Spring, 2010 Edition
As a result, when I first wrote this article, much of it was devoted to debunking "urban legends" and falsehoods, as well as reviewing history that isn't frankly that important to most people. If you want more details on any of the subjects discussed here, please contact me for more information.
Think of this puzzle as one of those cereal-box mazes you worked over breakfast when you were a kid. More often than not, they were easier to work if you started at the "goal" and worked your way toward the "beginning." This article will help you work out your "goal," (a functioning Large Scale railroad that models a real-world railroad you like) then work your way "backwards" through the maze of choices, to make decisions that really bring you to your goal.
Thanks to Lewis Polk (representing AristoCraft), David Buffington (former representative of LGB), Andy Edleman (representing MTH) and Vance Bass, the GR historian and a long time garden railroader for their assistance in "cross-checking" the facts. I have also received help with minor questions from most of the other major manufacturers listed.
If you see any historical, numerical, or other factual discrepancies, please let me know. Thank you very much for your help in maintaining this resource.
Other Scale/Gauge Combinations
Sorting It All Out
Appendix 1: Manufacturer Support Details
Appendix B: Urban Legends of Large Scale
Appendix C: Manufacturer Links
In building a model of anything, the issue of scale usually comes up immediately. What numerical relationship does your model have to the "real world"? For example, the typical dollhouse uses one inch to represent a foot of distance in real life. So we say that the most common "dollhouse scale" is 1:12, because each item is one-twelfth as long as the prototype, (a prototype is the real-world item that the model represents). Please pardon me if the next couple paragraphs seem a little technical, but this is stuff you'll probably want to know sooner or later, and it's better if you know it before you have several grand invested in choices that weren't the best for you.
Most "indoor" model railroading scales, like HO, are known by the relationship their models bear to the real world (i.e. 1:87.1 for HO--there's a history behind the weird number that's not worth explaining here).
Modeling Standard Gauge Railroads Indoors - The vast majority of equipment in the indoor scales models real-world standard gauge railroads, which use rails that are 56.5" apart, like the modern Union Pacific. So if you want to determine the track gauge used by most HO scalers, you can divide 56.5" by 87.1 and get .649" (or 16.5mm), the "preferred" distance between the rails for HO scalers.
Modeling Narrow Gauge Railroads Indoors - But that scale and gauge combination works only as long as the HO modeler is modeling real-world standard gauge trains. Some HO scalers model real-world narrow gauge trains like the Denver and Rio Grand Western, which used 36" track. If an HO scaler modeling a 36" narrow gauge railroad wants to stay in HO scale (1:87.1), he or she will have to use narrower track (.414") to represent narrow gauge. Yes, trackage and equipment are available to model this scale and gauge combination if you look hard enough. (It's called HOn3). But the chances of the HO modeler accidentally picking up a car or locomotive for his or her railroad and having it turn out to be the wrong gauge or scale are just about zilch.
Modeling Anything Outdoors - Things are not so simple in Large Scale. In the smaller scales, the scale stays the same and the track gauge changes when you go from standard to narrow gauge. But in Large Scale, the track gauge came first. In fact "Gauge 1" track (which was initially defined as 1.75" and is now defined as 45mm or 1.775") is over 100 years old. It has been used most of that time by British live steam hobbyists running models of standard gauge equipment. Then when LGB chose to model narrow gauge trains, instead of changing the gauge, they changed the scale. Result? Trains in different scales running on the same track.
Here's a brief example of the most common Large Scale options that are widely available in North America.
|Prototype Railroad||North American 36" Narrow Gauge||European Metre Gauge||Standard Gauge (56.5")|
|Scale Calculation||1:20.3 |
|Delton (AristoCraft Classic) 2-8-0, |
Accucraft/AMS Big Boy
As you can see, North American prototypes are represented, not only by the "correct" scales, but also by compromise scales, each of which has a history I won't take up space relating.
Only one company, Hartland Locomotive Works (HLW), is still developing new products in 1:24 (although many fine "legacy" products, such as the Delton/Aristocraft 2-8-0, are still available). HLW has an especially strong line of "traction" (trolley) products.
Overall, there are basically two "clusters" of scales that are of interest to most people modeling North American railroads:
If are interested in modeling European trains, you have similar choices, plus a mostly British-inspired scale called 16mm:
About Variances Within "Scale Clusters" - You can also see that, if you choose to model either narrow gauge or standard gauge North American railroads, There is up to a 10% variance between manufacturer lines. This difference is noticeable if you set two of the exact same prototype next to each other. But if you start out, say, with 1:22.5, and later move toward 1:20.3, you can still use the same accessories and even some of the same rolling stock, without things looking too weird.
About Variances Between "Scale Clusters" - On the other hand, the difference between narrow gauge and standard gauge Large Scale models can be painfully obvious (up to 36%). Think of it this way: A six-foot-tall door taken from a 1:20.3 caboose would be nine feet tall in 1:32. How many nine-foot-tall conductors do you know?
Many other scale and gauge combinations have been tried, including:
In short, when you're considering which scale to model, the first question you need to answer is whether you want to model a narrow gauge or standard gauge railroad. For the sake of this section, we'll stick to North American prototypes.
If you've ever been stopped by a train in USA or Canada, odds are millions to one that it was a Standard Gauge train, meaning that the rails are 56.5" apart (please don't lay down on the railroad track to measure the gauge, though). You can model old-timey railroads or short lines in standard gauge if you want to, But if you want to model a big modern railroad with really long cars, you'll probably wind up modeling standard gauge. One trade-off for those really long cars and locomotives is that they require wider curves. Ten-foot diameter curves are the minimum for many standard gauge pieces; fifteen or twenty-foot diameter curves look much better.
There's no question that sixty-car trains are impressive. There's also no question that they take up a lot of room to run (this example would typically be over 100' long and the locomotive would be "chasing the caboose" on a 33'-diameter circle). They also take a lot of room to store. Nevertheless people who've grown up in the "modern" era or who have come to Large Scale from an indoor scale like HO are naturally attracted to big equipment as used by big railroads.
One "downside" to Large Scale standard gauge is that so few accessories are available--most of the "Large Scale" buildings and figures were designed to look "right" with models of narrow gauge equipment. Currently, most garden railroaders are desensitized to 1:20.3 giants looking into the windows of 1:32 locomotives, but I expect that to change eventually. (For information on what figures work best in different garden railroad scales, check out our article Choosing Figures for your Garden Railroad.)
(Note that, in this context, the term "Standard Gauge" refers to prototype railroads, which laid their rails 56.5" apart. This usage has nothing to do with the old tinplate "standard gauge" trains that Ives and Lionel made in the early 1900s.)
Prototype standard gauge railroads include NYC, PRR, CSX, C&O, B&O, etc.
Many real-world trains once ran on track widths besides 56.5", and some stil do. For example, many historic Western railroads in the US used 36" gauge, and some European railroads still use "metre" gauge. Such track widths are called "narrow gauge" to distinguish them from 56.5" standard gauge. Within Large Scale, the most commonly modeled US Narrow Gauge railroads are the 36" railroads, like the old Rio Grande Western. (Some folks do model 24" industrial lines, but that scale isn't widely supported by manufacturers.)
A huge advantage of modeling 36" narrow gauge in Large Scale is that almost all of the accessories, especially the POLA buildings, are made to look right with those trains. And it's a lot easier to add details and "personality" to 1:22.5 figures and accessories than to those in 1:32. If "quaint" and "charming" are adjectives that appeal to you, you'll probably want to stick with Narrow Gauge. That said, models of larger narrow gauge locomotives are becoming available, and the size is impressive--the standard gauge modelers don't get to have all the big toys.
Prototype narrow gauge railroads include industrial 24" gauge (logging or ore) railroads, the old Denver and Rio Grand Western (36" gauge), and Austrian meter-gauge railroads such as that modeled by LGB's first "Stainz" locomotive.
As if the above information about Large Scale scales isn't confusing enough, a few more issues muddy the water in the cases of individual models and manufacturer claims:
So even after you've settled on a type of railroad to model and a scale, you're not exactly "locked in." If you prefer to stick with a particular range of scales, try to look at each new purchase next to something you already own, so you can decide if it's going to look right on your railroad, no matter what it says on the box.
Once you've decided on a type of railroad to model, check out the manufacturers who support that kind of modeling.
The following chart summarizes the choices you face if you are trying to find a major manufacturer that supports your railroading interests. The fact that some of the boxes are blank or nearly blank just shows where the Large Scale manufacturing base is at the moment.
The picture could change quite a bit in the next few years. Not only are the 1:29 manufacturers releasing new products constantly, but traditional O-scale manufacturer MTH has shipped several 1:32 products and hopes to introduce several more this year.
So this chart is nothing but a snapshot of the decisions you will face in the fall of 2009.
|If you're interested in:||Consider looking here first:||Other possibilities include:||Good starting points include include:|
|North American Standard Gauge||AristoCraft and USA 1:29 MTH and Accucraft/AMS 1:32||MDC reefers, hoppers and ore cars (if you can find them). Lionel ore cars (if you can find them). Other MDC and Lionel on an individual basis.||AristoCraft Starter Sets|
|North American Narrow Gauge||
Bachmann, Accucraft/AMS, and Hartford 1:20.3,
Bachmann and LGB 1:22.5
|Aristo Classics (AKA Delton) 1:24, Hartland Locomotive Works 1:24(?)||Bachmann Starter Sets|
|European Narrow Gauge||LGB 1:22.5||
Roundhouse (UK) 1:19 (16mm scale), UK prototype
Accucraft UK 1:19 (16mm scale), UK prototype
|LGB Starter Sets (sorry, no links)|
|European Standard Gauge||Maerklin||?||?|
Choosing by Manufacturers - The majority of large scalers "solve" scale/gauge issues by choosing one scale or manufacturer and sticking with them for the most part. If they are attracted to a product from another manufacturer or a slightly different scale, they try to see how it looks with their stuff before they buy it. The result is that there are many hundreds of well-established large scale railroads that look balanced and realistic, not because they are ideal, but because they are consistent and thought-out. (Additional information on mixing and matching equipment from various manuacturers is included in the appendix to this document, and in the Family Garden Trains article "Mixing and Matching Large Scale Cars/ Sample Car Measurements")
If you feel confused by all this information, you should know that thousands of people before you have navigated the same issues and have put together Large Scale railroads that are fun, attractive, consistent, and - in many cases - magnificent. In fact, many fine garden railroads disregard one or several of the principles defined here, so think of these as guidelines, not as hard and fast rules. In the end, the person you have to please is the one you look at in the mirror after a long day of working on the railroad.
You can see that which scale you use depends largely on which kind of railroad you want to model. The really big question is "Would you rather model a standard gauge or narrow gauge railroad?" After that, choice of era, continent, etc., will also be helpful.
Once you've chosen a prototype you want to model, the detail part of the choice comes into play. While your choice of prototype will somewhat dictate the scale you model in, the fact is that some scales are better served by manufacturers than others. Sometimes you hear someone saying he prefers 1:22.5 scale, he's probably really saying that he likes LGB trains better than AristoCraft trains, and so on. He has every right to do so, but no right to tell you what to buy.
The Manufacturer Support appendix of this article provides many details you should find helpful.
The fact is that most people's tastes mature, or at least change, once they've been at this a while. You may find that some compromise that didn't bother you when you started out bothers you later. That's just part of the hobby, of any hobby, in fact. Just take a little care not to spend all your money "up front" while you're still getting your "feet wet."
In short, the best advice I can give is to decide wisely, then make time to enjoy the choices you made. Contact me if you have any questions, corrections, or additions.
Best of luck
At any given time, most garden train scales are only supplied by one or two manufacturers, so any worthwhile description of what's available in the different scales is sorted by manufacturer as well as by scale. A table summarizing this information is provided in the body of this article. The following section provides more detail on individual product lines.
Note: The following summary focuses on manufacturers who mass-produce a variety of quality equipment that works well together at prices that won't bankrupt the average middle-class family of careful shoppers. There are many additional suppliers who make a handful of excellent products, but whose product lines don't have the "depth" to meet the needs of most beginning garden railroaders. As an example, custom manufacturing runs of $2000-$5000 locomotives, etc., are also beyond the scope of this article. Once you've chosen a prototype and a scale, you may find that the custom products, as well as the products of other "niche" manufacturers make nice additions and upgrades to your railroad. However, this section focuses on the needs of folks who want to equip a beginning to intermediate railroad on a manageable budget.
Other American hobbyists complained loudly that 1:20.3 would be better, since that would be the proper scale for using 1.775" track to model 3' gauge railroads. So Bachmann began making more expensive, better detailed 1:20.3 locomotives like the Shay and Climax, and 19th century-looking 4-4-0s, 2-6-0s, 2-8-0s, and 2-8-2s. Some of the newer pieces are quite large and require large curves to look and run their best.
Bachmann has also been making some freight cars and other "shorty" freight cars that look better with 1:20.3 locomotives than with 1:22.5 or smaller scales.
If You're Starting Out - Bachmann's 1:22.5 starter sets are widely available and good values. This makes Bachmann an excellent good choice for people who are just starting out and haven't firmly decided what to model. If you start with a Bachmann starter set, then decide to model another scale later, you can always let the kids have the starter set. You will need to buy separate track to use outside though (I recommend Aristocraft), since Bachmann track isn't made for outside use.
LGB's mass-produced offerings for the US market are slightly off-scale and occasionally have adjusted lengths to help the product handle tight curves, but they are built very solid and have an excellent reputation for reliability.
Note about LGB and Maerklin - Sadly, LGB, the company that reinvigorated the garden railroading hobby in the 1960s and 1970s fell on hard times in the early 2000's and went into receivership in 2006. It was eventually bought out by Maerklin, one of the world's largest model railroad manufacturers. But soon after moving LGB manufacturing out of Germany, Maerklin itself fell on hard times. As I write this in September, 2009, Maerklin is in something like US's Chapter 11. They are still doing business and making trains, but nobody is getting as many LGB trains as they want right now. Keep your fingers crossed.
If you want to add a Hartland piece to an existing setup, try comparing it visually first to what you already have.
Maerklin also once made a cute line of Large Scale tinplate trains that resembled American equipment. The trains, however, was plagued by inaccurate details like European-style steam chests, and - even more ironically - were not made to be used outside. Although you might enjoy having a set for fun, chances are Maerklin will never reintroduce these, as they were not well-received.
Note for September, 2009 - As of September, 2009, Maerklin is still getting at least some LGB and some of its own traditional lines to market. Hopefully if the world's economy continues to stabilize, the recovering market for model trains will help this giant to recover its momentum and to keep meeting hobbyists' needs.
Scale and height
issues aside, AristoCraft provides the best variety and some of the best
engineering in the entire garden train market. They also support their trains with a wide
variety of accessories, an excellent family of track products, and a
constantly-upgraded stream of control and power devices. In short,
is the closest thing US standard-gauge modelers have to a full-service
for Large Scale. (AristoCraft also manufactures the old Delton Narrow-gauge
equipment, too, calling it their "Classics" line, but they clearly
label it as 1:24 so people don't get confused).
USA's current stuff is nicely detailed, metal-wheeled, and not cheap. They nicely fill in some "gaps" in the AristoCraft line.
Regarding the 1:32 vs 1:29 "controversy" - I frequently meet future garden railroaders who insist on shopping for MTH or AMS trains because they want to model in the "correct" scale for 45mm track. Almost as often, I meet experienced modelers who have invested heavily in 1:32 trains, and now tell me that the 10% difference in scale between MTH and AristoCraft wasn't the only thing they should have paid attention to when they were starting out. The best thing you can do is see these products side-by-side, handle them, and, best of all, see them running in real garden railroads. There are good reasons for choosing ANY of these product lines - try not to be swayed by one factor.
(If only they had made these products to work with 1:29 or 1:32 trains, they may have kept more of their market share. But when I told them that at the time, they told me they knew more about garden trains than I do, so go figure.)
Unfortunately, MDC has gone out of business, but their ore cars and hoppers are still valuable addition to many standard gauge garden railroads, and some folks really like the paint jobs on their "billboard" reefers.
Since about 2000, though, Lionel hasn't made any Large Scale trains that I would recommend for garden railroading. Except for their cutsy, elf-infested Holiday Tradition Express, all of the "Large Scale" trains now sold under the Lionel name are battery-powered toys similar to Scientific Toy's EZ-Tec trains. Feel free to buy one for fun, but don't bother getting one for a garden railroad.
If you ever come by any of the older, "more serious" Lionel Large Scale products, you will notice that some of the paint jobs are very nice, and most of the equipment is pretty sturdy.
According to Sam, many 16mm hobbyists buy their locomotives but build most of their rolling stock. Sam recommends joining the Yahoo 16mm group to get your questions answered.
If scale issues really concern you, you should know that some of the most expensive imports, which were advertised as 1:32 are really 1:30, due to a 10mm/foot shortcut often used by Asian model-makers. The same "try-it-before-you-buy-it" rules apply at the "high end" as they do at the low end.
A "subculture" of "Shoestring Railroaders" have emerged who use mostly Scientific Toys (supplemented by other toy train brands) on their garden railroads. In some cases, purse strings are tight. In others, its mostly a challenge to see how nice a railroad you can make for under $100 or $200. For more information on this part of the hobby, you can check out our article Garden Railroading with Toy Trains. I don't recommend this approach for a "permanent," low-maintenance garden railroad, but it is a fun way to dabble without spending the kids' college fund.
And if you move on to more solid trains and track, you can always save them to give the grandkids something to run when they come over.
The 1:22.5 car as 1:32-stand-in Myth: For years people who mix and match scales have pointed out that many 1:22.5 models of narrow gauge cars have about the same overall dimensions as a 32:1 model of a standard gauge car, because the real narrow gauge stuff was about 2/3 the size of the real standard gauge stuff.
It is true that many people would not particularly notice an LGB boxcar in a string of 1:32 or 1:29 cars if the train was moving, and lots of folks over the years have mixed and matched without anything really bad happening to them.
But this casual approach to the matter eventually gave birth to an "urban legend" to the effect that LGB's 1:22.5 models of narrow gauge cars were "so close" to 1:32 car measurements that they were, for all intents and purposes, interchangeable with 1:32 cars, or even with 1:29 cars. This was an especially useful, and self-serving conviction to hold in the early days, when decent 1:29 or 1:32 equipment was almost impossible to come by. In fact, many of my friends still run LGB 1:22.5 and AristoCraft 1:29 cars in the same train and I wouldn't dream of telling them they're doing it wrong. Certainly not when their overall railroads are so much nicer than mine.
However, if you place 1:22.5 and 1:32 (or 1:29) models next to each other and examine them, you'll discover lots of differences like handrail spacing, brake wheel placement, etc., in addition to some relatively apparent overall size discrepancies, especially in width. So you may or may not be comfortable with mixing and matching. Or it may not bother you now, but might bother you in a few months or years.
In short, I would recommend that you try not to mix and match too much at first, because you could find out that details and minor differences that didn't bug you at first drive you crazy later, once you have more of the RR built.
Best of luck,
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