Why Proto48?

I re-engaged with model railroading in 2012 after nearly a 40 year hiatus. The return started with Lionel and quickly moved to 3-rail scale (3RS) as I craved a more realistic looking layout. However, this only lasted 2 years – I could not ignore the grotesque middle rail and outsized wheels, so I ripped up the 3RS layout and started fresh.

Using a similar approach to designing living spaces, a list was compiled of preferences, necessities and nice-to-haves (an approach similar to John Armstrong’s concept of givens & ‘druthers). I desired slow movements, detailed track with broad curves, brass engines and rolling stock with smooth rolling trucks, easily accessible track for switching, and mechanical/electrical reliability. The next hurdle was choosing track gauge. After all, 2R O scale track gauge measures 1.25″ which scales to 5 feet. Prototypical track gauge measures 4’-8½” and in O scale is known as Proto:48. Another list was constructed:

Pros & Cons of Proto48…
  • Exact gauge of 1.177″ versus 1.25” (how could I build a new layout knowing the gauge would be intentionally wrong?)
  • The difference in track width is negligible and not visible (yes, it is visible – especially when looking head-on at a car)
  • Wheel treads, flanges and axles look realistic and prototypical (because they measure correctly!)
  • Flex track is readily available (meaning I can make quick progress on uninspiring portions of the layout – eg, the yard)
  • Ready availability of Proto48 track components for areas where I want realistic hand-laid track (thanks Jay Criswell of Right-O’-Way)
  • Switch and grade crossing flange ways are prototypically sized
  • Limited interoperability on other layouts (but, I don’t plan to operate my equipment on other layouts)
  • Low resale value (these are toys and depreciate anyway – this is a hobby –  something to be enjoyed here and now – it’s not an investment)
  • Locomotive conversion is complex, especially steam (so what? I do not plan to amass a large number of engines and will sub out the work to specialists)
  • New trucks/wheel sets are needed for all rolling stock (again, these items are readily available and I can do the conversions – that’s called modeling)

I attended my first O Scale West show in February 2015 and met two fine gentlemen who helped me make the decision: Jay Criswell of Right-‘O-Way and Norm Buckhart of Protocraft.  I left Santa Clara, California, with several new Proto48 brass boxcars from Norm and passed off a beautiful, custom painted Overland Alco RS-11 to Jay for re-motoring and wheel conversion.

The Proto48 community of modelers is a small, friendly and growing group of individuals across the globe. Social media and electronic communications facilitates easy transfer of knowledge among modelers who are always eager to share their experiences.