Q: What are the "Grand Scales"?
A: In the live steam hobby (outdoor riding trains) the term "large scale" generally refers to 7 1/2" or 7 1/4" gauge trains, because decades ago the most popular gauges were even smaller than these (on train tracks "gauge" is the distance between the inside edges of the rails). But there have always been many miniature trains even bigger than that, and more are being built all the time. So what is larger than "large scale"? . . . the Grand Scales. In the United States and Canada there are no popular gauges between 7 1/2" and 12". Thus 12" gauge has become the unofficial lower limit of Grand Scale trains (there are a few exceptions). In England, however, there are many 10 1/4" gauge railways with truly substantial equipment. These lines are generally considered Grand Scale railroads. One of the first deciding factors is that engineers and passengers should ride "in" the equipment instead of "on top of it". Another less tangible prerequisite is a sense of "bigness" inherent in the equipment. Grand Scalers generally "know it when they see it". Very few trains of less than 10" gauge could really be considered of the Grand Scales.

Q: What is the upper size limit of the Grand Scales?
A: There is no upper gauge limit. The deciding factor is the term "Scale". There are many 24" gauge trains that are scale models (or rough miniaturized replicas) of larger equipment. These would qualify. Yet there are a great many industrial narrow gauge lines built to 24" gauge and these would not, since they are "full size" trains. One of the largest examples of a Grand Scale train might be the original Disneyland equipment which was built to 36" gauge, but was in reality a 5/8 scale replica of a standard gauge train (admittedly, that's stretching it a bit).

Q: What about the British "minimum gauge" estate railways? They're not "scale".
A: Sir Arthur Heywood started building 15" gauge equipment over a century ago. He said that his equipment was not a toy "miniature railway". Rather it was the minimum practical gauge for true freight (goods) and passenger service. His trains were indeed not models of any prototype. A number of modern lines in England define themselves as "not miniature" railways, but are instead "minimum gauge" lines. Some readers have argued that perhaps these are not true Grand Scale but are small prototypes in their own right. All well and good, but if they go to the trouble to put little correctly proportioned cabs on the locos with cute little windows, and the coaches look as though they've been shrunk from larger ones, the editorial staff of GSQ will happily write about them regardless of what name they carry. Generally speaking, any 15" gauge railway is considered Grand Scale.

Q: Where can I ride these trains?
A: A quick first place to look will be on our links page. See if there are any trains listed near you. How far you need to travel will depend on the kind of experience you are looking for. Fans of "park trains" have it a bit easier. Most larger amusement parks and many zoos have great train rides. For those looking for a more "railroady" experience, especially with real steam engines, it may be a longer drive. If there is a 7 1/2" gauge live steam club in your area, go hang around the track, or better yet join up. It will be fun, and you may learn of someone local who owns a private Grand Scale railroad (many of them like to keep a pretty low profile).

Q: I want to build my own Grand Scale railroad. How do I start?
A: Ask yourself three questions. Am I willing to commit to a hobby that is measured not in weeks or months, but years and decades? Am I willing to have my hobby be my third largest expense after my home and automobile [actually, it's number two . . . it will cost a LOT more than your car(s)]? Is my spouse willing to share me with a mistress that has curvaceous flanged wheels and a heart of steel? If the answer is YES to all three of these questions then you are a prime candidate.
     If you are new to the hobby altogether,
Find the Grand Scale railroads in your region and visit them. Talk to the people who built them. Get to know as many people as you can and as many different railroads as you can. Listen a lot. Ask a lot of questions. But don't be offended if they seem incredulous at first. Every year they hear a thousand people say, "I'm going to build one of these". And maybe one out of the thousand does. If you can, volunteer at a railroad and sweat over their track for a while. Every hour you spend volunteering with an experienced crew will ultimately save you three hours on your own track.
     Be patient. Learn. Be willing to start small and build up. The huge empires you see in the magazines and on the videos were built by many people over
 decades. But you have to start somewhere and sometime. And here and now is the time. As the shoe people say, "Just do it."

Q: How much do these trains really cost?
A: It varies widely. Some people have built little "diesel" engines out of the junk yard for under a thousand dollars. Others spend well over $200,000 for a single working steam engine. It has been said of the live steam hobby that there is a triangle, the three points of which are TIME, MONEY, and SKILL. You can do without any one of the three, if you have more of the other two. The exception would be money; with a mountain of that you can have whatever you want.
     One item that is almost always overlooked is the cost of laying the track. Some folks are fortunate enough to have found miles of usable scrap mine or brick yard rail and have a friend in the woods with a sawmill to give him ties for free. His track may cost little more than the fuel for his tractor. But new treated 4x4 ties, crushed rock ballast, and freshly rolled 12 lb. steel rail might run up to $80,000 or $100,000 per mile. And believe me, used rail is getting mighty scarce these days.
     This is not to scare you out of the hobby. Not at all. But it would be unfair to sugar-coat some hard realities. Many people have started in the hobby by helping at other railroads and by building their own rolling stock and their own engines and running them on a friends railroad until they build their own. Others have started very small layouts and built on as the budget allows.
     There are few hobbies with the same sense of accomplishment and of pride in "stick-to-itivness". And that is priceless. I have seen the look on builders' faces when their first car rolls, when the first rail gets spiked down, or when that steam engine is first fired up . . . words can't come close to express the moment that they and their friends are sharing.

Q: What are the most common gauges?
A: This is a real problem in the Grand Scales. In North America you will find 12, 12 5/8, 14, 14 1/8, 15, 16, 18, 19, 22, 24, and 30 inch gauge Grand Scale equipment. In the UK you will find 10 1/4, 12 1/4, and 15 inch in common usage. There are two major reasons for all this chaos. One is that until recently most of the Grand Scale railroaders were true "lone wolves", working by themselves and doing as they saw best. Second, manufacturers of amusement park equipment had a vested interest in building to a gauge that was incompatible with the equipment of competing companies. An unscientific analysis has indicated that the popularity of Grand Scale gauges in North America, from most to least would go 15, 16, 12, 14, 24, 18, 22, 30, 14 1/8, 19. In the UK the popularity, from most to least would be 15, 10 1/4, 12 1/4. On both sides of the Atlantic 15" gauge leads by a very wide margin.

Q: What gauge should I chose for my railroad?
A: There is no easy answer for this question. Any choice will at best be a compromise. Educating yourself thoroughly before making a decision may save you from regrets later. Here are some factors to consider: 1) Is there a predominant gauge in your area. If there are three 12" gauge railroads within 50 miles of your home, and you've become friends with all the owners, you have a strong impetus to go with 12".
     2) Have you found some used equipment of a certain gauge? Riding cars and diesels may be simpler to re-gauge, but if you find a great deal on a couple of 14" gauge steamers, the decision to go with 14" may have been made by chance.
     3) Compatibility and Resale Value. If you are starting from scratch, you may feel free to do as you please. You don't want to visit anyone, and you don't want anyone to visit you. But circumstances change. You may have a change of heart . . . or you may have a heart attack. Trains outlast people. The Cagney brothers have been gone for decades, but thousands of people every year enjoy riding behind the steam engines they built. You may have a logical reason for chosing to build to 13 5/16" gauge (or whatever), but chosing one of the more popular gauges (15", 16", 12") will be either benefit you or your heirs.
     The Editor of GSQ freely admits to having a strong preference for 15" gauge . . . and not without reason. In North America, in Europe, and around the world the most popular gauge is 15". Building a railroad in this gauge increases the chance of finding desireable used and new equipment in the future. It also opens more doors to having visiting equipment and being able to visit other railroads with your equipment.
     Once the decision of gauge is made, the next decision is that of wheel standards (which informs the specificaitons of your switches, crosover tracks, etc.) Let's take 15" gauge as an example. There are a wide variety of wheel standards out there. Two popular ones are the 3" scale standards which are essentially the so-called "IBLS standards" for 7.5" gauge that have been doubled in size. For 5" scale equipment a common standard is the Redwood Valley wheel and coupler standards developed by Erich Thomsen. Yet even some builders of 3" scale equipment are chosing to use the Redwood Valley standards because of their robust nature and growing popularity. Many 15" railways in the UK use similarly large flanges, and have found them to be very safe even at high speeds. Are there railroads that you hope to visit some day with your equipment? Find out what wheel standards they are using.


If you have questions, please feel free to contact us. We don't know all the answers, but we know the people who do. E-mail:


  © March 2018 Grand Scales Quarterly. All Rights Reserved This material may not be republished or rewritten without permission.