In the past several years I’ve noticed a trend in the scale my customers select for their layouts. N scale now accounts for almost half of the projects I see. What is even more interesting is that most of these individuals are in their sixties, seventies, and even eighties.
N scale has a lot to offer and, if you plan wisely, will run as reliably as HO. When I say “plan wisely” I’m referring largely to equipment selection. Just because a specific manufacturer makes bulletproof products in HO, doesn’t mean their N scale products are of the same quality level. Based on several decades of trial and error here are my suggestions….
Short Version: Peco code 80 Insulfrog track, Kato or Atlas locomotives, and Micro Trains rolling stock.
Track: Without question the most reliable N scale track product on the market is Peco. If you go with code 80, the larger wheel to rail contact area gives improved electrical pick up. In addition to their overall quality, the Peco turnouts have spring loaded points that allow you to simply flip them with your fingers. The downside of the Peco track, of course, is the out of scale appearance. This is surprisingly easy to hide simply by painting the rail a darker color. Getting specific with part numbers:
Flex track: SL 300
Medium turnouts: Insulfrog SL395 and SL396
Large turnouts: Insulfrog SL388 and SL 389
Gap filling ties at rail joiners: SL 308F
Rail joiners: SL 310
Paint for downplaying the oversize rail: Model Master “Burnt Umber” or Rustoleum Earth Brown camo. paint in a spray can.
If more detailed track is important to you, I suggest Micro Engineering. Mechanically it is as reliable as the Peco line. On rare occasions, electrical arcing will cause dirt to build up on the back of the points causing a loss of electrical contact and stalling. A band-aid remedy is to simply scrape the crud off with a blade but this gets old. A permanent (and very easy) solution is to wire a Tam Valley “Frog Juicer” to the frogs of the problem turnouts. Micro Engineering code 55 N scale rail joiners are so tight that it is almost impossible to slip them on the rail. A move to code 70 joiners is suggested.
When you are just getting started, it’s important to maintain interest and enthusiasm. It’s hard to do this if your locomotives are sub-par. Out of the box, I suggest sticking to Atlas and Kato, the Cadillacs of N scale locomotives. These can be sent to Litchfield Station or Tony’s Train Exchange to have decoders installed.
Stick with Micro Trains. If you want to use other brands, at least swap the trucks out with those made by Micro Trains. N scale cars track better if you can shoehorn additional weight in them. How much? As much you can without getting locomotive stalling. Sporting goods stores carry a variety of shapes and sizes of lead fishing sinkers that work well. Nobody uses magnet uncouplers anymore so trim the coupler trip pins off. They serve no purpose other than as potential hooks to cause derailments. Although not crucial, you’ll also get slightly better tracking if you go with body mounted couplers instead of truck mounted. If you’re new to the hobby I’d put the transition to body mounted couplers down the list of future projects
Arm pit height is generally most comfortable for those in HO. Consider going slightly higher in N scale to account for the smaller size of the models. The best way to dial in the ideal height for yourself is by setting up mock ups at various heights.