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Spring, 2010 Edition

Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains


This is the seventh time I have updated this article. When I started garden railroading, there was as much misinformation as information out there. I received so much conflicting advice that I wound up buying stuff that didn't go together at all, and it took me a lot of time and math to figure out what the problem was.

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.

On the other hand, the scale/gauge issue in Large Scale is still a little confused, as Large Scalers are still using the same track to model all shapes and sizes of railroads. Unfortunately, some people who have decided on one scale or another come to feel that everyone else is doing it "wrong." Others don't feel that scale is important at all; some of their railroads are a hodgepodge of things that don't always look right together. But don't let such extremes scare you away from the hobby or from a reasonable amount of planning.

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.


Table of Contents

Scale and Gauge
Other Scale/Gauge Combinations
Prototype Choices

Other Caveats

Manufacturer Support

Sorting It All Out

Appendix 1: Manufacturer Support Details

Appendix B: Urban Legends of Large Scale

Appendix C: Manufacturer Links

Which Scale Should I Model? Spring, 2010 Edition

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.

Scale and Gauge

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 RailroadNorth American 36" Narrow GaugeEuropean Metre GaugeStandard Gauge (56.5")
Scale Calculation1:20.3
(1 meter/45mm)
Scales Supported1:20.3
1:22.5 1:29
Bachmann Shay

Bachmann 4-6-0,

LGB Mogul
Delton (AristoCraft Classic) 2-8-0,
HLW Interurban

LGB Stainz

AristoCraft U25B,

USA Hudson
MTH Hudson,
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:

The short version is that knowing the kind of railroad you want to model helps you sort issues of scale out pretty quickly. As you'll see soon, in several cases, it even tells you which manufacturer you should probably check out first.

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?

Other Scale/Gauge Combinations

Many other scale and gauge combinations have been tried, including:

Prototype Choices

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.

Standard Gauge 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.

Narrow Gauge Prototypes

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.

Other Caveats

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.

Manufacturer Support

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")

Sorting It All Out

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.

First: Choose a Prototype

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.

Second: Choose a Scale and Manufacturer that Supports Your Prototype

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.

Third: Choose Compromises You can Live With

Click to see some ways you can help us build the hobby.Once you've chosen a prototype and a preferred scale to model, you'll realize that you may still have to make compromises to make your dream come to life. For example, you may have to use a locomotive designed for another railroad, cars or accessories from a different era, and even models from a slightly different scale.

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


Appendix 1: Manufacturer Support Details

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.

Narrow Gauge Offerings:

European Standard Gauge Offerings:

North American Standard Gauge Offerings:

16mm Offerings

Alert reader Sam Kennion has alerted me to a few of the more popular 16mm suppliers, including: 32mm and 45mm track is available from several companies, including Peco and Accucraft UK. Accucraft UK's code 332 45mm track is compatible with LGB's and AristoCraft's Euro track.

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.

Other Sources and Resources

Appendix B: Urban Legends of Large Scale

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,


Appendix C: Manufacturer Links

In case you wanted to see any of the manufacturer's own pages, here are some links that worked as of 4/29/2010. (The links open in a separate window so you can get back to this site easily).

Home Pages
Reading Index Pages
Buyer's Guide Pages
Return to Family Garden Trains Home page Return to Big Indoor Trains Home page Garden Railroading Primer Articles: All about getting a Garden Railroad up and  running well Big Indoor Trains Primer Articles: All about setting  up and displaying indoor display trains and towns. Garden Train Store: Index to train, track, and other products for Garden Railroading Big Christmas Trains: Directory of Large Scale and O Scale trains with holiday themes
On30 and O Gauge trains to go with indoor display  villages and railroads

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