Model train scales

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Gauge or scale?

When trying to find the "perfect scale" for your personal perfect layout it´s a good idea to define first the terms "gauge" and "scale", because both words are often mixed up. The gauge is the distance (or the spacing) between the 2 rails, whereas the scale describes the ratio between a model and the real prototype. So a N scale model track has a gauge of 9 mm, but the scale is 1:160.

How to find the best scale?

Model train scales

About: The gauge

Simply put: Both model rail tracks and real prototype tracks have a gauge; but a prototype never has a scale! Protoype track gauges vary from 4 ft 8 1/2 inch ("standard gauge") to 3 feet ("narrow gauge"). Some special mine railways or light railways even may have a smaller gauge.
Here in Germany (as well as almost everywhere in Europe) the metric system is used; the standard gauge is 1435 mm (= 1 meter and 435 mm). That´s the same size as the 4´ 8 1/2´´ measurement; and today this is the most common gauge worldwide. It´s also called the "Stephenson" standard gauge, named after the famous British pioneer of locomotive construction. Some countries like Russia or Spain use a broad gauge, which is somewhat broader than the standard gauge.

Model train scales

Now coming to the model train scales. The most important associations, who define the standards, are the NEM (Europe, published by MOROP), BRMSB (British Railway Modeling Standards Bureau) and NMRA (National Model Railroad Association, USA). The standards are not always compatible.

How big is small?

Listed below a short survey about the most common scales. For more detailed information see the Wikipedia, notably concerning the differences between European, British and US-American standards.

  • 1:22,5 scale: Known as II-scale, 2-scale, G-scale or LGB, which is named after the German Manufacturer "Lehmann Gross Bahn". Used for outdoor model railroading
  • 1:32 scale: Known as I-scale or 1-scale. If you like big models - here you are!
  • 1:45 scale: Known as 0-scale or O-scale. Note: NEM uses the number "zero", whereas the NMRA uses the letter "O". The NEM gauge is 32 mm. Variations are from 1:43,5 up to 1:48. For those with big rooms, or clubs.
  • 1:64 scale: Known as S-scale. In Europe not popular
  • 1:76 scale: Very popular as 00-scale in Great Britain with a 16,5 mm H0 gauge
  • 1:87 scale: Known as H0-scale or HO-scale. The gauge is 16,5 mm. Note: NEM uses the number "zero", whereas the NMRA uses the letter "O". Probably the most popular scale at all. There is an abundant supply for model train sets or accessories. If you have enough place in your room - here you go! Also see: HO: 2-rail or 3-rail?
  • 1:120 scale: Known as TT-scale ("tabletop"). Although not so popular as N or HO, the TT-scale is a fine compromise regarding space requirements and exact modelling. The gauge is 12 mm
  • 1:160 scale: Known as N-scale. In GB also as 1:148, in Japan 1:150. The 9 mm gauge is always the same. N scale is the best choice for a model railroad layout on a small floor space at home; it enables long trains and realistic track planning.
  • 1:200 scale: Known as Z-scale. Introduced by Märklin. Allows cute layouts even in small transportable cases!
  • Last, but not least: If you think, Z is the smallest scale - you are wrong! There are some scales, which are even smaller, like the "ZZ-scale" by the Japanese company Bandai.

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