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Model Railroading 101

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Here are some model railroad basics; things you should be know before investing in model trains. If you're planning on building a model railroad then this is the essential information you'll need before starting out.
  1. Pick a Railroad... Any Railroad
  2. There's a Time and a Place for Everything
  3. Home is Where You Lay Your Track
  4. Select a Scale
  1. Plan Your Layout
  2. Power to the Trains
  3. The Bottom Line
  4. Get Going

Pick a Railroad... Any Railroad

Choosing a specific railroad to focus on can make the hobby much more more economical. Your railroad can be modern day like the Union Pacific, BNSF, or Canadian National. Or it can be a "fallen flag", a railroad that's been taken over by a larger company. Many modelers choose the railroad whose trains they watched passing by as a child.

There's a Time and a Place for Everything

So where exactly is your railroad? The Canadian Rockies? The plains of Texas? Downtown Chicago? What time of year is it? Is it spring, summer, fall, or winter? Is it 1888, 1952, or 2002?. All of these factors influence how you will decorate your layout.

You need to decide these things before investing in any trains, landscaping materials, or structure kits. You don't want to be running a Japanese 21st Century Shinkansen Bullet Train alongside an 1880s Consolidation steam locomotive that's pulling Overton passenger cars on an elevated track through downtown Chicago in the 1970s... or maybe you do.

Home is Where You Lay Your Track

A model railroad takes space. Whether you're playing with toy trains on the floor, building landscaped modules to participate in a club, or devoting your entire basement to a railroad empire you need to decide how much space your railroad is going to take.

I actually think it's better to play with your trains and track for a while before thinking about building a permanent layout. The experience will help you plan a better layout. A 5 x 9 foot ping-pong table is great for experimenting with temporary layouts to get started, provided its not too flimsy.

Select a Scale

A model train's scale is its size compared to the size of a real train. For example, an HO scale locomotive is approximately 1/87th the size of a real locomotive. Your choice of scale will have a big impact on the type of railroad you'll be able to build in the available space.

Plan Your Layout

track plan

Once you've selected your scale and identified your available space, you can start planning your layout. There are a number of track planning software packages available to help you design your layout, or you can draw a plan the old fashioned way with a pencil, graph paper and a ruler.

It's also helpful to look at layout plans on club and manufacturer web sites. These plans specify the use of a specific brand of track, but if you find a layout that you like on a web site, don't choose your track simply because the design calls for it. With a little work you can implement nearly any track plan using any brand of track.

Power to the Trains

A packaged train set will usually come with a transformer or powerpack. The photo shows a DC powerpack that comes bundled with Kato track and train sets.

In recent years serious model railroaders are turning to computer controlled trains. Digital Command Control (DCC), the industry standard for digital model train control, is widely available today. Three-rail O scale manufacturers tend to have their own proprietary digital control systems instead of using DCC.

The Bottom Line

What's it going to cost? The real question is, how much do you want to spend? If you want to buy quality equipment you'll need $150 to $300 to get started in HO or N scale, and more for O scale or Z scale. Of course that's just the beginning. Whether you're collecting trains, building and painting kits, or landscaping your layout, like most other hobbies model railroading will have ongoing expenses. It isn't about the money; it's about the pleasure you derive from it.

Get Going

finished subroadbed

With all the hard decisions made, it's time to get started. If you're still feeling a bit overwhelmed, don't worry. Model railroading is a hobby that lasts a lifetime, but you don't have to wait until your golden years to get started. Each new project brings new learning and fun. But if you need a little more confidence, you may find the answers to your most common questions here, or you can take a look at one of the project railroads to see how the building process goes step-by-step.

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