Model Trains for Beginners
The Smart Path to Becoming a Rail Baron
Model trains and miniature railroads seem to cast a spell of sorts over many hobbyists.
More than just model kits of ships or airplanes, model trains feature motion and animation that almost magically create the illusion of a miniature world.
Model Railroaders – A Large and (Sometimes) Famous Group
You may remember being spellbound by “electric trains” as a youngster, or maybe you had the opportunity to experience the raw power of full-size railroading in years past.
If so, you might find yourself drawn to scale model railroading, a hobby enjoyed by hundreds of thousands in countries around the world.
Included in this wide-ranging crowd of miniature rail empire barons are a surprising number of famous statesmen, thespians, and musicians including:
- British Prime Minister Winston Churchill
- Singer Frank Sinatra
- Rockers Rod Stewart and Bruce Springsteen
- Actor Michael Gross
The experiences of so many enthusiasts, accumulated over decades, have highlighted some important decisions you should probably consider early in the process if you want to enjoy model railroading to its fullest.
A key factor in creating a scale model empire that will really entertain you in the long term is getting the right layout – a track plan that will help create the miniature world you’d really like to see.
Thoughtful reflection on these and a few other key points has been shown to significantly enhance the satisfaction you ultimately achieve in building and operating a model railroad, so ask yourself some questions as you consider a journey into the hobby:
What do You Like About Trains?
What do you feel you really want to experience as you create and run your railroad?
Some model railroaders find great satisfaction in watching miniature locomotives and rail cars run in a loop through miniature scenes.
Other scale rail barons get maximum fulfillment from carefully switching a string of freight cars, delivering simulated loads of cargo to miniature industries along their lines.
Some hobbyists enjoy the historical representation of giant steam locomotives of years past thundering through the countryside, helping lead the nation to victory in a world war.
Others feel a swell of pride in seeing the latest diesel or electric engines pull modern, streamlined passenger trains or up-to-date containerized freight through modern city scenes or majestic towering scale mountains.
Asking yourself, “What do I really want the trains to look like, and to do?” can help guide a constellation of decisions the model railroader faces.
Consider making notes on paper regarding what kind of buildings, scenery, locomotives, freight or passenger cars, even scale automobiles and trucks you would like to see in your miniature world.
As you narrow down what you want in that world, a sort of blueprint for your layout will emerge.
Careful Planning will Pay!
Thought given early to space available, the desired size of trains, historical era, and geography to be represented are all critical factors in a carefully crafted layout.
You’ll be glad you took the time up front to properly plan, as your individual railroad world emerges, day by day, from your imagination and ingenuity.
How Much Space Do You Have?
The amount of real estate available for a scale model empire, whether in a basement, spare bedroom, or even a single narrow shelf in a den, is a key factor in decisions regarding what you should invest in to push your plan forward.
Decisions include not only how much track and how many train cars, for example, but even how large, or what scale, the trains themselves will be.
A Word on Train Size and Scale
The term “scale” applied to model railroads generally, refers to what fraction of the size of real trains your chosen models turn out to be.
The most popular scale today is 1/87 the size of actual railroad equipment and is called HO (pronounced “aitch-oh”).
Many modelers find that HO is a good compromise of detailed and well-proportioned models vs. their cost and the space required to operate them.
A modern 50-foot box car in HO scale is just short of seven inches in length, meaning a ten-car local freight train might take up less than seven feet with a locomotive attached.
Older equipment in the same scale is even smaller; a train representing 1900-era 40-foot or 32-foot freight cars might require only five feet for a believable local freight train.
Other popular model railroad scales include “O” which is 1/48 scale, and “N” which is 1/160 the size of the real thing.
Additional larger and smaller scales of model equipment are also available, up to “Number 1” (1/29th) and down to “Z” scale at a fantastic 1/220 the size of a real train. (In Z scale, that same 50-foot box car is represented in a gem-like 2.75 inches!)
A Table, a Shelf – or a Module?
While analyzing the space you have and the trains you want, you must turn to the all-important question of track layout.
Some modelers are satisfied with an oval or two of track mounted on a standard 4 x 8’ sheet of plywood as a table top.
Others find reaching their trains, buildings, and scenery easier if the layout base is limited to a more accessible 18 or 24 inches in width.
Your ideal layout map may include some of both.
Maybe you have one or two wider sections as terminal areas, joined by narrower shelf-like mainline runs - maximizing both railroad functionality and room space available for other uses.
While some model railroaders think big from the beginning, and fill all of their available space with large track and scenery areas built as a single unit, others prefer a more bite-sized approach.
Increasingly, rail modelers are building their empire in modules - small sections of perhaps 2 x 6’ which are then progressively joined together into the entire railroad.
This has the advantage of allowing rapid progress in track and scenery construction in a manageable area and allows your miniature world take shape much quicker.
An additional benefit of modules is realized if life circumstances ever force you to move your empire - modular railroading can make moving much easier if it becomes necessary.
Creating a model railroad is a process that provides an incredible number of opportunities to learn new skills – and make new friends!
As you plan the track layout and environment, you will serve your railroad in many ways:
You will decide on the best use of space and the right approach for pushing your main line through those mountains, or into that city.
Once you have the plan, it’s up to you to make it happen! And that’s not just for tracks.
You’ll be the one creating the communities, choosing the bridge to cross rivers, and selecting the industries that your empire will serve.
Carpenter and electrician
Your trains will need a place to run, and power to make it happen, and wiring isn't just for trains. Some modelers even wire lights in their miniature cities and towns.
Artist and sculptor
Adding carefully crafted hills, fields, trees, residential/commercial buildings, and even putting a visual backdrop with photos/paintings, will bring all the details together to create a breathtaking, miniature world.
Sound like a lot of work?
If you decide to give model railroading a try, YOU are in charge of the plan and the schedule; it can be as simple or complex as you'd like.
There are many books, videos, and magazines on almost every aspect of model railroading (a large number available online).
If you like help in person, you may be surprised to find a model railroad club exists in your area.
A local club is the perfect gathering place for other train enthusiasts who love to share their years of knowledge in this great hobby.
Sounds like a fun hobby doesn't it?
Before stepping into the world of model railroading, I highly recommend you download the PDF guide below for “The Top 7 Model Train Mistakes to Avoid.”
It will save you countless hours (and money) setting up your first model railroad.
I hope this introduction to model trains was helpful. As always, ask your questions in the comments below!