By Andy Joel
This was something I was asked recently, and I thought it a good idea expanding on in case anyone else ever poses the question! Worth noting that the opinions expressed are mine, and may not represent those of the society.
The question of gauge is one you need to consider carefully before you commit one way of the other. Hopefully this article will at least make you aware of the issues, if not help you decide.
Scale and Gauge
There are two related terms, so we will quickly discuss them.
The scale of a model is the ratio between the size (linear, rather than area or volume) of an object and its model.
The gauge is simply the distance between the tracks.
That should be simple, but unfortunately in the early days of model railways, British manufacturers got the gauge wrong. This was because of the limitations of the technology; British rolling stock was built to a smaller loading gauge, so the models had to be to a slightly bigger scale to fit the motors available at the time. So we are in a situation where scale and gauge do not quite match.
Scale: 1/76 (about 4 mm to 1 foot)
Gauge: 16.5 mm
The most popular gauge is OO (pronounced “double oh”), both at the club and nationally. To give an idea of how big that is, a coach will be around a foot long, maybe a little less for older coaches. If you have a train that is four coaches and a tank engine, then it is going to be four foot long, and your station platform will be longer still.
You can just about have a 18” radius curve, but some stock will not run on it, and it is not advised. If you want double track, you are looking at a diameter of at least 4′, preferably rather more, which may require a central operating well to ensure you can reach.
OO has the biggest range of stock, and at exhibitions you are far more likely to find bargains in OO than other scales. OO is somewhat the benchmark against which I will compare the others.
Most of the club’s layout are OO, including Euxton Junction.
Scale: 1/148 (about 2 mm to 1 foot)
Gauge: 9 mm
The second most popular scale in N, which is half the size, so your four coaches and a tank will be only two foot long.
You can have a 12” radius track with no problem, so a double track circuit is quite reasonable in 3’ width.
It does not have quite the range of OO, and is I think slightly more expensive, but there is not much in it (but finding bargains at exhibitions is much harder, in my experience!).
N gauge is excellent at “trains in the landscape”, where you model a railway that is part of a wider scene. It is perhaps not so good for shunting, as the standard couplings do not lend themselves to automatic uncoupling. The club’s layout Tellum Summit is N gauge, and shows the “trains in the landscape” well.
Scale: 1/43.5 (about 7 mm to 1 foot)
Gauge: 31.75 mm
The third most popular scale in O gauge, which is nearly twice the size of OO, so your four coaches and a tank engine will be seven foot long. Clearly if you are running passenger trains, you need a lot of space.
Most O gauge models are small shunting layouts. I have no real experience of it, so cannot say what the minimum radius might be, but it will be around twice OO gauge.
O gauge has a much smaller range of models on offer, and they are significantly more expensive; however, the prices have come down a lot in the last few years, and where you might have paid over £1000 for a loco 5 years ago, it only be a few hundred now.
O gauge is excellent for small, super-detailed scenes. Preston & District MRS has no O gauge layouts, but you might want to talk to Preston O Gauge Group; they hold running days every month (but not during lockdown!), and is worth a look just to see what they do.
As all three of the above have a gauge that is slightly out of scale, there are alternatives that seek to rectify that.
EM gauge (OO gauge)
P4 (protofour) (OO gauge)
2 mm finescale (N gauge)
ScaleSeven (O gauge)
I have no experience of any of these, but I believe all require the modeller to build his own track, and either build or modify everything to run on it.
There are also various gauges associated with narrow gauge railways. As far as I know, the only one that has both track and ready-to-run stock is OO9.
OO9 is the same scale is OO gauge, but running on 9 mm track (the same as N gauge). There is a small selection of locos, wagons and coaches available RTR, all of which have appeared the last five years of so (and tends to be a little more expensive that OO or N gauge). There is a wide range of kits available, but in my experience getting a chassis for a loco is quite a problem.
OO9 lends itself to small spaces because the prototype was often narrow gauge specifically to handle small spaces. A tank engine pulling six coaches might only be a foot long by virtue of the fact that the real narrow gauge railways often used short, four-wheel coaches. Similarly a 9″ radius curve looks perfectly reasonably because the real railways had very tight curves.
There are a lot of other combinations of scale and gauge; I am not going to list them all.
Other UK Gauges
Several other gauges are (or have been) available.
Gauges 1 to 5 are larger scales, defined in 1909, with 5 being the largest, and 1 the smallest (O gauge was so named as the next down from 1). Most have fallen out of use.
Gauge 3 is 1:22.6 scale, and is the smallest scale able to pull real passengers. This – and larger scales – is the realm of miniature railways, rather than model railways, and outside the remit of this article, but if you are interested you might like to contact Leyland Society of Model Engineers.
Gauge 1 was originally defined as 1:32 scale, but is now considered to be 3⁄8 inch to 1 foot, which is almost 1:32, but not quite. The main railway at Bekonscot model village is gauge 1 (the oldest model village in the world), and the earlier series of Thomas the Tank Engine used gauge 1 models (later they were made with CGI). There is a gauge 1 society.
G gauge is a popular choice for garden railways – if you have been to our exhibitions, you will have seen G-Whiz. The gauge is 45 mm, and a scale of 1:13 to 1:29, so is used for modelling both standard gauge and narrow gauge on the same track. It is close to gauge 1.
S gauge is exactly half gauge 1 (as originally defined), a scale of 1:64 (between O and OO). It dates back to before 1900. Again, no ready-to-run stock available, but there are kits. There is an S scale society in the UK.
TT gauge is halfway between OO and N (3 mm to the foot). Ready-to-run stock was available many decades ago, but now only a limited number of kits – though it certainly does have modellers still, and there is a UK society.
Z gauge has a scale of 1:220, and a gauge of 6.5 mm, making it somewhat smaller than N gauge. I am not sure if anything is available in British outline (there is a fair bit of continental stock available). It is most notable in the UK for its use as a basis for narrow gauge trains in N gauge (called N-Z or Nn3 in the US).
T gauge is a third the size of N gauge, and first appeared in 2007. Only a couple of UK outline trains are available as far as I know, and to me it is little more than a gimmick.
All the above are unique to the UK. Some common outside the UK include:
HO (pronounded “aitch-oh”): The most popular gauge in the US and Continental Europe, this is the same gauge as OO (16.5 mm), but the scale is 1/87 (3.5 mm to 1 foot). HO is so called because it is half O gauge.
N gauge: In the US and Continental Europe, this is the same gauge as the UK (9 mm), but the scale is 1/160. In Japan, N gauge is usually 1/150.