How To Reach Realistic Scale Speed Operation On A Model Railroad Layout


If you are like many others in the hobby you’ll want your model railroad layout to be reasonably realistic in appearance and your trains to operate in a realistic way.

A mistake that many make (especially when starting in the hobby) is to run their trains too quickly. You might like to have your trains whizzing around the track at high speed, but that can cause problems (like derailments), and it doesn’t usually look realistic. The best thing is to avoid the temptation to go to fast and instead aim to operate your trains scale speeds.

One way to get use to doing this is to place a 3 foot (0.9144 m) measure alongside a straight area of mainline track and then practice operating your trains at different scale speeds. Below you see how the prototype speeds and the number of seconds it will take your train to travel along your 3 foot measure.

As a reference; yard movements are usually carried out at no more than 15 mph (24 kph), whereas most switching movements happen at roughly 5 mph (8 kph). Compare that to mainline operations which are typically somewhere between 25 mph to 60 mph (40 kph and 96 kph). Obviously the speeds would vary dependant on the model of train, whether it is steam or diesel, and the era in which it is being operated.

As an example we’ll look at an HO scale train and see how long it should take to travel the three foot at scale speed. At a real prototypical speed it would take 36 seconds to reach the end at 5 miles per hour (8.05 kph). At a prototypical speed of 25 miles per hour (40.23 kph) it would take 7 seconds. Operating at 90 mph (144.84 kph) it would take only 2 seconds. Using N scale it would take almost twice the time to cover the distance. The smaller the scale the longer it would take. Using N scale it would take almost twice the time to cover the distance. By operating a bigger scale the train would cover the distance quicker. I hope that makes sense?

You can adjust, match, and compare scale speed operation with full-size prototype train starts and stops when you accelerate and brake at scale rates.

An operating session will usually be considerably more fun using less locos and cars that ALL run correctly. Nothing spoils an operating session quicker that locomotives that run erratically (or not at all), and cars that fail to stay on the track.

Poor operating locomotives can be very frustrating. Smooth, reliable locos that have the required pulling power is what is needed. All couplers should be at the correct height and need to work reliably every time.

Think of your model railroad layout as a giant machine with every component an integral part to keep that machine working efficiently. The track-work needs to function correctly and not cause a problem for any rolling stock. Check the track gauge, test wheel-set gauge, tune turnouts, adjust coupler height, and weigh cars correctly to improve operations. The rolling stock needs to be maintained and potential problems fixed prior to operation. Check and repair cars with weight problems, coupler problems, or those that frequently derail.

Set yourself a performance goal of no more than two derailments for every 100 car moves.



We hope that you found the information in this page useful. The internet is all about getting and giving. And giving back is the best. Please donate $1 or more to aid us in our continuing quest to add to and polish the information in our site.

Scroll to top