Train Scales: Understanding The Various Classifications

Getting started with model railroading is always exhilarating.

While doing so isn’t as simple as just deciding to go ahead and buy loads of stuff, planning is a massive part of the fun! There are quite a few options of scale model trains to choose from, and we’re outlining everything you need to know so that you can choose the train scale model that best fits your model railroad dream.

Here’s everything you need to know about choosing a scale for your model railroad.

Model train in a desert scene layout

Model Scale Trains

What are scales all about?

The scale model refers to the size of your trains (and everything else that goes into your layout). Scales are always referred to as a letter, which we’ll get to shortly. Each scale also gives a size ratio of 1:X, where X is how much smaller than a real-life train or accessory the models in question are.

In short, you’ll need to choose a train scale that suits:

  • Your railroading budget
  • The space you have to set up your model railroad and build a layout
  • How much customization you want to do to your trains and accessories

Why Are There So Many Different Scales?

It depends on your perspective.

Some scales were the result of being first produced in different markets before American and European railroad standards came together. Other scale models came into being to make model railroading more affordable due to challenging economic conditions. In other cases, it was all about model train manufacturers making money.

In the early days of model railroading, there weren’t any standardized scales. As such, model trains were more like toy trains. As the industry evolved, standards also came together, allowing train manufacturers to create products that would work interchangeably with those from other manufacturers – a significant benefit for model railroaders!

Model Scale Trains, Largest To Smallest

Here’s what you need to know about each scale model.

O Scale Trains

O scale, which is 1:48, was first brought to market by the iconic German brand Marklin around 1900. By the end of the First World War, O scale trains were the most prominent scale in US homes, with Lionel among the brands to produce such trains in this country.

O scale model trains run on a three-rail track, which will make it easier for you to create a complex layout without needing to be an expert electrician. Lionel remains at the forefront of O scale today and is an excellent choice if you have the indoor space for larger train layouts.

S Scale Trains

S scale, which is 1:64, is a perfect example of economic pressures inspiring the evolution of model railroading. Made famous by American Flyer, the S scale model brought a more affordable product to homes devastated by the Great Depression. S scale became popular almost immediately as it runs on a more realistic-looking two-rail train track.

While the S scale remains popular today and is part of the Model Train Stuff range, it isn’t as widely available as some other scales. Still, it’s a great choice if you’re planning on eventually improvising and coming up with your own model train builds.

HO Scale Trains

HO scale (1:87) is the world’s most popular railroad scale and has been for many years. Named HO for it being half the size of O, HO scale trains provide a superb balance between size and the ability to still create your own paint designs on your locomotives and carriages.

HO scale trains came into being both to create something more affordable and allow families who had limited space to fit a model railroad into their homes. The HO scale models started to boom in the 1940s as the end of the Second World War led to improvements in manufacturing and people moving into smaller homes.

If you want the scale with the broadest possible selection of products, HO scale is the one for you.

N Scale Trains

While N scale trains are one of the newer scales, it’s second only to HO today in the global popularity stakes.

At 1:160, N scale trains are small. However, they’re great if you don’t want to make too many customizations to your trains but do want to create an expansive layout to run them around mainlines!

Z Scale Trains

Fun fact: Marklin assigned these trains as Z scale when it first released them in the 1970s as it assumed nothing smaller would ever be made. Given Z is a scale of 1:220, they were probably right!

When you see model railroads built in a suitcase or other small places, they’ll usually be Z scale. That said, Z scale can be a fantastic choice if you want to create a large, detailed layout with lots of lines and trains. If you have a vast space to work with, Z scale will enable you to build your own miniature city!

Which Model Train Scale Should You Start With?

The best way to approach this is to think about the type of model railroad you want to build and the space you have available. You can then choose the most appropriate scale that will make use of the space effectively, while allowing you to achieve everything you’ve set out to do.

Remember that the bigger the scale, the easier you’ll find it to paint things yourself and carry out other customizations. If you’re interested and passionate about that aspect of this hobby, make sure to factor it into your decision making!

We also put this blog together to help you choose the right scale for your first model railroad. Whatever scale you opt for, we want to see the end result! Tag us in your railroad photos on Instagram to show us what you come up with.