You Are Here.
Jump to other pages.
Scales and Gauges - They're Not the Same. Return to Big Indoor Trains(tm) primer pageOn30 Display Trains
O Scale Accessories
O Gauge Christmas TrainsOn30 Christmas Trains

Written by Paul D. Race for Big Indoor Trains™

Scales and Gauges - They're Not the Same

A "scale" refers to the relationship between a model and the real thing. As an example, an HO scale model of a 40' box car is 1/87th the size of the real thing, about 5.5" long. Modelers call that relationship 1:87. An O scale model of a 40' box car should be about 1/48 the size of the real thing, or 1:48 (about 10" long). So, the smaller the number in the denominator, the larger the model. (1:32 is bigger than 1:48, which is bigger than 1:64, which is bigger than 1:87, which is bigger than 1:160 and so on). The following table shows some of the most common scales used by "serious" model railroaders.

Scale NameScale
N1:160 (mostly)
HO1:87
S1:64
01:48 (mostly)
Large Scale1:20.3 to 1:32 (mostly)

What is a Gauge?

The word "gauge" refers to the width between the rails on a railroad. Most HO scale trains model real-world trains that run (or ran) on rails that are 56.5" apart. In the real world, they call this "standard gauge." So the rails on HO gauge track are about .65" apart (divide 56.5 by 87) (actually they're 16.5 mm apart, the metric equivalent). Because so many people model HO standard gauge, many train lovers get used to using the terms "scale" and "gauge" interchangeably. To such folks, "I have an HO scale railroad," and "I have an HO gauge railroad," mean the same thing.

However, it's not accurate to use the words "scale" and "gauge" interchangeably, even in HO, and it can cause problems if you use the terms interchangeably in larger scales. There are three reasons for making the distinction between scale and gauge, especially if you're using trains that are bigger than HO.

  1. Some trains model real-world trains that ran on smaller tracks. For example in North America, many trains ran on rails that were 36" apart or even closer. We call such smaller width track "narrow gauge," as opposed to "standard gauge" (56.5"). So if you're modeling one of those trains in HO scale, you will be using track that's only 4/10" apart (or 10.5mm). You would say you were modeling in HOn3 (HO scale [1:87], narrow gauge, 3 feet). Some folks say they are modeling in HOn36. The breakdown is:
    • HO = HO scale (1:87)
    • n = Narrow gauge (NOT 56.5" tracks)
    • 36 = 36" distance between the rails on the prototype (original)

    HOn3 modelers can use the same people and buildings that "HO gaugers" use. But they can't use the same trains because the wheels of an HO gauge train are too far apart. Can you put HOn3 and HO gauge trains on the same railroad? Yes, many people have. But you will have two different track systems to run on.

    There is a similar difference between the ever-popular O gauge (which runs on 1.25" track, often with three rails) and the new, but growing On30 trains. In this case the breakdown is:

    • O = O scale (1:48)
    • n = Narrow gauge (NOT 56.5" tracks)
    • 30 = 30" distance between the rails on the prototype (original)

    On30 trains technically should run on track that is .625 inches apart. But since HO track is widely available and "pretty close," manufacturers like Bachmann use that track width instead. That explains why advertisements often promote "O scale trains on HO track."

    The title photo shows an On30 train manufactured by Bachmann for Dept. 52 between 1999 and 2008 "chasing" an antique O gauge Marx train. They look better together than you might think they would, but they certainly won't run on the same gauge of track.

  2. Some trains have been scaled down to fit in people's houses. This is especially true of O gauge trains, most of which are smaller (in some cases much smaller) than they would be if they were actually O scale. That's why I call Lionel train sets "O gauge" instead of "O scale." They run on track that's about 1/48 the size of the real thing. But many O gauge cars and locomotives are only about 3/4 as long as they should be. Height and width is also reduced, but not usually as much.

  3. Large Scale Model Trains include several scales of trains running on the same track. In fact our Family Garden Trains™ site has a whole article on the subject. On the other hand, most Large Scale train sets play fairly well together, and they all run on the same track. So if you're doing a railroad or Christmas display just for fun, you probably don't need to lose serious sleep over this issue.

Supported Scale and Gauge Combinations of Big Indoor Trains

As you can see, there could theoretically be about 256 combinations of scale and gauge to worry about, if you count all the possible combinations. But when you actually try to buy a train set, you'll realize that you have only a few real choices. Fortunately, those choices are great!

Kind of Train Set
(with links to buyers' guides)
NotesGood for: (in my opinion)
Per-manent
Big Indoor
Rail-roads
Tabletop
Christ-mas
Trees
Floor-
mounted
Christ-mas
Trees
Christ-mas
Vil-lages
Public Dis-playsPer-manent
Out-door
Rail-roads

Lionel O Gauge Train Sets

Click to see available Lionel Train Sets
Click to see available Lionel Train Sets in Christmas colors

Sturdy, well-known, appeal to nostalgia. These run on O scale track, but they are almost all smaller than true "O" scale. On the box they sometimes write "O-27", but that refers to the kind of track they run on, not the scale of the trains.
*******************

Bachmann On30 Train Sets


Bachmann On30 Train Sets
Bachmann On30 Christmas Trains
Well-supported, well-detailed and painted. These became popular since Bachmann trains built a set to go with the Dept. 56 Village structures in 1999. They are models of very small real-world trains that ran on 30" track. Today most On30 trains run on HO gauge track, because it's pretty close to what it "should be," and there are many kinds available. Include a mechanical lifetime warranty by Bachmann. ******************  

Hawthorne Village On30 Train Collections



These are the "collector's versions" of the Bachmann On30 train sets. They aren't sets, per se, because you order and pay for them a piece at a time. Although they each have museum-quality hand-painting and detailing, they are mechanically interchangeable with Bachmann On30 trains, and have a lifetime mechanical warranty from Bachmann. Available in many themes, they are incredibly popular around Christmas. ******************  

Large Scale Train Sets

Large Scale Starter Sets: Begin with a train you'll be proud to run
Large Scale Christmas Trains
Very large, well-supported, well-detailed and painted. These are designed to run outdoors, but they're popular indoors at the holidays, especially around large Christmas trees. If you're setting up a garden railroad or a Christmas display in a big bank lobby or outside, this is the place to start. ** ***** ***** *****

Other Possibilities

In case you already have a train set you're thinking about using, we've added the following list of things people frequently find in the attic and contact us about. We don't have any buyer's guide for these, though.

Kind of Train Set
(with links to buyers' guides)
NotesGood for: (in my opinion)
Per-manent
Big Indoor
Rail-roads
Tabletop
Christ-mas
Trees
Floor-
mounted
Christ-mas
Trees
Christ-mas
Vil-lages
Public Dis-playsPer-manent
Out-door
Rail-roads

Collectible O Gauge Tinplate Trains

If you have an old O gauge set in the attic that runs, it may also work well visually with a Halloween village. My friend and co-conspirator Howard Lamey uses an ancient Marx set with his seasonal villages, with great effect. Of course you can't order these new, but stores like Trainz.com often have a few pieces to sell.
*******************

American
Flyer
S Gauge
American Flyer S gauge trains are a good size match to most holiday villages. Most of them are collector's items today, so you don't necessarily want to start collecting them just for a holiday village. But if you already have a set in your attic, it will work great, except for one thing - American Flyer track circles are wide, requiring a 48" table. They did make a kind of track called Pikemaster which fits into tighter places, though. ******************  

HO Trains
HO trains are not tall enough to look right with most seasonal village collections, and they are too small and (relatively) fragile to work under Christmas trees very well. However, if you have a set you want to try, go for it, it might work for you. ******************  

Return to Big Indoor Trains(tm) primer pageClick to return to the Big Indoor Trains Primer Page.

For More Information

If this article hasn't quite given you the information you need, try one of the following:

  • Sizes and Scales of Big Indoor Trains - Provides an overview of choices available in O gauge and On30, the most popular scales for collectors and Christmas Village fans.

  • Sizes and Scales of Big Christmas Trains - Deciding what Christmas trains to use for Christmas trees, public displays, and holiday villages.

  • Which (Garden Train) Scale Should I Model? - Scale and gauge issues for "Large Scale" trains - the kind that run on 45mm (1.775") track outdoors - are much more complicated than they are for indoor trains. For that reason, our Family Garden Trains™ site has a whole article dedicated just to that subject. f you are planning to get into Large Scale trains, and you want some straight answers to complicated questions, check it out.

Related Articles and Links

Here are some articles that may or may not interest you based on the content of this page. We usually have a couple more projects in the works at any given time, so Join our Mailing List to be notified when new articles are posted.

In addition, you can help by sending us project tips, article ideas, and photos of your railroads and villages. We want our pages to be as useful as possible to as many people as they can be. As the hobbies that we support grow, we all benefit.

For more information about the centuries-old tradition of setting up holiday villages, check out the Family Christmas Online™ article A Brief History of Christmas Villages

Click to go to article.
Portable (Foam-Based) Indoor Displays - Using a foam-based portable scenic foundation to display your trains and towns to their best advantage. This photo shows three of the scenery ideas on our primer pages combined. Click to see the Portable Indoor Display article.
Easy Indoor Lakes and Rivers - How to get the effect of waterfalls, rivers, lakes, and streams on both temporary and permanent indoor railroads and display villages. Click to go to Article.

"Tribute to Tinplate" Articles There's nothing on the internet like this: a series of building and accessory project that pay "Tribute to Tinplate," based on the tinplated-steel trains and towns of a century ago. Free downloadable commercial-grade graphics and instructions will help you inexpensively add an authentic vintage look to any indoor railroad. Most projects have multiple pre-scaled plans and graphics. We also have more on the drawing board, so be sure and check back.

Click to go to article

What is a Glitterhouse?- Remember when Christmas Villages were made of cardboard instead of china and resin? Get a head start on celebrating the original Christmas village tradition! Articles on collecting and building authentic, vintage-style pasteboard houses, just like the ones we had growing up. Sure, they're not scale, but they are lots of fun!
Click to learn how to build vintage-style glittered pasteboard buildings.Click to learn how to build vintage-style glittered pasteboard buildings.

Department 56® Village Trains - Learn about train sculptures and real electric trains that Dept. 56® has issued over the years to go with its collections, as well as current products that look good with Dept. 56® villages.
Click to go to article.

Introducing Spook Hill™, a series of free, 100% original Halloween building projects in O or S scale, enough to give you a complete Halloween village:

Click to see the Spook Hill™ projects.
Free Scenery Set Pieces - Add a vertical dimension to your holiday village for little or no investment. The technique can easily be adapted to all seasons. Click to go to article.
Easy Homemade Trees - How to make realistic and inexpensive trees using (mostly) natural materials. Click to go to article
Winter Trees from Floral Picks- A quick and inexpensive way to add interesting textures to your late-autumn or winter setting.Click to go to article
Desert Accessories from Playmobil Products - How repainting carefully-chosen toys can add fun details to a Large Scale desert landscape. Many of the ideas shown here will work for other scales as well. Click to see article.

Click to sign up for our newsletter about O gauge, On30, and holiday-themed trains.












































Click to see new and reissued Lionel trains to celebrate a century-old tradition.






























Visit our BIG Train Store™ Buyer's Guide Pages




























Add realism and interest to your O scale railroad or village display.
























































Visit our Garden Train Store™ Starter Set Buyer's Guide


































































Click to see buildings for your garden railroad






























Click to see big Christmas trains and accessories.


Home Pages
Reading Index Pages
Buyer's Guide Pages
Return to Family Garden Trains Home page Return to Big Indoor Trains Home page Garden Railroading Primer Articles: All about getting a Garden Railroad up and running well Big Indoor Trains Primer Articles: All about setting up and displaying indoor display trains and towns. Garden Train Store: Index to train, track, and other products for Garden RailroadingBig Christmas Trains: Directory of Large Scale and O Scale trains with holiday themes
On30 and O Gauge trains to go with indoor display villages and railroads


Note: Family Garden Trains™, Garden Train Store™, and Big Christmas Trains™ are trademarks of Breakthrough Communications (www.btcomm.com). All information, data, text, and illustrations on this web site are Copyright (c) 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 by Paul D. Race. Reuse or republication without prior written permission is specifically forbidden.


For more information, please contact us.