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A new narrow gauge layout; what scale?


The choice of scale to model your narrow gauge railway is one of the most confusing subjects around. Indeed, it can be so confusing that some railway modellers never quite get round to making that decision and land up with a collection of rolling stock of all different sizes!
For starters, the historic prototypes have an amazing profusion of gauges. Some, one has to say seem logical, while others are frankly,  barking mad!
A broad narrow gauge line was the Padarn Railway in Wales which ran from the Dinorwic slate quarries to a harbour in the Menai Straits. This was four foot gauge. Why the gauge was chosen is probably hidden in the mists of time. Since 00 scale is very much undergauge for 4' 81/2", it would be really easy to source material for this project.

Padarn Railway
At the other end of the scale was the public carrier Surrey Border and Camberley at a gauge of 101/4". This was strictly speaking a miniature railway that tried to be a 'proper' one!
On top of everything else, thanks to Napoleon, there is a complete gauge range in Metric too!
Most enthusiasts already have a particular interest in a railway. It could be a three foot steam line hanging on to the mountains of Colorado, a modern electric Swiss rack railway or, more commonly in the UK, a Welsh line. Whatever is your choice, you will be starting the project knowing the correct gauge.
Your next decision will be whether you are going to model indoors or out. Some climates favour outdoors much more than perhaps the UK. The photo below is of an extensive 1:24 scale super detailed layout which lives outdoors in the American desert.

Garden railways in northern Europe pose a lot more problems due to the weather and short summer season.  It is true that there are many photos of neat track surrounded by trimmed lawns and miniature trees. More often than not, garden lines revert back to nature rather quickly. Dank leaf covered track runs by the compost heap before disappearing into an overgrown bush! Any line side buildings become quickly covered in green slime; need I say more? If you love gardening and are prepared to invest your time, this might be your solution, nevertheless. Unless you build the lot on a higher level, you will also be doing a lot of bending down! Most outdoor railways have track running into a shed where the rolling stock can be housed.

The most common scale for outdoor narrow gauge is 16mm/1ft. This is around the size of LGB but at least a couple of gauges exist. Rolling stock prices will make your eyes water as many locos are actually live steam and can be radio controlled. At the time of writing the cost ranges from around 500 to well over 2000 depending upon complexity.
Most of us modellers choose to build our railway empires indoors. Sadly, unlike the USA, Europe is not generally known for large houses. The size of the layout will depend upon the space available. Some manage to build in an attic or basement and have on occasion even managed to steal the largest room in a house rather than being relegated to a garage or shed. Many have little space and as a result, their efforts are very restricted unless they are lucky enough to live close to a sympathetic model railway club.
You can build a model in larger scale with exquisite detail but very limited in subject or you may prefer to build a railway in a landscape using a much smaller scale. The Lynton and Barnstaple railway is supported in three scales.

I would have to say that '0' (7mm/ft) scale is vastly more satisfactory than 009 (4mm/ft). Rolling stock can be just about perfect and feel 'substantial' while 009 is always a bit of a compromise as it is so small. It is also much easier to obtain reliable running in 0 scale and the locos are large enough to easily fit smoke units and sound. They are also very much more robust.

'0' scale model of 'Taw' - Tony Spencer

'Yeo' in 009 - John de Frayssinet
County Gate uses the scale of 009 nevertheless as I chose to have a large scenic layout and like most modellers have only limited space. Of course I would have preferred a larger scale if I had a barn twice the size!
Most railway modellers are not model engineers and only a select few are capable of scratch building everything. As a consequence, most choose a scale that supports the prototype chosen. Track gauge is also often chosen for the selection of proprietary equipment available.
Don't think that if you model in a larger scale, it is less 'fiddly'. The larger your scale, the more detail you have so there is probably very little in it.
Below is a chart listing most scales used. The scales marked in red are those most commonly found in the UK.
Code  Scale Gauge Prototype Type Comment
Nn3 2mm/ft 6.5mm 3'    
008 4mm/ft 8mm 2ft  fine scale 009!  
009 4mm/ft 9mm 2ft 3"   compatible with H0e and H0n30
H0e 3.5mm/ft 9mm 2'6   e stands for etroite, French for Narrow
HOm H0 = 1:87 12mm 1m    
OOn3 4mm/ft 12mm 3 foot gauge    
NZ120 TT scale 9mm represent 3' 6"    
O9 UK 0 = 1:43 9mm 15" Industrial and minimum  
5.5mm scale 1/55 12mm, 16.5mm 2 foot, 3 foot.   Developed by Gem in 1963 just prior to the growth of 009. Now enjoying a quiet resurgence!
014 UK 0 = 1:43 14mm 2'    
0n16.5 UK 0 = 1:43 16.5mm 2'4    
0e EU 0 = 1:45 16.5mm 600mm    
0n30 US 0 = 1:48 16.5mm 30" or 2'6"   Used for all gauges from 2' to 3'
Sn3 S = 1:64 16.5mm 3'   Little trade support
Sn3 1:64 16.5     The standard
1:25 scale approx 12mm/ft 16.5mm 18inch narrow gauge    
1:34 scale approx 9mm/ft 16.5mm two ft/60cm narrow gauge    
1:24 scale 1/2" to the foot 1.3/4" Colonial gauge of 3ft 6ins    
On2 1:48 1/2 inch 2 foot American A true 'Imperial' scale
On3 1:48 3/4 inch 3 feet American NG Another true 'Imperial' scale
Sn3 3/16ins 9/16ins 3 feet Mainly USA  
3/8th 1:32 3/4 inch 2 foot Industrial & Common carrier  Nice scale for small prototypes
9mm (aka 9mill) 1:33.86 31.5 (or 32) New Zealand 1067 gauge    The standard NZ scale for O-gaugish modelling
Gn15 G = 1:22.5 16.5mm 15 Industrial & Minimum  

The choice is yours but don't forget, the larger the scale, the more expensive it gets!

009 Crumley & Little Wickhill: a railway in a landscape: Hull Miniature Railway Society

0n16.5 Bridport Town by David Taylor