G gauge vs O gauge is a natural comparison, as they are two of the oldest surviving standards in model trains. Due to their size, they share many of the same advantages and disadvantages. As such, they tended to rival one another in the 1990s and early 2000s.
G gauge vs O gauge: Cost
For someone who just wants a train to run during the holidays, from sometime around Thanksgiving until about New Year’s Day, G gauge offers a cost advantage. It’s not hard to find a G gauge starter set for around $100, or even sometimes less. These generally aren’t hobbyist-grade sets, but there’s little point in paying enthusiast prices for a train that’s going to run around in circles under a Christmas tree and spend the remaining 10 months of the year in a box.
Even though it’s smaller than G gauge, it’s hard to find an O gauge starter set for much less than $200 unless you buy used. Once you get into hobbyist territory, O gauge can have a cost advantage over G gauge, but only if you let it. If you want to spend $1,500 on a locomotive, you can find locomotives that expensive in either gauge.
You may be surprised to hear that one of the big players in the $99 G gauge sets is Lionel, the company who made its name selling O gauge trains for the last 100 years or so. And it sells its G gauge sets for much less than its bread-and-butter O gauge trains.
G gauge vs O gauge: Technology
G gauge was much faster to adopt modern technology in some ways. By modern technology, I mean running on battery power and using remote control. O gauge trains have had remote control for more than 20 years, but they still rely on electrified track for power. Using battery power means you no longer have to worry about electrical conductivity on the track, and for that matter, you can dispense with metal track altogether. That’s a big part of the reason why Lionel can sell G gauge train sets for $99 but can’t sell O gauge train sets for much less than $279. The transformer that powers the train retails for $99 alone.
Of course, some of the reason for this is size. G gauge trains are large enough to house a large battery for long run times. O gauge trains, which could be half the size, don’t have enough room for a battery to keep a hardcore enthusiast happy. This is changing as battery technology advances, but the momentum toward a more traditional setup is strong.
Nobody likes cleaning track, but nobody likes staring at a $1,000 transformer big enough to power a basement-sized layout that’s suddenly rendered obsolete by new battery technology either. Eventually battery power will win out in O gauge, but it has a better foothold in G gauge, where it neatly solved problems at both ends of the spectrum. It allowed cheap train sets for retail sale, and it eliminated the need to clean track if you run your G gauge trains in the back yard, which many G gauge enthusiasts do.
G gauge vs O gauge: Size
G gauge is approximately double the size of O gauge in all directions. I say approximately because in both gauges, the scale varies rather widely, and frankly it can drive people nuts.
Inexpensive O gauge trains aren’t built to any particular scale but they average out to around 1:55 scale, generally. Enthusiast-grade O gauge trains are built to 1:48 scale.
A G gauge train by strict scale definition ought to be 1:32 scale, but most G gauge trains are bigger. LGB scales its trains at 1:22.5 scale, and Bachmann and other companies followed LGB’s lead.
Both gauges take up a lot of space. In O gauge, an accurate representation of a city block would take up about 5 feet by 19 feet. That’s more than the size of two ping pong tables set end to end. That means even a basement-sized layout only represents the equivalent of a few city blocks.
In G gauge, you’d been an area of about 10 feet by 38 feet to represent a city block. That might be a problem inside. It’s much less of a problem outdoors, which is why G gauge is the most popular train for running outdoors. In fact, many G gauge trains are designed for outdoor running.
The size shows why many train enthusiasts gravitate toward smaller scales. They want scale miles, not scale city blocks, and in most homes, it’s just not possible to pack miles of G or O gauge track into the basement.
That said, size can be an advantage for an aging hobbyist. A fifty-year-old can see G gauge or O gauge without reading glasses. That’s usually worth sacrificing some realism.
A special consideration for the holidays
But if you’re just looking for a train to run from November to January, that’s not what matters. Either one will look fine around a tree. O gauge’s advantage is that it’s fairly close in scale and proportion to Department 56 and Lemax and similar holiday villages. If you want a train for your holiday village display, O gauge is probably the better choice.
G gauge vs O gauge: Popularity
There was a time when some people thought G gauge would overtake O gauge in popularity. It didn’t happen, but neither is the most popular scale of train. HO and N overshadow both of them. That said, you should buy what you like, not what everyone else likes.
If you like the look of a big train running around your Christmas tree, get a G gauge train. If you want a Lionel because that’s what your dad or grandfather had, a vintage Lionel like he had probably costs less than you think. Or you can probably get a more recently manufactured one that looks just like the one he had if the original actually is expensive today.
We like it when other people like what we like. That said, both G gauge and O gauge have loyal followings, with numerous online forums and print magazines dedicated to them.