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Model Railroading 101


An introduction to basic model railroading terminology and concepts

If you're new to model railroading, a hobby shop is probably where you'd get your first crash course in hobby terminology. However, spending an afternoon staring at trains in display cases trying to get answers to basic questions can be frustrating. Having worked at several hobby shops, I've seen novices walk in full of enthusiasm and leave confused and grumbling about throwing everything into the trash.

Understanding the language of model railroading is essential for new hobbyists. This article provides some basic railroad and model railroad terms that will help you ask the right questions at the hobby shop and, more importantly, understand the answers.


Any real-life object that's modeled is considered a prototype. Examples of prototypes include locomotives, freight and passenger cars, structures, trackwork, and even an entire railroad.

Period modeling
Many modelers set their layouts in a particular span of time. For example,
a modeler may choose a period when steam engines hauled most trains. If the year is 1948, then all locomotives, rolling stock, structures, and vehicles should look like those used during the late 1940s. Period modelers aim for this sort of historical accuracy.

Transition era
Most American railroads changed from steam engines to diesels between 1945 and 1960; thus, this 15-year period is often called the transition era.

Peddler freight
The local freight trains that stopped to pick up and drop off cars at small towns and industry sidings are known as peddler freights but are also sometimes called locals or way freights. A peddler freight was usually short (10 to 15 cars) and was assigned lightweight, versatile locomotives that could handle switching at individual sidings as well as hauling a train on the main line.


Types of locomotives
Prototype steam engines were used for about 130 years, from the first railroads in the 1830s until the early 1960s. The first diesels appeared in the early 1930s and operated side-by-side with steamers on many railroads during the 1940s and early 1950s.

A wide variety of plastic and metal locomotive models is available today. These are generally offered as either ready-to-run models or as kits and are available in various scales. For steam engines, you can find models representing prototype engines built between 1870 and the 1940s. Diesel locomotives continue to be built, and highly detailed models of engines past and current are available from a number of manufacturers.

Electric locomotives were operated in the busy Northeast Corridor from Washington, D.C., to Boston, as well as on some mountain lines. Models of electric locomotives are also available.

Can and open-frame motors
The most common power source used in model locomotives is the can motor. These motors are completely enclosed and have a ring magnet that surrounds the armature. Can motors have smooth running characteristics and require a low current draw.

Older models will often have open-frame motors. On this type of motor the magnet is mounted at one end with iron pole pieces extending to each side of the armature. The armature is visible from the sides, giving the motor the open-frame name. While these motors operate well, they don't start as smoothly as can motors do, and they draw two to three times more current.

The magnetic knuckle coupler, as pioneered by Kadee, is the most widely used model railroad coupler. The coupler's trip pin is made from a curved metal rod made to suggest an air hose. When the trip pin passes over a magnet under the track (called an uncoupling ramp), the rod is pulled to one side, opening the knuckle and uncoupling the cars.

Older models and inexpensive freight cars often have plastic horn-hook-style couplers, a design that's disappearing today. These have a plastic pin on the bottom of the coupler. When the pin passes through a grooved or spring ramp, the couplers are forced apart and the cars separate. Horn-hook and magnetic couplers are not compatible.

The caboose was the office for the conductor of a freight train and provided shelter for the train crew. A caboose typically offered a rough ride and little comfort to its crew. Those built through the early 1950s had smoky coal stoves used for heat in the winter. Because of the lack of comfort, crews often called cabooses "crummies." Though no longer a common sight, cabooses are still used occasionally where special switching work requires one.

During the 1990s, the caboose was replaced with a small box called an end-of-train device (EOT or ETD). These mount on the coupler of the last car in a train and radio information to the locomotive cab about train-related data, such as brake-line air pressure. Some are equipped with a red flashing light.

Full-length passenger car models (85 scale feet) can't go around tight curves on layouts. With that in mind, several model manufacturers developed lines of shorty passenger cars that, at 60 to 72 scale feet in length, can navigate the tight curves on smaller layouts.


Code of rail
Prototype railroads use rail of varying heights and weights depending on the type and frequency of trains that run on it. On model railroads, code is the height of the rail measured in hundredths of an inch.

While some modelers handlay their tracks by spiking the rail to individual wood ties, most use the preassembled track known as flextrack. Flextrack has its rails attached to movable plastic ties and comes in bendable three-foot or one-meter lengths for HO scale.

A section of track with movable parts that allows a train to switch to another track is called a turnout. A turnout's number identifies the frog angle - the larger the number, the gentler the angle of the diverging route.

Model Railroader's executive editor Andy Sperandeo once explained that the name "turnout" is an engineering term. It's used by modelers to describe the complete track assembly. It also serves to avoid confusion with electrical switches, also used in model railroading. Technically, a track "switch" is only the moving parts of a turnout.


Open-grid benchwork
Starter layouts are often flat and built on a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood. However, the majority of layouts have tracks at varying heights separated by grades. The easiest way to add elevation to a layout is to use open-grid benchwork. For this type of construction you place a plywood subroadbed under the track only and then attach risers to the grid to elevate that right-of-way.

Once the track levels are established, you then fill the open spaces between the levels with scenery.

L-girder benchwork
A simple, sturdy way to support your layout is by gluing a 1 x 2 flange horizontally to a 1 x 4 vertical beam to form an L-shaped girder. The legs supporting the layout are attached to the beam, while the joists supporting the roadbed are attached to the flange. An L girder is very strong - the span between the legs can be as much as 13 feet.


Scenic base
A layout's scenic base is the foundation for all of its scenery, including roads, grass, trees, and rocks. An inexpensive scenery base can be made using a lightweight support structure, such as cardboard strips glued together, covered with layers of plaster-soaked gauze or paper towels. Another type of base you can use is made from screen wire formed to make hills and valleys and covered with plaster.

A more recent approach to making scenery bases uses one or more layers of foam insulation board glued together and carved to a desired shape.

Ground foam
Ground foam is a material used to represent grass, leaves, soil, weeds, and other foliage. Manufacturers make it by grinding up foam rubber and dying it various colors to represent grass and soil. Ground foam is typically one of the first layers of scenery to be installed after the scenery base is complete.

Rock molds
You can make your own highly detailed rock formations by using rubber rock molds and Hydrocal plaster or plaster of paris. Rock molds are offered by many manufacturers, come in a variety of sizes, and are easy to use. Simply fill the mold with plaster and then remove the rock casting when the plaster has set. After the plaster has dried, glue the casting to the layout and paint it.


Dispatcher control (cab control)
To operate more than one train using direct current (DC) train control, a model railroad can be divided into a series of isolated electrical blocks. A dispatcher then assigns one or more blocks to an operator's cab, allowing him to run his train in these areas.

Memory throttle
A memory throttle allows an operator to follow a train around the layout. The operator runs the train with a handheld cab that can be plugged into jacks. When the operator unplugs the cab to go to another station or switching location, the train will maintain a constant speed until the cab is reconnected at the next plug-in point. This type of cab is good for following a train around small and large layouts alike.

Digital Command Control (DCC) is another type of multiple-train control. Unlike cab control, DCC doesn't require the use of isolated electrical blocks, making wiring simpler. Instead, each locomotive on a DCC layout is equipped with a decoder, which allows it to receive commands anywhere on the railroad. This way, two or more locomotives can run independently on the same track. Many DCC systems also offer wireless throttles.

We wish to thank The World's Greatest Hobby for providing us the above information.