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Model Railroading: Getting Started

If you are planning to build a model railroad layout, an important consideration is available space. You can create a railroad on a tabletop or take over an entire room depending on the scale that you choose and the type of railroading you choose to model. The four common scales in use today are N, HO, O, and G. Choosing the right scale for your layout space, as well as your needs and interests is an important first step.

N scale is the smallest of the commonly available model railroad sizes. (Z scale is even smaller, and interest in this scale is growing, as are Z scale models and equipment.) N scale models are built to a ratio of 1:160. One centimeter of an N scale model is equal to one hundred sixty centimeters of the real prototype. The small size allows modellers to create a very realistic N scale layout in limited space, and is best suited for recreating long trains running through majestic scenery. It is not recommended for young children, as it is has many very small pieces and is very hard for them to get back on the track if the train derails.

HO scale, at a ratio of 1:87, is the most popular model railroad scale. HO scale is large enough to allow for intricate switching moves and realistic operations, and still small enough to allow extensive scenery in relatively small spaces. Because it is the most popular scale, more choices are available in equipment, trackage, structures, and detail parts. HO scale equipment also has many small parts, and very small wheel flanges to hold locomotives and cars on the track, and is therefore only recommended for individuals over ten years of age.

O scale at 1:43 has been around the longest. Many of our parents and grandparents started out with a Lionel Train set under the Christmas tree. Lionel, along with MTH and Weaver, offer highly detailed large-sized trains and sets for the collector and operator. They also offer rugged starter sets for the younger model railroader with heavy die-cast metal locomotives and plastic train cars of a size that is easy for a youngster to handle and with larger flanges to hold the trains on the track.

G scale, more correctly called Large Scale, is the largest and newest of the common scales. It covers many scale ratios from 1:20 to 1:29. The scale is determined by the railroad that is being modelled. Railroads in North America have the rails spaced 4 feet 8-1/2 inches apart, known as Standard Gauge. Many early railroads, or railroads in mountainous areas were built with rails spaced at 3 feet apart or even less to reduce construction costs and to allow for passage through tight clearances in rugged regions. These are known as Narrow Gauge railways. Large Scale (or G scale) models are mostly based on Narrow Gauge railroads. While the scales may be different, they all use the same trackage, and can be mixed if you wish. Large Scale is most often built outside in the garden and can become a project for the whole family. However, some modelers have built indoor Large Scale switching railways. Again, it depends on the space you have and your modeling interests.

Starter sets, which include a locomotive, a few cars, a controller, and a simple arrangement of track, are available in all four of these scales. They offer enough to set out on a table, or the floor, so you can watch the train run. Often modellers will add to their sets by buying more track pieces, a turnout or two, and a few buildings. These items can be added to the existing train set, possibly on top of a basic grass mat for scenery.

As modellers become more sophisticated, it becomes apparent that train set layouts are not very realistic, challenging or conducive to expansion.

It is at this stage that the modeller should make a few decisions and undertake some research. Consider the following questions before moving forward with your layout.

What type of railroad is appealing? Many choices are available: A mainline railway with a major yard or two, Intermodal operations, commuter passenger service, way freight service, branchline trains, logging and mining, urban terminal railway, even a simple industrial switching layout.

What era should I model? Many modelers are choosing to model current day railroading, with large diesel locomotives, specialized trains and longer equipment. Some modellers prefer an earlier age when a particular locomotive was used, or a specific railroad service was offered. Still others go to the extreme of operating a specific railroad in a specific year. This choice gives them the maximum realism but requires a lot of research and attention to detail. Another option is to create a freelance railway that interchanges traffic with one or more of the real railways.

What location/geography do I prefer? Matching the type of scenery to the railroad you are building is very important. How each railroad was built was usually determined by the geography it was traversing. The Canadian Shield area of Ontario gave rise to spectacular scenery on the north shore of Lake Superior, but gave railway engineers headaches. The limestone areas around Kingston, and the Niagara Escarpment had similar rocks, yet each gave civil engineers different problems to be faced, and as such appear totally different. How to model these different areas is a separate area of research in itself. Another consideration is how much time do you want to spend on a particular type of scenery. You may like the idea of modelling British Columbia, but do you have the time to build and install several hundred trees?

Where should I locate my railroad? Tabletops are often the most common place to build a layout. They can be located in the basement, recreation room or a special location dedicated to the model railroad. They are also accessible from all sides. Some modellers prefer to create a shelf type layout. A narrow shelf, as narrow as one foot wide can handle an extensive railway operation. The shelf can extend all around a room, or along one or more walls. Doorways can be accommodated with a lift out bridge, a hinged-drop down section or a gate. The railway can extend out into the room as a “peninsula”. The key to the design of such a railway is creating highly detailed scenes, or prototype operations that attract the eye, separated by relatively non-descript scenery, creating a sense of greater distance.

The Credit Valley Railway Company carries a large selection of “How To” books and reference books on specific railroad related topics. These include books on layout design, prototype operations, how to build and detail structures and many other topics related to creating realistic looking model railroads. We also provide custom model railway design service for those who prefer professionally developed scale drawings.

Our staff has had many years of model railway experience, and is always willing to provide you with specific information, advice and answer any of your questions! You can also email your questions to us via Our Contact Page.