Athearn Getting Started

Getting started in Model Railroading

Do you dream about a model railroading layout that is destined to become your basement empire complete with sleek streamliner passenger trains and hardworking freight trains made up of a brace of four six-axle diesels? Maybe you have a small space set aside in an unused spare bedroom that will allow you to build an intricately detailed switching shelf layout complete with a small switcher and a few interesting industries to switch out. Maybe you are thinking about one of the many modular clubs and want to build a small section of your world that can be taken to shows and connected to a much larger model railroad display. Whatever your dream layout is, it is important to take a moment and consider all the options model railroading has to offer before jumping in. If you're new to Athearn and model trains and want to learn about setting off into a wonderful journey of scale modeling, then this is for you. Keep in mind that the scope and sheer size of the hobby is too large to be covered in a few paragraphs, but the following information may prove to be a good starting point as you’re getting started in model railroading.

The basic questions that must be raised first as an equation.

Era + Physical Space / Scale + Type = Your next model railroad


What era of prototypical railroad do you like? Do you enjoy the steam era or the art deco style of the early 20th century? Or maybe you enjoy mid to late 20th century complete with all its changes within the railroad industry taking place at that time. Maybe you wish to model what you see in the world right now making modern models your choice. Whatever era you choose, Athearn produces model trains in both HO scale and N scale to cover the most popular eras of railroading.

Physical Space and Scale

Once you have chosen your preferred era, it is now time to select your space. Space may also help dictate the scale in which you model. HO scale has the advantage of the most available equipment and accessories. That includes not only the model locomotives and rolling stock but the accessories such as structures, vehicles, and detail items. HO however will take up more space and design considerations must be considered basing your decision on how big your layout will be. Typical HO scale model railroading layouts have been built in basements, spare bedrooms, and even a small home office. Space will dictate the type of HO scale model train layout as well, so if you have a large area such as a basement, modeling mainline freight complete with yards and plenty of track for long trains is easily achieved. Athearn offers three brands of HO scale models: Athearn Roundhouse, Athearn HO, and Athearn Genesis. Athearn Roundhouse offers those just getting into the hobby a great hobby-level model at an economical price. Unlike other entry level or model train sets, Roundhouse models feature sturdy molded-on details, metal wheelsets, and locomotives that are DCC ready and upgradeable as well as full parts and technical support. Athearn HO is the most popular brand as it offers the widest variety of freight cars, passenger equipment, and both steam and diesel locomotives. Athearn HO features separately applied details and locomotives are available as either DCC ready or complete with a Soundtraxx Econami sound decoder ready for your model railroading enjoyment. Athearn Genesis is the pinnacle in HO scale authenticity and includes details not found in other brands such as road name and road number specific details. Both steam and diesel locomotives are available either in DC with a 21-pin board or the Soundtraxx Tsunami2 sound decoder. However, don’t think that you can’t model HO in a smaller area. Many modelers are content in building a small shelf or switching layout in a spare room or office, with many having built operating model railroading layouts in as little as 8-feet.

If however, you wish to model long freight and passenger trains but you are still limited in space, consider N scale. N scale is almost half the size of HO and as such, much more railroad can be modeled in a smaller space. N scale is the second most popular scale and many successful modelers have built large layouts in spare rooms. There is not quite as much available in N as HO but that is changing almost monthly. Athearn offers N scale in two brands: Athearn N and Athearn Genesis. Athearn N provides modelers with a solid value in both freight and passenger cars and locomotives. Many of the details that are molded on in some other brands are separately applied on Athearn N. Details such as metal etched walkways and cross-over platforms are standard on many models as well as quality metal wheelsets and body mounted McHenry couplers. Athearn Genesis in N scale was recently introduced in May of 2022 and immediately placed N scale at virtually the same level of detail as many HO models. Separately applied details such as grab irons, cross-over platforms, full underbody brake detail, and (a first for N scale) cut levers and air hoses as well as accurate paint schemes set these models apart from others. Impressive steam locomotives such as the Union Pacific Big Boy and diesel models such as the FP45 are keystones of the Athearn Genesis N scale brand.

For the aspiring modeler who may be an apartment dweller or has very little room to model a complete railroad setup, consider modular groups. Modular groups are available in both HO and N scale and allow you to build a small section of a model railroad and then bring it to a club or show and connect with other modelers' modules. Modular organizations for N scale include T-Trak, NTrak, and FreeMO-N, just to name a few, and HO also has FreeMO as well as other modular standards. This is also a great way to connect with fellow enthusiasts and learn from those who have been in the hobby for a number of years.

Model HO N
Scale 1:87 1:160
Gauge .625 inches .375 inches

Type of railroad

Now that you have decided on an era, a place for your layout, and a scale, you simply have to decide on what type of model railroad you will build. Would you rather turn the throttle and watch your favorite models glide over the tracks and become a model railroad railfan, or would you rather take part in the action and switch out cars by yourself or with some friends? A basement empire? A small switching layout? A module? Each have advantages and disadvantages; however, the one thing they all have in common is fun. The beauty of model railroading is there are very few constraints. It is just as easy to build a large layout in a basement for steam era mainline action as it is for modern. Conversely, a small spare room branchline or switching layout can depict either a small steam switcher or a modern rebuilt diesel switcher. Modules are the same way and allow the modeler to reflect their interests and personality. Take some time to look at the many publications, books, and websites devoted to model railroading layouts, layout planning and all things operations.

Join the NMRA and a club

In order to get the most out of your new hobby, consider joining the NMRA. The National Model Railroad Association is everything model railroading, from organizing regional and national shows to setting standards for manufacturing that make our models compatible with one another. The NMRA will also help you to grow within the hobby as you become more active in your local chapter. It allows you to learn, develop, and hone your modeling abilities and opens a world of expertise and knowledge. In conjunction with the NMRA, consider joining a model railroading club. The club maybe a local group who has a club layout in which to work on and run. Clubs typically host work sessions, run sessions, and open houses to the public. Likewise, Modular clubs are another club that will allow you to be exposed to many modelers who enjoy the hobby as much as you do. While they may not have a club layout, they rely on club members' modules to be brought at train shows and other meets. Club members' modules are set up domino style and allow continuous running for the public to enjoy. Still, some may not be interested in setting up at shows or joining a club and that is okay. Model railroading can be easily enjoyed in solitude as much as it can be in a club setting.

Your next step

Model railroading is a vast hobby and to a novice, a lot of information but when broken down into a simple equation, it may give you an opportunity to answer those important questions and dictate your path. Whether HO or N, large or small layout, club or alone, be sure that Athearn has the models you need to build your dream into a reality. Athearn has been a part of making model railroad dreams a reality for over 75 years.