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Getting started

By Pieter Roos, 19-Dec-2000

If you have come this far, you probably know that HOn30 is HO scale trains on N Gauge (9 mm) track. It was known at one time as HOn2 1/2 (and still is in some quarters), and is often called HOe (“eng” meaning narrow in German?) in other parts of the world. A related field is OO9, British OO scale of 4 mm to the foot (as opposed to HO at 3.5mm to the foot) also on 9 mm track. Due to the larger scale, a OO9 model next to a similar HOn30 piece will be noticeably larger. Some small OO9 models do mix well with HO, and mechanism parts, wheels etc. may be interchanged.

There has never been much Ready To Run (RTR) in HOn30, except for European and Japanese prototypes (and imported brass!). Most modellers build kits or kitbash using N scale and HO parts. Even many kits (at least in the U.S.) are conversions that require an N Gauge loco mechanism to complete. A few locos are available as hand built models from the various conversion kits. Most modellers in HOn30 are always on the lookout for a good chassis to use in a conversion. While there were more brass pieces and especially the “caricature” engines in the 1980’s, there are plenty of products for HOn30 currently available and more coming all the time!

Make no mistake, HOn30 is pretty much a builder’s scale. Most hobby shops do not carry HOn30 specific products, although you will still enjoy visiting them since all the scenery, structures, figures, vehicles and detail parts used in standard gauge HO are also suitable for HOn30. Even the standard  HOn30 coupler (Micro Trains 1025 N Gauge coupler) is stocked in most shops, as are N gauge and even the Grandt HOn30 trucks.  The equipment may appear expensive at first, there being no equivalent for Athearn or LifeLike. The reality is that HOn30 kits are no more expensive than the higher end HO models by Westerfield or Atlas or Red Caboose. On the other hand, most narrow gauge railroads are smaller operations with fewer trains, so you can spend a little more time building each locomotive and car. Your railroad may even cost less, since you won’t be tempted to walk out of the hobby shop with a dozen of the new road names released this month, or that Sperry Railcar or other oddity just released that you’ve got to have, even if you’re not sure what you will use it for. At the end of the page are a few suppliers who carry HOn30 products and information.

Theme or prototype

Many modellers in the U.S. use HOn30 to simulate the Maine 2 ft railroads, although other prototypes are not uncommon. Logging and mining railroads are fairly obvious. Other options include salt processing, plantation lines (sugar , peat or cranberry), contractor’s railroads (before large dump trucks any major construction project might have a portable NG railroad with small geared or rod engines pulling trains of tip cars carrying dirt, fill, bagged concrete, etc.). Also intra-plant switching lines in iron, paper or other large manufacturing plants (Whitten Machine Works and S.D. Warren Paper are two examples) , sand and gravel or stone quarry lines or amusement park lines are just a few of the alternatives. I’m surprised that the theme of a Latin American fruit or sugar line isn’t more common as it is the perfect opportunity to use U.S. and European prototypes together, along with a variety of funky railcars and busses; all with the slightly run down look many narrow gaugers fancy! Keep in mind that the error between 2 ft gauge and 30 inch is the same as between 3 ft and 30 inch, so don’t think you must choose a prototype of less than 36 inches.


Track can range from hand laid through specially made HOn30 track by Micro Engineering, Tillig, Bemo or Roco; Peco’s OO9 track or a variety of N scale products. The Peco track is sized for OO9 so the ties are rather large as well as being made very rough and irregular. It would work best on a logging line. The matching turnouts are only 12″ radius, too tight for most longer equipment but workable for  small geared engines and 0-4-0s. Peco N Gauge turnouts could be used to get larger radius at the cost of non-matching ties. The most common N Scale track by Atlas or Model Power is least suitable because of large rail and small, closely spaced ties. The easiest method is to use one of the HOn30 brands or Shinohara code 70 N with every other tie removed. N gauge turnouts are often used as is, although ME and Railway Engineering make some fitted with HOn30 ties and Bemo and Tillig have turnouts in their track ranges. If you want to run large forneys or 2-6-2s like SR&RL #23, stick to 18 inch minimum radius and #6 turnouts. Turnouts with powered metal frogs are preferred even though they require some extra work (gapping the rails and running jumper wires) because of the short wheelbases and limited coasting ability of a lot of HOn30 power. Get a NMRA N track gauge and use it to check your track gauge and flange ways! Don’t assume that because you bought the track from a commercial supplier, it’s in gauge. Re-check periodically, changes in weather and humidity (or pushing too hard with the track cleaner) can cause the gauge to change.

Trucks and couplers

Early HOn30 modellers used N gauge trucks under their cars. For the first of them, this meant cast steel “bettendorf” style side frames since that was the only type made in N.  There’s a prototype for everything – the 2 ft railroad that ran in the tunnels under Chicago used cast steel Bettendorf trucks, but they were larger than N scale trucks in HO. In the late 1970s MT began producing arch bars, then Grandt Line released their SR&RL style arch bar. Using these or the new trucks by Chivers is recommended, although under most of the wide and low slung NG cars the trucks really don’t show much. If buying Grandt Line, look for the ones with metal NWSL wheels or replace the wheels with those offered by NWSL seperately (P/N 37450-4). The Grandt silver plastic wheels have a well deserved reputation for poor running. The MT trucks look and work better with MT Low Profile wheels installed. Avoid the MT trucks with the attached couplers, they require that the car sit much too high to allow the couplers to swing, and can make pushing a car difficult. Yet another source for trucks is to convert from HOn3 trucks to get different styles. The wheels can be pushed in equally from both sides to 9 mm gauge, or you can slice 6 scale inches out of the axles and truck bolster and use round and square brass tubing and epoxy to put the truck back together.

For passenger cars and some cabooses you can use the Maine 2 ft style passenger trucks made by David Hoffman. These are multi-part brass kits that require some assembly. They have a flaw, an offset to the axle holes which causes the axles to be out of line and bind if the truck is assembled square. File the bolster ends round and assemble the truck so the axles are square to the side frames. The slight slant to the bolster will not show with the truck mounted under a car. The alternative is to us the Micro Trains N Gauge passenger trucks. They roll well and have about the right wheel base. You can carve off or ignore the N Scale streamliner detailing on the side frame, it hardly shows in the shadows under a car anyway. If any truck gives you problems look over the side frames and bearings for flash which can be trimmed with a sharp knife, drill or cutting bit held in the fingers, or rough ends on the axles which can be polished with a wire brush in a Dremel tool. Tolerances are tight in HOn30, so a few extra minutes checking and adjusting equipment before you put it on the layout pays big dividends.

As mentioned, couplers are pretty well standardized on Micro Trains (formerly KD) N Scale couplers. Many modellers use them at the standard height (which scales out to 21 inches in HO). A smaller number of modellers object to notching out the end sills of their cars or making them sit too high off the trucks to accommodate this, and advocate mounting them at prototype height (for Maine 2 ft) of 16 scale inches. This requires bending or cutting the metal pin. The two standards are not compatible, although a transition car with a coupler at one end matching the N standard  and at the other end the scale standard will allow running together. Micro Trains has extensive listings of coupler conversions for the N Gauge locomotives used in HOn30 conversions. For the little Roco steam and diesel locos, use MT #1105 coupler. Modellers outside the U.S. more often use hook and pin couplers like those on the little Roco cars. Bemo sells these separately.


For an idea of of what locomotives have been or are currently available, look at the All Time Loco List. As stated above, the majority are cast or etched metal kits, either complete loco kits or conversions for N Gauge steam loco chassis. N Gauge diesels often run better or are easier to find than steam models, so various conversions of diesel chassis to geared steam engines or small diesel “critters” are popular. Grandt Line has two small HOn3 diesels (a box cab and an end cab GE) that can be converted by squeezing in the wheels to run on 9 mm track. Much HOn3 motive power (esp. the MDC 2-8-0 and Shay) are much too large to convert. Many kits relay on the Bachmann N Gauge 0-4-0 and 0-6-0 switcher kits for power. Be sure to see the Engine Building and Tuning tips section of the Home Depot for advice on getting the best performance from the Bachmann chassis. More use could (and should) be made of some of the European and Japanese steam models. The Kato N Gauge steamers of Japanese prototype are available in the U.S., are reasonably priced and run about as well as their diesels (i.e.. VERY well). See the Sources list at the bottom of the page. The web sites listed cover most of the available motive power and equipment, and the many of the owners will gladly make recommendations over the phone if you lack web access.

Rolling stock is generally built from kits , converted from HOn3 or Standard gauge pieces, or scratch built. Chivers Finelines make some styrene plastic kits (currently limited to flats and gondolas, but a box car and reefer are due soon) which are a good bet for starters. The Grandt Line C&S boxcar can be narrowed and fitted with a new plastic roof and floor to make a nice and reasonably priced boxcar. C&D models, Funaro and Camerlengo, Weidner, Train and Trooper and Kennebunk Models all make resin kits for a variety of cars. Sandy River Carshops have some old style (wood strips and detail parts) kits available. Building one of them is good a good start on learning to scratchbuild the next one! Some modellers replace the scribed wood and stripwood trim with styrene in such kits, feeling that the styrene looks more like well maintained, painted wood in HO scale. Grandt Line and Roco make small four wheel tipper and mine cars if that is your interest. Passenger equipment is available in brass and resin kits, or you may be able to cut down some of the plastic “old time” standard gauge cars by MDC, Model Power or others to approximate narrow gauge size. Milled wood roof and floor stock is available, or you can cut down the kit roofs (but trim at least some from the sides of a clearestory roof; cutting just the middle gives an odd “pinhead” look). Some cars were fairly short, but Maine prototypes were over forty feet long and about 6 1/2 feet wide.

If you would rather scratch build, look for plans in magazines or books. Keep in mind that most freight cars will be from 18 to 30 feet in length, 6 to 7 feet wide and enclosed cars 6 to 7 feet tall (body only, not from the railhead). Therefore, while you might be able to convert some open cars like gondolas or tank cars from N scale to HOn30, most other cars will not be suitable. If TT gauge were commonly available, boxcars in that scale would probably work well. Since TT is harder to find than HOn30, I’d stick with the specially made HOn30 kits. See Bob Hayden’s “All you ever wanted to know about HOn2 1/2” page for suggestions on converting N Scale steel gons for his C&DR. Note that Bob’s recommendations on weight and building the cars wider than the prototype are not universally followed. Many modellers in HOn30 build to the scale width of the plans (be they two foot or three foot prototype). Many also feel that Bob’s recommended weights are a bit high for the limited pulling power of most HOn30 locomotives. Consistent weight among cars and good, smooth track work are the keys to good operation, not heavy cars.  If building a floor for either a scratch built or converted car, be sure the trucks can swing through your tightest curves. Generally you will need to move or trim back some of the under structure of the cars to allow clearance for the wheels to swing on tight model RR curves.

Putting it all together

You can build a small layout or a module to get your feet wet. Modules have the advantage of being able to connect with others to build a much bigger layout. See the the module standards on the Home Depot or contact Jim Pasquill for a printed copy.

A simple layout based on a logging theme might have one geared engine like Mark Rollins Climax (converted from an N scale diesel) and some Chivers flat cars or scratch built log cars. Possibly a caboose or combine to bring the loggers into town. The Huntsville and Lake Of Bays Portage and Navigation Co. operated a bit over a mile of track with one 0-4-0, one flat, two box/baggage cars and a coach made from an old open trolley car. The prototype was 42 inch gauge but the equipment was sized right for 30 inch. A Chivers or Brick Price Forney and some Chivers highside gons would make a nice Louisiana sugar train. If you really want RTR to get started, the little Roco diesel or Joe Works “Kato” critter (common term from a small industrial internal combustion loco) can pass for a U.S. prototype. Team one up with some Roco tip cars or mine cars and build a salt or gravel tram. Take the plunge, and be sure to tell us how it turns out!


There are module groups specializing in HOn30 in the Northeast, Pacific Coast and midwest; as well as modellers in other areas building modules with the idea of hooking up at national shows. Several of these groups exchange information on internet mail lists (as well as the original Mailcar HOn30 list from the HOn30 Home Depot).

For hardcopy HOn30 module specs. local contacts for modular groups and other info contact:
Jim Pasquill
405 Root
Ave. Scotia, NY 12302

My Dad’s Trains
P.O. Box 945,
Wrentham, MA 02093-0945
Tel. (508) 384-3555

Cranberry Junction
The source for Sandy River Car Shops kits.
P.O. Box 496
Carver, MA 02330
Tel. (508) 747-0073

Reynauld’s Euro-Imports
Bemo, Roco and other European N and HOe.
113 S. 3rd St.,
Geneva, Illinois 60134
Tel. (630) 262-0771

Maine Two Foot Quarterly/Light Iron Digest
PO Box 133
Washingtonville, OH 44490-0133
Tel. (330) 702-0117

Benchmark Publications Ltd.
P.O.Box 26
Los Altos, CA 94023
Tel. (650) 941-3823

Thanks to Al and Jim for their input, and all the Mailcar members for sharing the original information which I have gathered here.

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