All Railroads, All the Time



Frequently Asked Questions





       Most backyard railroads are 7.5” gauge (7.5 inches between the rails such as the beautiful 7.5” steam locomotive (top photo, cover) found on the Bitter Creek Western Railroad. For reasons of economy and space constraints, this size is the most popular and most practical for the majority of hobbyists and clubs. And railroad buffs generally agree that any size of train is a good train. These trains are featured in the 7+RAILROADER magazine (

       But for many hobbyists and most public-carrying miniature railways, bigger is better. The ability to ride “in” the train instead of “on” the train can make a huge difference in the experience of being a passenger or an engineer. Generally, any miniature railway that is 12” gauge or larger is “Grand Scale”. (


Is It a REAL Steam Engine?

       While many amusement parks do have steam “look-a-likes” that have gasoline engines, that is not the case with many railroads. Some do have internal combustion engines that are models of small diesel switchers; but, if it looks like a steam engine, it often is.

       Because of its ease of use, the most common fuel is diesel oil. The oil flows by gravity to an atomizer in the engine’s firebox. A small jet of steam sends the oil out in a fine mist that burns with a hot flame.

       This flame creates the heat that boils the water, then the pressure builds and away we go. The commercially built boilers on these engines generally operate at between 100 and 150 psi.


What Gauge / Scale Is It?

      This photo, one of the Redwood Valley’s steam engines, is 15” gauge (fifteen inches between the rails) and 5/12 scale (commonly called ‘5-inch scale’ because the ratio is that 5” on the model equals 1 foot in real world) (click to enlarge).

       5” scale was made popular years ago by Erich Thomsen, founder of the Redwood Valley Railway. He wanted the largest realistic train he could fit on 15” gauge track. Instead of modeling the larger standard gauge trains, he decided to model narrow gauge. (Though many other excellent Grand Scale RR’s do model standard gauge equipment.)



       How can you get a larger model from a smaller prototype? It’s because it doesn’t need to be reduced as far. And while the narrow gauge equipment was smaller overall, it was pretty hefty in relation to the distance between the rails. The illustration demonstrates this relationship (click to enlarge).


How Do I Get Started?

       After seeing these magical trains, many people want to know how they can get involved in the hobby. If you are already familiar with the live steam hobby, you may already have an idea of what’s involved. If you haven’t worked with “backyard railroads” of any kind, then there is A LOT to learn.

       Subscribing to magazines such as the 7+ RAILROADER and Live Steam is a good way to get started. These journals give a good overall look at the hobby (with an emphasis on 7.5” gauge). Don’t let yourself be intimidated by the detailed articles. Yes, there’s a lot to learn, but most live steamers will tell you that the level of effort is proportionate with the level of satisfaction and enjoyment.

        If you are particularly interested in the “Grand Scales”, the best magazine to subscribe to is the Grand Scales Quarterly which deals specifically with the larger sizes of miniature trains.


How Much Does it Cost?

       This common question is the hardest to answer. To illustrate: how much does it cost to take up the sport of fishing? Are you content to fish from the bank with a simple rod and reel? Do you need a boat? A row boat? A bass boat? An offshore cabin cruiser?

       There are many ways to cut expenses. A creative person could build a Grand Scale “diesel” engine for a comparatively small amount of money. The ultimate cost of a steam engine would depend on a person’s skill, methods, and sense of style. The materials are likely to cost into the low five figures. Then, of course, there are the countless hours of machining, fabricating, pipefitting, etc., etc.

       There is also the cost of materials for the riding cars and perhaps some work cars. And don’t forget the often overlooked cost of the track, which may ultimately be one of the greatest expenses.

       Those people involved in scale railroading of all sizes want to see the number of railroads increase. And interested persons are encouraged to learn more. But it would be unkind and misleading to say that this hobby doesn’t require a sizable investment of both time and money.


        We hope you’ve had fun learning more about riding railways, which represents the enjoyment and devotion of many people over many years. If you would like to know more, feel free to contact the editors of the Grand Scales Quarterly and the 7+ RAILROADER.


©7+Railroader, March, 2007
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