Introduction to HO Scale Narrow Gauge

By Otto M. Vondrak/photos as noted

If you’re just getting started in narrow gauge model railroading, you probably have a lot of questions. The most confusing aspect can be the discussion of “scale” and “guage.” Let’s take a look at these terms and get you on the right track!

“Narrow Gauge” refers to any railroad built to a track gauge less than the standard four feet, eight and a half inches (1,435mm). Favored in difficult terrain because of lower construction costs, narrow gauge railways could be found all over America from the 1860s to the 1950s. Probably the most well known among enthusiasts are the storied three-foot lines of Colorado and New Mexico that served the mountainous mining districts of the west. Other lines sprang up in Oregon and California to serve the logging trade in the Pacific Northwest. Back east, a system of two-foot gauge railroads served the rugged Maine backwoods. Substantial three-foot lines were also built in Pennsylvania and parts of the Midwest. Part of the appeal of narrow gauge modeling is the wide range of territories served combined with unique railroad equipment that provides interesting challenges for the model railroader.

As model railroading has developed over the years, the hobbyist now has a wide range of products to choose from. Once obscure models and now available from a variety of new manufacturers. If you’re considering getting into HO scale narrow gauge, you’ll find that there are many different ways you can go about building your railroad. Just where do you get narrow gauge track, and how do you get your HO trains to run on it? Where do you start?

What is HO scale?

Becoming popular in America in the 1930s due to its smaller size and somewhat less expensive equipment, “HO” (pronounced “aitch-oh”) scale eclipsed big brother “O” scale in popularity in the years following Word War II. To clarify a common point of confusion, “scale” refers to the model and “gauge” refers to the track. American HO scale is proportioned 1:87, where 3.5mm equals one foot. The commonly accepted standard for HO gauge track is .65″ (16.5mm). Because there is a wide variety of parts and equipment available, HO scale is a popular choice among model railroaders. Many hobbyists choose to work in HO, where the smaller models allow you to build more railroad into the available space.

What is HOn30?

Simply put, “HOn30″ refers to HO scale models that operate on N scale track. HOn30 has been adopted by model railroaders who use commercially available N scale track products. This gauge is commonly used to represent two-foot gauge railways. These modelers accept the gauge compromise and relieve the burden of handlaying track. The gauge of N scale track (9mm) scales out to nearly 31″ in HO. Most American narrow gauge railroads were built to either two foot or three foot gauge, though 30” is a common narrow gauge standard throughout the rest of the world. Throughout Europe, HOn30 is known as “HOe.” While the trains may run on N scale track, all structures, figures, vehicles and other modeled elements are HO scale.

What is HOn3?

HOn3 uses HO scale models that operate on 10.5mm gauge track to replicate true three foot gauge. Hobbyists going this route often build their own track, but HOn3 has always enjoyed the largest selection of prebuilt turnouts and flextrack. Once brass locomotives and craftsman rolling stock kits were the only way to equip an HOn3 roster. In recent years there has been an explosion of ready-to-run HOn3 rolling stock and locomotives, with more on the way. Of course, while the rails may be narrow, all structures, figures, vehicles and other modeled elements are HO scale.

While always the most popular of the narrow gauge modeling scales, HO scale narrow gauge modelers now enjoy a wider range of commercially available products than ever before. Many modelers appreciate the whimsical qualities of freelancing their own line, while others enjoy recreating history in miniature. Whether you choose HOn3 or HOn3O, hopefully this brief introduction will encourage you to “think narrow!”

This article was posted on: January 5, 2010