Everything you need to know


What is a railroad “gauge” versus a “scale”?

A railroad “gauge” refers to track size or width whereas “scale” measures the size relationship between a model train and its real-world train prototype.

For example, a Lionel locomotive that is 1/48th the size of the real thing is called 1/48th or 1:48 scale.

Sometimes you’ll see the terms “gauge” and “scale” used interchangeably even though, technically, they’re different.

What “scales” of model railroads might I see at Trainfest?

Every scale of model railroading is represented each year in the layouts and displays at Trainfest.


How do the railroads at Trainfest fit together? Do they come in pieces?

The 70 different railroads you see at Trainfest each fit together in a variety of different ways. Each railroad is unique.

Some railroads are “modular” meaning it comes apart in sections that are created either to a single standard, or interchangeable with other railroads using the same standards.

Other railroads at Trainfest are “sectional” and created to be portable so they can travel to shows, but not interchangeable with other railroads of the same scale.

Lastly, other railroads are created as one, but have the ability to fold up or “into itself” allowing for transportation.




Are all the railroads at Trainfest created to represent a real railroad or are they “fictional” railroads?

At Trainfest you’ll find both.

Some are hybrid railroads based on a real railroad that existed with fictional pieces tailored to the liking of the group that developed that particular model railroad.

You’ll find some railroads accurately depict real railroads that may or may not be in operation any longer. These are called prototype railroads. Modelers will go to great lengths to “accurately” depict a particular scene, building or visual element; they “kitbash” pre-existing pieces or kits to create the exact authentic feel they are trying to achieve.

Some railroads displayed are simply created in the minds of the group that brings it to Trainfest.  

Feel free to ask the modeler about theirs and about the time period the railroad is set in. Often, you’ll be surprised to hear the answer. 

A brief overview of model railroading scales & gauges and their histories

G scale has recently emigrated from Europe. This scale is often used in garden railways, its scales range from 1/20 to 1/32. Major makers are Aristo-Craft, USA Trains, Bachmann and LGB. G scale was introduced by the German company, Ernst Paul Lehmann Patentwerk under the brand, Lehmann Gross Bahn (LGB) in 1968. This first line of G scale trains included steam, electric, and diesel prototypes. G scale is frequently referred to as “Garden Scale.” G scale is one of the largest scales available. Its size and durability make these trains best suited for outdoor layouts where they wind through backyard landscaping. Garden railroads are the marriage of two hobbies – model railroading and gardening.

Marklin originated the O scale around 1900. Initially O scale was called Zero scale, as it was a step down from 1 scale. From the 1920s until after World War II, O scale dominated the model train market. As model trains became affordable for the average person, the space required to set up the tracks became a major consideration in purchasing model railroad trains. For many train enthusiasts, O scale trains are fondly remembered as Lionel toy trains. The O scale is commonly used for toy trains due to its larger size. The trains feature impressive detail, yet are durable for use by children. Three-rail O scale track has a third rail running down the center of the track. Three-rail systems use 18 volt alternating current to power the trains, with the center rail connecting to one leg of the transformer and the outside rails wired together to the other.

In 1938 A.C. Gilbert acquired The American Flyer Manufacturing Company. A year later A.C. Gilbert’s new 3/16th scale trains featured the brand name “American Flyer.” In 1946, keeping with the push towards realism, American Flyer trucks and mechanisms were changed to 0.884″ gauge and true S scale/gauge was born. A.C. Gilbert continued to manufacture American Flyer S scale trains until 1966. In 1967 the American Flyer brand name was acquired by the owners of Lionel, LLC. The renaissance in S scale has induced Lionel to offer American Flyer S scale trains again. S scale is often regarded as synonymous with the American Flyer brand of model railroad trains. S gauge trains have the benefit of being larger than HO scale while occupying the same amount of layout space. This difference allows modelers more detail flexibility without sacrificing space. S scale is defined as 1:64 or 3/16ths of an inch to one foot. S scale’s track gauge is an unusual 0.884 inches.

HO scale first appeared after WWI to respond to the need for a scale smaller than O scale and more suitable for home layouts. Interest in “toy” trains declined in the 1950’s as the hobby of model railroading grew in popularity. Manufacturers responded to the hobbyist demand for accuracy and realism in model trains. HO scale is by nature more delicate than O scale, its smaller size allows modelers to fit more details and more scale miles into a comparable area. HO scale is the most popular scale worldwide for quite a few reasons. The size of HO trains fit most home layouts. The trains are small without being too tiny to work with. HO Scale also lends itself to greater detail than smaller scales. “HON3″ means HO scale, using a narrow gauge track. This track is 3 scale feet wide, as opposed to the standard railroad gauge 4’8″. The HO scale also has the most available “ready to roll” kits, parts and accessories of any scale.

N scale was imported from Europe in the late 1960s. While small in scale, N trains have extensive detail. This scale was originally intended for model railroading with limited space. Yet its small size often produces massive layouts regardless of available space. The “N” is short for nine millimeter. In N scale, 2mm is approximately 1 foot. N scale is the second most popular scale worldwide. Many modelers select N scale because it allows more complex layouts to be built in the space available to them. N scale has a large worldwide following.

The Marklin Company of Germany introduced their Z scale model trains in 1972. The term Mini-Club has been used to describe some Z scale products, but the term originated as an advertising tag by Marklin to brand their Z scale line to be inclusive of its trains, buildings, lighting, etc. The Z scale is one of the smallest scales available; the tiny size allows a more elaborate railroad layout in a smaller area. This micro-size lends itself to placement where you might not ordinarily see a model train.

In case you don’t know about Narrow Gauge, you should definitely ask … In the late 1800s, railroad gauge was standardized to 4 foot, 8 inches between rails. Some US railroads had a six foot gauge back then, and it made transfer from one railroad to the other a problem. But some railroads had another problem altogether: limited space for a right-of-way. These include logging, mining, and mountain railroads whose routes took them through tight curves, up narrow mountain ledges, and through difficult forests. The easiest way to deal with it was to have a narrower gauge track. A large part of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad was narrow gauge, for instance, because of its routes through the Rocky Mountains and its mining operations. The distance between rails would be anywhere from two to three and a half feet.

In model railroading, there are folks who specialize in modeling these narrow gauge railroads. They denote their specialty by first giving the actual scale, and then the track width. Thus, HOn3 means HO scale (1/87) using a 3 foot gauge. By coincidence, HOn3 gauge is the same as the gauge of N track! And On30 (O gauge, narrow 30 inch gauge) is the same width as HO track. Thus some narrow gauge is like using larger trains on smaller track.