Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

(Live Steam)

Q: What is the difference between Gauge and Scale?

A:  Gauge is the distance between the rails.
Scale is the proportion (ratio) of the model to full size (the number of inches to the foot).

The most common track gauges worldwide are 5" (127mm) and 71/4" (184mm). Another popular gauge is 31/2" (89mm) [more so in previous years] which permits a powerful passenger-hauling locomotive combined with smaller dimensions for easier handling and transportation. Other gauges are 32mm, 45mm, 21/2" (63.5mm), and larger gauges like 12" (305mm), and 15" (381mm) for commercial uses. 43/4"g and 71/2"g are used as well (but only) in the USA.

The scale used can vary depending on the type and gauge of the full size item. The common scales used are 3/4"/ft for 31/2"g (1/16th of full size), 1.125"/ft (1/11th) for 5"g, and 1.5"/ft for 71/4"g (1/8th full size).

Larger scales such as 2"/ft or 21/2"/ft are sometimes used for models of narrow gauge engines. This permits a larger size model to operate on standard size tracks.

Q: Why are some engines much larger than others?

A: Related to the scale of the model (See question above). A model of a narrow gauge engine may be twice the dimensions (and 8 times the weight!) of model of a standard gauge engine, yet they run on the same gauge track. The size difference is more obvious when side by side on the track. NG engines are built to a larger scale.

Q: Ooh! Is that coal you are putting in? Isn't that sweet!

A: The engines are exactly the same as full size engines, just smaller, otherwise no different. Many are coal fired. Other fuels such as propane or oil are also used.

Q: How fast will it go?

A: In real life, trains operated at speeds of up to about 80 or 100mph (120~160kmph). This corresponds to a scale speed 10~15 kmph (5" gauge) or 15~20kmph (71/4" gauge). The speed of models is typically restricted to around 10kmph (6mph) for safety and insurance reasons. Models are capable of about twice this speed, but is quite unrealistic, and potentially dangerous (and scary!).

Q: How do I get one?

A: There are several ways to obtain a live steam or ride-on model:

  • Buy one from a commercial manufacturer. Reasonably quick depending on the manufacturer but can be expensive.
  • Buy one already built and running. Places to look are this web site in the For Sale section, or from magazines such as Australian Model Engineering magazine, or from a member of a local club.
  • Build from rough castings of parts, or machined or part machined parts. This speeds up construction but may increase cost, and allows those with more modest machine shops to still build one.
  • Build from scratch. Some people find the original blueprints and scale them down, cast and machine their own parts. Very satisfying for those with the time (in years) and the machining ability to do so.

Q: How long does it take to make one?

A: It varies depending on a number of factors such as size and complexity of the model, the experience and skills of the builder, facilities available, what proportion of the model is made from purchased finished components, spare time available etc. Some people can make a model in less than 1 year, for others the project may span 10 years or more. Time alone is often not the main factor, but the satisfaction of making something of your own design may be a higher priority.

Q: How much do they cost?

A: Cost varies depending on a number of factors such as size / gauge / scale, quality of workmanship, age and condition, which prototype, steam driven or petrol or electric powered, etc. Professionally built new models could be as much as $20,000 to $30,000 or more, a well used model could be as low as $1,000. If built at home from scrap and scrounged materials, it may even be less. How much are they worth? Priceless for the amount of fun.

Q: What size is best for a beginner?

A: There is no single simple answer to this. All scales and gauges have their advantages and disadvantages. And there is no right or wrong answer. There are number of factors to consider:

  • Size vs Cost. In general, the smaller the size, the less the cost.
  • Ease of riding. Larger is easier to get on and off, and tends to be a bit more stable. Smaller often is not difficult to ride on, and surprisingly stable.
  • Transportation. The larger the model, the more difficult to transport and handle. Remember that one model that is 2x the scale of another is 8x the weight! The smaller sizes are more easily handled and stored. A larger model may require a special vehicle/trailer to transport, and handling arrangements.
  • Maintenance. The smaller sizes are easier to handle and work on in the typical home workshop. Larger sizes may require lifting equipment. However, larger sizes are less fiddly and have more space for fingers etc.
  • Facilities available at your local club should be taken into account. Handling facilities at home with usually 1 person, should also be considered. There is little benefit in making something that can only be run at home, or at some place far away.
  • Complexity. A very detailed model of a complex prototype may be high on your wish list, but probably over ambitious as a first project for most people. Try something a bit simpler and straightforward first, or buy a used engine to 'learn the ropes'.
  • Your own preferences. If like a particular something, then go ahead. If you don't like something, then don't.

You might also read this article on A Beginner's Guide to Live Steam which contains some more detailed information for beginners.

Q: Which is better:- Steam, Electric or Diesel?

A: Steam may not be best for the raw beginner, as it is more complex and requires compliance with boiler regulations etc. You may need a mentor if possible if you are new to the hobby and interested in steam and have little previous experience in this area. Non-steam powered locomotives are permitted to run in most cases on days of "Total Fire Ban" appicable in some areas, where steam engines are now barred due to recent regulations changes.

Check the local clubs in your area, and visit one or more times if possible, and ask questions. It may be better to start with a 'diesel' locomotive, either battery or petrol engine powered, they are much easier to learn and maintain without experience.

Q: Where is my closest local club?

A: There are many clubs, particularly around the capitol and major cities, but also in regional areas. Look at the clubs in the links page for your nearest one. Click here for the club running days for Australian and NZ clubs.