All About Z Scale Model Trains

For some model railroaders, smaller is better. The smallest train scale, called Z scale, is growing in popularity. This article gives the basics for the Z hobbyist.

For some model railroaders, smaller is better.

The railroading hobby has surged in popularity over the last decade. Many people have experienced a nostalgic rediscovery, taking their childhood trains out of storage and using them as the basis for a new layout. A majority of such trains are in HO scale (the most popular scale in common use today), built to 1/87 of the size of real trains; N scale, at 1:160, or O (or the more toylike O27), scaled to 1:48. However, a newer and smaller scale -- known as Z scale -- is quickly growing in acceptance, and beginning to make inroads on the dominance of older scales.

Built to a tiny 1:220 ratio, Z scale has taken years to overcome the image of being a novelty scale made exclusively for rich people. First introduced in 1972 as "Mini-Club" by the old and prestigious German manufacturer Marklin, Z scale is small enough that a simple layout can fit into a briefcase or the top of an endtable. The cost of tooling for such extreme miniaturization not only gave the trains a high retail price, but also limited the degree of detail available on locomotives and cars that measured just 2-3 inches in length. Further, with a European manufacturer it was inevitable that many of the models were based on European prototypes, in which United States hobbyists have never had much interest. In recent years, though, Z scale has become more affordable, while the variety of available equipment has grown tremendously.

The perception of Z scale's potential has evolved far beyond the novelty days. At first, the main selling point of Marklin's tiny scale seemed to be that one could create a layout in a very small area: whereas a starter HO layout commonly occupies a 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood, a similar track plan in Z scale can be laid out in just over 1 1/2-by-3. Z was touted as the answer for people with very limited space available. Some years passed before modelers began to envision what could be done with a 4-by-8 layout in Z scale. Consider: in HO scale, with 48 inches of width available, the modeler must use curved track no wider than 22-inch radius. To accurately simulate real-life (or "prototype") main line curvature, an HO modeler would have to use minimum curves of 13-foot radius, an almost unthinkable dimension for any modeler without a large warehouse in which to build a layout. In Z scale, however, a prototypically accurate curve would require a radius of approximately 60 inches. Thus, even a 22-inch-radius curve in Z scale looks much more convincing than in larger scales.

Z scale is certainly not for everyone. Those who have poor eyesight, or difficulty working with very small objects, will not enjoy handling or servicing the tiny and very delicate locomotives and rolling stock (cats and small children, it should be mentioned, can damage them severely). Track laying can be exacting, as the slim rails and miniscule rail joiners must be connected with precision to avoid derailments. The catalog of available track is limited. While manufacturers are rushing to catch up with this aspect of Z scale's growth, a modeler seeking to lay out complex trackwork with a variety of turnouts (switches) and crossings may be unable to find needed items, at present. From an aesthetic standpoint, the chunky, realistic "massiveness" enjoyed by O scale modelers is entirely missing on a Z scale layout. In hobby shops, Z scale (along with the 25% larger N scale) trains are most often displayed in locked glass counters, due to their small size and susceptibility to shoplifting.

Nevertheless, there are compensations. No other scale can match the long stretches of track (and the potential for running realistically long trains) that are feasible even in mid-size Z layouts. The needs of apartment dwellers who have almost no train space available, or people whose layouts must be fully portable (yes, even in a briefcase), can be uniquely met by Z scale. The quality of details reproduced in Z scale equipment has steadily increased over the years. A competitor to Marklin emerged in 1985, when Micro-Trains created its own Z scale line, and the competition between these two and other manufacturers has benefited the consumer. Mass production has begun to lower retail prices. In 1988 a magazine entirely devoted to Z scale, called Ztrack, made its debut. The major model railroad magazines are paying more and more attention to Z scale, and a landmark moment came in 2001 when a 1:220 layout won "Best of Show" at the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) convention. The following year, a large group of modelers brought their "modules" (component layout tables built independently according to predetermined standards, that interlock to produce super-layouts) together in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida to produce a 30-by-70-foot giant, the largest Z scale modular layout to date.

As manufacturers continually bring out new products and increasingly cater to Americans by releasing models of U.S. railroad equipment, the popularity of Z scale will only increase.

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