Model Train Track Grades and Maximum Grade Issues

Designing Layouts to Prevent Derailments

Model railway, warehouse
onfilm / Getty Images

The track grade is the slope of a railroad track. The track grade is expressed as the percentage of its rise for the length of its run. For example, if you have 100 inches of model railroad track and the train climbs one inch, then the grade is 1 percent. When 25 inches of track rises 1 inch, the grade is 4 percent. The maximum grade is the steepest slope your trains can climb. Well-planned grades can make a layout interesting. Badly planned ones can be a disaster.

  • 01 of 09

    What's My Maximum Grade?

    The simple answer you will hear from many model railroad fans is to never use grades steeper than 2 percent. However, that isn't the final answer. The largest manufacturer of model railroad landscape materials, Woodland Scenics, offers flexible incline foam for grading model railroad train layouts in grades of 2 percent, 3 percent, and 4 percent, and they continue to sell them.

    These grades aren't very steep for model trains, but they are steep grades for real-life trains. In real-life railroading, there are three classes of grades: 0.8 percent to 1 percent is "light grade," 1 percent to 1.8 percent is "heavy grade," and anything greater than 1.8 percent is "mountain grade."

    Because of this limitation in real-life trains, some builders of prototypical model railroads will ridicule any grade steeper than 2 percent, calling them "toy train" layouts.

    Maximum grade is frequently dictated by available layout space. The implied requirement is that if you are building a small layout it should be flat. But why not a mountain grade railroad over a flat oval or figure eight?

  • 02 of 09

    Maximum Track Grade and Train Issues

    Maximum grade is a function of three factors: the power of your locomotives, the weight of your locomotives, and the number and weight of the cars in your trains. That the locomotive's power is a factor is common sense; a weak locomotive won't pull many cars up a grade. But how the weight of the locomotive affects maximum grade isn't quite so obvious. The greater the weight, the greater the traction. This means wheels on lighter locomotives may slip where heavier locomotives can climb a grade. Larger scale locomotives may handle steep grades better than smaller scales. Good N scale locomotives can pull around 15 cars up a 4 percent grade. But to some modelers, 15 cars is too short a train.

  • 03 of 09

    Grades, Like Curves, Are All About Space

    With model train track curves the concern is the width of the space available to us. While curves can be used to break up the monotony of long straight sections of track, turning a train around with a180-degree curve, a necessity for continuous running layouts, taxes the limits of a narrow layout.

    With model train track, grades can also be used to make a layout more visually appealing. But interesting layouts frequently pass one track over another on bridges or trestles. And gaining sufficient height for an over/under on a short model railroad layout is where grades become a challenge.

  • 04 of 09

    Model Railroad Layout Overpass Clearances

    The Spruce / Randall Roberts

    The table lists clearances in various scales for bridges and tunnels. The National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) doesn't list standards for tunnel and bridge clearances. Its vertical clearance standards are based on its "H" dimension.

    Manufacturers of trestle piers and tunnel portals generally exceed this dimension sufficiently to take into account the height of the rails for most model railroad tracks. However, there are numerous cases where tunnel portal products don't have sufficient clearance for models of modern locomotives and cars. Pantographs on electric locomotives increase clearance requirements, too.

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  • 05 of 09

    Grading Runs for a Crossover

    Grading Runs for a Crossover

    The Spruce / Randall Roberts

    To raise a track to cross over itself, as in a simple figure eight, you need a grade that will raise the track to the clearance height. The table of clearances includes the lengths of the runs required to raise the track to the specified height for 2 percent, 3 percent, and 4 percent grades in various scales.

    Remember that the track must also descend back to its starting level, so this length of the grade is required on each end of the bridge. The diagram shows N scale crossovers layouts for 2 percent and 4 percent grades. Ascending tracks are in green and descending tracks are in red. The 2 percent grade layout requires more than 6 yards of length for the layout.

  • 06 of 09

    Split Your Track Grades

    Split Your Track Grades

    The Spruce / Randall Roberts

    You can't shorten the total track grade length required for an over/under, but you can split your grades in half. To do this you raise the base elevation by one-half the tunnel clearance height. Then you use grades to lower your track for the under and raise it for the over. This technique requires four half-length track grades instead of two full-length track grades. It can also make your layout more interesting to look at.

    The diagram shows N scale figure eights with the grades split. The 4 percent grade layout now has a length of 3 yards. The blue outer curves are the midpoints of the grades. You could further shorten the layout by making the curves part of the grade. However, curved grades have additional considerations.

  • 07 of 09

    Curved Track Grades

    When you curve a grade, you increase the effective slope of the grade. The tighter the curve, the steeper your effective grade.

    An example is an 11-inch radius curve with a 4 percent grade in N scale. An Athearn consolidation class locomotive would pull nine of its Overton passenger cars over this curved grade with no difficulty. If you made an 8.5-inch radius curve with a 4 percent grade, the consolidation would only pull five of its cars over this tighter turning grade. This grade is 1 inch high, half the N scale over/under height.

  • 08 of 09

    Multiple Unit Locomotives

    When pulling longer trains, particularly on an N scale, it is common to use the prototypical practice of pulling the train with multiple locomotives. This will also increase the size of a train that can be pulled up a grade, or the maximum grade for fewer cars.

    In the Steam Era, it was not unusual for railroads to have "helper" locomotives standing by to be added to trains at steeper grades. While modern prototypical diesel trains usually put all the locomotives at the front of the train, some modelers put locomotives in the middle of a train.

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  • 09 of 09

    Ghost Cars (Motorized Box Cars)

    Another technique is to use a ghost car or "cheater car." This is a freight car, usually a boxcar, that is motorized like your locomotives. Ghost cars are usually put in the middle of a long train or spaced evenly throughout a long train if more than one is being used. Randgust makes a ghost car kit and Reality Reduced has a video on how to put it together.


    • Always build your layout on layers of foam with the most track at the midpoint of crossover elevation. Then you can always split your grades going down for the under the track and up for the over the track.
    • Test your trains on the layout before you glue down your grade foam and track. Make sure your locomotives can navigate all your turns and grades, pulling the number of cars you desire.
    • If your favorite trains can't run on the layout, rethink your design. There's always a solution, but sometimes it takes a while to find it.