The Iowan

The Train Skein

Toy Trains and Scale Model Trains

By Phil Renninger

Welcome to The Train Skein. Skein? Well, everyone knows that a skein is a long length of yarn. But a skein can also be any group of inter-related objects. So in our case, this skein will be a group of magazine articles about the use of trains in our Department 56 village displays.  

What is more heart-warming than waking up on Christmas morning to a tree adorned with a variety of colorful ornaments, tinsel, and bright lights. And beneath its boughs stands a miniature village through which passes a toy train. For over a century, this has been the vision of Christmas that is permanently etched into many of our minds. Those sentimental family traditions continue as we speak.

The toy train became popular in the early 1900s through the products of Marx and Ives toy companies whose toys introduced movement and sound to play time. Joshua Lionel Cowen then continued through the mid-century with his appealing O gauge trains and accessories. In the early ‘50s,  Lionel became the largest toy company in the world. Since then, both toy and scale model trains from dozens of manufacturers have enabled model railroading to blossom into one of the world’s largest hobbies.

Toy vs. Scale 

Toy trains are different than scale model trains. Toy train manufacturers take artistic license when creating their products, allowing design and color to dazzle the child in us all. Lionel and Marx pre-war standard gauge trains are not scale models but rather proportional representations of real trains. 

Scale model trains however adhere to an exact scale per foot of the real object. Even down to the smallest details such as the number of rivets that hold a steel boxcar together or the precise diameter and shape of the air compressor piping on a 2-8-4 Berkshire.


So what is scale and what is gauge? Scale is the inches per foot that a model is measured by against its real counterpart. O scale trains, for example, are a representation of a real train reduced to 1/4” per foot. Gauge is the width of the track measured at the inside of the rails. Real railroad gauge is 4 feet 8-1/2 inches between the rails. O gauge track is 1-1/4” between the rails. Trains running on O gauge track may not be O scale trains. While Lionel’s Standard gauge “Blue Comet”1 has been called one of the most beautiful trains ever produced, it was not a scale model. And Lionel’s “Hudson” steam locomotive was one of the finest mass produced post-war O scale models available.  For perspective, O scale people are 1-1/4” to 1-1/2” tall. 

A variation of O gauge is O27. Same track gauge but with a much tighter minimum turn diameter of 27 inches. O27 engines and rolling stock are slightly smaller in size than O scale. Most O gauge trains run on three-rail track, the center rail supplying the electric power to the motor.

S scale trains were produced by A.C. Gilbert American Flyer for many years. S scale is 3/16” per foot and the track gauge is 7/8”.  Gilbert always claimed American Flyer trains were more realistic than Lionel because they run on two-rail track. S scale trains are still produced by a few manufacturers including Lionel and MTH Electric Trains.

HO scale came about in the early ‘60s as an alternative to large O gauge trains. HO is “half O”  meaning the scale is 1/8” per foot and the track gauge is 5/8”. HO adult folks should be around 1-1/16” tall. HO is extremely popular with model railroading purists allowing followers to pack a lot of extremely realistic railroading into a small space. 

On 30 trains are O scale trains that run on HO track. The train’s scale is 1/4” per foot but the track gauge is 5/8” which in O scale is a narrow (n) 30”.

N scale is smaller still. The scale being about 5/64” per foot and the track gauge is 3/8”. The average N scale adult is just under 1/2” tall. As with HO, N scale products are very realistic and I have seen more than one N scale railroad built into a glass top coffee table.

Z scale trains are tiny. I mean really tiny. The scale is about 1.3mm per foot and the track gauge is 1/4”.  A complete Z scale railroad can be enclosed in a brief case.

There are of course many other sizes of model trains from large G scale, Gauge 1 and Standard gauge to Sn3, HOn3, Nn30, T, TT and other rare and obscure types that really appeal only to serious model railroaders.

So what does all this technical stuff have to do with Department 56 villages?

SNOW VILLAGE — How fascinating is an O27 train with a pair of F7 diesel “A” locomotives and three or four illuminated passenger cars gliding through a wonderful Snow Village display? And on an inner track loop, a 2-8-2 Mikado dragging a local freight ended by a delightful red caboose. And in the backyard of “Springfield House”, a tiny Z scale train poses as a garden railway surrounded by Department 56 ornament buildings. Because of Snow Village’s larger buildings and accessories and tight track turns required, I recommend O27 trains. The visual “weight” of these trains will create a real presence in the village display. O27 trains run on three-rail O gauge track.

NORTH POLE — In a Department 56 North Pole display your train options multiply by four. Being a fantasy landscape, anything is possible. I know of one fabulous North Pole display that uses a Rudolph On30 train as a delightful centerpiece. Also available in On30 there is a North Pole and Southern 2-6-0 engine and tender with a good children’s gondola, a naughty children’s coal hopper, and a red and white caboose. My own North Pole display sports a delightful N scale 4-4-0 “American” steam engine and tender towing a flat car and several gondolas loaded with a “Have a Seat” elf, gifts, real gummy bears and coal. A tiny Z scale train could be ideal for an elf sized outdoor layout near “Toot’s Model Train Mfg” for “testing” new toy train designs. An HO passenger train could pass for an elf transport from the shops and factories to North Pole Woods.

NEW ENGLAND, CHRISTMAS IN THE CITY — As for New England village and Christmas in the City, On30 would be the best fit. Maybe a Bachmann 4-4-0 steam locomotive and tender and several freight or passengers cars for New England. “Shenandoah Station” is the epitome of a late 19th century small town railroad stop. And perhaps an S scale NYC commuter train or On30 railbus and trailer for a 1930 or ‘40s Christmas in the City display.

DICKENS’ VILLAGE — Charles Dickens’ village would spring to life with a proper British 0-6-0 tank engine and coaches in OO scale pulling into a “Victoria Station” brimming with Christmas shoppers.

O and O27 trains are produced by Lionel, Mike’s Train House, Williams by Bachmann, Atlas and others. S gauge by Lionel American Flyer and MTH. HO and N scale are manufactured by Atlas, Athearn, Bachmann, Life-Like, and dozens of other manufacturers. On30 is produced by Bachmann and a few others. Z scale trains are sold  by Micro-Trains and Marklin.  OO scale is the British equivalent of our HO. OO trains are made by Hornby and Bachmann and according to friend Cheryl Banfield of Kent, England are sold on “”.

In summary, consider the size and style of train you prefer to see in your Department 56 village. Personally, I have always felt that scenery should be proportional to the size of the buildings and in a Department 56 village the trains are moving scenery. The focal point of every Department 56 village is really the oversized people.  Historically, the only village “new” enough to use early diesel locomotives would be the mid-50s era Snow Village.  Christmas in the City should have early 20th century steam or electric types and all the other Department 56 villages should use steam engines and rolling stock styled for the mid to late 19th century. 

The available gauges and scales of toy and scale model trains are varied enough to capture all the charm and nostalgia necessary. How we as collectors select, arrange, and display them within our ever unique Department 56 villages continues those endearing traditions for yet another generation. 

I wish all of you Happy, Memorable Holidays and a Prosperous and Peaceful New Year. See you next time, somewhere along “The Train Skein.”

Photographs provided by Lionel, Kim Martin, Philip Renninger and Tralaina A. Blankenship Photography.

1  On the Blue Comet by  Rosemary Wells is a fine novel about young people and toy trains and time travel. Check it out sometime.

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