The Val Ease Central Railroad ©

Taking Z Scale to the Public Around the World
(Text and photos © Copyright Jeffrey MacHan)

Holiday Wishes and a New Year's Declaration (Updated August 2008)

Greetings fellow Last Spike readers.

Believe it or not, I am writing this piece on a hot and muggy August afternoon trying to place myself in the post-holiday, mid-winter frame-of-mind when I know that you will be reading these words. I thought that I would share a realization that came to me in the summer of 2007.

But first, let me wish you all the very best for 2008, another great year for Z scale lovers around the world. Perhaps that is the best way to start, by acknowledging that 2007 was an astounding year for Z, a year that got me to thinking that the time had finally arrived to officially declare that

Z scale has come of age!

From the very first moment that I became aware of our diminutive scale trains 15 years ago, I was told by a hobby shop owner that Z was not a “serious” modelers scale, that it was much “more expensive” than the popular scales, that there were only “European trains”, that nobody had ever done anything of any consequence in Z because it was too hard to work with and that it would never be anything but a curiosity.

Well, let us take a close look at those dire warnings in light of today's Z scale.*

*Note to my European readers: I know that you are several years ahead of us North Americans in terms of recognition and world-class layouts and modules. I also know that you do not suffer, nor have you suffered from our distinctly North American inferiority complex. Although the contents of this article may not be relevant to you, it may still be fun to read.

1. A serious modeling scale?

In terms of craftsmanship and modelling excellence, Z layouts and modules have come to occupy a significant place in National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) national judging.

Since 2000, when a Z layout was first entered into national competition in the USA, Z has been awarded a total of twelve (12) prizes:

  • Best of Show (2001)
  • First Place – Individual (2007, 2008)
  • 2nd Place – Individual (2000, 2002, 2008)
  • 2nd Place – Group (2005)
  • 3rd Place – Individual (2002, 2008)
  • 3rd Place – Group (2004)
  • Pizazz Award (2002, 2008)

Z modelers have taken major prizes and awards at NMRA regional meets in Washington State, Oregon, Texas, New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, California, Alabama, British Columbia, Tennessee, Missouri, Ohio, Quebec as well as at meets in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy and the United Kingdom. Those are just the ones that I am familiar with personally. I am sure that there are many other states and regions where Z modeling excellence has been recognized.

2. Recognition by our peers?

The incredible work done by members of the Z community has not gone unnoticed by our fellow citizens and non model railroaders. Although it was never my intention nor goal, I was honored that my layout, the “Val Ease Central RR”, was selected by two different museums for display, the first at the Museum of Civilization in Quebec City (1997-1998) and then the Canadian Railway Museum in Montreal where it entered the permanent collection in 2004. In 2006, David George's “Golden ~ Blackhawk and Central City RR” was invited by the George Herbert Walker Bush Presidential Museum to go on display in the rotunda.

From purely a visibility stand point, Z modular groups, particularly Z-Bend Track standard in North America, have been at the forefront of debunking myths about the “inferiority” of Z. Modular groups have become first-class ambassadors at NMRA National Train Shows where they showcase the variety and dependability of Z motive power and rolling stock. From a modelling perspective, Z modules are equal to those in every other scale, as our awards have demonstrated since 2000.

3. Only European trains?

Well, this assertion is definitely untrue. North American railroad fans have never had it so good. Micro-Trains Line has invested heavily in new tooling for several diesels and rolling stock. AZL continues to lead the way with innovative designs and ground-breaking authenticity. Several second-tier producers are providing popular freight cars and responding to niche markets.

As our train selection grows, we continue to suffer from a serious lack of scale American-style structures. However, new rapid-prototyping technologies are coming to the rescue.

4. Z as trend-setter?

Historically, Z scalers have always been quick to take up a challenge. In the modern world of model railroading, Z is right up front when it comes to adopting and adapting new technologies to our needs. DCC is no mystery to Z scalers. In fact, we expect new locomotives to be DCC-ready. Many module groups around North America and Europe are DCC-centric.

The smaller footprint of a Z-scale layout allows the re-creation of large areas of real estate. Rob Allbritton's scale 12 km “Gotthard Line” layout, located in Alexandria, Virginia, is completely computer- and DCC-controlled. It is a masterpiece of model railroad design and construction and is probably in a class of its own, whatever the scale.

Z scalers have fully embraced the many distinct advantages of 1:220 scale: ultra-small layouts, fully-functioning portable layouts, modular railroading, home layouts that capitalize on superb scenic vistas / industrial complexes, all the way to the monster layout!

Z scale is different than the popular scales in that it has come of age in the Internet world. As a rule hobby shops do not carry Z. New product announcements and international sales take place in special interest groups on the Net such as Z-Scale on Yahoogroups. These groups also facilitate entry into the marketplace by new manufacturers. Of course, the rise of has created an instantaneous electronic fleamarket for current, out-of-production, used and new items. More recently, the Z marketplace has seen the arrival of dedicated Z Internet retailers who provide good service and ready supply.

5. Too expensive?

Yes, some hand-crafted or limited-run Z can be expensive. The same is true in every scale. However, overall, Z can also be relatively affordable. Prices for mass-produced, injection-molded locomotives and rolling stock has remained relatively stable over the past few years while prices in other scales have risen. Although Z prices have not come down, the cost of modeling in other scales has closed the gap with Z. Perhaps we can say that Z is just as “affordable” as the other scales. Besides, you can not buy second best in Z.

My hunch is that the overall cost of ownership in Z is on a par with N or HO scale. In my experience, a Z layout tends to have fewer commercial structures and to cover much less surface area. I ask you, how may basement-sized Z layouts have you seen? Our layouts tend to be quite small, in the grand scheme of model railroading. As a result, our total costs of building a layout may actually be less than for a proportionately similar N- or HO-scale layout. We do not really need heavy-duty L-girder construction techniques due to the much lighter layout base and supports needed for a Z layout.

Note: I do not count rolling stock or motive power in the cost comparison. Although there is a theoretical minimum number required to populate a layout of a given design, I do not know of anyone who has restricted themselves to this limit. There is a genetic defect in all model railroaders, no matter the scale, that drives us to “collect” railway equipment. Those of us who recognize this syndrome call themselves “collectors”. Those of us who are still in a state of denial call themselves “runners”.

6. Unworkable?

Interestingly enough, many Z-scalers are attracted to the challenges of scratch-building and the thrill of doing the impossible. Who would have imagined the extraordinary craftsman products that we have seen from Lajos Thek, Tim Buering, Robert Ray and others? I am sure that practically every Z enthusiast has built at least one if not several unique items on their layout (super-detailed or scratch rolling stock, locomotive, building, bridge, etc.).

Personally, my proudest rolling stock achievement is a scratch- and kit-bashed Russell snow plow. I also loved putting detailed, fully lighted, sound- and smoke-enhanced interiors in my Z structures, as you have seen in the September-October “Last spike”. Come to think of it, detailing interiors is technically much easier to do in any larger scale but not many of our fellow model railroaders actually seem to put in the effort to bring their layouts to life.

Sure, there are some things that are truly a challenge in Z such as putting a smoke generator in a Z steamer, but it has been done! As I mentioned previously, DCC-equipped Z is matter of course these days but not many modelers outside of a small Z circle may know of it. This is one subject that deserves a little publicity in the wider model railroading press (hint, hint).

In the opinion of many leading Z scalers with whom I have talked, the recent introduction of an expanding line of easy-to-assemble, roadbed incorporated, set track by Micro-Trains Line was probably the single most important break through in the coming of age of our scale. This track system will not only widen the appeal of Z to a larger demographic market, it will likely open new geographic markets for Z, particularly Japan, where small is considered truly beautiful.

7. Only a curiosity?

Perhaps another measure of how Z has come of age is the astounding growth of the scale over the past few years. Model Railroading News has declared that Z is the second fastest growth segment in the model railroading industry. Another unsubstantiated trend seems to be the growing number of women who are taking up Z. Not only does this clearly contradict the idea that Z is too hard to work with, it also demonstrates that Z, as a scale, has a wider appeal than we tend to think. I have met several of the women in Z and I can attest that their modeling skills and their enthusiasm for Z are second to none.

In conclusion

There is a strong cultural distinctiveness about Z model railroading. Here are a few examples that come to mind:

  • We love to run trains but do not “operate” in the usual sense of the term. Note: more about this aspect of our reality in the next “Last Spike”.
  • The traditional model railroad club is not part of our culture.
  • We tend to be loners but we love to gather in virtual communities across time zones and oceans.
  • We share our passion at train shows around the world because (1) we can and (2) we love to let others in on our secret to happiness.

Z model railroading is neither inferior nor superior to other scales. In many ways, we share many interests common to all model railroaders. However, we are different and proud of it!

Z has come of age, my friends, and there is no looking back.

David Elliott Boulanger, age 7 months, son of Marie-France Petit and Luc Boulanger

We may be young, but we have come a long way!

Happy New Year... Happy railroading and above all, Enjoy your trainZ!