Published in the NMRA Bulletin: February 2003
(Text and photos © Copyright NMRA Bulletin and Scale Rails Magazine)

NMRA Bulletin: Z-Scale Rails by Jeffrey MacHan

The Z scale Top 10 List (questions, that is!)

Yes, Z scale trains are small. One of the qualities of being small is portability. Many members of Z_Scale SIG take their handiwork to public exhibitions and train shows. And a big part of the fun of participating in a train show is interacting with the public. Realizing that many of you may never have seen Z in operation, the Z-SIG recently polled its membership to identify the top 10 most frequently asked questions heard at train shows around the country and overseas.

The exercise was indeed a valuable one. The votes clearly singled out 10 questions which seem to be of universal interest to visitors encountering our layouts and modules for the first time. Some of the questions may surprise you, as will most of the answers!

So as is the custom, in reverse order, here are the top 10 questions as voted by the members of Z_Scale:

Question #10: Where can I learn more about Z?

Z_Scale is the place to start if you have Internet access. Z_Scale is the largest model railroading community dedicated to sharing information about Z in English. The wealth of information and generous advice available to expert and novice alike is comprehensive. If the site doesn't already have the information stored in databases or the message archive, a member will provide it in short order. Best of all, the message archives are public and membership is free.

There are many Z-themed web sites that offer a large variety of information, photos, informative articles, Z-train movies and pure Z enjoyment. Links to these sites are provided on Z_Scale. One of the best, IMHO, is Do it yourself in Z-Scale hosted by David Karp. David's writing and photography are top notch and provide invaluable information to help solve the "little" problems we run into in Z.

For your reading pleasure, Z enthusiasts can peruse the pages of Ztrack Magazine, the only English-language model railroading magazine dedicated to Z scale. This bi-monthy publication provides layout features, news from manufacturers, events, construction articles and always relevant commentary on anything "Z".

Of course, if you are lucky enough to live in an area where there is an active Z club, you can gather information from real live Z enthusiasts. Active clubs and contact info are listed on Z_Scale and in Ztrack Magazine.

Another source of clubs and individuals who are willing to share their Z model railroading experience, is the list of Ambassadors on the World's Greatest Hobby web site.

Question #9: Does the overhead catenary really work?

It sure does! The electric circuitry of pantograph equipped engines allows them to operate on regular DC through the rails or, at the flick of a switch, to run from the overhead catenary. Rob Kluz, the editor of Ztrack Magazine, is always willing to share his catenary experience. He can be contacted via Ztrack@aol.com.

Question #8: How many cars can that tiny engine pull?

The locomotives manufactured by Micro-Trains Line can easily pull 40 or more cars on straight level track. When the length of assembled modules allows putting them to the test, 120-, 130- 140+ car trains have been hauled by triple-headed motive power. On most home layouts, the limiting factors on how many cars a given loco can pull are often the grades and curves they encounter. Sound familiar?

Steam locos are much lighter than the diesels due to their design and construction. As a result they will slip with fewer cars than their more modern counterparts. Third party suppliers offer traction tires for these beauties which give them pulling power to spare. Since traction tires are non-conductive, the conversion service also includes adding tender pickup for better performance.

Many Z modelers find ways to add more weight to the inside of loco shells which also improves traction. Tips on adding weight to Z locos are available in the Z_Scale enZyclopedia, FAQ and the databases.

Question #7: DCC in Z! You're kidding me?

We kid you not! Several companies offer DCC decoders that can be added to Z locomotives. Miniaturization of decoders has come a long way and we Z scalers have embraced DCC with enthusiasm. In fact, every Z locomotive manufactured to date has been successfully converted to DCC. Don't just take my word for it. Check out Z_Scale_DCC for conversion techniques, software tips and informed discussion with experienced DCC users.

Question #6: What's the best way to get started in Z?

The quickest way and perhaps the best is to purchase a starter set from one or both of the two major manufacturers of Z trains, Märklin or Micro-Trains Line Inc.

Märklin introduced Z scale in 1972 and offers starter sets including an oval of track, transformer, a locomotive and several cars. There are sets available in European and American prototype. Both steam or diesel locos are offered in the US prototype sets. The European sets also offer steam, diesel as well as electric motive power.

Micro-Trains Line, of Talent, Oregon, offers starter sets that include an F7 diesel locomotive, several freight cars and caboose along with an oval of track. The throttle is not included although Micro-Trains Line markets a modified MRC1300 throttle for use with its Z sets.

Another good way to get off on the right foot in Z, is to join a modular group or club. Several groups are active in the USA and they all offer friendly advise and guidance to the novice Z scaler. Of course, modules can be the basis for a home empire or a part of a larger layout using Z-Bend Track standards.

Question #5: Is Z scale reliable?

You won't believe how reliable! Märklin holds the world distance record for continuous operation of an electric locomotive...in Z scale yet! At train shows, it is not unusual for trains to run continuously for 6 to 8 hours or more, several days in a row. I can certainly vouch for durability and reliability of Micro-Trains Line locos. I have six F7s in my locomotive roster. Of the six, four are veterans of a full year of operations in a major museum exhibit where they ran for 7 hours a day, six days a week for 12 months. The other two F7s have several hundred hours of running time on them accumulated at over 60 train shows. Over the past 7 years, the locos were cleaned and lubricated about once a year and are still giving top performance. I wouldn't say they are indestructible, but they come pretty close.

Question #4: Did you make this layout (module)?

Well, of course! Other than for the commercial Märklin or Noch attache case layouts that many of you may be familiar with, the answer is yes. For some reason, visitors to our layouts and modules find it difficult to believe that grown-up adults have actually taken the time to build a working layout. The other reason that we hear this question so often is that visitors are interested in talking to the person who crafted the layout they are admiring. It's only natural then to ask if the spokesperson is also the builder. Usually the next comment we hear is, "Amazing!" or see questions #1 and #2.

Question #3: Where can I buy Z?

Z is a world-wide community of enthusiasts. Few North American hobby shops carry Z although it is not all that hard to find. eBay, mail order, on-line shopping from reliable retailers (listed and referred by Z_Scale members) make armchair shopping a breeze. The hard part is being able to hold the coveted item in your hands before placing an order. The members of Z_Scale are working hard to take layouts and modules to a train show near you so that you can see Z up close and personal.

Question #2: How much does it cost?

This is a very popular question. The short answer is that it is relatively more expensive than your entry level HO trains. The long answer is that, considering that there is only one level of quality in Z, the best, retail prices are comparable to top quality N scale offerings. As is the case with any hobby that interests "collectors" and "runners", the going price for a particular car or locomotive depends on the condition and the intended use. There is a thriving secondary market for Z and many items, especially track and switches, can be purchased for well below suggested retail. A good way to put together a small layout is to combine two or more starter sets and buy used track components or flex track.

In the last few years, brass locomotives have become more widely available in Z. American Z Lines, in particular, is leading the way with new items every year. The problem with hand-made brass locomotives in Z scale is that they carry the sticker price of hand-made brass locomotives.

When visitors to the Val Ease Central RR ask me, "What did it cost?", the question tends to have two meanings. 1. how much did I pay for the components seen on my layout, and 2. what is the layout worth? Since I didn't keep track of my purchases, the answer to the first question is, "I don't know!". Since I didn't keep track of the time I have spent building it over the last 10 years and I don't charge by the hour, the answer to the second question is, either "It's worthless!" or "Are you making me an offer?"

Question #1: How can you see / handle such small trains?

Yes, this is the # 1 most often asked question heard by Z scale modelers at train shows around the world. Funny thing, the kids don't ask this question, just the taller visitors peering over their spectacles or wiggling their monster-sized fingers while shaking their heads.

David George, of Spring, Texas, is a veteran Z modeler and also tends to peer over his spectacles and his fingers are not on the slim side either. His answer pretty well sums up the opinions voiced on Z_Scale concerning this hand - eye issue.

"I get a little help from drugstore magnifying / reading glasses. (for close-up work no doubt). Plus, the more you work with these little beauties, the "BIGGER" they seem to get to your perception. In this case, 'Familiarity breeds Magnification!'"

Yes, all it takes is a little practice. The size shock is greater for someone with HO or larger scale perceptions. The average N scaler will only notice a 30% reduction in size which is soon forgotten. For someone who has no model train background, Z is just like all the other scales, a learning experience!