Model railway tracks - scale Z, N, TT, HO, O, G

Which Model Train Scale is the Best?

The short answer is that there is no one single "best" scale because each size offers different plusses and minuses.

Common Model Railroad Scales (and Gauges)

Choosing the scale for your model train layout is however the first crucial decision you'll have to make. Here's a brief overview of the most popular options:

  • Z scale: Ideal for intricate layouts in small spaces.
  • N scale: Balances detail and space efficiency.
  • TT scale: Balances detail and space efficiency. Very popular in Germany.
  • HO scale: The most popular worldwide, offering a wide range of models and accessories.
  • O scale: Provides impressive detail and realism, suitable for larger layouts.
  • G scale: Preferred for outdoor garden railways due to its size and durability.

The following sections delve into more detailed information about each scale and you will find my recommendation in the end of the page.

Overview of model railway track sizes

Model railway track Z (scale 1:220)

Z scale, introduced by Märklin in 1972, is one of the smallest commercially available model railway scales (1:220), with a track gauge of 6.5 mm / 0.256 in. These trains operate on 0–10 volts DC, similar to other two-rail, direct-current, analog model railways. They offer a wide range of models, tracks, structures, and figures in European, North American, and Japanese styles from various manufacturers. Locomotives can be equipped with digital decoders for independent control.  Märklin, still dominates the market for European prototype trains. Märklin couplers are unrealistic but can be easily coupled and uncoupled.

Model railway track N (scale 1:160)

N scale is suitable for compact layouts or for those modeling long trains in limited space. It offers good detail despite its smaller size. N scale is a popular model railway scale, typically ranging from 1:148 to 1:160 depending on the manufacturer. The standard gauge is represented at a ratio of 1:159, with a 9 mm (0.354 in) track gauge. However, the scale may vary to simulate wide or narrow gauge rail. In the UK, British N gauge refers to a 1:148 scale with 9 mm track gauge modeling. The terms N scale and N gauge are often used interchangeably, though scale refers to the model's ratio while gauge denotes the distance between rails.

Rail height is expressed as a "code," with Code 55 rails being 0.055 inches (1.4 mm) high and Code 80 rails at 0.080 inches (2.0 mm). Older N-scale models may not perform well on Code 55 track due to large flanges, nicknamed 'pizza cutters,' causing bouncing instead of smooth running.

Model railway track TT (scale 1:120)

TT scale, or "table top" scale, operates at 1:120 with a track gauge of 12 mm, fitting between HO (1:87) and N scale (1:160). Initially designed for tabletop assembly and operation, it originated in the USA but gained popularity in Central Europe thanks to "Berliner-TT-Bahnen," an East German manufacturer. Today, it's the second-most popular scale after HO in Central Europe and Russia, with numerous manufacturers in countries such as Germany and the Czech Republic, with enthusiasts appreciating its practicality for scratch model building.

Model railway track H0 (scale 1:87)

H0 scale is more common and offers a balance between detail and size, suitable for a wide range of layouts.

HO or H0 is a model railroading scale using a 1:87 ratio (3.5 mm to 1 foot), making it the most popular scale worldwide. The rails are spaced 16.5 millimeters (0.650 in) apart, representing standard gauge tracks and trains. The name "H0" originates from being half the size of 0 scale, which Märklin introduced around 1900. Instead of being called "half-zero" or "H-zero," English speakers typically write it as "HO." Other languages maintain the "H" and "0" (zero) designation.

Model railway track O (scale 1:48)

O scale is larger, offering excellent detail but requiring more space.

O scale, or O gauge, is commonly used for toy trains and rail transport modeling. Introduced by German toy manufacturer Märklin around 1900, O gauge became the most common model railroad scale in the United States by the 1930s, lasting until the early 1960s. However, its popularity declined in Europe before World War II due to the emergence of smaller scales.

During its heyday, O gauge prioritized affordability, durability, and ease of operation over detail and realism. It was primarily seen as a toy rather than a scale model. While it remains popular among hobbyists who prioritize running trains, recent developments have improved its appeal to fine-scale modelers seeking greater detail.

O scale layouts are larger than OO/HO layouts, influencing the decision to build in O gauge.

Model railway track G (scale 1:22)

G scale, or G gauge, also known as large scale (45 mm or 1+3⁄4 inches), is a track gauge commonly used for outdoor garden railways due to its size and durability. Trains in G scale utilize a fixed track gauge of 45 millimeters (1.75 in), accommodating various rail transport modeling scales including narrow gauge (~1:13‒1:19‒1:20), meter gauge (1:22.5), Playmobil trains (~1:24), and standard gauge (~1:29–1:32).

Introduced in 1968 by Ernst Paul Lehmann Patentwerk in Germany, G-scale LGB (Lehmann Groß Bahn, "Lehmann's Big Train") was designed for both indoor and outdoor use, hence the interpretation of "G" as "garden scale." Most G scale track is made of brass, which is weather-resistant, though aluminum and stainless steel options are also available.

While primarily used outdoors, large scale can also be utilized for indoor model trains, often mounted on tracks against walls near the ceiling.

What track size is most commonly used?

HO scale indeed offers a vast array of options, from models to accessories, making it a versatile choice for model railroaders. Its popularity ensures that nearly anything you desire is available in HO scale or can be created using aftermarket parts. The abundance of options allows hobbyists to tailor their layouts to their preferences and skill levels, whether they're looking for basic kits or high-end, detailed models with sound and digital control.

The availability of aftermarket parts further enhances customization possibilities, allowing hobbyists to create truly unique and spectacular layouts.

Comparing search results for specific models across different scales reinforces HO scale's dominance in terms of variety and availability. With significantly more options than N or O scale, HO scale provides modelers with unparalleled flexibility and opportunities for creativity.

Recommendation - you should choose this track size

N scale is recommended for its versatility in creating detailed layouts even in small spaces.

N-scale allows bigger scenery to track ratio, longer trains, and larger yards. However, N-scale is small and can be difficult to work with for those with dexterity issues.

You can create large layouts and couplers/switching is normally not a problem. In fact, it’s more interesting because the trains are more realistic in the number of cars that can be run.

HO allows for more detailing, but there is still a lot that can be done in N.

With significantly more options than N or O scale, HO scale provides modelers with unparalleled flexibility and opportunities for creativity. However, with the dramatic increase in selection and quality in N-scale over the past few years, many have taken a second look and like what they see. You could build quite an “empire” in a very small area!

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Manufacturers of model trains

The list of model trains manufacturers worldwide is very long. The following listing the major manufacturers with products normally available in EU.

Name Track sizes Introducing new models Primary models
Arnold (Germany) N No EU and US models
Arnold (Hornby) N Yes EU models
Bachmann H0, N Yes US models
Brawa H0, N Yes EU models
Fleischmann H0, N Yes EU models
Heljan H0 Yes Danish models
Hobbytrain H0, N Yes EU models
Ibertren H0, N ? Spanish models
Jägerndorfer H0, N Yes EU models
Kato H0, N Yes EU, US and Japanese models
L.S. Models H0 Yes EU models
Lemke N Yes EU models
Life-Like H0, N No US models
Liliput H0, N Yes EU models
Lima H0, N No EU models
Mehano H0 Yes EU models
MF Train N Yes EU models
Modelbahn Union N Yes EU models
Märklin H0, Z Yes EU and US models
PECO N Yes Tracks
PIKO H0, N, TT, G Yes EU models
Roco H0, TT Yes EU models
Roco N No EU models
Trix & Minitrix H0, N Yes EU and US models