What Is the Most Popular Model Train Scale?

What Is the Most Popular Model Train Scale?

Building a model train set is one of the most rewarding and satisfying hobbies out there. Fun for all ages and a real treat for all the family, it is an incredibly pleasurable pastime. There are so many different model train scales that sometimes it can be difficult to know which one is best for you. 

The two most popular scales are the HO scale and the O scale. Depending on the space you have for your train set, the layout you want to design, and the budget you have set yourself, there isn’t really a one-size-fits-all when it comes to model train scales.

In the rest of this article, I will explain the concept of train scales and gauges, and delve into the different types of train scales, why they are popular, and how to choose the correct model train scale for your needs. So let’s get started, and you’ll learn everything you need to know about model train scales.

wire a model railroad
David B. Photo

Model Train Scales and Gauges Explained

Many new hobbyists on the model train scene often find the scale options to be somewhat daunting. Once you fully understand how it works, you will be much less likely to spend money on unnecessary things, and you will know what your priorities are and where to save your money. 

Deciding on your train scale and gauge for your train set can be complex. Understanding the dimensions of your design space, the budget you have in mind, the number of cars you wish to purchase, and the amount of detail you would like are all helpful things to consider. 

A scale in model trains concerns the size of the toy train in comparison to an actual train. For example, a scale of 1:1 refers to the fact that the toy train is the exact size of a real train. Therefore, a model train scale of 1:240 means that your model is 240 times smaller than a full-sized train. 

A gauge quite literally means the width of the train tracks. The gauge size is most certainly something to consider when deciding how big you want your train set to be. 

When considering the definition of a gauge, there are typically two types: the standard gauge and the narrow gauge. Both of these types of gauges fit with different scales of the model trains. 

When deciding on the best option for your train set, you must take into consideration both the scale and the gauge of your collection. 

The fantastic thing about train sets is that you can have as many or as few train cars as you choose. In effect, you could continue to build your railway until you have no space left. In fact, the most extensive model train set globally is the Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg, Germany, with an overwhelming 100,000 moving vehicles in the set. 

wire a model railroad
David B. Photo

Different Types of Train Scales

Today, there are about seven different types of model train scales. Since “scale” refers to the size of the train comparative to a real-life train, we can determine that each scale is slightly different, with distinct detailing structures and sizing characteristics.

I will start with the most popular train scales and work our way to the least popular. Along the way, you will begin to understand why the HO model is the most popular. 

The HO Model Train Scale

Arguably the most popular model train scale, the HO scale is widely known worldwide. It has a decent size that can usually be characterized as medium and a scale ratio of 1:87. As mentioned previously, this denotes that it is 87 times smaller than its real-life twin. 

There are many reasons for its popularity, including the idea that it is a perfect scale size for both young children and older adults. It is easy enough to put together and ideal if you love to acknowledge the detailing. 

One of the great things about the HO Train scale is that it is arguably the most widely produced model scale on the market today, so replacing or fixing a part, or indeed adding accessories, is not difficult or expensive

Because its size is a convenient medium, you can bet that it will fit comfortably in most apartments or offices without getting in the way, which is likely why it is so popular. 

If your eyesight is average and you have decent dexterity, the HO model train scale is most likely the one for you. The kind of accessories available for HO model train scales are widely available, and there are many more options for accessories, additions, and add-ons. 

For example, as well as the usual additions such as street lamps, tunnels, bridges, and to-scale figurines, HO accessories also include woodland scenes, different background choices, vehicles, and scene enhancements. 

The most popular HO scale manufacturers are Athearn, Atlas, and Bachmann, who have extensive experience in model trains and relatively reasonable prices. In particular, Atlas Modern Railroad Co. has been operating for a long time and considers themselves seasoned experts on model train scales. 

locomotive on model railroad benchwork
Jeff Carlson Photo

The O Model Train Scale

O model train scales are equally as popular as the HO model scales, but with one significant difference: they are double the size of the HO model

The O scale is tiny enough to create a detailed design without using up too much space, but it is big enough that most of the moving parts are relatively easy to work with. 

It is sized at a scale range of 1:48 to around 1:43.5 and currently comes in second both in popularity and in size. Due to the size dimensions, it is easy to switch between the HO scale and the O scale. 

Since it is one of the most popular model scales, it is widely manufactured, meaning that accessories and scene designs are relatively easy to find and for a very reasonable price. 

While it is a fantastic choice for long-time enthusiasts, it probably isn’t the best option for young children. Since it requires a lot of care and attention to detail, it is best for train scale veterans and older adults. 

O scale sets typically have a wide range of accessories you can purchase that includes: 

  • Signs and signals 
  • O scale figurines and animals 
  • Buildings and towers to scale 
  • Tunnels and walls 
  • Street lights 

They typically use a three-set track piece and were originally manufactured in Germany. If you are looking for an O model train scale, Lionel has an extensive selection. 

model railroad wiring
David B. Photo

The N Model Train Scale

The N scale is arguably the third most popular choice of scale and is smaller than both the HO scale and the O scale. N scale trains are about the height of two pencils and come with a considerable array of scenery choices and compositions. 

Many people might find it challenging to choose between the N scale and the HO scale, but the N scale provides more scope for more complex and detailed designs to be constructed. 

For example, tunnels and decorative detailing can indeed turn out to be more intricate work. 

The N scale prides itself on its ability to allow for more realistic scenery options, meaning that the layout of the set is much closer to natural railway landscapes. 

Their scenery options and add-ons include: 

  • Railway maintenance vehicles 
  • Couplers  
  • Woodland scenes 

Aside from their size dimensions, one of the most significant differences between the N scale and HO scale is the accessibility of accessories and attachments. Since the N model train scale is not too widely manufactured, it might be slightly more challenging to find replacement parts for this type of train scale

In this instance, most people would suggest that Kato USA’s railroad models are likely the best manufacturer for n scale train sets. 

The S Model Train Scale

The S scale is excellent for seasoned train enthusiasts and those who have been building model train sets for a long time. It is hailed as the oldest train scale (dating back to 1896) and was initially manufactured with a card. 

The S model train scale has a relatively simple structure to operate and looks great with the extra detailing that is more visible on real trains. 

This type of scale is somewhat popular, but comparative to the HO scale, which is usually the most favored choice for children of all ages, it is only popular with very experienced hobbyists. 

Due to its size, with a ratio of 1:64 and a gauge of 0.87” (or 22 mm), it is perfect for indoor train sets that are put out on display. 

Since it had a surge of popularity in the 1950s, the S scale has come back in full force and is now ranked number three in the model train scale popularity contest. 

Some might suggest that Trainworld is the most prudent option for those wishing to purchase an S scale train set in the United States. They are coming at the forefront of S scale model train sets at relatively affordable prices. 

train on model railroad benchwork
Jonathan Lee

The Z Model Train Scale

The Z scale is the smallest model train scale on the market today. With a radius of just 5.75” (146 mm), it is delicate and intricate enough that those with a keen eye for detail would almost certainly prefer it. 

Introduced by Marklin in 1972, the Z scale is a testimony to architectural, artistic, and technological prowess. 

Being as small as it is, the Z scale tends to last a significantly long time and is one of the toughest scales on the market. You can use this scale as a display set on a coffee table or even on a broad shelf. 

If you have a small apartment or office and don’t have the space for a full-sized model train set, then the Z scale is perfect. While it can be more expensive due to its tiny moving parts and engines, the type of person who typically buys the Z scale will not mind how complex it is to maintain. 

If you love detailing on model train sets and are looking for something that needs enormous attention to detail, then the Z scale would be a popular choice. 

If you are looking for a Z model train scale for your set, then visit Model Train Stuff and have a look at their gorgeous selection of petite, intricate trains, accessories, and tracks. 

The G Model Train Scale

The largest and probably the least popular train scale is the G model train scale. Due to its vast size and cumbersome shape, it requires a lot of space. This is why many people who choose this scale prefer to put it in their gardens. 

The G scale is named after the German word for big, “Gro.” Its scale is around 1:22.5 (and ranges to 1:32 in some cases), which towers over all of the other different model train scales, and are typically very hard-wearing and enduring since they have to withstand all types of weather conditions. 

Interestingly, G scale models are often called garden models since they are primarily suited to outdoor space. 

The most exciting part of the G model train scale is its ability to fit easily into garden structures. You can utilize your outdoor architecture to build a scaled design that runs around the entirety of your outdoor space. 

The G model train scales are best suited for those seasoned hobbyists who have a lot of experience with different types of model scales. Due to the extra work necessary to construct and design, it certainly requires someone with more experience. 

G scales tend to use plastic tracks because they spend all their time outdoors, and plastic is more durable in all sorts of weather. They are also relatively inexpensive, but finding replacement parts and accessories can sometimes be a bit tricky. 

G scale model trains have a fair amount of additions for a more realistic scene, such as: 

  • Figurines 
  • Landscaping tools 
  • Cleaning and maintenance vehicles 
  • Animal figures such as dogs and cats 

If you are looking for a G scale model train set, Only Trains is a website dedicated to the manufacturing and selling of G scale sets. They are widely accredited and have excellent reviews. 

Only Trains also buys G scale models, so if you are looking for a cheaper option that has been repurposed for your needs, then this is the best way to go. 

train running on model railroad benchwork
Jeff Carlson Photo

The T Model Train Scale

T scales are likely the least popular scale on the spectrum of modern toy trains. They were only produced for commercial purposes in 2007, so they haven’t had much time to become as popular as their counterparts currently on the market. 

The T scale is the most miniature train scale, with a ratio of just 1:480. That means it is 480 times smaller than real trains. Its size makes it very difficult for hobbyists to give it much detail without exerting too much effort. 

Unfortunately, since the T scale models are not particularly popular among toy train enthusiasts, their price reflects that. They aren’t widely manufactured, so they are a lot more difficult to find as well as costly in comparison to other model train scales.

Indeed, the engines especially can become very expensive due to the intricate work needed to create and maintain them. 

The Model Train Scale Best for Universal Use

As you can see, there are so many different model train scales to choose from. Generally speaking, however, the most universally-adopted model train scale is undoubtedly the HO scale. 

Because of its durability, detailed impressions, budget-friendly elements, and suitability for all ages, the HO scale is undoubtedly the most widely chosen by model train lovers, hobbyists, and enthusiasts.

A decent HO train scale can arguably last many years with the proper care and attention, and its quality is known throughout the world of commercial model train sets. It can also make a great addition to your collection.

The additions and scene options you can choose from with the HO scale models are invariably better than any other of its counterparts due to its comprehensive manufacturing and production processes. 

However, just because the HO scale is the most popular, that does not mean that it will be the best option for you. To decipher which is the best scale to use for your toy train set, it is essential to take into consideration your particular needs before making any decisions. 

Final Thoughts

The most popular model train scale, the HO scale, is certainly famous for a reason. 

Taking dimensions, additions, scenic add-ons, costs, layout, and design into account when choosing the scale can make a lot of difference if you are just starting out as a hobbyist or train enthusiast. 

Understanding why the HO scale is so popular is the first step to understanding what it could do for your new train set and how it could help you make the most out of this fascinating hobby. 


Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

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