Model Train Inclines and Going Uphill

Every modeler out there loves the idea of putting an incline on their layouts. Bridges, viaducts, and hills are a few of the most challenging and fascinating formations to build. Nothing looks better than your locomotive pulling some cargo up a spiraling mountain.

It also increases the level of difficulty of operating a layout with having to have the model trains powered up to climb the pitch and guided back down in a restrained manner so as not to have a runaway train. It’s not just as simple as building an incline and watching it go, unfortunately. But, that’s where this article comes in!

The easiest thing to do would be to buy a set of track supports accompanied by an incline kit. But using these can rob your railway model of a realistic look that we’re all striving towards. To produce a top-grade look, we will need to have the sides to give the bridge a more real-life look. 

So the big question is:

Can Model Trains Go Uphill?

The answer to this question is a positive one. Yes, model trains can go uphill.

A model train can go uphill if built on a specifically graded incline. But building inclines is not just a matter of tilting some track upwards. There are a lot of factors that we have to take into consideration when building a slope. 
The train wheel that comes into contact with the rails is a tiny surface area. So, there is hardly any traction applied when climbing upwards. The engine might stop or roll backwards if the climb is too steep, as there will not be enough traction to overcome the downhill drag. 

There’s obviously more to just collecting and building the perfect model train layout. Namely, just watching your model train run along the layout or diorama can be a pleasant pastime for many!

Most of the time, model trains are built with a lot of focus on intricate detailing, and the actual functionality of the engine is somewhat ignored. That’s why for the layouts are designed to let the train run on flat tracks by default rather than climb uphill.

This often ends up being boring to watch after some time – it’s basically just a toy train running a track on flat land. However, with some simple tweaks and enough persistence, you can make your model train go uphill in the layout.

Simply tilting the train track along an incline such as a hill or a bridge along the layout won’t help in this case. The wheels of the train generally come in contact with a very tiny portion of the track. This little amount of surface area isn’t actually enough to generate adequate traction to hold the train upright when traveling along a steep slope.

As a result, the model train may end up rolling backward.
If you’re up for it, here is a video tutorial with more details about how to tweak your model train and customize it to climb uphill.

What to Know about Model Train Inclines

When building railroad inclines, there are several things that you need to know and take into consideration. These are as follows:

Maximum Grade: The straightforward answer that many railroaders will tell us is not to use grades sharper than two percent. But we have to note that that is not a complete answer.

Many manufacturers of woodland scenic and model railroad terrain materials offer train layouts of more than 2 percent. So why only 2 percent then if that isn’t the case? Most railroaders are against using grades sharper than 2 percent because the real-life trains do not use gradients more acute than 2 percent.

Due to this restriction in actual trains, some railroaders ridicule railway models with a slope sharper than 2 percent as ‘toy train’ layouts. 

Maximum Track Grade: Maximum grade depends on three factors: the poundage of the locomotives, the power of the locomotives, and the weight and the number of cars on the train.

The locomotive’s power is a well-known factor as a locomotive with low capacity will not be able to pull many cars up a grade. Whereas how the poundage of the locomotive works is not very commonly known. With greater weight comes greater traction. That means while the heftier engines can go up a grade, the lighter ones may slip.

The locomotives that are of a larger scale may handle steeper grades compare to the smaller ones. 

Grades Are All About Space: With the inclines of the railroad model, one of the concerns is the space available for use. While grades can make a layout more appealing, gaining sufficient height for a short model railroad layout is very challenging. 

Ghost Cars: A useful technique to pull a longer train is to use ghost cars. A ghost car is usually a boxcar that is motorized like an engine. They are typically put in the center of the train or arranged evenly if multiple ghost cars are being used. This will help give your train some extra power to get up the hill while retaining that authentic train look

What Are Model Train Grades and Clearances

Model Train Grades:
Model train grades refer to the track grades of a railway model layout. To put it simply, the track grade is the steepness of a rail track. It is expressed as the ratio of its rise to the extent of its run. We can calculate the grade with this formula.
Percentage of Grade = Height / Length (Height divided by length)
For example, if the track climbs 1 inch with a run of 100 inches, the rise is 1 percent.

The clearance refers to the space necessary for the model train to pass over other things as it runs along its tracks. For example, if the train has to go under a bridge, we have to make sure that the distance between the bridge’s underside and the top of the tracks is more than the vertical height of the train. Otherwise, it will crash into the bridge. 

Manufacturers usually exceed the standard set by NMRA taking into account the height of the railroad tracks. 

How to Build a Model Train Incline

To build an incline that does not make the model train stall and backslide, we have to give careful attention to many things such as track & wheel gauge, transition curves, rolling stock clearance, moderate grades, precise coupler adjustments, electrical integrity, and adherence to correct weight for the rolling stock. That is a lot of things to consider. Fortunately for us, others have been here before. 

What we need to do is decrease the climb to a moderate slope, just like real-life trains. In real-life railways, the train approaches the hills over a long distance. And for model railways, there is a proven slope to distance ratio. 

The established ratio for railway models is a ramp of 1 in 50, or the classic 2% grade. This means that if we want our model train to reach a height of 1 cm, we have to give it a distance of 50 cm for this transition. So, building our inclined layout is essentially working out the vertical height and multiplying it by 50. The absolute maximum ratio that we can go for, according to MRF and Anyrail forums, is 1 in 30.


Watching tiny trains running around a model railway is fun, but it is even more fun to have it run up on hills. And this article should help you enjoy railroading a little bit more. 

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