Everything You Need To Know About Model Railroads
Many people view model railroads as a big investment and incredibly niche. They believe this hobby is reserved for the old and retired. However, this isn’t the case, and model train hobbyists are eager to welcome anyone interested in joining them in their passion. If you’re interested in model trains but don’t know where to start, here’s everything you need to know about model railroads.
Understanding Scale and Gauge
Before you do anything, it’s important to understand the scales and gauges between model trains and their associated supplies and accessories. The first thing to understand is the difference between the two terms. Scale refers to the proportions of the model compared to the real-world size, while gauge refers to the distance between the rails.
When considering scale, you’ll find measurements expressed in ratios or fractions with the numerator, or top number, always being one. The denominator, or bottom number, represents how much bigger a train is in real life. So, for example, if we’re using the HO scale and a train is 1/87th, it means it is 87 times as large as the original. Speaking of scales, you may encounter several, but there are only a few you should really consider.
Types of Scales
HO scale is the most popular scale worldwide. This model scale provides a good balance between size and detail. Because of their popularity, HO scale models are also the most accessible and typically recommended for newcomers. Because it’s the most popular, you’ll also find the greatest diversity of accessories, trains, and scenery designed for the HO scale.
N scale is the second most popular scale and is most prominently found in Japan. The primary advantage of this scale over HO is that it’s smaller, so you can fit more track in a smaller layout. This makes N scale models preferable to those with limited space who need to plan accordingly. As a beginner, you shouldn’t have issues finding N scale models to meet your needs, but understand they may not always be as accessible as HO scale models and parts.
O scale was once the most popular scale in the United States but has drastically declined in popularity since the 1960s with the introduction of smaller scales. While some harder-to-find O scale models are still in production today, you can find plenty of second-hand models. They are more robust and suitable for children to play with if you intend to make your railroad hobby a family affair.
Planning Your Railroad
With an understanding of scale, the next thing you need to know about model railroads is how to plan and meter your enthusiasm. A common mistake beginners make is going too big too early and burning themselves out before getting to experience the joys a model railroad can bring them. Starting with a small layout will help you learn the ropes and how to plan and put together a successful model railroad. This is mostly a matter of ensuring you’re not overwhelming yourself by taking on more than you’re ready for.
Finding a Location
The first step is to consider where you’ll be building your railroad. If you don’t have an obvious workspace, finding a good spot may require a bit of innovative thinking. Some good places to build your first railroad include shelves, coffee tables, or doors that have been repurposed into a work surface.
People often choose to build their model railroads in the basement because basements have plenty of space and are typically out of the way. It’s important to choose a space where the railroad doesn’t impede your daily life and is out of harm’s way. If you’re planning to use your basement, be aware of potential issues like humidity and water problems. You wouldn’t want precipitation to ruin the electricals or cause mold to grow on your railroad!
Another popular spot is the attic, but keep in mind that hot air rises, and temperature fluctuations may cause issues for your railroad, especially for the paint. Garages and spare bedrooms are also good places to build a railroad, but again, make sure humidity isn’t an issue.
Drafting a Track Plan
Once you’ve decided on a good place to build your model railroad, it’s time to draft up your track. Whether you use pen and paper or software to digitally draft your layout, making a physical plan of your railroad is crucial. You must ensure the surface you’ve chosen is the right size for your railroad layout. Nothing feels worse than misjudging how much space you need and realizing your work bench is just a little bit too small to fit your plans. Before drafting, you will want to decide whether you’d like to build a continuous loop track or a point-to-point track.
Continuous loop track plans can be stretched and molded to provide a unique layout that is more than just a circle. But ultimately, the track should always loop back on itself so that your train is able to run indefinitely.
Point-to-point tracks are exactly as the name describes, with the train typically starting from a terminal and ending parked in a shed or vice versa. The primary purpose of this kind of layout is to simulate a train’s function rather than enjoy the consistent pattern of a looped track.
Whatever track plan you design, it’s always a good idea to look at references for other designs to help guide your choices. You can look at layouts other model train enthusiasts have created or use Google Maps to view real-world railroad layouts. You might also consider referring to one of the many great track plan books available for inspiration.
Electrical Control Systems
Lastly, let’s discuss the electrical power source and control system. Analog control systems are the most common. They are the standard control set you receive when you buy a new model train set. This gives you direct control over the voltage and polarity of your trains with a dial on the power pack.
For something more advanced, Digital Command Control (DCC) allows you to program and control multiple trains independently using a handheld throttle about the size of an iPhone. An analog control system is most suitable for beginners as they’re learning the tricks of the trade. But it’s worth knowing your options as your hobby grows.