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Model railway

Model railways are models of railways at a reduced scale, including both engines, carriages or rolling stock, tracks and associated buildings and scenery.

Model railway engines are generally operated by low voltage DC electricity supplied via the tracks. The earliest forms of model railways are the 'Carpet Railways' which first appeared in the 1840s. Model railways in the early twentieth century ran using wind-up clockwork or miniature steam engines instead; and steam or clockwork driven engines are still sought by collectors.

The size of the engines depends on the scale being used. The four major scales used in the English-speaking world are: G-scale, O, HO (or OO), and N, although there is growing interest in Z. Somewhat different scales are used in Continental Europe. Engine sizes can vary from around 20 cm tall for the largest scales, down to slightly bigger than a matchbox for the smallest ones. These models are normally powered by electricity, but live steam is readily available in G-scale and can be found in O-scale. Some very dedicated modellers have also hand-built live steam models in HO and N-gauge, and there is even one in Z-gauge in Australia.

G-scale because of its larger size is most often used for outdoor modelling. It is easier to fit a G-scale model into a garden landscape and still keep the scenery proportional to the size of the trains running through. O, HO, and N gauge are more delicate due to their size and are used more often indoors.

Model railways are a popular hobby, and involvement in it can range from the simple possession of a train set (especially by children), to spending many hours and large sums of money on custom layouts and scenery.

Layouts vary from the very stylistic (sometimes just a simple circle of track) through to the 'absolutely realistic', where scale models of real places are modelled in extreme detail. One of the largest of these is in the Pendon Museum in Oxfordshire, UK, where a OO model of the Vale of The White Horse as it appeared in the 1930s is under construction. The museum also houses one of the earliest scenic models ever made - the 'Madder Valley' layout built by John Aherne. This layout was built in the 1930s and brought in the era of realistic modelling. Bekonscot in Buckinghamshire is the oldest model village, and also includes a model railway.

Model railway clubs exist for serious model railway enthusiasts to meet. Clubs sometimes put on displays of models for the general public.

One rather specialist branch of railway modellers concentrates on larger scales and gauges, most commonly using track gauges of 3.5 or 5 inches. Models in these scales are usually hand-built and are powered by live steam, and the engines are often powerful enough to haul humans as passengers.

One particularly famous model railway club is the Tech Model Railway Club (TMRC) at MIT.

Scales and Gauges

Scale is the model's measurement as a proportion to the original (for example, on a 1:48 scale train, a quarter-inch is one scale foot), while gauge is the measurement between the two outside rails of the track. Although the two terms are frequently interchanged, there is not quite a one-to-one correspondence between the two: the real-size gauges vary, and also, on the aspect of gauge, the models are not always correctly to scale. In the case of O gauge, its gauge is slightly off. A proper 1:48 scale train would utilize a gauge of 30 mm, rather than O gauge's 32 mm. The worst offenders here are British OO and N, which use track gauges significantly narrower than scale.

The most common scales and gauges in Europe and the USA are:

Name Scale Gauge Comments
Wide gauge varied 53.975mm Called Standard Gauge by Lionel, who trademarked the name. Other manufacturers used the same gauge and called it Wide Gauge. Not widely produced after 1940.
G-scale 1:22.5 45mm Name derived from 'G'ross, which means "big" in German.
Gauge 1 1:32 45mm
O gauge 1:43 (Eur)
1:48 (US)
32mm Name originally was '0' (zero), because at the time, engineers did not believe a smaller-sized model train was possible.
Proto:48 1:48 29.90mm While similar in size to O, it is a proper 1:48 scale train and runs on two-rail scale track.
ScaleSeven 1:43.5 33 mm Exact scale version of British O gauge.
S gauge 1:64 22.2mm originally called "H-1" because it was half the size of Gauge 1. "S" name is derived from 'S'ixty-four.
OO 1:76 16.5mm sometimes called '4mm to the foot'
P4 scale 1:76.2 18.83 mm British finescale standard at 4mm to the foot with exact scale track and wheels. EM gauge was an earlier attempt to improve OO with the more realistic (but still inaccurate) gauge of 18 mm.
HO 1:87 16.5mm name derived from 'H'alf 'O'
TT 1:120 12mm Name stands for 'Table Top' - no longer widely used.
N scale 1:160
1:144 (UK)
9mm Name derived from 'N'ine millimeter.
2mm scale 1:152 9.42mm British finescale standard, older than N scale
Z gauge 1:220 6.5mm The smallest commercially available model railway scale.

The Philosophy of Model Railways

( a simple, non-technical guide, avoiding 'railway jargon')

Whether it is a simple clockwork train on a circular track, or a huge detailed layout run to a timetable with historically accurate signals and train formations, the essence of a model railway is that it presents the appearance of a working railway. It is essentially the pursuance of this appearance which causes people to spend varying amounts of time and money creating a model railway, sometimes making it a lifetime’s project. Anyone intending to make a model railway, however, must sooner or later confront not the similarities between their model and the real thing, but the differences. Unless these differences are accepted and accommodated in some way, the model is unlikely to be successful or satisfying.

Generally speaking, the purpose of a model railway is to be interesting to see and to operate, whether the ‘interest’ depends on historical accuracy, fidelity to the appearance of the original, or complexity of operation. Those models which contain more detail, more track and rolling stock, are generally more interesting. But it is important to remember that this is not the purpose of a real railway. If the railway companies of the past could have implemented a ‘Star Trek’ method of transporting passengers and goods instantly from A to B they would quickly have abandoned the use of trains, which was always an expensive method of transport. They would never have used more locomotives or coaches than was essential to maintain their traffic, and certainly they would never have built and maintained ‘interesting’ and complex track formations, which were notoriously expensive, without first making every effort to simplify them.

There is another essential difference to be dealt with. Even the largest model railway cannot model an entire line, unless it be a cliff or miniature line. Most if not all interesting lines would ‘go off’ somewhere to connect with the rest of the system. Even a very large layout must compromise, therefore with the need to ‘disappear’ off the edge of the modelled world.

Many modellers begin with the urge to see trains running as soon as possible, and rush into the first type of layout that occurs to them. Many of them find too late that they have committed themselves to a design which is not going to interest them for long, or they see when halfway into construction that they would have been better to adopt a different plan, even to model a different railway altogether. Successful and satisfying layouts are almost always the result of a considerable amount of planning. This can appear frustrating at first, though it can become an enjoyable pursuit in itself, but it is usually well worth the time and effort involved.

The first stage in planning is to decide what sort of layout is wanted. All is not what it seems here, for though a large layout may seem more interesting to a beginner, it may prove too exhausting in its construction and operation to be truly satisfying. On the other hand, someone who is determined to be historically accurate above all may spend an enormous amount of time in the construction of a layout which in reality had only three or four trains per day, using at the most two locomotives. It is therefore very important to decide first what one wants from a layout.

For many years the most popular form of layout was the ‘continuous run’, evolving from the simple ‘trainset’ or ‘toy train’ circuit of track. The advantage of this layout is that the trains do indeed run continuously, and a train can be seen running for a period of time not greatly reduced from that of a real train journey. It also avoids the need to have a ‘rest of the world’ located offstage somewhere. The disadvantage, however, is that it is most unrealistic. No real train appears again from the same direction after a few seconds! Modellers who really wish to see main line trains run for lengthy periods, however, may suspend their disbelief, or compromise with this aspect of the model, in the interests of getting what they want.

The other extreme from this type of layout is the ‘branch line terminus’. The advantage of this layout is that while simple to operate and requiring few locomotives, it is realistic in operation. The trains arrive and depart like a real branch-line train. Much satisfaction can be gained from the inclusion of a small goods yard and the visit and shunting of the daily goods train. The disadvantage is that all the rolling stock must have an ‘elsewhere’ to go to, off the layout, representing the ‘rest of the system’. This is commonly known as a ‘fiddle yard’ where all traffic intended to run onto the layout is assembled, and of course this requires extra space, often as much as the ‘real’ or modelled part of the layout. Another disadvantage is that the operation can become very unvaried after a while. Modellers whose urge to start a layout came from watching long expresses racing by will not find this very satisfying.

Many layouts follow a middle course, and model a stretch of line with ‘rest of the world’ at both ends. This is both realistic and satisfying to watch. Here too, though, there are disadvantages: two ‘fiddle yards’ are required, one at each end, and the amount of rolling stock required to represent a realistic selection of traffic is considerable. The modeller with time and space to spare will, however, find this a source of satisfaction.

To decide which layout to build requires some decision as to the 'philosophy' of one’s railway, and time spent thinking over the alternatives and their relative merits will be a good investment. The design, size and character of a layout can be very different according to what aspect of railways interests the modeller. Some are interested mainly in highly detailed scenery and buildings, realistic trackside vehicles and figures, others may be interested in signalling, and will want a fully signalled layout. Others will be happy with no signals at all, however unrealistic this appears. Most modellers seem to prefer locomotives in action above all else, and the other aspects of the model take a backward place. Whatever it is, much time and effort will be saved in construction if this is decided in advance of starting.

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