Entry into the model railway

The Entry into the hobby of model railroading is aimed at both absolute model railroad beginners and the so-called returners.

Table of contents

First experiences, appetizer

Nowadays, you can go to any model railroad store, drugstore or supermarket, buy a starter set from any manufacturer, unpack the box at home, assemble the parts and get started.

The prices for this are around the 50 euros upwards. These simple sets usually consist of a train, a track oval (or circuit) and the necessary power supply (transformer, electronic controller o. a.). This makes it possible for anyone to get started, and absolutely no prior knowledge is necessary. Even expanding the track with supplementary sets, individual components and rolling stock is then not much of a problem.

However, if you are approaching the hobby of model railroading with a little more interest, or if you have had a railroad before and are looking to get started again today, you might want to give some thought in advance so that you don’t find out afterwards that you have invested 50 Euros unnecessarily or clumsily. Especially in the medium and long term, these considerations are often worth cash money. Admittedly, the model railroad industry is currently in a "difficult phase", therefore nobody can give a guarantee how one or the other system resp. this or that brand developed in the future.

Whether someone in the course of his personal "model railroad hobby evolution" or not to toy railroader, operating railroader, rivet counter, showcase railroader, box railroader or whatever becomes, is often not foreseeable at the beginning. Therefore I do not want to go into this further.

Basic considerations

The two most important questions at the beginning of the model railway hobby (and also later again and again) are the questions about the available space, the possible track gauge and the available budget. Only then follow the questions about the analog or digital control, or the "right" one System in the case of H0 gauge.

Space vs. Gauge

Entry into the model railway

If you know in advance that you don’t want to build a model railroad layout at all, but only collect models, the question of space is more an organizational variable, perhaps limited by the capacity of the display case. In (almost) all other cases, it is representative for the choice of a sensible track gauge. As a general rule, the smaller the scale, the more layout I can build in the same amount of space. But if I limit myself to a smaller, but possibly more detailed system (resp. diorama), I can also choose a larger scale.

The dominant gauge in Germany is the H0 gauge (scale 1:87), here you will also find by far the largest range of rolling stock (locomotives, cars, railcars). Unfortunately, there are two competing systems in this scale, which are only compatible to a limited extent.

The second most common gauge is N gauge (scale 1:160). Here you will also find a wide range and the handling of the models is good. For many N-friends, the smaller scale and the resulting more generous layout design is decisive. In Japan, this gauge is therefore very popular.

Between these two scales is the TT gauge (scale 1:120), which however (for historical reasons) has its main focus in the model range and the distribution in the new German states. The range of models and accessories is rather limited and many model railroad dealers (especially in the old states) do not even have TT in their assortment.

A real boom has been experienced in recent years by the Garden railroad and this, although the leading manufacturer LGB is in financial distress. It is usually called G gauge, but this is not officially recognized. In principle, it represents a narrow-gauge railroad on a scale of 1:22.5, the range of rolling stock underlines this fact. The advantage of this track is certainly the fact that it can be operated both outdoors and (given enough space) indoors.

Last but not least is the Z gauge (scale 1:220), which allows extensive layouts in a very small space, but also has a very limited range of models. However, if you want to run trains on longer, naturalistic tracks, you will have to accept this restriction at home and will be able to accommodate relatively natural-looking landscapes in an attic room..

For some scales, models, tracks and accessories are also available for the corresponding Narrow gaugevariant is offered, here the designation of the gauge is indicated by an appended "G" m (meter gauge), e (750 mm gauge) or f (light railroad) supplemented. Model narrow gauge railroads or model tramways have their own appeal, there are even corresponding starter sets from various manufacturers, but for the vast majority of model railroaders, it is more a complement to their own standard gauge layout.

If you like to build in a generous scale at the same time and also want to run on large layouts but have limited space at home, you should consider the idea of modules make friends. Here, there are standardized module transitions to ensure a smooth cooperation at joint driving meetings, for example North module and FREMO.

Quality vs. quantity

As is well known, with an unlimited budget, any hobby can be pursued to excess. Since this is probably the case with the fewest, it is usually useful to consider the possible investments. An inexpensive entry into the world of model railroading can be found, as described above, through the starter sets of various manufacturers.

Especially in H0 gauge, model railroads can be purchased relatively inexpensively, since the number of competitors on the market is the largest here, which, as is generally known, is reflected in the price. Nevertheless, there are not only inexpensive models, but also priceless rarities, be it because of their age or their small series precision. In the end, it is up to each individual to decide whether he prefers to build an extensive collection on a particular topic, or to present a few precious items in a noble ambience.

Apart from the high range of models and the therefore rather low prices of the H0 gauge, the costs for models of the other gauges are relatively the same. However, one must not forget that an elaborately designed building in garden railroad size can be significantly more expensive than its counterpart in H0 or N.

Also, one should not forget that since eBay and similar platforms, it is much better possible to get appropriate models and accessories at favorable conditions. Whether you buy new or used material – with the necessary patience and a bit of luck you can save many a Euro here.

Analog vs. Digital

If someone is new to model railroading today, he should consider whether he wants to do this with an analog or a digital control system. Even if the analog is no longer so trendy, this does not mean that one should go directly to the digital. The advantages of the digital control are a conditionally simpler to handle structure, the possibility of the problem-free multi-train control, as well as possible special functions of current locomotives, which can be called up evenly only digitally (z. B. sound effects). For owners of older models, the construction in analog technology can be worthwhile if he does not want to retrofit his locomotives, which is usually possible thanks to standardized interfaces. The conversion from analog to digital I can recommend at least to the beginner only limited. If you are interested in building modules, you should find out beforehand whether the clubs or meetings you are interested in are analog or digital.

Of course, the analog model railroad also has its advantages: A repair is much easier (so for the person concerned possible) and much cheaper, since one recognizes errors with digital also difficult(er). Furthermore, the installation of self-built electrical parts (z. B. level crossing) in an analog system is not as complex as in a digital system. Also to the analog’s credit is that you can use both purely analog and digital rolling stock on it. If you decide to use a digital system, you have to consider that you can use older rolling stock only after a corresponding conversion. However, this only applies to locomotives and railcars, not to cars.

Two digital protocols have established themselves as leaders on the market:

  • Digital Command Control (DCC) – predominantly for two-rail systems in H0 as well as all other track gauges
  • Marklin-Motorola – almost exclusively used with center conductor systems in H0 from the Marklin company.

In addition, there is the Selectrix and some other protocols. In practice, the question of the correct protocol is usually not a big problem, since both the decoders (in locomotives, turnouts, etc.) and the digital system (e.g., the power supply) are compatible.) as well as the controllers (z. B. controllers) can usually handle several protocols.

2-rail 2-wire vs. 3-rail 2-conductor

… or Direct current vs. Alternating current

As mentioned before, there are two systems in H0 gauge, which virtually divide the friends of this scale into two camps. In some internet forums there are real "religious wars".

The Three-rail two-wire-system (also known as the "Marklin system known) combines both rails into one pole and uses a series of point contacts in the middle of the track (formerly 3. track) for the opposite pole. The type of current used is alternating current. In the analog version, the speed is controlled by the level of the applied voltage and the direction of travel is controlled by a relay (or an electronic circuit), which is made to switch by briefly applying a higher voltage. In the current digital technology, the voltage on the track is constant, the control is taken over by control commands, which are processed in the decoder. The fact of the same polarity of both tracks allows the use of axles where the two wheels are not electrically isolated from each other.

The Two-rail two-wire-system, on the other hand, assigns one pole of the direct current used to each track. With analog control, the speed is also controlled here by the amount of applied voltage. The change of direction is done by reversing the polarity of the voltage. Digitally, the control system is exactly the same as in the 3S-2L system. The 2S-2L system forces the use of insulated axles, otherwise there would be a short circuit when the rolling stock is placed on the tracks. Therefore, the point contacts, which are often considered unattractive and alien to the prototype, are no longer necessary.

The Three-rail triple track-The Trix Express system is no longer produced today, except for individual vehicles. It is not recommended for newcomers and is only mentioned for the sake of completeness.

In the days of analog technology, the 3S-2L system had the advantage of easier construction of even complicated track figures, whereas with the 2S-2L system, you need a little more electronic knowledge (or. understanding) had to bring along (keyword: reversing loop). In the age of digital control, this problem no longer arises. But you should keep in mind, especially as a beginner, that AC models are always a bit more expensive on average (because they are always equipped with a digital decoder; if you want to run digital, the price advantage is gone, because the locomotives without decoder can be bought cheaper, but the decoder for digital operation must be purchased additionally) and there are more manufacturers and thus a better selection for the DC market. However, it is possible to exchange the axles of wagons and carriages, so that all wagons can be used in both systems. Whether the housings of the models are made of metal (z. B. Marklin, Trix) or plastic Roco, Fleischmann etc.) is a matter of taste and irrelevant for the function.

Plant construction vs. flying construction resp. Showcase

main article: Layout design

Since today all manufacturers offer tracks with suggested ballast bed in robust quality, you can indulge your modeling hobby simply with track figures built on the ground (keyword: carpet railroading). In addition, there are also model railroaders who only enjoy their (precision) models in the showcase and let them run on a quickly built oval for testing or maintenance purposes at most.

The layout construction in the conventional sense then starts with a simple plate (often with 2 struts on the bottom to increase stability), on which the tracks are screwed (or nailed) on. Many large (home) layouts have their origins in such a "nucleus. The further design is then only limited by one’s own abilities as well as the purse. More demanding model builders use the open frame construction method instead of a plate as a basis. So or should be noted, however, that you have to avoid gradients (e.g., slopes).B. for bridge ramps) on the layout is not steeper than 3% (i.e. 3 cm gradient per 1 m track length) to ensure smooth (play) operation.

Interesting for beginners are also landscaped to a large extent prefabricated layouts of the company Noch, where only the rails must be laid and the buildings must be built. Extensions are possible, but an individual adjustment of the scenery is hardly possible.


The entry into the hobby of model railroading is nowadays very simple. As already mentioned at the beginning, you buy a starter kit and get started. The question of the gauge is usually determined by the available space, but the vast majority of all model railroaders decide anyway for the H0 gauge, because here the offer is most comprehensive. Especially for children, some manufacturers offer sets with highly simplified models that counteract the (rather gross-motor) play instinct of children with the necessary robustness. An entry into model railroading by means of small series models is an expensive and therefore rather rare pleasure.

Speaking of children. If you want to focus on playing with your model railroad, or if it’s intended for children anyway, a simple circle or oval will quickly lead to boredom. In reality the trains usually do not go in circles but commute between A and B. The extent to which this then develops later in the direction of off-road construction or shunting operations should be made dependent on the interest of the child and not on the "self-fulfillment urge of the sponsor. The smallest systems, such as the Z-track, are not very suitable for children and their urge to play.

Buying more models, building layouts, committing to an era, adding a car system to the layout, or becoming involved in a model club are all possible options that may, over time, can, but by no means must! Model railroading offers a possible and varied field of activity for every taste, (almost) every budget and also (almost) every age.

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