Model Railroading Basics for Beginners

Make Your Railroading Dreams Come True

Miniature buildings and train set
Caspar Benson / Getty Images

Thinking about building a model railroad? Here's what you need to do before spending your hard-earned money. There's a lot to know, including how to plan your space and layout, how to find quality model train sets, and how to set up electric trains for and with a young child.

  • 01 of 12

    Select a Scale

    using can for scale of model trains

    The Spruce / Randall Roberts

    A model train's scale is its size compared to the size of a real train. For example, a HO scale locomotive is approximately 1/87th the size of a real locomotive. The most popular scale choices are O (1/48th), HO (1/87.1), N (1/160th), and Z (1/220th). HO is the largest selling scale worldwide, with the N scale in second place. Great Britain's most popular scale is OO (1/76.2), but this scale isn't too common outside the UK.

    The photo shows O, HO, and N scale locomotives next to a cultural icon whose size should be familiar to most people.

    There are a number of factors that will influence your scale selection; among them are your eyesight, your access to club layouts in your area, your budget, and your available space.

  • 02 of 12

    Home Is Where You Lay Your Track

    Laying down the track

     The Spruce / Randall Roberts

    A model railroad takes space. If you're not planning on building a permanent layout, then a 5 x 9-foot ping-pong table is great for temporary layouts, provided its not too flimsy. Some people use cables and pulleys to lower model railroad tables from the ceiling and raise them for storage.

    If temporary layouts are what you have in mind you'll probably want to start out with a train set, and buy additional track and accessories as the mood takes you. Even if you're not building a permanent layout, you'll need to know how to select and set up your railroad.

  • 03 of 12

    Permanent Layouts

    Permanent layouts require space planning. O scale layouts take lots of space. HO and N scale outsell other scales because the average modeler can make space for an HO or N scale layout in their den, basement, or garage. Some apartment dwellers do remarkable things on small tables or shelves with tiny Z scale trains.

    Some people build modular layouts. There are clubs devoted to modular layouts, where each member builds their own modules. All the modules can be connected to make large layouts at shows and events.

  • 04 of 12

    Brush up on Your Carpentry

    If you're planning on constructing a landscaped layout complete with trees, hills, cities, and roads, you'll first have to build the benchwork to support it. You can find books on building your benchwork at most local hobby stores that carry model railroad products. NTrak is a set of standards that N Scale clubs use to build modular layouts.

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  • 05 of 12

    Plan Your Layout

    The Spruce / Randall Roberts

    Once you've selected your scale and identified your available space, you can start planning your layout. First, you need to decide what brand of model railroad track you'll be using. There are a number of track planning software packages available to help you design your layout, but you need to select the program's template set for the brand of train track you will be using.

    It's helpful to look at layout plans on club and manufacturer websites but bear in mind that these plans specify the use of a specific brand of train track. If you find a layout that you like on a website, it's easiest to choose the same brand of track that's pictured—but with a little work you can implement any track plan using any brand of train track.

  • 06 of 12

    Power to the Trains

    power pack for model train

    The Spruce / Randall Roberts

    A packaged train set will usually come with a transformer or power pack. The photo shows a DC power pack that comes bundled with Kato track and train sets.

    In recent years more and more serious model railroaders are turning to computer-controlled trains, so many transformers and power packs are gathering dust.

    Digital Command Control (DCC), a new industry standard for powering and controlling model railroad trains using computer technology, is widely available in HO and N scale. Z scale manufacturers also offer some locomotives that come DCC-equipped. Digital control is available in O scale, but the biggest selling O scale manufacturers tend to have their own proprietary digital control systems instead of using DCC.

  • 07 of 12

    Getting Serious With DCC

    model train dcc

    The Spruce / Randall Roberts

    The photo shows a Digitrax Zephyr all-in-one DCC starter unit. If you are serious about model railroading, it's best to start out with Digital Command Control. If you've selected O as your scale, check out the other digital control options available to you. At the very least make sure that the locomotives you buy are "DCC Ready."

  • 08 of 12

    Form Follows Function

    Model railroading is as much an art as an engineering discipline. One serious model railroader refers to his layout as a “kinetic sculpture”, and this is a completely accurate description. A model railroad layout is a sculpture in motion. This is what distinguishes it from most other art forms.

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  • 09 of 12

    Pick a Railroad, Any Railroad

    model trains

    The Spruce / Randall Roberts

    While it's very possible to create a unique model railroad based on your own imagination, many model railroaders choose to replicate part of a real historic railroad. This can be very satisfying, though it does take a lot of attention to detail.

    Today many historic railroads have been acquired by or merged into larger railroad concerns. Survivors like the Union Pacific (UP), Burlington Northern & Santa Fe (BNSF), and the Canadian National Railways (CNR) are popular among model railroaders, but they aren't your only choices. Lots of modelers choose to model a "fallen flag"; a railroad that has been taken over by a larger company. Many modelers choose the railroad whose trains they watched passing by as a child.

    Railroads have their own color schemes; locomotives and cars are always painted in the colors of their road, as illustrated by the photo. Every railroad also has a “herald”—an icon or trademark that is painted on its locomotives and sometimes on its cars too.

  • 10 of 12

    There Is a Time and a Place for Everything

    Before purchasing anything for your model railroad, you'll need to decide where the railroad will be located. You can choose a real place and time, or create your own ideal world—but either way, you'll want to have consistency across your layout.

    So where exactly is your railroad? The Canadian Rockies? The plains of Texas? Downtown Chicago? What time of year is it? Is it spring, with green grass and colorful flowers? Is it fall, with trees in reds, browns, and golds? Or is a blanket of mid-winter snow covering everything? Is it 1888, 1952, or 2002?

    You need to decide these things before investing in any trains, landscaping materials, or structure kits. You don't want to be running a 21st Century Shinkansen Bullet Train alongside an 1880s Consolidation steam locomotive that's pulling Overton passenger cars on an elevated track through downtown Chicago—or maybe you do, it's up to you.

  • 11 of 12

    Can You Buy Your Trains Now?

    Now that you've picked your railroad and you have your tack, power, and era worked out you can start shopping for your trains. You might find a train set with your railroad and a track you like. If not, you'll be buying separate locomotives, railroad car sets, and individual railroad cars.

    When buying locomotives and cars from different manufacturers, make sure that the couplers are compatible. Couplers are the "hooks" that connect your locomotives and cars. Couplers from different manufacturers may not be compatible, and within each scale, there are often multiple coupler styles. Dealers can change couplers on locomotives and cars for you, but it does increase the cost of the item a little.

  • 12 of 12

    What You'll Pay

    If you want to buy quality equipment you'll need $350 to $500 to get started in HO or N scale, and more for O scale or Z scale. This figure should cover the cost of one DCC equipped locomotive, a set of four to six rail cars, a basic oval of quality track plus some minimal expansion, and a good DCC controller starter set.

    Whether you're collecting trains, building and painting kits, or landscaping your layout, like most other hobbies model railroading will have ongoing expenses. It isn't about the money; it’s about the pleasure it gives you.