Published in the NMRA Bulletin: May 2005
(Text and photos Copyright NMRA Bulletin and Scale Rails Magazine)

NMRA Bulletin: Z-Scale Rails by Jeffrey MacHan

Stretch to Fill or Shrink to siZe: scaleable track plans

First of all, I want to make it perfectly clear that I LOVE big layouts. I hold in highest admiration those modelers who have found the time, resources and energy to bring a large layout to fruition. I came close. In fact, once upon a time, I was the proud owner-builder of a large free-standing N-scale layout on which I had labored long and hard to bring to 85% completion. I spent many hours enjoying the sight of 35-40 car trains making meets along the several scale miles between towns amongst other things. Then several job transfers and household moves later I came to the heart-wrenching conclusion that Time and Space (as in lack-thereof) had teamed up to defeat my hopes of trying to rebuild and repair the damage done by the efforts of the "world's finest movers" (name withheld to protect the guilty).

That being said, it may come as no surprise that I have since become a firm supporter of smaller layouts, although somewhat out of necessity. A wandering condo-dweller lifestyle prompted me to explore the possibilities of doing more with less...more model railroading with less "volume", in other words working with models at the smallest extreme of the hobby spectrum, "Z" scale (1:220).

The irony of Z-scale is that it is well-suited to both expansive and compact layouts. In fact, a scale mile (sMile) of "Z" compares very favorably with it's larger cousins.

scale(ratio)=sMile #1 (1:32) 165' O (1:48) 110' HO (1:87) 60.7' N (1:160) 33' Z (1:220) 24'

For instance, it is possible to achieve 2.5 times the scale running length in Z compared to HO-scale over the same "real" distance. So if you crave those long unit coal drags and main lines snaking through winding mountain valleys, Z deserves a serious look, especially with today's modern US prototype motive power from AZL and highly detailed rolling stock from Micro-Trains Line and Pennzee.

I argue that the majority of new and perhaps retiring model railroaders are looking for a scale that fits comfortably into the starter apartment, the downsized empty-nester, the retirement condo or even the RV. Haven't you daydreamed about how you'd like to be able to take that long winter vacation and bring, not only your trains, but your layout along? Well, I certainly have!

Judging from the many published layout plans and the magazine articles on the subject, it appears that large numbers of model railroaders find the ubiquitous 4' x 8' layout baseboard very convenient. You may have noticed that many HO- and N-scale project layouts built by the major model railroading magazines use this size board. These plans are tried and tested but all suffer from a degree of compromise in terms of operational possibilities or physical separation of scenery elements. Now if one was to take the same 4' x 8' track plan in HO and substitute Z track for the HO, one could substantially increase the running length of the main line, add more operational elements such as yards, sidings, interchanges, expand the scenery components to add greenery, height and generally more possibilities for content. In this scenario, Z would allow the modeler to do "more" with the "same," space that is.

This is all well and good but a large number of modelers don't have the room for even a 4' x 8' layout in any scale. My advice is to take the 4' x 8' plan and shrink the layout base to Z proportions keeping the track in the same arrangement. If the plan is HO-scale the Z equivalent would be a layout base that would measure 87/220 = 0.4 times smaller on all sides or 19'' x 38" . Come to think of it, 19" x 38" is mighty close to what many would call "coffee table" size and honestly, many modelers are attracted to this style of layout presentation. In this scenario, Z would allow the modeler to do the "same" with "less"!

There are so many good track plans for "small" layouts that once Z-scale enters the picture, they become even more attractive to modelers faced with cramped quarters. Several good planning books for small layouts are available at your local hobby shop such as "Small, Smart & Practical Track Plans" (Model Railroading) by Iain Rice and "Small Railroads You Can Build" (Model Railroader) by Kent J. Johnson. Also check out the small layout design forum on Yahoogroups.com or the Layout design SIG on the NMRA web site. Of course, answers to all Z-related issues including layout design (both large and small) can be found at Z_Scale (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Z_Scale).

As the following award-winning Z layouts demonstrate, it doesn't matter whether the layout is under glass or on a shelf, such as Terry Sutfin's "Poorville & Debt City RR", safely enclosed in a suitcase(s) such as my "Val Ease Central RR", or made up of several small modular sections as is the case with David George's "Golden Blackhawk & Central City", a small layout does not necessarily mean a poorly planned layout. On the contrary, a small layout can be extremely enjoyable and satisfying.

Try adapting or shrinking an excellent "small" HO track plan to Z-scale. If a small layout is in your future, consider "Z". The FUN is unshrinkable!