Everything to know about N Scale Model Trains

Creating N scale model train layouts is an extraordinary hobby and one that you can find a ton of hours of enjoyment in!

But the first thing you want to focus on when you create a new model train layout is the scale that you want to use.

There are multiple scales and options to think about, and choosing that first will save you a lot of headaches later on.

With that in mind, the N scale trains are probably the third most popular model after HO and O gauge trains. So if you’ve never heard about the N scale before, OR, maybe you’re already an N scale enthusiast and just want to find out more, scroll down to find out why it might be perfect for you!

N scale model train


What is N scale?

N scale model trains are extremely popular because they are small and very easy to maneuver. At the same time, they are also super detailed, so creating them requires a lot of hard work and focus to ensure that everything looks ordinary and real-world (which in this case makes them look extraordinary)!

What scale is N scale?

So, what scale is N scale then? Well, depending on the manufacturer, N scale model trains will have a scale that ranges from 1:148 to 1:160.

The majority of N scale trains will be 1:160, but some manufacturers create slightly larger locomotives and cabs, so try to keep that in mind and make sure to do your research as you buy!

Then you also have to think about the rail height. This can differ based on what layout you want to create and what height is ok in that situation.

What is N scale code?

Some of the more popular height codes are code 55 rails of around 0.055 inches and the code 80 rails that are 0.080 inches. Buying the same height rail just means that they will match up when you put them down on a flat surface.

If you take real-life railroads into consideration, then a true scale would be 0.040 inches. However, in this situation, the locomotive and cars would not have enough stability and will likely fall off your track.

The code 55 rails are not always so good for the N scale because they tend to have larger flanges. This means the wheels might not sit on there correctly and are more likely to come off.

This is why it’s crucial to do your research regarding the scale of train and height of the rail.

N Scale Train Size

That’s all good and well I hear you saying, but how big are the trains!

Unfortunately, that depends on the train! Every model train is a little different in size, but this will at least let you have a rough idea what an n scale train size is!

At 1:60, every 1 meter of the train is equal to 0.625cm or 0.246 inches long. So a classic locomotive like the GE Dash 9-44CW that has a length of 22.5 meters – This translates into a 14cm or 5.5 inch n scale train.

A classic boxcar to put behind your train is roughly 15-18m depending on the manufacturer, which is about 10cm.

So, depending on the manufacturer you purchase from, you could get close to having your cab and two boxcars on a 30cm ruler!


A brief history of N scale trains

Creating scale trains has been a hobby ever since the 1920s, however, the first N scale model trains were manufactured by the Arnold company in 1962.

Initially, the HO scale train was extremely popular because they were half the size of O gauge trains, but for a lot of people it was still too big and it required a huge layout. Since N scale model trains were half the size of HO models again, these immediately became the norm for many modelers out there.

N scale trains are especially popular in places like Japan due to the size of their apartments, which is why you’ll find more N scale layouts in densely populated areas. Since your trains are smaller, you can put more work into the environment. And the best part is that your landscape is going to stand out quite a lot, definitely a lot more when compared to larger trains.

The same thing happens in Australia, the US, and Europe. When it comes to purchasing N scale model trains, most models focus on using the US, British, and European prototypes as they tend to create just about all kinds of models that suit your needs.

The interesting thing is that N scale model components and N gauge train tracks can also be used with larger scales if you want. Sometimes the trains and structures are used on HO layouts to bring in a sense of forced perspective.

One thing is certain, the N scale model trains have evolved quite a lot, and that brings with it a lot of creative possibilities!


The difference between n scale trains size and N Gauge Train Sets

Despite the small scale differences, the gauge of these N scale trains is always 9 mm, regardless of scale or height code.

If you hear the term N gauge train sets, this is referring to the track dimensions or the width from one rail to the other. The N gauge only measures a set distance between rails, whereas the scale is the proportion/scale of that model train. So, as long as it’s an N scale train, it will run on any rail.

It’s a huge difference between the two things, even if it sounds very similar to one another, so when purchasing you need to make sure of 3 things; the scale (1:160), the gauge (9mm) and the train-track code (55) are all the same as what you already own!


N scale train model manufacturers

Finding the best N scale trains manufacturers or brands can be a bit tricky. Some companies have been creating locomotives and train set for a long time, but there are great newcomers to the market too!

And you can also find retired companies whose products still sell very well between collectors, but they’re probably better for experienced modelers.

You have to keep in mind that trends change all the time, yet some companies tend to be better than others.

Best N scale manufacturers:

Kato Trains

Kato is one of the best N scale model manufacturers. While they offer a large variety of model cars for your railroad, their locomotives impress a lot when it comes to build quality.

Of course, this does come at a cost, as the Kato N scale train sets are known to be quite expensive.

In saying that, you do pay for quality, and based on what people have to say, these are some of the best locomotives that will withstand a lot of work and pressure for quite some time. If you’re an N scale enthusiast, this is definitely a brand to take a look at!

Atlas Trains

Atlas, on the other hand, is more affordable, and it also delivers great quality for the price. They create tracks, locomotives as well as rolling stock, and other accessories. They are available just about anywhere in the world, and their model train kits are durable and have a lot of attention to detail!

Micro Trains

Micro Trains is another great example of model trains and tracks that are N scale. They do a very good job when it comes to creating accessories such as landscape pieces too. The company has been around for a long time, so they have just about all you need to create a great N scale train sets if you want.

There are some other companies such as LifeLife for example. While it’s not as popular as some of the others here, they are very affordable.

Athearn Trains

Athearn model trains have been around since 1976 and specialize in both HO scale trains and N gauge as well! They’re a bit of a premium brand, but definitely worth the money if you’re looking to buy something that will last a long time.

If you’re looking to purchase Athearn products, you might be best trying Amazon or a local store, because their website can be a bit tricky to navigate, however.

Bachmann Trains

Bachmann trains have been around since 1833 and are one of the most trusted train brands in the world. They specialize in everything from HO through to N scale and also have one of the largest available ranges of hobby model gear. They started manufacturing at an N scale back in 2000 after they purchased Graham Farish manufacturers, so now they have 20 years of N scale products you can look through.

While their homepage looks a little dated, their actual shop is really clean and modern, and is super easy to navigate and find what you need! Have a read of our Bachmann Guide here for some more indepth info.

N scale model layout


How to build N scale train layouts

The first thing you want to do is to start off small. As a beginner, the last thing you want is to go with a very expensive layout and want to change after the fact.

Your focus has to be on creating a simple N scale layout, and once you have that ready to go, you can expand. The idea is to understand the mechanics of creating a layout and then build on that knowledge:

  1. First thing’s first, purchase your model train. The brands above all offer great starter sets for N scale. If you’ve decided that something as small as N isn’t for you, take a look at our electric train guide for some HO and O scale trains as well!
  2. Now you need a train table setup. In this instance, you just want to use whatever works for you. Since it’s N scale, you can use a coffee table for a small layout, or get a dining table for a bigger one. Hell, some trestles and a sheet of ply work well too!
  3. Once you have that ready to go, you need to get enough track. Make sure that you purchase tracks that are compatible with your N scale model train. A lot of trains will run on something like Bachmanns EZ Track, but just double-check with your train manufacturer to be safe.
  4. If possible, try to acquire some accessories such as train stations, homes, or even a few trees. These accessories will breathe life into your model. Even if you’re working at a very small scale, you do want to add a few of these items.
  5. As you lay down the track, try to avoid keeping it at the same level everywhere. What you want to do is to use some slight inclines made from durable materials to raise the track. The idea is to have some elevation as well as straight tracks. It will bring in a much better visual touch to the track.
  6. Connect the track to your electrical system. The model trains won’t work if you don’t have the electrical system ready to go. Most ready-to-run and starter kits will come with everything you need inside the box for this step.
  7. Now you’ve got a basic n scale layout down, you can expand on it if you want! You can get more track pieces, purchase bridges, decorative elements and so on. Some people are very passionate about their layouts, and they craft their own decorative pieces by hand. But if you don’t have the time or talent for that, you can easily go online and find a huge array of pieces!

Voltage and material used in N scale

When you want to run a model train, you have to figure out the right voltage. Some of the locomotives require a smaller voltage and others a higher voltage. Most of the time manufacturers will show the smallest and highest voltage value on the box. That being said, a lot of the time if you purchase a train kit, it will come with a power supply unit right in the box.

But you shouldn’t run any of the N scale locomotives at more than 12 volts unless specified on the box. Normally around 10 volts is more than ok, although if you’re running multiple trains with a DCC unit, you might need to adjust it.

If you see any problems or hear some noises, then you most likely have to lower the voltage. Studying the product box is the best way to figure out the safest voltage for your particular model.

When it comes to the materials you use for your landscape, you want to make it look as natural as possible. There are hundred of products out there that you can use to achieve a realistic look. Companies like Woodland Scenics offer huge ranges of grasses, resin water, paints and accessories to accurately detail your models. Otherwise, the company you bought your train off tend to offer their own range of n scale buildings or accessories.

If you want to add final touches, then you always have to think about the design of your track. Try to test it out multiple times and see what’s missing or if you want to add any flourishes, such as inclines, mountains or valleys before you get started.

The final touches should add a sense of realism to your landscape. Since these model trains are designed to mimic the real-life trains, you want them to feel and look as realistic as possible.

N gauge locomotive train


What are N Scale Couplers?

Coupling in the model train world is a mechanism used to connect the rolling stock to the train. The coupler designs will differ based on a variety of factors. But what you will notice is that it will offer flexibility and a variety of features. The N Scale couplers are couplers that can be used solely for the N scale. Connecting the rolling stock in a model train is very important and having a way to do that for the N scale models is a very good option. There are numerous N scale couplers on the market, you just have to find the best ones.


What are Sound Decoders for N scale Trains?

Sound Decoders for N scale Trains are sound units that you will need to install in order to get sound from the railroad system. A thing to keep in mind is that some of the sound decoders for the model trains are not always working with certain scales. Thankfully, the Sound Decoders for N scale Trains are very popular and you will have no problem finding one to suit your needs or requirements in such a situation.


What is the best track for N scale?

A lot of people recommend the code 55 track because it’s very convenient, it’s built to last and it will provide you with that wide array of quality and value that really matters here. Adaptability is key when it comes to the best track for N scale layouts. Some go with the Atlas code 55, others choose Peco and even Kato can be good. It all comes down to checking the track and seeing whether it suits your needs or not. A bit of trial and error might be needed, but with the right amount of research you can obtain some incredible results, and that will help you quite a bit.


Tips to remember

  • Plan for the landscape space early on in the process. Sometimes your ambitions might be larger than the available space! So having even a rough pen and paper layout early on can save you a ton of headache later on when you inevitably run out of space.
  • Figure out the budget and stick with it! Yes, it can be very easy to get into buying mode trains and spending a lot of money on them and different layouts. That’s why you need to be very careful about how much you spend, otherwise you’ll be two mortgages deep with the best layout around!
  • Opt for the higher quality brands. Since you want to have a good layout and train set, opting for a better brand early on means that your purchases will last you years to come – saving you money in the long run!
  • You can start with a basic layout and add to it. Focus on creating a good railway at first and then expand the overall landscape if you want.

Starting your own N scale model train collection is an awesome experience. This is a great hobby because it allows you to be as creative as you want and also allows you to spend as little or as much time as you want on it.

Sure, it can be costly if you want to focus on realism and great visuals – but you are in control and you can do whatever you want with it.

So there you have it! N scale train sets are an awesome starter model, especially for their size, quality and reasonable price.


Want to learn more about model railroading in general? Read our Ultimate model train guide! OR, if you want to know about other train scales, read our model train scales explained post!

21 thoughts on “Everything to know about N Scale Model Trains”

  1. Hello All, I came to this site to get some idea of prices for vintage N trains that were my dads. Unfortunately he has gone into a retirement home and no longer is using them and certainly could use the money. I don’t want to give them away because I know the importance of where the money would be going but I would love some guidance and if anyone’s interested there are trains that are still in the boxes all Ns And there is over 100 I’m gonna say possibly 500 used N trains no tracks. I took that down from his studio apartment and unfortunately there was so much to do and little time that I didn’t keep track but I have plenty of trains and would love your input’s! Thank you Liz

    Reply
  2. Liz:
    what you call trains are probably cars, like freight cars and passenger cars. each one of those is worth about $10 if they are average. some might be worth a great deal more especially if he was careful in collecting them. some sell now for $50 to $75 each. be careful if you sell them to a buyer who catches you off guard and offers you a $100 because, well the are old and really not worth anything.

    I might be interested in buying them at a FAIR price for you.

    Reply
    • Alan,

      My brother-in-law died recently, leaving his widow with about 77 like-new-still-in-boxes train cars, of which 4-5 are locomotives.

      If you are interested in purchasing them I could get the info to you. Can you suggest typical online options to reach collectors with this opportunity?

      Thanks so much

      Reply
  3. N scale is my scale of choice. It fits nearly everywhere and with Ntrak and its derivatives, the modules offer 2x more than HO and 8x more than O gauge. And the quality across the board has increased dramatically over the years. Yes, KATO has been number One followed by Atlas, Athearn, Intermountain, etc.. Bachmann and Model Power/MRC have increased their quality, reliability, and added Sound and DCC! I have personally tested various locomotives from both Bachmann and MP/MRC by running them for about 7 months 8 to 12 hours a day and other than normal maintenance consisting of Wheel cleaning and lubrication, the locomotives ran side by side with KATO locomotives. No pain or troubles unlike the old days. The time the locomotives ran doesn’t include the extra model railroad shows.
    I am an experienced model railroader and I very much enjoy sharing the experience and knowledge with others in the area no matter the scale or if they are not model railroaders but need help with dioramas or architectural projects. But I will tell you as I tell everyone, I don’t know everything.

    Reply
  4. This is a great article about n scale really enjoyed reading it I switched from o gauge to n scale because of space issue I run all DCC and love it

    Reply
  5. This was very good info, I wish there were more options like HO but very happy with n guage . I have three rooms of running train.

    Reply
  6. Interesting, thanks. One company you missed, Bachmann and Graham Farish. You said Peco, WWe would be very badly off without thrm. Keep up your comments.. Roger Fozzie BEST REGARDS

    Reply
  7. Great article! Thanks for all the useful info. One thing I wanted to mention when it comes to track choice – the larger the cross section of the track (code) the more electricity can flow through it. code 55 in N scale offers a fair amount of resistance as opposed to code 80 – something to consider when choosing what code you’re going to use.

    Reply
  8. How could you forget to mention Bachmann. Great for the beginner or someone who has children that they want to introduce to model trains. Bachmann is relatively inexpensive and the engineering and quality has gotten better over the years.

    Reply
  9. I recently created a point-to-point N scale layout with a brand new MRC DC 1370 power supply, Kato unitrack, and a brand new Atlas loco DCC equipped. I ran the the locomotive for about 25 minutes with flawless operation. Then suddenly, my loco would not move. I also ran another Atlas loco and the same exact problem occurred. Nearly $300 in locomotives that won’t budge after about 25 minutes of operation. Tracks were cleaned with a ‘Bright Boy’, then further cleaned with isopropyl alcohol. I’m not new to this hobby but I’m getting so frustrated, I may give it up. Hobbies should be a source of enjoyment, not frustration. Input anyone?

    Reply
  10. My brother-in-law died recently, leaving his widow with about 77 like-new-still-in-boxes train cars, of which 4-5 are locomotives.

    If you are interested in purchasing them I could get the info to you. Can you suggest typical online options to reach collectors with this opportunity?

    Thanks so much

    Reply
  11. We are planning a dedicated building for the History of Railroading in Lower Michigan. The size of the Building is 48×80 feet, and will be 2 levels.
    I was certain that we would be doing HO scale with size of the building and the availability to much more structures and things. When doing research on the 1930’s (The era that is planned for the layout) it looks like much of the structures and things will need to be scratch built.
    With this in mind, if we switch to N scale we could possibly do twice as much of the State as originally planned. This article has peeked my interest in the N Scale route.
    However, we have to take into consideration cost. N scale is just as expensive as HO Scale. That means we would be looking at twice the cost of trackage to begin with.
    Also, many of the contributors for this project will be working on the layout. 99% of them are over the age of 60 and N scale might be a problem for use as eye sights are not what they once were, along with shaky hands and fingers.
    I will be doing layout drawing in N scale of trackage to see if we can fit in the Ferry at Mackinaw originally left out do to space in HO. It would be nice to touch Detroit as well and the Auto Industry, where much of the Northbound Freight originates.
    Thank You Kindly for your Dedication to the Hobby, Sir.

    Reply

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