t have a lot of space to work with, but would like to make a fairly extensive layout. This scale is not recommended for those who have small children, because the pieces are small and can be swallowed.
There are many companies that create model trains, and each makes sure that its train looks a bit different than its competitor. Aside from the number of track rails, companies like offering rolling stock that performs different functions such as carrying cattle or unloading milk jars.
Types of Track
Now that you’ve decided what scale you are going to build with, it’s time to move on to the type of track you are going to use. Don’t worry, the hard part is over, and there are only four options to choose from in this category.
- Brass Track – this has been one of the most common types of track used. Brass conducts electricity well, which is a good thing; however, as time goes by it starts to oxidize (tarnish). This oxidation is a poor conductor of electricity and will cause your train to run slower because it’s not getting enough power from the rails. Therefore, while brass is good for conduction, it requires the most care and cleaning.
- Zinc-Coated Steel Track – this was one of the other more common types of track used. The zinc coating helps keep the steel from corrosion and conducts electricity well. However, over time the zinc coating will wear off due to oxidation, and friction between the rails and wheels. Once this happens, the steel will be vulnerable to rust corrosion.
- Steel Track – the same as zinc-coated steel track, only without the coating. Over time the track will begin to rust due to the track being wet, or moisture in the air around it. It’s important to keep the track as dry as possible to prevent rusting.
- Nickel Silver Track – this is the most popular and recommended track to use. It’s not as good of a conductor as brass; however, the oxide that forms on it also conducts electricity. It resists rust and corrosion, and because of this, you are able to run your trains longer without having to frequently clean the track.
No matter what track you decide to use, it is important to note that as you run your train, dust, dirt, and grime will get on your tracks and on your trains. Proper cleaning and care for your trains and track will ensure your trains run for a very long time.
Tips to Start Your Hobby
So, now that you know the basics, here are some pointers that will help you start your new hobby:
- G, O, HO, and N scale model trains are the most popular and commonly recommended kits for beginners, so try these before you move on to more complex models.
- Always choose the train size depending on what you prefer to focus on the most. For example, if you want to unleash your artistic flair by designing scenery, then a smaller train will do.
- If you’re good with electronic wiring, you will easily be able to make your own DCC board. However, if you’re not, simply buy it rather than putting your train layout and house at risk.
- Read online about model trains to learn more about them and how to build layouts. The more you know, the better your trains will be.
Which track is most suitable?
Although there is a standard track, yes, you can consider other types of tracks, such as an integrated roadbed for your model train. While standard tracks have tie-bound metal rails, integrated roadbed tracks have rails fastened to molded plastic strips on an elevated base of ballasts.
Often, integrated roadbeds are relative to their manufacturer such that you may find that they are not compatible with other brands all the time, especially their locking tabs. While you may use corks to solve this issue, if you’re expanding your tracks in the future, you might be stuck with the same brand. Hence, make sure they have scalable track lines and not just a few SKUs.
Minimum track curve radius
When planning your tracks, you must check the minimum curve radius of your model train. Otherwise, curves may be too sharp such that your train cars get dislodged from the track during operation. You would usually follow the recommendations by scale; however, even your rolling stock length, easements, and your personal preference may still affect your chosen track.
How big (or small) should the model train be?
The size of your model train is not only according to one’s preference but also dependent on the size of your space. If you want a larger scale, the more room you will require. It is an important consideration when buying the best model train sets. Scales refer to the ratio between a model train and a real one. For instance, you will find that an actual train is 160 times bigger than an N scale, or 160:1. Many modelers opt for the HO scale, which has a ratio of 1:87 and a 16.5mm gauge. A plywood sheet is often used for its layout.
Speaking of gauge, it is another point of contention regarding sizing. It is simply the distance between the rails. The scale is directly proportional to the gauge; a bigger scale will have a bigger gauge. Using the same reference earlier, an N scale would have a gauge of 0.375 inches.
So if you want to set up your model train set in a cramped bedroom, a Z scale might work for you. It is the smallest model train that is commercially available. The Z scale is 220 times smaller than your life-size locomotive. However, you might want a bigger scale when you have big fingers or poor eyesight since smaller ones like the Z scale can be fiddly. Even children might go for a larger scale as it is not as prone to derail as a small scale.
What type of power supply should you use?
It used to be that model trains simply came with analog transformers by default that power the train itself and some of its peripherals. However, these had limited abilities, and besides, the power supply should be appropriate based on one’s layout and desired functionalities.
Nowadays, power packs can do more, given the variety of controls that enhance the simulated railway experience. Power packs are devices that supply power to your model train and its related accessories. This way, the user can have smoother train operations and enable them to manipulate other activities such as railroad crossings and switch turnouts.
For HO scale trains, Bachmann released ones with DCC (Digital Command Control), which allows you to have a booming sound to your train empire on top of speed, direction, and lighting controls, among others. However, the extent of their features also varies from starter to advanced. You can always upgrade your DCC later on if you opt for the bare minimum. Note that this system requires layout wiring. It is relatively easier to install than direct current since you don’t need wires that connect to a control panel or a rotary switch anymore.
Meanwhile, MTH trains have a proprietary DCS or Digital Command System for their O gauge line. It is quite similar to DCC, but it does not have computer programming. Remember that when you have a DCS, you cannot use it to operate DCC trains, even with an installable DCS decoder.
Buying Model Trains
Now that you’ve decided what scale and track you are going to use, it’s time to talk about buying your first train. There are two types of trains, those that are made for hobbyists, and those made as toys. We only carry trains by manufacturers that make trains for hobbyists. Toy trains are found in toy stores and some department stores and are designed to be cheap in cost, but also run that same way. This is understandable when you have someone buying for a young child. No one wants to spend $300-$400 on a locomotive just to have it broken in a couple of weeks. But buying a cheap “toy train” set can make the child lose interest because of the problems of derailing and poor overall quality of the train.
How much should you spend?
When buying trains and accessories, it’s best to buy from your local model train hobby shop, or from an online model train site like our store. You want to find a place that carries trains for the serious model railroader, and by well-known model train manufacturers. That way, you know the quality will be high, and you will be able to get answers to any questions you may have.
Model trains have different price points. You can spend under 25 dollars if you’re just getting into the hobby, no problem. While the cost should not dictate your skill level, it is crucial when buying a model train set. In reality, you’ll probably spend up to 200 dollars for a quality entry-level train. And you are likely to have a lot more from a pricier model, such as trains with figure 8 tracks, six wagons, and a steam locomotive set, than a cheaper one. Or a model train set from reputable makers like Bachmann, Athearn, Lionel, etc.
Brand name aside, how do you know if you’re getting a good deal or if the train set you’re buying is worth its high price? Inspect the body – how’s the construction? Look closely at the wheels, paint job, lettering, weight, and other details that indicate good craftsmanship. We also suggest you purchase your train sets from specialty stores or hobby shops where you can get advice from an in-house expert instead of resorting to discount retailers and online sellers.
Constraints to the Hobby
As great as becoming a model train hobbyist may seem, you need to keep certain considerations in mind:
- Model train kits may be small, but the minute you start evolving in the hobby, you will need more space for complex layouts and scenery.
- Model trains aren’t toys, so don’t treat them that way. They are collector items that can bring you hundreds of dollars down the road.
- Beginners’ train sets may be cheap, but once you start looking for better trains, you will have to pay more for the quality.
Having a model train is one hobby whose purchase must be thoughtful and well-planned. Otherwise, it can cost you more when you buy the wrong scale or have too tight tracks. On that note, we hope that you get to save a bit of time and money from skipping a trial and error yourself just by learning how to buy model trains from this article. Nothing can be better than for you to enjoy a fully functional set by nailing your choice on the first try.
We hope this guide has been helpful in starting your path into model railroading. The best thing about this hobby is that you can go as far as creating your own little world, or you can just buy one train set and be content with that. No matter where you are on that spectrum, we hope that this hobby will provide you with years of enjoyment.
Model Trains are a great way to get the whole family involved in something they can all enjoy. Now you can finally start your hobby, so head to the store and get your own model today.