Model railroading track is measured in numeric values, called a code, that indicate rail height in thousandths of an inch. In HO scale, Code 100 track is the most common. But Code 83 is more realistic, making it popular among those who crave realism. Let’s look at Code 100 vs Code 83.
Largely the difference comes down to cost vs realism. Code 100 is more widely available and cheaper, so you pay a price for Code 83’s better realism, or you might decide the difference isn’t noticeable enough to you.
What does Code 100 mean?
Code 100 track, the most common type in use in HO scale, is .100 inches tall. HO scale is 1:87, meaning the model is 1/87 the size of the real thing.
Doing the math, that means Code 100 track scales up to 8.7 inches in the real world. That’s about 24% taller than the real thing. Heavy rail, used on US mainlines, is usually 7 inches tall.
What does Code 83 mean?
Code 83 means the track is .083 inches tall. That works out to 7.221 inches in the real world. So Code 83 rail models rail that’s 7.221 inches tall. That’s a rounding error. Real track is 7 inches tall, putting us within an HO scale quarter inch. That’s good enough for most people. You might notice the oversize-ness of Code 100, but you won’t with Code 83.
The other difference with Code 83 is since it’s generally made to hit a higher price point, the minor details like the size of the spikes, the size and spacing of the ties, and the contour of the rail are likely to be better.
Code 100 vs Code 83
The advantage to Code 100 is you can buy it literally anywhere that sells HO scale trains. Hobby shops are dwindling rapidly these days, but even some regional craft store and hardware store chains carry HO scale trains, at least during Thanksgiving and Christmas time. Code 100 is readily available, it’s cheaper, and you probably already have some of it.
Even if you have a hobby shop that specializes in trains, they may or may not have Code 83 rail in stock. It’s going to be more expensive, and you may have to order it, or have your hobby shop order some in for you.
Code 83 will look more realistic to you, if you’re used to looking at the real thing. But some hobbyists, after laying and ballasting the track, have a hard time telling the difference between the two.
Some trains, particularly less expensive older trains, may run better on Code 100 track than Code 83 due to the size of their wheel flanges. But if you’re running those types of trains, you’re less likely to be concerned about Code 83 anyway.
Some possible compromises
What some hobbyists will do to get the benefit of Code 83 at a lower cost is use Code 83 in the visible areas of the layout, especially up front. But then they’ll use Code 100 in tunnels, other areas blocked from view, and even on parts of the layout that you can’t get close to. This gives the benefit of Code 83 where you can notice it, and gives the economy of code 100 where you won’t.
What some hobbyists will do is buy a higher-grade code 100 track, such as Peco, which will have a realistic rail profile and nice ties and spikes. These differences are easier to notice than the .17 inches in rail height. After ballasting it, they get most of the benefit they’d see from Peco Code 83 track, at a lower cost.