HO scale train sets are the worlds’ most popular sized model railways for a number of reasons: cost, space requirements, and ease of component availability figure highly amongst these. In a perfect world, I’d be modeling in On30, but the reality of my own situation – present and likely future is that HO – that is, a 1/87th scale representation of the real world – is the track I’ll follow for pretty much those three reasons I listed above. Bachmann, the world’s biggest maker of model trains has an extensive range of American prototype locomotive and rolling stock for the train fan. For the newcomer, Bachmann’s HO train sets, ready to run out of the box, offer the perfect starting point.
Big… and not so big.
Size – a good place to start.
By far the most popular of the big train sizes is O gauge – that’s trains built to a scale of 1/48th the size of the real thing, running on rails spaced 1.25″ apart. Historically, O gauge has some impressive claims to be the parent of all current model railroad scales and gauges. The first model trains, produced in Germany around the beginning of the 20th century were close to 1/48th scale and ran on 1.25″ wide tracks. When model train manufacturing got under way here in the USA, those iconic brands Lionel and American Flyer built their trains to run on those very same 1.25″ spaced tracks.
The little trains began to appear in numbers after World War Two and by the 1960s, commercial production of small-sized, HO gauge trains far outstripped production of O gauge. Initially, it was the British who came up with the idea of this smaller size – trains that could run on tracks spaced just 0.65″ apart. German manufacturer Marklin launched its range of small trains running on 0.65″ (or 16.5mm) spaced tracks in 1935, but unlike British and German rival train-makers, Marklin chose to make its trains to scale of 1/87th the size of the real thing. Since Marklin’s O gauge trains were built to a scale of 1/43rd, this new, smaller size was very conveniently half the size of the big ‘uns – hence Half O gauge, or HO as it is universally known today. Approximately 66% of all model train lovers rate HO as their favorite scale.
HO gauge – the more bangs for your bucks interface.
The main reason for the popularity of HO amongst modelers is the perception of what you can achieve in this scale in a given space. Look through the pages of any of the well-known magazines devoted to the hobby and you’ll see vast basement railroad empires with a staggering amounts of nano-scenic detail, beautifully rendered and weathered locomotives and rolling stock. The overall impression can be breathtaking and a close-up and personal scrutiny – often known as “rivet-counting”- shows just how much miniature detail can be incorporated even at this degree of shrinkage. Inspiring indeed, but there are plenty of us who don’t have and are never likely to have basements. HO model-railroading is flexible and adaptable enough to cater for the space-deprived modeler, who has to make do with maybe just 8-10 feet of wall space, maybe 12″ wide – just enough to represent the end of the line of some long-forgotten spur of the Hooterville Central RR in its glory days. These railroaders often outdo us all when it comes to atmosphere, rivets, warts and all.
The industry, has of course, responded to the market. For the HO gauge modeler, there is a huge array of off-the-shelf train sets, locomotives, cars, buildings and track. As you progress through the hobby, more specialized manufacturers supply everything to cater for scratch-building or kit-bashing needs. If you want it, you can source and buy everything from a more authentic brake-wheel for your favorite caboose right up to a gorgeous, and seriously expensive, hand-built, brass locomotive.
Perhaps the final reason for choosing HO ahead of the larger alternatives is the cost. Yes, there are some surprisingly cheap O gauge items out there – Bachmann’s lovely On30 2-8-0 Consolidation is a give-away at around 7.00 – but the fact remains that model-railroading in HO, part for part and piece for piece, is going to be a lot cheaper than opting for any of the bigger scales. Next time you look at an HO gauge layout that really gets your heart pounding, just remember that to do the same thing in O gauge is going to take twice the space and the cost of all the components will be considerably higher as well.