HO scale vs O scale: which should you choose? Both model train scales have been around a very long time and have a loyal following. Both definitely have pros and cons. Here’s a comparison between two popular model train scales so you can make the right decision which one will work for you.
HO scale is supposed to be about half the size of O scale. It doesn’t always work out that way, since O scale tends to play much more fast and loose with scale fidelity. That means that not-quite-O-scale trains can, and do, run on track that’s the same radius as HO scale. If you bring home a Lionel starter set and an HO scale starter set and set them up, you’ll find they take a comparable amount of space on a 4×8 table.
Counter intuitively, buying a smaller HO scale train won’t actually save you much space.
HO scale is a lot less expensive. You can get a decent HO scale starter set for under $100. It won’t have the highest quality locomotive and you may end up having to replace it with a better model in a few years, but even if you buy a high-end locomotive to replace it, you’ve still sunk less into the train than you did buying a Lionel, whose starter sets start at around $225 and go up (way up) from there.
HO scale’s cost advantages keep going from there, though not at quite as big of an extreme. Buildings and figures are cheaper too, though you’ll lose some of the cost advantage because you’ll use twice as many of them. Scenery material itself tends to cost the same regardless of scale.
With either scale, if you build anything larger than a modest 4×8 layout, you will end up spending considerably more than the initial cost of the train set. But you’ll be spreading the purchase out over the course of years. The lower initial purchase price is a big reason why many people choose HO scale vs O scale.
Advantage: HO scale
Even inexpensive HO scale trains have good scale proportions and run on 2-rail track. There is such thing as 2-rail O scale, but it’s a niche product. If you know about 2-rail O scale, you probably aren’t reading this. Mainstream O scale sets, like the Lionel starter sets you can buy every year starting in the fall, run on 3-rail track and the actual scale of the cars can vary from 1:48 down to 1:55 or even 1:64 scale. If you want scale fidelity, you have to step up to much higher-end, and much more expensive offerings from Lionel and MTH, and then you’re still running them on 3-rail track.
Plenty of people are more than willing to deal with that compromise. Some ignore it entirely and build hyper-realistic layouts around their less-than-realistic trains anyway. Others take different approaches.
If you think scale model trains shouldn’t be about compromise, you probably want an HO set. Compromise is often a big reason why people choose HO scale vs O scale.
Advantage: HO scale
As hobbyists age, they tend to switch to larger scales because detail doesn’t do you much good if your fading eyesight can’t see it. So if you’re over, say, age 45, be thinking about how much you’ll be able to enjoy that set in 15-20 years.
Advantage: O scale
Consider the kids
Kids whose fine motor skills haven’t developed yet can struggle to put HO scale cars on the track and get them coupled. It’s much easier with O scale. So if you’re buying for kids, or intend for your kids to be involved, O scale may very well be a better choice.
Advantage: O scale
You can waltz in to almost any hobby shop any time of the year and find an HO scale set. Lionel O scale starter sets show up starting in the fall at some retail stores, but they aren’t as easy to find. If you order online, you can get either any time you want, of course. But you’ll always have a better selection in HO scale. As the most popular scale, chances are whatever kind of train you want, you can find it.
The selection extends into the accessories too. There’s a much wider selection of buildings available in HO scale. When you look at photos of O scale layouts in magazines and forums, it’s not long before you notice you’re seeing the same buildings over and over. In HO scale, you stand a chance of being able to build something unique.
Advantage: HO scale
Both HO scale and O scale have their quirks. HO scale means something different in slot cars. And O scale is so nuanced, I once wrote a glossary for it. Both scales give you the opportunity to get confused at times.
For most of us, trains are about nostalgia. And nostalgia can be a bit different for all of us. My dad had a Lionel set when he was a kid and he kept it, and we ran it when I was a kid. I just don’t have a lot of nostalgia for HO scale trains. I have friends who are the opposite, who grew up with HO scale trains and the O scale stuff just doesn’t do anything for them. We tend to get affirmation from other people liking what we like, but it’s your hobby, not theirs.
If you have nostalgia toward one or the other, it could be that none of the other stuff matters. If that sounds weird to you, then you know to just weigh the other factors in your decision. Either way is OK.
Advantage: Only you know this answer
Which kind of trains do I have?
It may surprise you, but I run O scale trains. It’s what my dad had, so I never even considered buying an HO scale set. I set his old train up around my Christmas tree in 2003, and within a couple of months, I was building a layout for it in the basement. It took me 14 years to finish, but that’s OK.
I knew realistic scale scenery was beyond my ability as a hobbyist, so I took a different, toy-like approach that suited the unrealistic Lionel trains, and the sometimes-less-realistic Marx trains that competed with them. My flat, tin lithographed buildings, primitive diecast cars and flat, printed-on-paper scenery with much bolder colors than what you normally see outside isn’t everyone’s thing, but I like it.
It’s up to you to decide what’s fun
For me, part of the fun for years was getting up on Saturdays and going out to estate sales in search of vintage trains, and figuring out an approach to my layout that would work with 1950s Lionel trains but would also work with colorful, all-tin trains from before World War II.
For you, fun might be getting a scale train and building a scale model of the neighborhood where you grew up. Whether that means an HO scale train, an O scale train, or something else entirely doesn’t matter. Yes, there are other sizes (or scales) to choose from. I hope I’ve given you the information you need to get moving in the right direction.
Very helpful and informative entry. You wrote: O-scale trains “run on track that’s the same radius as HO scale. If you bring home a Lionel starter set and an HO scale starter set and set them up, you’ll find they take a comparable amount of space on a 4×8 table. Counter intuitively, buying a smaller HO scale train won’t actually save you much space.” You’re right, it IS counterintuitive.
I have a diagram of a layout that I’d like to build, but it’s in O-scale, and the rails used are labeled, e.g. O36 curve. Is there a way to figure out the Atlas Code 100 equivalent of the O-scale track?
Yes. It’s pretty easy as long as you remember that O scale is measured in diameter while HO scale is measured in radius. So an O36 curve would be 18-inch radius in HO scale. O42 would be 21-inch radius. O72 would be 36-inch radius. And so on.