How to Get Started
If you’re looking to get started in O Scale 2-Rail (OS2R), you’ve come to the right place! This guide will help get started and running OS2R trains. This guide describes how to build your own OS2R starter set. At this time, there are no commercial OS2R starter sets (the O Scale Kings are working on that!), but finding the pieces of a starter set on your own is not difficult. Note: there are On30 starter sets, but the track those sets come with are HO Scale (the tie spacing and rail code are not O Scale).
DISCLAIMER: The article that follows will include brand names as a reference only. Neither we who are writing this page, nor the O Scale Kings/O Scale Central, intend for these brand names to be a recommendation on our behalf. We leave recommendations to the owners of your local hobby shops or your friends who are model railroaders.
To get started running trains, you will need the components found in your typical starter set. Those include a loop of track (circle or oval), a power pack, an engine and rolling stock. The first place we recommend starting is the OS2R Product Guide™. It’s free to use and lists manufacturers and vendors who have everything you need. Searching for each component by category and finding out who has it will reduce the time you spend looking. Once you have your “starter set,” we recommend you read the NMRA Beginner’s Guide to give you more general model railroading information.
The first piece you’ll need is an engine. Picking an engine is a lot of fun. You can pick an era (ex. transition or modern), a kind of engine (ex. steam or diesel) or a prototype (ex. BNSF or B&O) to help decide what you want. This is your first step in getting started because the engine you have will determine the curve size you need. Alternatively, you can buy models you think are cool. Remember: this is your hobby and your railroad.
The tightest curve your engine can reliably run on, or negotiate, is called the “minimum curve radius”. Manufacturers such as MTH, Sunset 3rd Rail and Atlas normally list a recommended minimum curve radius on the box or manual the locomotive comes in. Other manufacturers may not display a minimum curve radius on the box or manual. If your model does not come with a recommended minimum radius, that’s ok. The nice thing is that the first model you’ll get will most likely be one that other modelers have experience with. You can ask around (on a platform like O Scale Forum) and get all the information you need from people who are familiar with these models. The engine you would find in your typical starter set is a straight DC engine, not DCC. The term DC (one “c”) stands for Direct Current, and is a simple and easy to set up way to control your engine, and is typical in most starter sets. DCC (two “c’s”), or Digital Command Control, will be covered further down the article. We recommend you ask to see the locomotive, new or used, operate on a test track wherever you get the model. That way, you know if it works and runs well. There are many opinions out there on which locomotive runs the best, or which is the best starter locomotive. Read up on them, and don’t be afraid to participate in the discussion! Ask questions, get involved and have fun with the hobby!
Once you picked out your locomotive and you know its minimum curve radius, your next move is to get some track, which in OS2R comes in two forms: sectional and flexible. Currently, only Atlas makes Traditional O (O Scale 5-Foot Gauge) sectional track. Sectional track is great for starters because it is rigid and pre-shaped. Atlas offers curve sizes in 54, 49.5, 45, 40.5 and 36-inch radius. Atlas also offers straight track in a variety of lengths, as well as flex track. The 54-inch radius curve is the widest sectional curve Atlas offers and will handle most engines (models of longer, rigid frame engines may require wider curves). The tighter curves will handle locomotives with shorter wheel bases. 49.5-inch radius curves generally can handle a 2-8-2, 4-6-2/4-6-4 and a shorter 6-axel diesels. 45-inch radius generally handle a 2-8-0, 4-6-0 and 4-axel diesels. 40.5-inch and tighter curves are reserved for the smallest of engines, such as 0-8-0, 0-6-0, 0-4-0 steam engines and small diesel switchers. When referencing curves, modelers tend to drop “radius” and just say “49.5-inch curves.” The two phrases mean the same thing. There are always exceptions, but this is generally the rule. Don’t be afraid to ask around if you’re not sure!
Once you know what track pieces to get, you will need to power your engine. Power packs provide the electricity to run your engine and controls its speed and direction. Most OS2R locomotives come from the manufacturer configured to run on “straight DC,” meaning the engine has a 12-volt DC motor that runs on DC current. Atlas makes rail joiners with wires to connect to most controllers. When dealing with an electric power pack, you must be very careful. For example, Model Rectifier Corp (MRC) makes DC power packs that run O Scale models. There are other power packs with similar specifications.
Straight DC is a simple way to control your trains and allows for quick and easy set ups. More advanced electronic controls include DCC (Digital Command Control), which requires specific electronics to run, and Dead Rail (Power Onboard Radio Control) which does not require the track to be electrically live (hence the “dead” in dead rail). Some engines do come with DCC, and are usually labeled as such. O Scale Central™ recommends the NMRA’s page on DCC found here for those interested in DCC.
Once you have a locomotive, track and power pack, you will need rolling stock for that locomotive to pull. Freight cars are a good choice for starters, as they generally don’t require wide curves. Models of 40ft (and shorter) freight cars should not have a problem with tighter curves (40.5-inch and under). Models of 50ft freight cars typically need 45-inch curves and wider. A curve can be too tight for the couplers to maintain a connection, and can lift the trucks off the track and derail your train. Longer cars will have more overhang (the amount outside the track gauge the model covers) on tighter curves. Too much overhang can also cause coupler mating issues and derailments.
Passenger cars are generally longer than freight cars. Prototypical passenger cars can be 70ft to 80ft long. In O Scale, that is upwards of 21-inches long. There are models of 60ft and shorter passenger cars out there that can negotiate tighter curves. Passenger cars are closely coupled with diaphragms or vestibules on the car ends. This makes tighter curves more difficult. Scale passenger cars may not be good for the starter’s set you are building. You will have to do some experimenting with these kind of cars on tighter curves. Again, O Scale Forum is a great place to ask about specific piece of rolling stock you are interested in.
If you’re fortunate enough to have a local hobby shop that sells OS2R equipment, that is where you’ll want to go next. Hobby shop people can assist you and answer your questions about O Scale. If the hobby shop also has a test track or layout, you can see OS2R trains in operation.
You may also have a local O Scale modeler or a club near you. Reach out to them, as they will have better idea about the local O Scale scene. O Scale clubs are a great resource and provide community support, not to mention a place to run trains and a place to learn about OS2R. O Scalers are eager to share their hobby with you! Train shows and swap meets are another great option for finding OS2R items. Please visit the Train Shows and Open Houses tab to see these events.
As you get started, the itch to expand will get more tempting to scratch. Switches, scenery and buildings (not to mention additional cars and locomotives) will become more irresistible over time. Make sure you educate yourself on how to expand by talking to other modelers about how they did it. There is no substitution for your own adventures and experience!