How do I get started in model railways?

Finding out how to get started in model railways is very simple; it is an activity both for children and adults. Passion and curiosity for this fascinating world are, however, paramount.

Railroad modeling focuses on the construction of small-scale reproductions of railroads, locomotives and everything related to them. In Italy it was introduced by Italo Briano to bring together all fans and professionals who have turned this passion into a business.


How many types of modeling are there?


In general, modeling is as much a hobby as it is a craft that involves building scale models of various objects of different sizes. While it is true that the figure of the model craftsman is disappearing, replaced by the progress of technology, the same cannot be said of modeling as a hobby. But how many types of modeling are there? The landscape is wide and varied, and, more and more, people are getting into model making because they are driven by passion.

Among the various branches of modeling, the main ones are:


  • Automotive and motorcycle
  • Architectural: buildings and constructions
  • Naval
  • Railway


Each of these areas has its specific characteristics. The one related to the world of trains, for example, is grouped by scale and gauge, that is, the distance between the two rails that make up the track. The standards for these two criteria are recognized by the European Association of Modelrailroader and Railroad Friends (MOROP).

Railroad modeling includes the construction of both dioramas, which are static scenes, and models: that are reproductions set in a geographical context. The difference between the two terms lies in the fact that the first is a very detailed reconstruction of a segment of railway landscape, while the model is composed of one or more operational routes.


What is the name of modeling aficionados, then?


Are you wondering what modeling aficionados are called? People who have this hobby generally take the name of "model maker": a person dedicated to building a model, in scale, of a product or object. Railroad modelists, as you might imagine, are called railroad model craftsmen and in Italy, they are represented by the FIMF: the Italian Federation of Railway Modeling.


This federation aims to bring together railroad fans and connect modelers with aficionados, promoting and spreading interest in railroads and rail transportation.


How do I plan a model railway?


Planning a model railway, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, should not discourage the inexperienced: anyone can approach this branch of modeling.

There are several factors to consider before getting down to work:


  • Space: if you want to build a model, you will certainly need to have space to carry out your work. The next point will help you understand if you can build a large one or should opt for a smaller one.
  • The scale: there are several railroad scales (which we will analyze in the next paragraphs), and choosing which one to adopt gives an idea of the size of the model.
  • Setting: to be as faithful as possible to the type of landscape chosen, characteristics such as slopes, curves, and coasts should be taken into account.
  • Analog or digital: the first option involves the installation of wirings, while the digital model uses command units and controllers.


After examining these factors, the first practical step to enter this universe is, often, to buy a starter kit and enjoy building a small reproduction. Generally, the first rule to follow to figure out which scale to use is the age of the hobbyist: the younger the age, the larger the scale you should use to start building your railroad model.


What are the scales of electric model trains?


When deciding to build a railroad model, one of the most important aspects is the choice of scale, that is, the standard of measurement by which reproductions are created compared to the real object. What are the scales of electric model trains? Let's look at the most popular ones below.


  • Scale N (1:160): the standard gauge of this scale is 9 mm, and its name comes from the latter number, which, in most European languages, begins precisely with N. In the official classification, determined by the European Model Railroad Standards and the National Model Railroad Association, it is placed between the Z and TT scales (1:120).
  • Scale 1 (1:32): this scale supports large-scale production of carriages and wagons, where details are more visible. As a result, if you choose this scale, you must consider a large space where you can build your model layout. Its normal gauge is 45 mm.
  • G scale (1:22.5): this scale is used outdoors, where G stands for garden. The carriages and wagons are very strong but, nowadays, at the same time rich in detail and with great running stability.
  • Z scale (1:220): this is the smallest scale among those produced and, for this reason, a little less detailed. A great advantage is found, precisely, in its small size, so much so that the model can fit in a briefcase. Its gauge is 6.5 mm.


What does the H0 scale correspond to?


Missing from the above list is a scale that is, probably, the most widely used nowadays in Europe and North America. The H0 scale.


What does the H0 scale correspond to? This scale of representation used in model railroading expresses the reduction ratio of 1:87 and its gauge is 16.5 mm. The name comes from German and means "half-zero." It became popular in the late 1950s, when people began to research greater realism in the reproduction of details.

Currently, several companies in Italy that make railroad model trains have decided to produce them using the H0 scale only.

As you might guess, the HZERO museum is named after this very scale. The large 280-square-meter railroad model built using this scale can be found in a museum based in Florence. It is a clear example of the passion for model railroading, which the creator and maker Giuseppe Paternò Castello di San Giuliano has been pursuing since the 1970s, building what is now one of the largest railroad models in Europe.


How to start with model trains: find out how to calculate model scales


If you have a model train and would like to find out what reduction ratio it was produced in, here is how to calculate model train scales.

The first step is to measure the length of your model train; you can do this easily with a ruler. Once you have pinned this information down, you need the actual wagon size, which you can find on the Internet.

At this point, you will simply divide the actual length of the wagon by the length of the model. You will now need to place 1 before the result obtained, as a fraction, to obtain the reciprocal number. This way, you will have calculated the scale of your model.

To give a practical example, let us assume that our wagon measures 26 meters in reality and our model is 29.9 centimeters, that is, to perform the mathematical operation with the same unit of measurement, 0.299 meters.

The calculation will be 26/0.299 = 87. The reciprocal of this number is, therefore, 1:87, which is the reduction ratio of the H0 scale.

The answer to our initial small math problem, then, is that the model was reproduced using an H0 scale.


Where can I see a model railway?


Now that you know all the elements to build a railroad model, you only have one step left before you can start building your own: taking inspiration from the best railroad models around... why not try one of the largest in Europe?

HZERO, the miniature railway enterprise, is the one for you! A museum space located in the old Ariston cinema in Florence and housing a railroad model of no less than 280 square meters.

Book a visit and let yourself be carried away by the expert storytelling of the guides, participate in the workshop activities or simply walk along the path especially designed to immerse viewers in the fascinating world of railways.

Take inspiration from the model built with over 50 years of passion and bring your own artwork to life!