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Choosing Locomotives For Your Model Railway | Model Railway Hints, Tips, How To Articles and Reviews at Model Trains Online
Image courtesy of Lee Carson

Image courtesy of Lee Carson

Choosing locomotives for your Model Railway is a little more complex than just seeing which one catches your eye on the shelf in your local hobby shop. There are a few things to consider before parting with your hard earned cash…

There are three types of locomotive to choose from for your layout: Steam, Diesel and Electric (The ones that use overhead power lines), and will usually be manufactured from a combination of plastic, metal and brass.

Locomotives spanning all eras of the railways are available from most manufacturers, stretching from the 1800’s through to present day. As a general rule, the more you are prepared to pay, the more detail and features a locomotive will have, such as DCC decoders, sound, lights, additional cab detailing and other separately applied parts to increase the level of realism. Some may even have the capability to produce smoke too.

As with most things in life too, you kinda get what you pay for with model trains too, most of the time, and a better quality of loco will pay dividends in the long run over opting for budget rolling stock, both in aesthetics and in performance and reliability. So personally, locomotives and rolling stock is one area where I’d avoid any serious scrimping and saving. Go second-hand yes… there are some real gems out there and you can save a ton, but shop smartly ­čÖé

How Model Railway Locomotives Work

I’m not going to go into incredible detail here yet as each loco has its subtle differences, but simply put, a model train picks up the electric current from the track through its wheels. The electric current is then transferred to the motor, directly in the case of a regular Analogue loco, or via a decoder in a DCC Ready model.

The motor then drives the wheels via a small gearbox.

It’s important therefore to keep your locos in as good a condition as possible. A poor connection between the wheels and the track will give you nothing but hassle, as will a loco with a poor quality drive mechanism, so it’s always worth checking out reviews etc when you can.

What To Look For When Buying Model Trains

  • Try before you buy if possible
    Ok, this doesn’t really work when buying online, but if you’re heading into a model shop, ask if you can see a loco in action on their in-house layout if they have one.
  • Train Set Locos
    Locos supplied with some lower priced starter sets are sometimes a little lower quality and often based on fictitious┬ámodels. They’re fine when you’re just getting started in the hobby and can provide many hours of enjoyment, but when it comes to building a realistic layout you’ll more than likely be left wanting more. Using a starter set as the basics for a layout is a brilliant way to get going, but it pays to buy the best you can afford. A set such as Hornby’s R1126 Mixed Freight Digital Set offers ┬áhigh quality locos and rolling stock, DCC control and a good selection of track too.#
  • The Correct Era & Location
    This comes down to personal preference, and is extremely debatable… If you’re like me and aren’t fixed on a period or location then you can skip to the next point! Think about the era and location you’re modelling. Would the loco have been used to haul the kind of trains you’re thinking of in a prototype situation? When would it have been used? Does it fit into the time period you’re modelling?
  • More Pick-ups
    The more pick-ups the better as quite simply, the more pick-up wheels you have in contact with the track, the more reliably it will run. Many Hornby and Bachmann locos now have “all wheel pickups” for that very reason.
  • Gear Ratio
    This really depends on the type of traffic you’re going to run on your layout and what kind of Manoeuvres┬áyou’ll be doing. For shunting and hauling freight you’re going to want a loco capable of running at realistically slow speeds with smooth starts, yet for a high speed passenger traffic, a more realistic top speed will be more important.
  • Flywheels
    Flywheels fitted to the motor drive make for much smoother take offs, general running and smooth stopping. Ideally a loco with a flywheel at both ends of the loco is the better choice.

    Hornby Motor & Dual Flywheels

    Hornby Motor & Dual Flywheels at Peter’s Spares

  • Loco Length
    This may seem an odd one, but take into consideration the space you have available for your layout and how tight your bends will be. The longer the loco, the larger its minimum radius of curve will be. A shorter 0-6-0 will be capable of running on Radius 1 curves, whereas a Class 47 or a 4-6-2 will need Radius 2 or higher.
  • Talk to other modellers
    Check out the various forums, youtube etc to get other modellers views on specific models. It’s also well worth popping into your local model shop and having a chat with the staff in there about models that are most suited to your layout.

As with large purchase, it’s well worth doing a little research before you commit to purchasing anything. Shop around, read up on specs and check out reviews etc, but at the end of the day, have fun!

If you have any questions or would like to contribute any thoughts and tips, please feel free to post them up in the comments below ­čÖé

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