What Model Railroad Scale is Right For Me?

If you are new to model railroading, you might ask, “what model train scale is right for me?”. A very common mistake beginners make is to confuse scales. However, scales and gauges are very straightforward. A scale is the proportion of your model to the real deal. For instance, the HO scale locomotives are 1/87 the size of real life locomotives. The model train gauge is the width between the inside running edge of the track. As you already can tell, model trains are scale down replicas of real railroad elements. The main model train scales and their minimum turning radiuses are:

  • O scale 1:48 – Minimum Radius 24 inches
  • S scale 1:64 – Minimum Radius 22.5 inches
  • OO scale 1:76 – Minimum Radius 21 inches
  • HO scale 1:87 – Minimum Radius 15 inches
  • N scale 1:160 – Minimum Radius 7.5 inches
  • Z scale 1:220 – Minimum Radius 5.75 inches
What Model Railroad Scale is Right For Me?

O scale is the largest scale, to Z scale being the smallest scale. An O scale model train set is 1/48 the size of the real thing, while a Z scale model train set is 1/220 the size of the real thing. All the trees, bridges, roads, buildings and other accessories are all scaled to the relevant size. Also known as the OO gauge in the UK, HO scale has become the most popular scale.

Now back to our original question, what scale is right for you? This is a very important decision to make and comes down to three main factors; the available space for your layout, the physical size of model train equipment you want to work with, the available accessories for that scale.


Building a layout in HO scale will be almost half the size of the identical layout in O scale. Turning radius’s in HO scale will be tighter; tunnels will be smaller and, most importantly, it is easier to hide mistakes in a smaller scale. Larger scales need more detail and it can often be very hard to create a realistic looking layout in a large scale. HO scale has become very popular because it is a “middle-of-the-road” scale and easier to make look realistic. If you still don’t have enough room available, you may consider an N scale railroad which can be built in just 30% of the area which is required for a HO scale model train layout.


Fat finger syndrome or bad eyesight can sometimes force us to consider the larger scales. It can be very frustrating trying to airbrush a Z scale carriage or manipulating N scale rolling stock. They can be very fiddly. Children will find it easier operating and manipulating the bigger scales, from HO scale upwards. Bigger scale rolling stock tends to be heavier and less likely to derail. From observation, the ladies seem to prefer the intricate smaller scales, while the men tend to go with the HO scale and larger scales.


Over the years the HO scale has become the most popular model train scale and the manufacturers have responded to the demand by producing more accessories and rolling stock for HO scale. HO scale is just the right size for most people to appreciate the detail and running performance without being too cramped.

If you decide to run digital controllers and have lots of switching operations, the HO scale might be the best choice for you.


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