Eventually, whenever the discussion of proper O scale railroading comes up, someone mentions Q scale. What was Q scale model railroading, and why didn’t it catch on?
Q scale was the North American equivalent of European O scale, which sized models at 1:45 scale, or 17/64 of an inch to the foot.
Why Q scale?
Inevitably this raises questions. Why?
O gauge track has always been 1.25 inches wide. At a quarter inch to the foot, that means the track is five feet wide. That’s fine for Russia, where railroad track is five feet wide, for whatever reason. But in North America, the track is four feet, eight and a half inches wide. What we call O scale in the United States really would be more properly designated Ow5.
I don’t recommend bringing this up on model railroading forums, by the way.
People who wanted true scale models, including the track, could take a couple of different approaches. They could model in Proto 48, which is 1:48 scale, including the track. Or they could change the scale of the trains to match the track, which meant increasing the model scale to 1:45.
Or they could take the path of least resistance, accept the rounding error on the track, and carry on with running 1:48 scale trains on 1:45 scale track. That’s what the majority of hobbyists have opted to do over the years.
Why Q scale model railroading didn’t catch on
There are several reasons why Q scale didn’t catch on in the United States. The first is that 17/64 of an inch isn’t a very convenient fraction. It’s much easier to measure and calculate based on quarter inches. The British compromised a different way, using 3.5 millimeters to the foot, which takes you to 1:43 scale. It means the track is slightly undersized on a UK O scale model railroad, but only slightly.
Today with computers it’s easier to overcome this, but in the 60s when the movement was at its peak, pocket calculators weren’t something everyone owned yet, let alone a computer.
The second and third reasons are related. In the United States, 1:48 scale had the momentum. A cottage industry grew up around 1:48 scale trains over the course of decades, and while none of those companies were huge, they had a following, and they had products you could buy. You didn’t have to make it all yourself. While Lobaugh was hardly the household name that Lionel was, it published catalogs over 50 pages long in the 1940s. And no fewer than seven companies competed with them.
The third reason is because no major manufacturer took up 1:45 scale railroading. Whatever cottage industry did spring up was never larger than that of 1:48. Then in the early 1970s, when Lionel decided to try to make its trains more true to scale, it chose 1:48. It had made some 1:45-scale equipment in the 1940s, but for its modern scale experiment, it chose 1:48. Numerous competitors followed. While most scale hobbyists aren’t fans of 3-rail 1:48 scale railroading, they can (and do) purchase those products and convert them for 2-rail track.
The market chose 1:48 O scale over 1:45 Q scale. Nothing stops hobbyists from pursuing 1:45 scale on their own, but when a close-enough product already exists, most will go with either the existing O scale or Proto 48 instead.