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What are the Different Model Train Scales?

By J. Beam
Updated May 23, 2024
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Model trains come in a variety of sizes, or scales, from the very small ones to the larger garden railway variety. Though their sizes were originally described as their “gauge,” scale is now the accepted term. Deciding on a scale is really a matter of personal preference, experience, and budget. There are numerous variations of these scales, but there are five that are the most common, making them the easiest to find. The simplest definition of a model train scale is the relevance of the reduced size to the original train being replicated.

The most common model train scale is HO. HO trains have an approximate ratio to the original train of 1:87. Variations of the HO scale include narrower versions of the same scale, which means the trains are the same scale, but with less space between the tracks’ rails. The HO scale is probably the easiest to find and the easiest to accessorize because many hobbyists use it. It is not so small that creating layouts is complicated, but it is large enough that it shows well.

The N model train scale is probably the second most popular size. N trains are approximately 1:160. The N stands for nine, which is the distance in millimeters between the inside rails of the tracks used in this scale. They are smaller than the more popular HO scale, making them slightly more difficult to accessorize to scale, but the advantage to the N scale is using less space to create a complete layout.

Other common model train scales include O (1:48), G (1:24), and Z (1:220). G scale trains are commonly seen in larger garden railway designs. Z trains are very small, and while a complete layout could be easily achieved in confined spaces, people with large hands, poor eyesight, and physical challenges, such as arthritis, find it most difficult to work with this scale.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1002535 — On Dec 13, 2019

As a child, I understood that HO was small, and the larger version was easy to assemble. Now that I'm in my 60s, I'm reading this explanation of various sizes and find it that it's unnecessarily complicated. It would be far easier to show a photo of a Locomotive of the 3-4 sizes next to a soda can or similar e.g., a person's hand.

By anon1002259 — On Oct 09, 2019

I have figures that are 3/4" in size. What is the scale in model train language? Thank you.

By anon319307 — On Feb 12, 2013

I'm sure many of you have been to a restaurant where the drinks are delivered by train. What is the scale of them? I measured between the rails on the track were 45mm apart and the trains themselves were only about 220mm long, although they had longer ones. Can anyone help me out with this scale?

By hyrax53 — On Dec 25, 2010

@behaviourism, there are many movies like that. The first one that comes to mind for me is Wallace and Gromit, the goofy inventor and his very intelligent beagle. They had a train set like that, and in one of the films, The Wrong Trousers, it became a big part of one of the chase scenes; every time I see that, though, I consider how useful it would be. It would not surprise me at all if people really did that.

By behaviourism — On Dec 23, 2010

@sherlock87, model trains are certainly nostalgic, but they are also really interesting to engineers or other people who work with technical things, as well. Setting up model train layouts can help people work with their hands to deal with organizational problems, maybe even helping them to think through other types of problems.

Some people even use model train track lines in their homes or offices as a way to send messages, move small objects from person to person, or otherwise communicate (though this is in movies a lot, so it might seem only fictional).

By sherlock87 — On Dec 22, 2010

I always think of model train sets as things that either small children or nostalgic adults spend time with. I never really considered the level of detail or different options before. I suppose even though they are technically toys, model trains certainly are not simple ones.

By anon131049 — On Nov 30, 2010

T-Gauge is the smallest. It is 1:450 scale and you can see the range online.

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