Hi rail in model railroading

Last Updated on November 21, 2018 by Dave Farquhar

Hi rail in model railroading refers to the use of traditional Lionel or American Flyer trains in a scale-like setting with realistic scenery. Hi-rail is a railroading term, but in real railroading it refers to a vehicle that can operate either on tracks or a regular road.

Sometimes hi rail is spelled high rail, with or without a dash, and sometimes combined into a single word, highrail or, more frequently, hirail.

What hi rail in model railroading means

hi rail in model railroading
This O gauge layout features Lionel and other 3-rail trains with realistic model railroad-like scenery. Photo credit: Kurt Haubrich

Hi-Rail is, above all else, a compromise. The approach is for people who want a realistic model railroad but are willing to live with the limitations of off-the-shelf O gauge and S gauge trains from companies like Lionel and American Flyer.

The hi-rail approach predates the term. The practice of adding ballast and extra ties to Lionel track and building structures to scale to populate a layout dates to the 1930s, if not earlier.

The practice took its name, and gained a bigger following, in the 1950s. American Flyer S scale trains produced between 1946 and 1968 had good scale proportions and sizing. Only the wheel flanges, track, and couplers were oversized. Oversized flanges and couplers make for easier and more reliable operation.

Some hobbyists would replace the trucks and use scale-sized track with their American Flyer trains, but many did not. Those who took the approach of building a realistic layout but using the American Flyer trains without major alterations came to be known as hi-railers because the track sat much higher than its counterpart in real life. They used the phrase “hi rail” to distinguish themselves from hobbyists who set up a loop of track on a table with painted roads and grass and Plasticville buildings, an approach that came to be known as a traditional toy train layout.

The approach carried over into O gauge as well, especially after Lionel started releasing 1:48 scale-sized trains in the 1970s and 1980s. O gauge hobbyists had to contend with the unrealistic third rail, but the approach still worked.

Philosophy of hi rail in model railroading

hi rail in model railroading
This display layout takes a hi-rail approach using mostly off-the-shelf Lionel products. Image credit: Metropolitan Transportation Authority

There’s still a great deal of variance within the hi-rail approach to model trains. Some hi-railers will replace the couplers and trucks with scale-sized equivalents and even lay their own track. Others just ballast their Lionel track or use track with plastic integrated ballast and call it hi-rail.

I’ve seen and heard hobbyists use hi-rail to justify opposite things. In the same conversation, one hobbyist will say, “I’m fine with 1:43 scale vehicles on my O scale layout. I’m a hi-railer.” Another will follow with, “I won’t settle for anything less than precise 1:48 scale vehicles on my layout. I’m a hi-railer.”

To some people, hi-rail represents a relaxed approach to the hobby. To others, the same phrase means a very intense approach to the hobby. And there’s a lot of room in the middle.

Some hobbyists invented the phrase “3 rail scale” to distinguish themselves from hi-railers who take the relaxed approach. A “3RS” hobbyist will replace the trucks and couplers on their equipment, weather the trains, the buildings, and the track, and generally take a similar approach to that of award-winning scale hobbyists like George Selios, other than accepting the presence of that third rail. More intense 3RS hobbyists scratchbuild all their own buildings. At the very least they paint, weather, and superdetail off-the-shelf buildings. The third rail is the most visible compromise in this approach.

In contrast, some hi-railers will run their trains unaltered, being content to run their trains on ballasted track with textured scenery and hills.

Most of the layouts you see in magazines like Kalmbach’s Classic Toy Trains take the hi-rail approach to varying degrees.

Railroad simulation

Some hobbyists will simulate real train operations with their layouts. Nothing prevents a hi rail-minded enthusiast from doing so, but many hi railers are content just to run their trains.

Hi rail vs scale

Scale railroading suggests a more intense approach. This includes scale-sized track, ties and ballast on the layout and scale-sized wheels and couplers on the trains. In the instance of O gauge trains, it suggests using 2-rail track, or a hidden stud rail for the center rail.

The oversized flanges and couplers tend to reduce derailments and make it easier to couple and uncouple cars. For this reason, some hi railers run off-the-shelf cars unmodified. Most of the compromises Lionel and American Flyer made starting in the postwar era had reasons behind them. So some hobbyists see benefit in accepting them.

The closer a hobbyist falls to the scale fidelity side, the less likely they are to be willing to accept a given compromise. The closer a hobbyist falls to the other side, the more likely they are to accept a given compromise.

Since there are no rules, that tended to lead to disagreements on forums when new products hit the market. The differentiation between 3-rail scale and hi rail helped to reduce the number of these disagreements.

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