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Confusing Model Train Terms Explained For New Railroaders

If you’re just getting into model railroading, you might have noticed that there are a lot of train terms. When you don’t speak the language, it can be difficult to understand what people are talking about or how to shop for the parts you need. We’ll explain some confusing model train terms for new railroaders.

Confusing Model Train Terms Explained for New Railroaders


Gauge vs. Scale

Some of the first terms you’ll need to know are scale and gauge. Scale is how big a model train is compared to a real train of the same type. Scale is usually expressed as a ratio or a letter (like HO scale, N scale, or Z scale). In the United States, scales are pretty standard, but they may be different if you buy from international vendors.

Gauge is how far apart the rails are on the track, based on real train tracks. Some trains use a narrow gauge, which is smaller than the standard. So, you could have two trains that are both HO scale and HO gauge, but they don’t use the same track.


DC vs. DCC

DC stands for “direct current,” as in DC electricity. DCC stands for “digital command and control.” These are the two main power systems for model trains. Beginner sets usually come with a simple DC controller, while veteran railroaders often use DCC for more control. DCC-equipped models can run on regular DC tracks, but you won’t be able to control all their bells and whistles (literally).


Coupler Compatibility

Couplers hook train cars together. Over the years, couplers have become pretty standard among most manufacturers, but you should always double-check. Make sure to read the box of whatever cars or locomotives you’re buying to check if the brands are compatible.


Third Rail Trains

Some manufacturers like to use three rails on their model trains instead of two. They do this because three rails make the trains safer and easier to wire. However, plenty of model railroaders prefer the realism of a two-rail track, so be careful which kind you buy. Third rail trains are more common in larger scales, like O scale.

We hope we’ve sufficiently explained these confusing model train terms for you new railroaders. Don’t be intimidated by all the jargon—learning takes time, and most fellow railroaders are happy to teach you.

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