Questions about model railroading

My wife tells me that someone at her work was wondering about getting into the hobby of model railroading.  So, guy at work, I write this article for you.

For me, I started model railroading as a kid and sort of picked it up from my dad.  I have no idea when he started, but he had locomotives that were far older than I was.  Given that he already had a collection of them, I started collecting HO scale trains so we could use our existing sectional track.  Our layouts were nothing special.  I built small circles on the carpet, ran my engines as fast as I could, and accepted inevitable derailments.  It wasn’t until I was older that we actually laid flex track down onto cork and particle board and made layouts with proper easements that didn’t fall apart.

In the mid 90s, my dad was part of a model railroading club and we gradually started switching over to N scale.  The advantage there was that we were able to do more with our temporary layouts in the same physical space.  Additionally, a company called Kato was producing a type of snap together sectional track called Unitrack, which was far superior to anything we had worked with previously.  The same company also had a variety of very high quality train sets that were priced quite reasonably.

These days, I run both HO and N scale, although my goals with both are completely different.  I’ll get back to that.

So, what about starting from scratch?

Well, if you’ve ever been to a train show (Yes, they have conventions for this hobby.  Check it out.  There’s some really great setups) you’ll probably see the really hardcore people with their giant sectional layouts with full scenery.  Most people like looking, but feel that they can’t justify the space those take up (which is my stance) or that they’re simply not capable of the precision and dedication required to create a full diorama around railroad tracks.

The next best solution is to create a semi-permanent layout that can be dismantled and stored when you notice that trains are started to collect dust.  Another method is just buying some high quality snap track (like Unitrack) and laying it out on carpet.  For just starting, that’s probably the best way to go.

Keep in mind that with regard to getting into this hobby, there are a multitude of books on the subject.  Some of them might even conflict with what I write here!  Regardless, here’s a few questions and comments to ponder:

  • Starting with general questions:  What do you like?
    • Types of trains-
      • Passenger trains?
      • Freight trains?
      • Any particular road line?
    • Scale-
      • Do you like the idea of high levels of detail, or long trains with lots of cars on gentle curves?
    • Locale-
      • There are trains that run in only one particular region.  Do you want to try to stick to just one area for realism?
    • Era-
      • Do you want to run anything and everything, or stick to a time period?  Realistically, you don’t see the Acela running next to 1930s Southern Pacific.
  • What sort of usage will these have?
    • Layout type-
      • Is this a layout that will only go up around a Christmas tree, or occasionally on carpet?
      • What about a semi-permanent setup that stays up for months at a time, but otherwise gets stored in the garage?
      • If so, do you want your layouts to be established, or flexible?
      • Are you interested in doing full scenery or possibly joining a club?
    • Primary uses-
      • Does it need to be kid friendly?  Good locomotives and rolling stock are definitely not toys.
      • Is it just for fun, or do you want prototypical consists with all the proper details on locomotives and cars?
  • Where is the layout going?
    • Location-
      • How much space can you afford?  A typical radius in N scale requires just over two feet to make a 180.  For HO scale, it’s a little more than 4 feet.

I’ll give you some of my answers as a basis of comparison.  I’m a passenger train fan.  Freight trains are interesting, but to make them realistic is a very expensive endeavor (prototypically most freight trains are long with similar types of cars, usually under one or two road names.  This is hard to pull off).  I model both N and HO scale, although my goals with both are different.  My N scale trains don’t have a locale, but I do mostly concentrate on trains that ran around the transition era, somewhere between the late 30s to early 70s.  For HO, I model mainly the Northeast Corridor trains from 1980 to early 2000s.

My goals are completely different with both scales.  With N scale, I built a semi-permanent flexible layout that stays up for a few months at a time that’s on a 5′ x 11′ modular table.  I’ll talk about it more in another article, but it’s what I use to run trains as if they’re doing long distance traveling.

With my HO line, I have it setup on the same 5’x11′ table, but all I can do with that is run a long oval with a single siding for parked trains.  My plan in the future is to build display modules for some of my showpiece collections.  If I want to run them however, I have to either take them to someone else’s layout, or use my oval.

I consider my N scale trains to be my “running” collection, because I have the room to setup an elaborate layout with five full trains on the tracks at once.  On the other hand, my HO trains are my models.  Using DCC, I’m able to install and control very realistic lighting and movement functions for my locomotives and cars.  The larger HO scale also allows me to hand modify and detail out my trains to make them as realistic as possible.  It’s possible to do this with N scale as well (I’m in the process of converting my engines to DCC) but I probably wouldn’t do much else because they’re so small.  Still, small has benefits.  I’m able to run a 14 car train with no difficulty.  Fortunately, most of my Kato trains are already highly detailed.

If I may suggest-

Start with N scale.  Go look at some of the Kato all-in-one starter sets.  If you don’t find something prepackaged that strikes you, then look at some of their stand alone train collections and then go find a Unitrack starter set that suits you.  Bachmann’s Spectrum line is also good (the Acela train is nice, but better in HO scale), but their snap track is much more limited than Unitrack.  Don’t cheap out, but don’t spend too much.  The good stuff may cost a bit more, but the quality and realism is worthwhile.  If you buy “toys,” you’re much more likely to get bored with them.  Lastly, be prepared to switch to DCC as soon as possible if you like the hobby and plan on buying a second train.  The sooner you do, the better off you’ll be.



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