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GENERAL MODEL RAILROAD INFORMATION

 
  Frequently Asked Questions
Different Scales Compared
What Gauge Is It?
Know the Code
Track
Electrical
Modular Construction
Scenery
Other Information
Rolling Stock Information
 

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some questions we hear all the time...

Q1: "Isn't this a really expensive hobby?"
A1: This is probably the most common question we hear. Leaving aside the fact that there are many hobbies that are more expensive - yachting, automobile restoration, playing golf, even attending professional sports - this can be an expensive hobby, but it does not necessarily need to be. There are some items available, fully assembled and "ready-to-run" that you may consider expensive, but similar items are available in kit form for significantly lower prices, and some can be "scratch-built" for far less money, and with greater satisfaction - the ability to custom-build something exactly to your specifications, rather than having to find something "close" off the shelf, can be a great source of pride. It will take longer, but only you can decide whether the time savings will be worth the extra expense.

Q2: "Isn't this just for guys?"
A2: Although the majority of model railroaders are male, the number of women in the hobby continues to grow. The perception that model trains are only for men (or boys) is a holdover from the days when boys and girls were steered into hobbies that would lead them toward "appropriate" interests and career goals for their genders; girls were encouraged to participate in activities that would prepare them to become good housewives - playing with dolls prepared them to take care of children, sewing prepared them to take care of the family's clothes, etc. while boys were encouraged toward more "manly" pursuits, such as sports (which encouraged the physical strength needed in many jobs) and trains (which encouraged them toward practical jobs in heavy industry, or a desire to understand and lead large organizations. In our modern world, there is much less focus on "gender-specific" roles in career choices and in hobbies. Besides, model railroading is fun - whoever you are!

Q3: "Doesn't this take a lot of your time?"
A3: This is a hobby, or a "pastime" not a job, so the amount of time it takes is entirely up to you. If you want to become the best model railroader out there, it will take a lot of time and determination, but if your goal is to have fun, there is much less time involved, and you won't worry about whether you are spending "enough" time at it. You can spend as little, or as much, time as you like.

Q4: "Where do I find all the materials?"
A4: Once a person has decided to try out this hobby, they need to find a source of supplies. In most areas, there are hobby shops that can serve as a source of supplies (and information.) If there are none in your area, numerous sources online or through mail order can supply most everything you need. Local clubs are also a source of information, and may be able to give you information about suppliers. Some clubs are better than others at getting their names out where the public can see them - one club sent out announcements of their shows to everyone within one block North, South, East, and West, and had several people show up at their shows who had never realized that the club was in their neighborhood - this was a club that had been in the same building for over 20 years! If you aren't sure what clubs or hobby shops are in your area, an online search mayhelp, but only if the organizations have an online presence.

Q5: "What scale is right for me"
A5: This is a matter of personal preference. Currently, the scale with the most available items is "HO" scale, but this does not necessarily mean that it is right for you. It is the scale our club has chosen, but our needs and desires may not be exactly the same as yours. There are smaller scales (N scale, Z scale) which allow more railroad to be built in the same space, and larger scales (O scale, G scale, 1/12 scale, etc.) which allow for more detailed models, but require more space for the same amount of railroad. If you want to model 100-car trains, some of the smaller scales may be preferable. If you want to have visible detail on your trains and structures, some of the larger scales may be be better for you. For more information on different scales, scroll down to the section titled "Different Scales Compared".
Different Scales Compared

There are several scales used in model railroading. Small scales allow more cars, buildings and scenery to be packed into the available space, but some people find them difficult to see and work in. Large scales allow for more detail, but require more room than if the same layout were built in a smaller scale. Which scale is best? This is a matter of personal preference. Some of the smallest scales allow a loop of track to fit in a briefcase, while some of the very large scales allow people to ride on their trains. Most modelers use HO, N, or O scales, and the popularity of these scales means that there is a wide variety of equipment available for them, but this doesn't necessarily mean that these scales are the best for you. The images below show the relative sizes (not necessarily the actual sizes) of some different scales.
Z scale is currently the smallest commercially available scale.  The high price of small motors, the precision needed to keep trains on the track, and the fact that some people have trouble seeing the trains limit its appeal.  For those trying to pack the most layout into a limited space, it may be a good choice.  Some portable layouts have been built in briefcases.  Image © Frederick Monsimer 2004  Photo taken at Strasburg, PA August 26, 2004 N scale is popular among people who don't have large amounts of space, but still want to model big-time railroading with long trains, because of its small size.  It is currently the #2 scale in terms of popularity.  Many of these modelers build modular layouts, using "N-Trak" standards.  Image © Frederick Monsimer 2004  Photo taken at Strasburg, PA August 26, 2004 TT scale is not as popular as it once was, but some equipment is still being manufactured in this scale.  Image © Frederick Monsimer 2004  Photo taken at Strasburg, PA August 26, 2004 HO scale is currently the most popular scale.  It was originally called HO because it was approximately half the size of O-scale, but in actuality, one scale foot is 3.5 millimeters, a ratio of 1:87.08571428571. For most purposes, 1:87 is accurate enough, and most people use a scale ruler, marked in scale inches and feet anyway.  Image © Frederick Monsimer 2004  Photo taken at Strasburg, PA August 26, 2004 S scale is the scale used by American Flyer trains.  The ratio is 1:64.  It was until recently known as the O scale is the scale that was used for most Lionel trains.  One scale foot is equal to one-quarter inch, a ratio of 1:48.  Other manufacturers make locomotives, cars, and buildings in this scale, which is probably the third most popular scale today.  Image © Frederick Monsimer 2004  Photo taken at Strasburg, PA August 26, 2004
Z Scale N Scale TT Scale HO Scale S Scale O Scale
Ratio 1:220 Ratio 1:160 Ratio 1:120 Ratio 1:87.1 Ratio 1:64 Ratio 1:48
Z scale is currently the smallest commercially available scale. The high price of small motors, the precision needed to keep trains on the track, and the fact that some people have trouble seeing the trains limit its appeal. For those trying to pack the most layout into a limited space, it may be a good choice. Some portable layouts have been built in briefcases.

N scale is popular among people who don't have large amounts of space, but still want to model big-time railroading with long trains, because of its small size. It is currently the #2 scale in terms of popularity. Many of these modelers build modular layouts, using "N-Trak" standards.

TT scale is not as popular as it once was, but some equipment is still being manufactured in this scale.

HO scale is currently the most popular scale. It was originally called HO because it was approximately half the size of O-scale, but in actuality, one scale foot is 3.5 millimeters, a ratio of 1:87.08571428571. For most purposes, 1:87 is accurate enough, and most people use a scale ruler, marked in scale inches and feet anyway.

S scale is the scale used by American Flyer trains. The ratio is 1:64. It was until recently known as the "scratch-builder's" scale, due to the lack of available equipment, but in the last few years, there have been a number of new items released.

O scale is the scale that was used for most Lionel trains. One scale foot is equal to one-quarter inch, a ratio of 1:48. Other manufacturers make locomotives, cars, and buildings in this scale, which is probably the third most popular scale today.

Larger scales do exist, though they are usually used in outdoor "garden railways" and not often on modular or portable railroads.
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What Gauge Is It?

Some modelers use the terms "scale" and "gauge" interchangeably, although they are not the same thing. Scale is the ratio between the model and the real object on which it was based, while gauge is the distance between the rails.

Most railroads in the USA today use two rails, and are built to the "standard gauge" of four feet, eight-and-a-half inches between the rails. Most railroads in the rest of the world use a gauge of 1435 millimeters; for those of you who aren't sure how wide that is, it's four feet, eight-and-a-half inches. There are some railroads (in the U.S. and elsewhere) that were built to other gauges, usually referred to as "narrow gauge" or "broad gauge" depending whether they are narrower or wider than standard gauge. There are usually historical, economic, or political reasons why a different gauge is (or was) used, but the problem is that cars and locomotives designed for one track gauge cannot be used on track of another gauge. Sometimes, this was the aim - to keep cars from leaving one territory and entering another. Sometimes, narrow-gauge railroads were built because they were cheaper to construct. Before there was a standard gauge, there were a variety of different gauges used, and the inventor of each felt that his should become the "standard." Different countries often had (or still have) different gauges. For a great listing of gauges used throughout the world, take a look at this web site.
For more information on gauges, take a look at this web site.

Some model railroaders build models of narrow-gauge trains, and need special track to run their trains. HOn3 (HO scale, narrow-gauge, 3 foot) is a relatively popular scale and can be found at better-stocked hobby shops, but if you model in a scale or gauge that is not as popular, you may have to search to find track that fits your equipment, or make your own track. Sometimes, by coincidence, one scale's standard gauge track can be used by another scale's narrow gauge; for example, in O scale, a 30-inch-gauge train can run on the same track that would be used in HO scale for a standard gauge train.

There are a few things which add confusion to the situation. One is the fact that Lionel had a line of equipment years ago which was called "standard gauge" and since many people are familiar with this, they may be confused if you tell them that your trains are "standard gauge in HO scale." Another is what is called G-scale or G-gauge; this is a large scale sometimes used in backyard railroads. When it was invented, the gauge (distance between the rails) was set, but different manufacturers made equipment to different scales to fit the same track. Some of them are replicas of standard gauge equipment, and others are replicas of equipment in various narrow gauges. Notice here that the track gauge of the model track is the same, but that the scales change. For this reason, it probably is correct to call this one "G-gauge" rather than "G-scale." If you want to use it and build accurate models, you will need to decide which scale to use.
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Know the Code

You may hear model railroad track referred to as "code 100" or "code 70" and wonder what this code is. This code does not require the use of code books or complicated decryption; it is a measure of the rail's height, in thousanths of an inch. The rails used by real railroads vary in size, depending on the amount of use that rail is expected to carry. The rails used on model railroads are available in different sizes to duplicate this variation, although we vary our rail size mainly so that it looks right (or more like the real thing.)

Although most trains will run on your track regardless of what height the rails are, some modelers find that having the "correct" size rail looks better. What code, or size, of rail you use depends on what scale you are modeling in, and what type of railroad line you are modeling. In HO scale, code 100 used by many modelers because it is easily available, but some don't like it because it is "too big" to look right. Code 100 rail is 100/1000 (or 1/10) of an inch high. In HO scale, code 100 rail would be accurate for 155-pound-per-yard main line rail, but this was about the heaviest rail ever used in the U.S. Most modern main line tracks use 130-pound to 132-pound rail, which translates to code 83 in HO scale. For branch lines, yards, and sidings, lighter rails were used, and can be replicated using code 70, code 55, or code 40 rails.

In smaller scales, rail of these sizes may be "too big" or suitable only for main line use, and smaller-sized rails may be available. In larger scales, larger-size rails (code 125 or bigger) may be more appropriate.
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Track

Track is what transforms a model into a model railroad. Taking a little extra time to ensure that your track is laid correctly will let you enjoy the other aspects of the hobby, instead of spending all your time picking up cars off the floor and redoing your track. Poor quality track leads to derailments, short circuits, and frustration. Take particular care with track switches, so that your trains will follow one track or the other, not "half-and-half" causing a derailment. An N.M.R.A. gauge (see the links page) will allow you to check that your track is not too wide or too narrow for reliable operations.

On modular layouts, there are more opportunities for track trouble, due to the removeable "bridge" sections of track that connect the tracks from one module to the next, and the potential for damage when modules are carried from one location to another. Some clubs run their tracks all the way to the end of their modules to eliminate the short piece of connecting track, but doing this means that the alignment of the modules is even more critical. It also means that their modules cannot be easily connected with other modules that do use the bridge tracks.

See also the discussion of rail codes, gauges, and scales elsewhere on this page.
For additional information about track, see the Track and Electrical Information page on this site.
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Electrical

Although most of us are not electricians or electrical engineers, model railroads are operated by electricity, so we should all have a basic understanding of electricity. The power supply you use for your railroad must be adequate for the size of the layout and the number of trains and accessories you are using. If the power supply is too small, your trains will not get enough power to maintain speed, your throttles will overheat, and you may blow a fuse in your power supply. I am not qualified to tell you what size power supply you will need; if you are unsure, you should consult with someone who is. There are also books available on the subject.

Power also needs get from the power supply to the track, and ultimately to the locomotives. If the wires used to transmit this power are too small, the wires can heat up, and the amount of power arriving at the far end of the layout may be greatly reduced, causing trains to slow down when further away from the power supply. Make sure that you connect each module and track section to the power supply via wires and plugs, as rail joiners can loosen and lead to "dead spots" and poor performance.

Track should be kept clean, so that locomotives can pick up the power through their wheels. Some modelers use abrasive "brightboys" to scrape the dirt off the rails, but this wears away some of the metal, and can cause scratches in the surface, leading to greater corrosion. Other modelers use a small block of Masonite for the same purpose, which causes less damage to the rails. Still others use chemical cleaners, such as denatured alcohol or electrical contact cleaners. These work well, but should be used with caution, as they can be flammable and poisonous.

Locomotive and car wheels should also be cleaned to keep them from depositing dirt on the track, and to maintain good electrical pick up.

Some modelers convert their layouts to use DCC, or Digital Command Control. This system simplifies operations, since you control your own train wherever it may be, rather than controlling sections of track and whatever trains are on them. It also simplifies the wiring of the layout. But DCC can not compensate for short circuits or dirty track, in fact, track usually needs to be kept even more clean to ensure that the digital signal is transmitted to the locomotive receivers uninterrupted and without distortion.

For additional electrical information, see the Track and Electrical Information page on this site.
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Module Construction

When building a module, you need to make it strong but light. These two considerations can conflict sometimes. If a module is too heavy, you will not want to carry it anywhere, and it will stay where it is built. If you are building a layout that only has to move every few years, this is not a problem, but if you are going to take it to shows on a regular basis, this is a problem. If a module is not built strong, it will get damaged often and require time-consuming repairs after every show. Flimsy modules also tend to have more track problems, due to a lack of support.

Painting all wood and homasote surfaces will reduce warping due to changes in humidity. It also makes the modules look more finished. The bottom of the module can be any color; the paint there is just sealing the surface, but on the front face, you will want something that does not distract attention from the scenery. Neutral colors or a medium green are often best, but this is a matter of personal taste.

The legs on which the modules rest should be able to support the modules, and the modules should have some kind of blocking to hold the legs vertical, so that the module can stand by itself even when not connected to a layout. Otherwise, set up times will be greatly increased because someone will need to hold everything together while someone else clamps everything together, and there is a much greater chance that you will drop modules and damage them. Legs should be adjustable to accommodate small variations in floor heights. This is usually done by having metal feet at the bottom, which can be screwed in or out to adjust the height a few inches. For extremely uneven floors, additional blocks of wood may be used, but should be kept clear of the area where people are walking, in order to avoid tripping.

Wherever track is to be supported, plywood or other solid support should be used. If this "sub-roadbed" is too thin or weak, the roadbed will dip, causing the track to dip, and causing problems in operations. Roadbed can be made from several different materials. Some modelers use homasote (a pressed-paper product) which holds spikes well and reduces some of the sound of the running trains. For a quieter roadbed, cork or foam-rubber roadbeds are also available, though these may require the use of adhesive to keep the track attached.

Storage and transportation of modules is important to modular clubs, since many clubs operate shows in places away from their "home base." Some modelers build boxes into which each module is placed, to protect it from outside influences; elbows, doorways, and other things that might bump into them. Using this type of box adds some weight to the transportation of modules, but reduces the opportunities for damage to track, scenery, and wiring.
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Scenery

Modular layouts need to be portable, so a great deal of effort is put into keeping weight down. Most modular modelers use foam to build their scenery. Extruded foam insulation can be purchased at home centers, in 4 X 8 sheets of various thicknesses. I have seen it up to two inches thick, but I find it easier to work with half inch sheets, building up any needed height a little at a time. Once the foam has been shaped, gaps and holes can be filled using spackle, but a more flexible material is the "foam putty" produced by Woodland Scenics.

Since most soil is not pink or blue (like the foam usually is) The next step is to paint the foam. In case the scenery that follows does not cover the foam completely, at least a coat of brown or green paint will just look like a little bit of dirt showing through the grass.
Do not use solvent-based or oil-based paints!
These can dissolve the foam, wasting all the effort you put into getting it into the shape you wanted. I usually use a brown or green flat latex paint. The exact color is not critical, so you can save a little money on this paint by checking for suitable colors on the "oops" table at your local home center.

Over the paint, a layer of ground foam rubber (available at most hobby shops) simulates grass and weeds. Trees can be made or purchased, but watch their height to ensure that they will fit inside your storage box.

Structures can be removeable or they can be permanently attached to modules. Both methods can work. If structures are removeable, they will need to be packed well in another container for transportation. If they are attached to the module, they should be well fastened, so they do not detatch and roll around in transit. That would damage or destroy most buildings.

Other details can turn an average module into a real eye-catcher. Some details include: telegraph poles, fire hydrants, railroad or road signals or signs, animals, people, cars, mileposts, and even trash.
More details should be placed toward the front of the module, where they are more visible, to give the illusion that the entire module is fully detailed.
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Other Information

When setting up a modular layout, the alignment of the main line tracks is the first thing that needs to be done. Trains on these tracks will be more numerous, and running at higher speeds than trains on sidings or yard tracks. Use a level to make sure the mainline is level from left to right, using the adjustment bolts on the front legs to reach this goal. After this has been accomplished, use the back legs of the module to adjust the front-to-back level of the module. Additional modules should be aligned to meet the ones that are already set up, and then adjusted to maintain a level main line. If, for some reason, you arrange all the modules into a loop, level them all, and then find that the last one is two inches higher than the first one, don't try to compensate for this by just dropping the high end of the module two inches. This will introduce a sharp vertical kink into the main line, causing problems with the operation of trains. By adjusting three or four modules, the height difference can be spread out over a greater distance, minimizing its impact. Of course, you could go back around and re-adjust every module on the layout, but that is time-consuming and unneccessary. Most trains will be able to deal with some up-and-down variations as long as they are not drastic shifts.
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This web site developed and managed by:
Frederick Monsimer