Q: What are the "Grand
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
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
Q: What about
the British "minimum gauge" estate railways? They're
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
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
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
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
Q: What are the most
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: