Model trains come in many different sizes, or scales. For those just getting started in the hobby, deciding on a scale for themselves or their children can be an important decision. The short answer is that there is no one single "best" scale because each size offers different plusses and minuses. To determine the right scale for you, consider each of the different sizes as well as your hobby space and other factors.
The first type of toys that resembled trains were made in the 1860s, but it wasn't until 1891 that the first series of standard track gauges for wind-up trains were debuted by toy company Marklin in Germany.
If you're trying to determine what scale model train you should buy, start by learning the different options you have. Scales are expressed as a proportion to the prototype. For example, the HO scale is 1:87, so an HO-scale item is 1/87 the size of the actual full-size equipment. This translates to 0.138 inch to 1 foot.
In addition to scale, model trains and other pieces may be the standard gauge or narrow gauge, which refers to the scaled width of the railway track.
- Z Scale—1:220 or 0.05 inch to 1 foot
- N Scale—1:160 or 0.075 inch to 1 foot
- TT Scale—1:120 or 0.1 inch to 1 foot
- HO / OO Scale—1:87 or 0.138 inch to 1 foot
- S Scale—1:64 or 0.1875 inch per 1 foot
- O / O27 Scale—1:48 or 0.25 inch per 1 foot
- G / No. 1 Scale—1:32 or 0.375 inch per 1 foot (there are other sizes of "G gauge" trains)
- Standard Gauge—Model railway track sizes based on real-world standard gauge track
- Narrow Gauge—Model railway track sizes based on real-world narrow gauge track
Age is often considered a factor when buying model trains for children, but the decision doesn't get any easier with age. Many older modelers find that the larger scales are easier and more comfortable to work with as their vision and dexterity becomes limited.
For most model train enthusiasts, the size of the trains is less important than the size of the layout. Even an efficiency apartment has room for model railroading; it all depends on your goals. Bigger isn't always better. If you don't have the space or the desire for a large layout, there are still many options, such as a smaller scale to pack in the most scenery, a mid-size scale with a switching layout, or larger-scale modules or static displays.
Everyone works on a budget, some tighter than others. But the relationship between scale and cost isn't quite as simple as you might think. Both cheap and expensive models are available in every size. One way to look at budgeting is to consider how many models of a given size you'll need to fill your layout's space. For example, would it be better to buy a 20-car train made up of $20 HO-scale cars or an eight-car train consisting of $50 O-scale cars? Both will cost you about the same amount and will occupy about the same space on your platform.
Ultimately, your decision about train size comes down to what you enjoy most about the hobby and what you want to do with it. Balancing these goals with your available space, budget, and physical abilities will yield the perfect compromise. Also, give some thought to how well each size fits your priorities:
- Do you enjoy scratch building and detailing, or would you prefer ready-to-run models?
- Do you want a continuous run, lots of animated accessories, prototype-based operating plans, and/or multi-person operating sessions?
- Would you like to tackle complicated switching challenges or big scenery?
- Is portability important?
If you're like most model train fans, you have a variety of goals and will want to try many different challenges and creative pursuits. Spending some time thinking about all of these factors will help you make the best decision about scale and what you can do with it.