Size is everything…or is it?

As my readers well know, I have two model train layouts called “Chesapeake and Tenleytown Railroad”. One is the G scale size pike in the garden, the other one is the HO scale railway in the attic.

So, let us talk about size for a bit. Actually the term “size” is a misnomer. As far as model trains is concerned we should be referring to “scale”. But what about gauge, one might ask.

Gauge is the spacing of the rails and is measured between the inner sides of the load bearing rails:

Screen Shot 2018-11-02 at 13.48.19.png

What is usually referred to as “standard gauge” in the real world is four feet and 8 1/2 inches, or, in the metric system, 1435 millimeters. Very broadly speaking (pun intended), the wider the gauge, the better the riding quality of the rolling stock. One of the foremost engineers ever, the Englishman Isambard Kingdom Brunel, did realize the advantage of using broad gauge when he built the Great Western Railway in south-western England around 1835. He chose a massive 7 foot 1/4 inch gauge for his new railway. Choosing one gauge over another was more often than not a political decision, not an engineering one. If country X used a five foot 3 inch gauge and country Y next door would use 4 foot 8 1/2, the movement of materiel during a possible conflict would be greatly impeded. At least so the thinking went during the heyday of railway construction in the 19th and 20th century. For example, Spain’s railways were built to run on a gauge of 1668 millimeters, whereas the French used 1435 millimeters. Folklore has it that it was done to prevent a French invasion of Spain.

In model train track we also have gauges. For example most garden railroads like mine are 45 millimeters between rails.

G Scale Signal

The photograph above shows 45 millimeter stainless steel Aristo-Craft track in the author’s garden. Whereas the next photograph shows HO track at 16.5 millimeters on my attic layout:


Then there is track at 9 millimeters between the rails, generally referred to as N gauge, as shown below:


There are other model rail gauges. However G, HO and N are the most prevalent.

Now back to “scale”. Basically the scale ratio of a model represents the proportional ratio of a linear dimension of the model to the same feature of the original. HO scale is 1 to 87 (1:87), equating 3.5 millimeters on the model to one foot on the original. Having stated this, I will have to say that there is a lot of fudging going on in the model train industry. British model train manufacturers are good at this. They market their models as HO/OO even though they are in the 1:76 scale. All run on the same HO gauge track though and, I for one, have problems noticing the scale difference on my layout, as illustrated in this next photograph:


On the left is a PIKO HO (1:87) scale train, on the left is a Hornby OO (1:76) set. As one can see, HO and OO are “fudgeable”. This is not so much the case on the garden railroad. Scales of locomotives and rolling stock to run on 45 millimeter track is all over the place. In the following picture the Bachmann Shay locomotive looms over the “Peter Witt” Baltimore street car. They both run on G gauge at 45 millimeters in the garden, but their scale is very different. They would look ridiculous if one would run them together! In real life the Shay is about 50 feet long, the street car about 45.


The Shay is 1:20 and the street car is 1:29. Interestingly both pieces are manufactured by Bachmann. Why the difference in scale, I do not know.

Aristo-Craft, unfortunately out of business, produced this RDC at 1:29 for 45 millimeter track:

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Photograph by Michael Evans (

LGB, now owned by Märklin, came out with this model of a narrow gauge Rhätische Bahn electric at 1:22, which also runs on 45 millimeter track:


PIKO also makes model trains for the garden railroad. I like PIKO trains. They are not for “rivet counters”, but are robust, reasonably priced and seem to last. The company is honest in as much as they claim that their outdoor rolling stock is “around” 1:25. The reason given is the fact that making some of the rolling stock to true scale would make it much too large and unwieldy, with difficulty getting around curves. Like the model of their Deutsche Bahn TEE diesel rail car. A prototypical consist on the garden railroad would come in at slightly over 10 feet. I know: I’ve got one of those! To see it in action click here.

One more example regarding scale and the related rolling stock sizes:

194 Electric.jpg

These three electric units pictured are part of my collection of German Rail Class 194 locomotives in scales G, O, HO, TT, N and Z. Furthest back is the HO example at 1:87, in the middle is a TT scale model at 1:120 and in the front is an N scale piece at 1:160.

So why this big colloquy on scale and gauge? Remember that I have an HO layout in the attic. Even though that space is quite large, I have never been able to run long, prototypical looking trains. The curves possible always seemed to be the wrong radii, so things looked a bit unrealistic. Doing a ladder rail yard was just not possible. HO track and turn outs were just too big for my available space. So, about two months ago I decided to go with N scale. I had seen an N scale layout at one of the model train shows and realized what I could do with N scale which was just not possible with HO. I would have preferred TT scale, but, even though it is popular in Europe, it is virtually unknown here in the USA. Equipment would have been difficult to acquire, so N scale it was.

Right now I am laying track. I am using Code 80 track from Atlas and KATO and am finally able to get my ladder rail yard. Yeah! Fortunately I can continue to use my DCC equipment, since it is compatible with N scale. All my new N scale locomotives are decoder equipped. (For information regarding DCC, click here and here). N scale has come a long ways. The details on the locomotives is generally very good, considering the size of the units, and the variety of rolling stock is astounding. I am not crazy about those Rapido couplers, but I can live with it.

A few of my new N scale locomotives:

IMG_4261.jpegA Hobbytrain Deutsche Bahn Class 247 diesel locomotive.

194 Electric 4.jpgAn Arnold Rapido Deutsche Bahn Class 194 electric.

IMG_4265.jpegA PIKO Deutsche Bahn Class 442 EMU.

IMG_4266.jpegA Bachmann Trains Amtrak HHP-8 electric locomotive.

IMG_4267.jpegAn Amtrak “Northeast Regional” train by KATO. Also by KATO is this Rhätische Bahn “Glacier Express” set:


So everybody: Stay tuned as the new N scale “Chesapeake and Tenleytown Railroad” takes shape.

All photographs and video by Ralf Meier (Sony a6500 and iPhone X). The photograph of the Santa Fe RDC by Michael Evans (

©Ralf Meier 2018


1 Comment

  1. […] day to futz around in the attic and keep building my N scale railroad empire. As I mentioned in a previous blog, I have decided to switch from HO to N scale. By now, some N scale track has been put down and a […]

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