Frequently Asked Questions About Model Trains

Frequently Asked Questions About Model Trains: The Definitive Guide For Beginners

For a new railroad model hobbyist, the foreign terms and expressions that more experienced railroaders throw around might be a little overwhelming. On top of that, it can be hard to find one place that you can rely on for finding accurate answers. That’s why we’ve compiled this comprehensive list of the most frequently asked questions about model trains that those who are just getting started often have.


1. How do I decide on which model train scale is best for me? Also, are the scale and the gauge the same thing?

The easiest way to determine a good scale size and get a solid understanding of the difference between model train scales and gauges is to visit your local train hobby shop so that you can actually see the different trains right next to one another. The staff there can explain the benefits and drawbacks of each size, as well as advise you on what will work best for your space. If that’s not an option, check out this page on Model Railway Trains for a clear and concise description of the various scales that are available and a good explanation of the difference between a model railroad’s scale and its gauge.

Image courtesy

Image courtesy

2. Where should I set up my railroad?

While it’s definitely a thrill to see those model railway layouts that take up an entire room, most of us don’t have that kind of space to dedicate to our hobby. That doesn’t mean that you can’t create an amazing model railroad of your own, however. Whether it’s tucked into the basement or cruising through your landscaping, there’s always someplace where you can build your dream railway. There are even model railroads that are small enough to fit into a suitcase. If you just can’t figure out where you could put a railroad in your home, you might want to take a look at this article for some imaginative ideas that you might not have considered yet.

3. What’s the best model railroad layout for kids?

Setting up an electric train for kids is very much like setting one up for adults. If there are tunnels and plenty of animated features like flashing lights, characters that move and working gates, you’ll almost certainly have a happy kid on your hands. You might want to take a look at this instructional article, which offers up some great ideas for designing a layout both for and with your children.

4. Should I buy or build my scenery?

Most model railroads will have a combination of handmade and premade elements included in them. If you’re at all artistic, you can easily create your own mountains and landscaping using ground foam, paint and a few other supplies. Check out our instructional video on building mountains for your model scenery bellow. It’s possible to base the scenery for your model train set on photographs or just use your imagination and really go to town on it. For a great selection of pre-made model landscaping supplies, check out the Scenic Express website.

Photo courtesy of Brent Moore

Photo courtesy of Brent Moore

5. What’s the best way to calculate grades in my layout? Should I steer clear of very steep grades?

Remember, the grade refers to how steep a slope is, so a higher grader indicates that your train’s engine will have to work that much harder in order to get up it. The best way to go about figuring out how steep your grade should be is to decide on the number of cars that you expect your engine to pull and to take a look at how much space you have. Then use this grade calculator for a fast and easy way to find the optimum grade for your railroad’s setup.

6. What is meant by a no.4, no. 6 or no. 8 turnout?

The turnout refers to the distance past the frog where the two rails are one unit apart. For example, in a no. 4 turnout, the rails are one unit apart at four units past the frog. In a no. 6 turnout, they’re one unit apart at six units past the frog. This means that a no. 4 turnout is fairly sharp, while a no. 6 or no. 8 turnout is a bit longer and generally a better option for most model railroads. This image from Tom’s Turnouts shows the difference between the most common turnout arrangements.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

7. How do I know what the minimum curve for my train should be?

There are a few different factors to consider when you’re trying to determine the minimum curve radius of your model train layout. The length of your train’s cars will have the biggest impact on your minimum curve, but you’ll also need to take into account the speed of your train, too. This Model Trains article gives a good rundown of the minimum curve radius for each scale size, as well as how this element of your layout could change the overall look and performance of your model railroad.


8. I love your site, but do you know of any additional resources where I can learn about and buy model railroad components?

Magazines like O Gauge Railroading are a great place to start if you’re new to model railroads. You’ll usually be able to find a pretty good selection of this and other railroading magazines at your local train hobby shop. Take a look at the National Model Railroad Association’s website as well. They have some great education material there and they also host regional conventions that are well-worth a visit if you’d like to meet up with other railroaders in your area.

Photo courtesy of Franklin B. Thompson

Photo courtesy of Franklin B. Thompson

9. Can you give me the names of some good layout planning software?

There are plenty of options when it comes to model railroad layout planning software. SCARM stands for Simple Computer Aided Railway Modeller and it really is very easy-to-use. This free program lets you drop-in elements from over 100 libraries and then see your layout in 3D within minutes. You’ll have to pay to gain full access to AnyRail, which offers a very user-friendly layout and full-color imagery, but the site does have a free trial option available where you can see how you like the program before making a purchase. Meanwhile, TrainPlayer gives you the opportunity to see your layout and listen to the sounds of your model train running in its realistic playback feature.

10. Should I buy the components of my model railroad online or from a hobby shop?

There are advantages to buying online and to buying from a train hobby shop, so you may very well wind up finding yourself purchasing from both sources. Online stores do tend to have better prices, but since it’s possible to actually test out the trains at a hobby store, many people are willing to pay a little extra to buy their gear in-person. It’s also possible to buy used equipment on sites like eBay or through private sellers, though these avenues can be a little riskier if you don’t know how to determine the quality and condition of a used engine.

11. Can I hire someone to design and install my model railroad layout?

If you just want to enjoy operating a railroad without having to actually design a layout and set it up, you can absolutely pay someone to do the work for you. Train hobby stores are a good place to look for people in your area who do that sort of thing. If you’re having trouble locating someone who you think can do a good job, here’s a complete listing of model railway designers and builders around the world.

Photo courtesy of Brent Moore

Photo courtesy of Brent Moore


12. Which manufacturer really makes the best model trains?

Each model railroad hobbyist will have their own favorite maker of trains, but there are a few well-known brands that you can generally count on to make a good product. Most people have heard of Lionel trains, but Bachmann is another highly-regarded manufacturer that puts out model trains in a wide variety of scales and styles. You should also take a look at Athearn or Marklin trains if you’re searching for locomotives and accessories that are well-made and high-performing.

13. Should I be oiling my trains?

While you should oil your locomotives in order to reduce the amount of friction that they are exposed to, your passenger and freight cars won’t typically need to be lubricated. For an easy, step-by-step guide to oiling your engine, click here.

14. What are the main reasons for derailment and how do you prevent them?

There are a few common causes of repeat derailments and they can range from a bad wheel on one of your cars to high speeds on a sharp corner. If your track seems to be free of grime and doesn’t have any obvious design flaws in it, you might want to check the National Model Railroad Association’s standards to make sure that the wheels and the track are properly in gauge.

15. My model train isn’t running properly. How can I figure out what the problem is?

If you have a new train, the first thing you should do is take a look at the manual that came with it and see if there’s a troubleshooting guide. Generally, a model train that won’t move is experiencing a problem with one of the main system components, which are the track, engine, wiring or power supply. If your train is stalling or just seems to be running poorly, it could be a minor maintenance issue. This article provides a thorough checklist of a variety of things that could be impacting your engine’s performance.

16. What size power pack and wiring should I buy?

A model train set will usually come with a small power pack that is capable of pulling one or two locomotives, but if you’re planning on adding more units to your train, you’ll want to pick up a 14vA power pack, at the very least. When it comes to wiring, you should refer to the owner’s manual that came with your model train or look at this handy reference article for some basic guidelines. Model Train Stuff is a good place to look for power supplies for your railroad, as well as for other electrical components and tools.

Photo courtesy of Lenny Spiro

Photo courtesy of Lenny Spiro

17. What’s the best material for my track: nickel-silver or brass?

There’s no question that nickel-silver is a better track material than brass in the long run. These two metals are actually very similar to one another when it comes to conductivity, but nickel-silver is more resistant to corrosion than brass. Because brass tends to oxidize to a non-conductive state, your engines can lose power in the middle of a run and stall on the track. For this reason, it’s generally worth it to pay a slightly higher cost and go with nickel-silver as your track material.

18. How should I clean my track?

Your track will need to be cleaned from time to time in order to get rid of excess oil and dust that will inevitably build up on them. It can be done in a variety of ways, from using a track-cleaning car to employing a lint-free cloth and some track cleaner. Or take a look at this video to see how you can clean your track quickly and easily, without having to spend a lot of money.

19. How do I determine the value of an old train that I have?

Finding out the value of a vintage model train can be a tricky business. Your best bet is to go to a qualified appraiser in your area so that they can inspect the train and look for any identifying marks or damage that might impact what it’s worth. If you’d rather look online for similar train sets to see what they’re selling for, you can either check out eBay or the Collectors Weekly website.

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Robert Thomson

Robert W. Thomson is a life-long railfan, the son of a former L&N Railroad B&B gang foreman, and an amateur photographer. He was born and raised in southeast Tennessee but now lives in Butte, Montana with his wife, Connie and cat, Charlie. Robert has worked as a park ranger, underground mine tour guide, freelance roleplaying game writer, and ran his own roleplaying game publishing company until selling it in 2012.

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About The Author

Robert Thomson

Robert W. Thomson is a life-long railfan, the son of a former L&N Railroad B&B gang foreman, and an amateur photographer. He was born and raised in southeast Tennessee but now lives in Butte, Montana with his wife, Connie and cat, Charlie. Robert has worked as a park ranger, underground mine tour guide, freelance roleplaying game writer, and ran his own roleplaying game publishing company until selling it in 2012.