Last Updated on July 27, 2022 by Dave Farquhar
What is standard gauge and wide gauge? The difference between standard gauge and wide gauge depends on whether we are talking real trains or model trains. Because the two things can either be the same or opposites depending on which you are talking about. In toy trains, it was a marketing solution to an engineering problem.
Standard gauge and wide gauge and real trains
When it comes to real trains, standard gauge is 4 feet, 8 and 1/2 inches. There are memes explaining this, using track gauge to connect Roman chariots to the US space program. Historians say this meme plays a little fast and loose in places.
Whatever the reason, a distance of around 4’8.5″ between train wheels worked out well for general purpose use. There are times when putting the wheels closer together is beneficial, such as when dealing with mountainous terrain. That’s what narrow gauge is.
Wide gauge is when the wheels are further apart than 4’8.5″. The example I can think of is Russia. For whatever reason, Russia uses a track gauge of 5 ft. There was always a reason for using a specific track gauge, and it always made sense at the time.
We call cases like Russia wide gauge or broad gauge.
Standard gauge and wide gauge electric trains
Standard and wide gauge was the most popular size of electric train in the United States during the 1920s. Size wise, they were comparable to modern G scale. They were toys designed to meet certain price points, so the size could and did very, and so did the scale. And that is also assuming the design was actually trying to mimic anything in the real world. In some cases, it was just a representation of a train, not a model of any particular thing that existed in the real world.
Where standard gauge came from
Now when you were talking miniature trains, standard gauge is a historical accident. In 1891, the German toy company Marklin defined 5 gauges of track for model trains. Marklin was a maker of dollhouses and they wanted a similar toy that would be expandable that they could sell to boys. Model trains were what they came up with.
Marklin standards caught on with their competitors, including companies in the United States.
Lionel came along about 10 years later and used their own track gauge. There were already other companies in the United States using a different standard. So in 1906, Lionel went to implement that standard, but their engineers read the specification wrong. The specification for number 2 gauge was two inches between the rails, or 2 and 1/8 inches center to center. Lionel implemented 2 and 1/8 between the rails, so they were an eighth of an inch too wide. Given the manufacturing tolerances of the time, it was close enough that the two could work together, but not 100% of the time.
Joshua Cowen devised a clever marketing solution to his engineering problem. His idea was to call this non-standard gauge standard gauge. Kind of like American Standard toilets. If you have ever owned one of those and had to buy parts for them, you know most of those parts aren’t interchangeable with everyone else’s, so there’s very little standard about them. But the name sure makes it seem like the safest thing to buy at the time.
The idea worked. The non-standard caught on. Which brings us to the other half of Lionel’s idea. They trademarked it.
So they had this proprietary thing that locked you in, and then they did what they could legally to keep it proprietary. But then they lied to you about it. It was the IBM PS/2 of trains.
Lionel is most famous today for O gauge, but not all Lionel trains are O gauge. Standard Gauge is a notable exception but not the only one.
Lionel’s competitors, meanwhile, had been following standards and trying to play nice with one another to varying degrees. On some level they recognized that even if a customer decided to buy the train from a competitor, they could at least sell accessories to one another’s customers and realize some benefit if their stuff could work together and look right doing it.
The solution that Lionel competitors like American Flyer, Ives, and Dorfan came up with was to follow Lionel’s Standard gauge specification, but just call it wide gauge. They all used that same term, and none of them trademarked it. Wide gauge became a de facto standard that meant the same thing. Even Marx copied it, though they just used it as a floor toy.
And wide gauge fit because it was indeed wider than any of the three standards that were popular in the United States at the time. Larger standards existed, but they were proving impractical.
Standard and wide gauge were the most popular size of electric train between the end of World War I and the Great Depression. The Great Depression put an end to it. Even the smaller o gauge sets were expensive by 1930s standards, but in a depression, very few people could justify extravagant train sets that cost several hundred dollars in today’s money. The future belonged to companies who could find ways to sell O gauge sets for $3-$6, which is the equivalent of $50-$100 in today’s money.
The size of standard and wide gauge trains
A track gauge of two and an eighth inches works out to about 1/28 scale, which is a little bit smaller than modern G scale, but closer to G scale than anything else in common use today.
Even though the trains were enormous, the track wasn’t as large as the scale suggests. The track was 12 curved pieces to a circle, and a circle of track was 42 in across. So a basic oval of standard gauge track would fit on a 4 ft by 8 ft sheet of plywood. You could even put a set of switches in that space for a small siding.
Standard gauge didn’t take up that much more space than post war American Flyer S gauge did. The layout was more crowded because the trains and the buildings were bigger, but it wasn’t quite as impractical as it seemed. Except the trains were that much bigger, and had more metal in them so they were more expensive to make.
Modern production Standard Gauge
People remembered those big, bright, toy like designs fondly, almost as soon as they were gone. Some of the companies who made them did not survive the Great Depression. The ones who did phased them out in the mid to late 1930s. And the trends shifted toward smaller and more realistic designs, even if those designs were not high fidelity scale models by today’s standards.
In the 1940s, author Louis Hertz started writing about these trains from a historical standpoint. He wrote about scale model railroads too, so he didn’t have anything against what we now call scale model railroading. But he did take offense at the idea that one had to graduate from tinplate toy trains to scale model railroading. He didn’t like the idea that scale model railroading had to replace tinplate.
Over the course of the next decade and a half or so, other people started collecting those obsolete trains and refurbishing them and a cottage industry grew up around that. Not unlike the situation with retro computers in the 2020s. It started people with some tools making replacement parts in their sheds and selling them by mail order, but over time it turned into people making entire trains.
By the 1960s, there were companies making Standard Gauge trains again. It never grew to the kind of mass market quantities that even O gauge trains of the 1970s, but various companies were making them and selling them again.
MTH and Lionel
I’m going to leave people out and I’m going to offend people by doing so, but I will concentrate on one specific product line. A hobbyist by the name of Jerry Williams produced reproductions of Lionel designs from the 1920s. Williams employed a kid from the neighborhood named Mike Wolf.
In time, Williams switched to O gauge and making fairly close copies of Lionel post war O gauge. And at some point, Mike Wolf decided to go into business for himself. That business included selling current production Lionel trains at retail. He also acquired the tooling for Williams trains and was producing reproduction Lionel Standard gauge trains.
For a few years, Lionel themselves were marketing those trains using the Lionel name.
There are different stories about how that agreement fell apart. Wolf wanted to make a 1:48 scale O gauge diesel locomotive with really good scale fidelity. He thought there was a market for that kind of product.
He and Lionel did not come to an agreement to sell that product under the Lionel name. There is some he-said-she-said about those discussions, and we will probably never hear both sides of the story.
What’s any of this have to do with Standard Gauge tinplate trains? Wolf decided to sell the O gauge product on his own under his own brand name, MTH. Lionel saw this as a hostile move, and soon, that brought an end to Lionel reselling the Standard gauge trains.
MTH continued production of the Standard Gauge trains it had been selling Lionel, simply not putting Lionel name on anything, substituting other things, but painting them up in a way that was recognizable. If you wanted to change the plates after you bought it, that was up to you.
Lionel introduced their own line of three-rail O scale 1:48 products, and there was some legal action between the two companies. Eventually, the two companies figured out how to coexist, and Lionel even licensed the name back to MTH, so MTH produced Lionel Corporation-branded Standard gauge and O gauge reproduction trains for a few years in the 2010s.
Arguably, MTH flooded the market, and Mike Wolf wanted to retire. So the future of the trains is unclear. But even if it takes a while for production to resume, there is plenty of product in the retail channel and on the second hand market. Much of it in like new condition since it was purchased by adults and run by adults.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.
2 thoughts on “Standard Gauge and Wide Gauge toy trains”
Another example of wide gauge IRL would be Brunel’s Great Western Railway in the UK, which started with a 7 foot gauge, and used that until 1892, when they converted to standard gauge, which led to GWR being 3-rail for a period, so that wide-gauge and standard gauge trains could run over the same routes, interchangeably.
It didn’t catch on.
Oh wow, I totally forgot about that example and I definitely like that example of real-world wide gauge much better. Thanks Geoff!
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