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2 December: Model Railroading Day

A hobby for all ages and budgets
Private H0-unit in Karlsfeld near Munich © Peter Pernsteiner
entry into the world of H0 model railroading with Piko starter set
Entering into the H0 model railway world can be done for as little as 85 euros with the Piko starter set © Piko 

By Peter Pernsteiner.

For many decades, model railroading has connected young and old in a kind of inter-generational contract. The first point of contact is most often a colourful wooden or plastic train set gifted by parents or grandparents as a birthday or Christmas present. This is usually followed by battery locomotives along with a child-friendly railroad track. Creatively combined with building bricks and Lego or other clamp building blocks, the whole thing turns into a city. Major brands such as Fleischmann, Märklin, Piko, Roco, or Trix offer a wide variety of starter packs for children of primary school age. The most widespread gauge is H0 (track gauge of 16.5 mm, scale 1:87). For just 85 euros, Piko offers a starter set consisting of a small steam locomotive, three wagons, a 120 by 98 cm oval track, and a speed controller with a power supply unit. For many children, the fun of model railroading does not end here and continues on into their teens. Many schools even have model railway craft project groups. 

Many schoolchildren lose interest in the hobby. Countless passionate adult model railroaders went through the same experience in their youth. But one day, they have children of their own and childhood memories pop back into their heads, and they dive back into the hobby. Or a different occasion gets a has-been passionate railroader’s heart beating again, such as marketing campaigns, factory tours or club exhibition days all around the annual Model Railroading Day.

H0 special car from Märklin for Model Railroad Day
H0 special edition car by Märklin for Model Railroading Day © Märklin 

The industry’s big day

Celebrating model railroading on 2 December is an initiative brought into life by the well-known German TV series Eisenbahn-Romantik (Railway Romance) and the European association of model railroaders and railroad friends MOROP. It has been taking place since 2015, but in 2021 there were hardly any face-to-face events due to the pandemic. Märklin presented a special edition wagon for this day. The wagon’s prototype is a 11.5 cm long privately owned refrigerator car decorated with the logo and lettering for Model Railroading Day on one side and part of the 1933/34 Märklin catalogue on the other.

The four-piece H0 basic set of the ICE 3
The four-piece H0 basic set of the ICE 3 “Velaro” by Roco is 115 centimetres long © Roco

A great way to get back into the world of model railroading is with a digital starter set, which can navigate several trains on the same track with its controls or comfort handset. In the higher price range, such starter sets can also include one or two trains with integrated sound electronics for realistic prototype sounds. Modern trains are becoming increasingly important in model railroading. Which is not a surprise, as many of today’s adults used to get to school on a diesel powered regional/shuttle railcar or a commuter train. Even the Intercity Express is now in its fourth generation. It officially entered the Deutsche Bundesbahn timetable 30 years ago on 2 June 1991. Ever since, the major model train manufacturers have been creating models of the various ICEs of all generations as well as French TGVs and Austrian Railjet trains.

Incredibly long

Of course, the current German high-speed train ICE 4 should not be left out. It is available in H0 from Piko and recently also from Märklin. The 1.5 metre long five-piece basic train set by Märklin alone has 30 functions that can be switched digitally. For example, the pantographs can be realistically raised and lowered electrically. In addition to station and train announcements, the train can even play a multi-stop announcement. Each press of the button plays one of the fourteen stops of the ICE journey from Munich to Hamburg-Altona. Of course, the station order changes when the model switches its direction of travel. Besides that, the interior lighting colour can be switched between day and night mode. Those who have the extra space on their model railroad layout can even extend the flagship train up to an impressive twelve-piece train set of more than 3.6 metres with add-on sets. 

Rokuhan's Z-Shorty bogies
Rokuhan’s Z-Shorty trains can handle a track radius of only 45 milimetres. © Peter Pernsteiner 

A little model railway fun

The ICE 4 is also available in a smaller scale - 1:160 in the N gauge for model railroaders with limited space. Kato realised it as a seven-piece train set and also offers a five-piece add-on set. To match this, Lemke has a fitting digitisation set, interior lighting and a retrofit sound decoder in its range. For those who have even less space or simply want to enjoy the ICE in even smaller form, the Z gauge model train in the 1:220 scale is the perfect choice. The gauge was introduced by Märklin already in 1972 under the name “mini-club” and has a track gauge of only 6.5 millimetres. However, the ICE 4 is not available in this size, “only” the former ICE 3 is. It is a 465 mm long four-piece set that requires a track radius of at least 195 mm. By the way, the smallest Märklin Z starter set track requires an area of just 357 by 302 mm. Still too big? No problem. The Japanese company Rokuhan has developed a shortened motorised chassis for Z gauge that can get by with a track radius of only 45 mm. This way, a complete track oval with buildings and landscape can fit on the surface of a DIN A5 sheet.

Track tamping machine Unimat from Märklin
The Unimat ballast tamping machine by Märklin in 1:87 scale is almost 40 centimetres long © Peter Pernsteiner

Fascinating functional models

Detailing is naturally limited in Z gauge. Sounds are not possible due to space limitations. With H0, this is quite different. Manufacturers offer various high-tech models - some even have sophisticated motion functions. The spectrum ranges from Deutsche Bahn overhead line service vehicles with an electrically operated lifting platform to a wide variety of digitally controllable heavy-duty crane cars with sound. One of Märklin’s tech-highlights is the Unimat ballast tamping machine due for delivery in the first half of 2022. The almost 40-centimetre-long model in 1:87 was created in cooperation with Viessmann Modeltechnik. It replicates the tamping process for compacting the ballast in the track bed in a fascinating way. Just like its prototype, the model runs extremely slowly and smoothly. It takes about four minutes for one metre. Meanwhile, the compaction piston is lowered twice in quick succession at 3-second intervals and the sound of the corresponding hammer mill is played simultaneously. Then the piston is pulled back about one centimetre and the spectacle starts all over again. This technical treat is complemented by numerous other sound and light functions as well as an electrically operated pantograph.

On the big tracks

The largest portion of model railway revenue flows in the H0 gauge, but the larger gauges are becoming increasingly popular. Garden railroad fans will enjoy the sturdy trains made of die-cast zinc and plastic from the manufacturers LGB and Piko in the scales between 1:22.5 and 1:29. The weatherproof tracks with a gauge of 45 millimetres are made of brass. For collectors of this gauge, detailed locomotives and wagons made mostly of brass are available from small series manufacturers. Many richly detailed models are also available at the nominal size 0 with a gauge of 32 millimetres. The locomotives of this range have a scale of 1:43.5 to 1:48, depending on the manufacturer. People looking for the most detail possible will find what they seek at manufacturers of gauge 1 trains (scale 1:32, 45 millimetre gauge). In high-volume production runs, the frame and body of these locomotives are made of die-cast zinc, while most low-volume manufacturers make handmade brass models. In both production techniques, the models are then refined with hand-applied brass precision casting parts. Great features, such as motorised moving pantographs, are often incorporated as well. 

Elaborately detailed driver's cab of the 1:32 steam locomotive class 05 from KM1 Modellbau
Elaborately detailed driver’s car of the 1:32 05 series steam locomotive by KM1 Modellbau. © Peter Pernsteiner 

A current gauge 1 tech-highlight is the around 83 cm long class 05 tender steam locomotive made by the small series manufacturer KM1 Modellbau. Not only is smoke emitted from its chimney and at times from the cylinders simultaneously with the sound effect. When the whistle sound is triggered, a cloud of smoke even shoots up realistically from the whistle. In addition, the model has a motorised “reversal” for the intricate drive linkage when changing the direction of travel. A miniature servo moves the firebox door in the driver’s cabin and the replica ember bed flickers atmospherically. Finally, the locomotive even has a two-channel sound module that realistically plays sounds from the speaker in the locomotive boiler and/or the bass speaker in the tender.

Bran Castle from Faller
The Bran Castle kit by Faller consists of over 1100 parts

Individual design of the miniature world

Fitting accessories for designing landscapes and entire cities are naturally available in all model railway gauges. Plastic building kits by Auhagen, Brawa, Busch, Faller, Kibri, Noch, Pola and Vollmer, to name a few, are very popular. The spectrum ranges from mini garden houses and newspaper kiosks to entire factory complexes and castles. One of the current highlights is the model of Castle Bran in Romania, known from the legendary movie Dracula. On the occasion of its 75th anniversary, Faller created this 1:87 scale castle consisting of more than 1100 plastic parts - in a limited edition manufactured at the company’s headquarters in the Black Forest.

Building kits in much smaller quantities are made with laser-cut wood and cardboard panels. In addition, many manufacturers offer a wide array of functional accessories such as traffic lights, barriers, street lamps, miniature figures brought to life with motors, or self-driving model cars. The sky is the limit in the model railway world and there is something available for every budget.


Model Railroading Day 

Model Railroading Day on 2 December is an initiative by the German TV series Eisenbahn-Romantik (Railway Romance) and the European association of model railroaders and railroad friends MOROP and is supported by BDEF and MOBA.

To the Model Railroading Day website

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