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What is HOn30 – by Bob Hayden and Dave Frary

Well, simply stated, HOn30, or HOn2½, is HO scale narrow gauge rolling stock running on N gauge track.
The trains are smaller than regular HO equipment because most HOn30 modelers build layouts based on the 2-foot railroads that ran in the state of Maine, U.S.A. These were about half the size of standard gauge trains, but they still performed a full-size job. These two-footers, as they were called, cost only half the money and real estate to get a working railroad up and running.
There were, and are, 30″ and 24″ railroads still operating around the world, and many people model them. The techniques you’ll read about here apply to all HOn30 modeling.

Dave Frary and I started modeling the Maine two-footers in 1970 when we discovered the Minitrains line of HOn2-1/2 models in a Woolworth’s five-and-ten-cent store. These train sets were imported from Europe by Asociated Hobby Manufacturers, where they were sold as HOe.

Basic Information:

There were more products for HOn30 available in the early 1980’s than is the case now, but if you are willing to dig for them, answer classified ads, and deal with other model railroaders whose hobby interests are changing, you can find what you need to build your rolling stock roster. (Every now and then I run across the old AHM Minitrains locomotives at an auction or swap meet. They were what got HOn30 started back in the mid-1960s.) But remember, it’s not easy to find what you need. It never has been. This specialty is ideal for someone who enjoys a challenge, and the thrill of the hunt!


If you want to learn about new 2-foot products as they are introduced, there are two important sources, both of them specialty narrow gauge publications. (A lot of the products that have been available over the years are re-sold among modelers in the classified ads of these publications.)

Narrow Gauge & Short Line Gazette
Benchmark Publications Limited
399 Main St.
Los Altos, CA 94022

Maine 2-foot Modeler newsletter
6017 W. South Range Rd.
Salem OH 44460


The Grandt Line HOn30 freight trucks (No. 5146 [update: #5257-01]) are beautifully made,but I have never liked the wheelsets. I substitute Sango wheelsets, which means I have to drill out the journals in the Grandt sideframes. For passenger trucks, Sango made Maine 2-foot-prototype coined brass trucks a couple of years ago. As far as I know they’re still available, though I heard rumors that they are no longer being made. They look good and run well.

I convert the Grandt Line No. 5146 SR&RL archbar trucks to Sango pointed-end wheelsets. (The Grandt plastic wheels are not quite round, and cars rolling on them jitter too much for my liking.) I just happen to have a step-by-step procedure for this written down, because otherwise I would forget and have to re-invent it every time I need a pair of trucks.

  • Re-gauge the Sango wheelsets by twisting the wheels on the axle until they match the NMRA N standards gauge. Lock each wheel to theaxle with a drop of super glue on the inner face of the wheel.
  • Drill out the journals of the Grandt truck casting with a No. 55 (.052) drill held in a pin vise. I use the smallest pin vise I can find, about the size of the adapter chuck Dremel offers for holding very small drills in their tools.
  • I give the drill 10 “finger turns,” a finger turn being defined as the amount I can twist the pin vise with my fingers before having to re-grip the tool. This is going to vary from person to person (this is not science!), so you will have to experiment. There are several trucks on the C&DR with at least one journal hole drilled all the way through the sideframe. I figure they look like trucks with the journal box cover missing.
  • Basically, you need to drill out the holes until the axle will fit, but have a little end clearance. You also have to ream out each hole to provide clearance for the axle. For this, I use a Dremel flame burr. I do not have the part number handy, it is one of their high-speed steel cutters, with long, fluted cutting edges. Mount the cutter in an X-Acto double ended pin vise and give each hole 3 finger turns.
  • Now pop the Sango wheelset into the truck and see if it rolls freely. Sometimes I have to shave about .005″ off the inside surface of the journal with a brand new single-edge razor blade to provide sufficient clearance for the wheel to rotate. You have it right when the truck will roll freely across the workbench. Sometimes this takes considerable fiddling, but I find each truck in a batch goes easier as I get the hang of it.

One more modification:

  • I shave off the two bolt heads on each sideframe above the top spring plank (the bolster). Left on, these can interfere with free swiveling of the truck under the car.
  • I have always obtained the Sango wheelsets direct from Flying Zoo (they advertise in the Gazette). I do not know what the supply situation is now, so you might write them to find out the current price.

Metal wheels:

In 1993 I bit the bullet and had NorthWest Short Line (NWSL) produce custom metal wheelsets and axles to replace the Grandt Line wheels in the No. 5146 SR&RL archbar trucks. These replacements pop right into the Grandt sideframes and roll nicely. They make a pleasing clicking noise as they pass over rail joints and frogs!

Darryl Sleszynski has had a run of the NWSL wheelsets made to my specs., and is offering them on a continuing basis. Write him for current costs. (Darryl also has correct dry-transfer SR&RL yellow engine lettering in HO and O, replacement gear for the AHM Minitrains locomotives, and some nifty superstructure parts for HOn2 1/2 Forneys.)

C&DR Diesels 34, 35, and36:

Here are some notes on building the C&DR’s most powerful diesels. Each is a near-scratchbuilt kitbash job based on the mechanism from a Bemo VT-50 diesel, with lots of plastic bits and pieces grafted on to look like something more American.

Number 36, is the green diesel, consists of hood side sections cut from Athearn SW-1500 shells (Walthers number 140-40510) and cab pieces from an Athearn Hustler shell (number 140-29900).

C&DR No.35 has hood parts from Athearn Hustler shells. The cab is made from pieces of a Grant Line 25-ton boxcab diesel (Walthers number 300-5114).I think No. 35 is the best looking of the lot.

I cannot give you step-by-step instructions for building the shells. Everything is a close fit over the Bemo mechanism; the idea is to cut parts one by one to fit, then carefully assemble them. It is all custom building. In a similar vein, I use HOn3 rolling stock to make cars for the C&DR, but I cut them down here and there to make them correspond to the proper dimensions for HOn30.

Steam engines:

About 10 or 12 years ago Joe Works of Japan introduced quite a line of HOn21/2 engines and rolling stock. Some folks called them “slot trains” after the old slot racing cars of the 1960s, but I bought them all and built the kits. They are not without problems.

My guess is that the Joe Works plastic frames will eventually wear out, but I have never run one of them enough to know. To my mind the Joe Works engines have other problems that eclipse the frames:

  1. They have poor electrical pickup and cheap motors, which make them bad runners, especially if you like realistic speeds.
  2. They do not pack enough weight for much traction, which means they won’t pull more than a car or two.
  3. The gear train is not real good, which means it is hard to get the engines to run smoothly.
  4. Those tiny drivers are not appropriate for anything but industrial locomotives,and eventually their plain appearance will bother you.

On the positive side, the superstructures of the Joe Works kits are absolutely marvelous. My plan for the future is to combine those handsome superstructures with homebuilt mechanisms with high-quality motors and gearing and top-notch pickup. THEN we ought to have something!

Car widths:

I’ve found two-foot cars look most pleasing if they are widened six to nine scale inches to correspond to the extra width of the track (30″ versus the prototype’s two feet). In fact, the two or three scaled-straight-from-the-plans 2-foot cars on my layout look downright funny, because they are so narrow. What works, I think, is maintaining the visual relationship between the outside edge of the rails and the outside edge of the car (the overhang).

C&DR boxcars:

I have cobbled up several handsome boxcars from the Grandt Line HOn3 C&S boxcar kit. The C&S prototype was a 30-foot car with a steel underframe and fancy metal roof, which has to be changed for 2-foot use.

My car is a 28 footer, based on one of the last and most-numerous classes of SR&RL cars, and the conversion was simple. The Grandt kit has precisely the right side height for an SR&RL boxcar, so the conversion involves narrowing the ends a bit, trimming a couple of boards off the sides, replacing the complex C&S steel underframe with a styrene floor, and making up a new roof.

The Grandt car, by the way, has matched-board siding where every other vertical groove is shallower. This sort of siding was found on Maine cars, and the effect on the model is excellent. This car is probably as close as I’ll ever come to my dream Athearn HOn30 boxcar, and I’ve build a half dozen of them, including a 30-foot car based on a WW&F prototype.

Plywood-sheathed box cars:

Several photos than have been published over the years show the C&DR 600-series plywood-sheathed boxcars. These come in for a lot of comment when I have visitors here.

Why a plywood car? Well, suppose you’re the superintendent of a narrow gauge road up in Maine in 1938, and a substantial portion of the traffic that is keeping your road going comes from a plywood mill. To handle that volume you purchase a bunch of oversize boxcars from the Bridgton & Harrison, but they need new sheathing.

You’re no fool, and it seems like a highly politic thing to rework the cars with plywood sheathing. You dicker with the boss at the plywood mill fora couple of carloads of seconds, then cover your recently acquired cars with four by eight foot sheets, starting from the ends and working toward the doors. When the job is done you add 1 x 3 batten boards to cover the joints and keep water away from the edges of the plywood.

The design is not all fantasy. The Maine Central resheathed cabooses in plywood in the 1950s or 60s, and I photgraphed one of them at Burnham Junction in 1966 or 1967 (with truss rods!). I think the Great Northern had similar cabooses, too.

I have built nearly a dozen of these so far. The first two were wood, but the most recent ones are all styrene. Either way, construction could not be simpler – the siding is just flat sheet material with the batten strips added over it to provide the notion that what is underneath measures 4 x8. My overall dimensions come from a B&SR 67-series boxcar.

I paint these cars so they will stand out from the rest of the rolling stock. The color? Why, what could be more appropriate than Weyerhauser Green!


Several visitors have noticed some of the colorful C&DR rolling stock. About 5 years ago, as the C&DR roster of cars and locomotives climbed up toward 100, I began to realize that having everything boxcar red was a bit on the dull side, even if it was prototypically correct.

So I started to spice things up: a yellow WW&F reefer with green ends because the Crittenden plans said the real thing might have been painted that way, once. Weyerhauser Green plywood-sheathed boxcars to break up the boxcarred monotony. A reefer gray Powdermilk Biscuits boxcar lettered with heralds somebody gave me. A white seafood car with blue ends. A silver roof on WW&F, now C&DR, combine No. 7. Overall, I’ve been pleased with the variety the color adds to my trains, although the bright colors undoubtedly make those who worship strict prototype fidelity a bit grumpy.

C&DR steel coal gondolas:

These are made from Bachmann N scale steel gons. The conversion is simple. Start with Bachmann No. 53-1036-XX gondolas, any road name. I find most of mine at discount toy stores, and an even better bet is the used equipment bin of the local hobby shop. Since you don’t care about trucks or couplers, prices like 50 cents are typical!

Pry the model apart, breaking out the molded coal load and the weight. Then strip off the paint with your favorite stripper, me brake fluid works fine, as does denatured alcohol. Use a sharp No. 17 X-Acto blade to shave off the N scale hand grabs and other details, then saw the one-piece body casting in half, down the middle.

Cut a piece of .040″ styrene to fit inside the gondola body, wide enough that the completed body will scale about 7 feet wide overall. Glue this splice plate into the body; when dry, turn the body over and add styrene bolsters and support plates for couplers.

You’ll need to make new ends. Either fill the gaps with scraps, then add filler putty and file to match the existing contours, or cut away all the detail and replace the end with flat styrene. Then add brake details, brakewheel, HO wire grabs, Grandt Line stirrups, and whatever else you like.

Glue the weight back inside, add the cast load on top of it as a base fora real coal load, and paint the thing. Add your own coal load (this only works for loaded cars), and that’s it! (Makes me want to run downstairsand chop up half a dozen more of them–and that’s another tip, it’s about as easy to build three of four of these at once as it is to make a single car!) Good luck!

Track and wheel standards:

Good-running trains in HOn30 are indeed possible. I run 12-car trains almost every day, sometimes backing them around the layout, which features 3 percent grades and 18″-radius curves. Double-headed trains with 17 cars require a careful hand at the throttle, but I have managed to run such a train for almost three hours during an open house, without a derailment. All it takes is care, an understanding of what makes wheels stay on the track, and fanatical devotion to track and wheel standards.

Track and turnouts:

I suggest the Shinohara Code 60 track, if your can find it. It looks good, and the Code 60 rail is sturdy enough to stand up to cleaning and other abuse. I have several sections on the C&DR and they have held up well. TheRail-Craft Code 55 track is beautiful to look at, but I have doubts about how well it will stand up over time; to be honest, I’ve never installed any of it, so I don’t know.

I wish Shinohara made No. 6 and No. 8 Code 60 turnouts to go with their flex track (they don’t). I build my own turnouts in place, but I am thinkin gof trying some of the Bemo HOe turnouts when I expand the railroad. Anything has got to be better than hand-laying them!

Minimum radius for HOn30:

HOn30 trains can be made to negotiate some pretty tight curves: 12″ radius might be typical, especially for those free-lance diesels I am fond of. But that’s not all there is to it. In fact, if your main interest is in following Maine prototypes, you will need a much more generous radius than most HOn3 railroads! There are a couple of reasons for this:

  • All the common-carrier Maine 2-foot roads had Forney tank engines (0-4-4T, and later, 2-4-4T wheel arrangements). The effective rigid wheelbase of these engines is a lot more than the driving wheelbase, and they required quite broad curves, broader, in fact, than a lot of contemporary 3-foot engines.
  • All-in-all, Maine 2-foot passenger cars were longer than 3-foot varnish–a lot longer. At almost 50 feet from coupler to coupler, the Maine passenger cars were some of the longest narrow gauge passenger cars in the world, and they need broader curves than the 3-foot stuff.

Now, how about some specifics? My Carrabasset & Dead River has a minimum mainline radius of 18″, and if I had it to do over again I would up that to 20″, maybe 22″, mostly for the Forney engines that I hope to run someday. Even my bigger diesels have trouble on the stretch of 15″-radiuscurve down to the ferry slip!

The 18″ minimum radius is also pleasing to look at, and it can turn a train through 180 degrees in just over three feet of width. That means you can have a turnback curve (where the train reverses direction) and enough room for a little scenery in a layout a little over 40″ wide. A substandard radius of 15″ is suitable for industrial tracks and such, but you haveto be content, like the prototype railroads, to have some places where your bigger engines simply are not allowed to go.

Track spacing and clearances:

A good center-to-center spacing for double track on the straightaway looks like about 1-1/2″. Remember that the prototypes for most HOn30 layout snever had much in the way of double track, and where a passing siding or yard track paralleled the main line, the spacing was pretty generous. I suggest widening the center-to-center spacing out to 1-3/4″ on curves. Loading platforms ought to be a minimum of 3/4″ from the track centerline, more where the track is curved.

Minimum vertical clearance, top of one rail to top of the other, ought to be 2″. More is advisable anywhere tracks cross in the open; where tracks are hidden you can reduce the clearance to the minimum required to allow your equipment to clear, then remember not to build any extra-tall cars! A good clearance gauge for HOn30 is the NMRA standards gauge for HOn3, which is available at better hobby shops and from the NMRA.


Kadee N gauge couplers are just right for HOn30, and with care in installation they operate flawlessly. All of the N gauge couplers with the various model numbers are compatible; my standard for most cars is the 1025 body-mounted unit, which is available both assembled and in kit form. For locomotives the many conversion kits are suitable, as are the coupler boxes from the truck-mounted couplers, which I cut off the trucks.

A good working coupler height for HOn30 is the standard N gauge height established by the Kadee No. 1055 N coupler height gauge. It is either right on or not off by more than a scale inch for 2-foot rolling stock, and using the Kadee gauge as intended means you can take advantage of all the features of the commercial product. Also, if you have cars equipped with Kadee truck-mounted couplers they will match up with the rest of your rolling stock.

Truck-mounted couplers:

Back when Dave Frary and I built the first C&DR (almost 20 years ago!), we used Kadee N gauge archbar trucks with truck-mounted couplers, because they were the only thing readily available. They ran great.

Later, after Sango, and later Grandt Line, introduced Maine-prototype trucks, I built cars with body-mounted couplers. They ran great, too, but I got into trouble when I tried to operate trains consisting of both types of cars (those with truck-mounted couplers and with body-mounted couplers). It took a while, but I found that the trouble was in the the different ways in which the two types of cars transmitted pulling and pushing motions through the couplers.

It took me a couple of years, but I eventually converted all my older Kadee-truck-equipped cars to other types of trucks, and body-mounted couplers. This has all but eliminated derailments, and I can now back a 10-car train around the layout without fear of dropping a wheel onto the ties.

The moral of the story? Truck-mounted couplers work fine, but only when all cars have them. If you want to use body-mounted couplers on some cars, plan on converting all your cars to them. Otherwise, you will suffer in terms of reliable operation (and you won’t have as much fun!).

HOn30 car weights:

When I bought my first computer in 1984 one of the things I did with it was to enter the Carrabasset & Dead River roster into a data base, including such specifications as what types of trucks, couplers, wheels, and so forth were on each car. I also weighed each car and included that information in the data base. This proved revealing.

Car weight varied all over the place, from featherweight wood flatcars cars to heavy, all-brass passenger stock. Vaguely remembering an NMRA recommended practice that called for uniform car weighting, I suspected that the varying weights had something to do with my derailment problems.

I dug out NMRA RP-20.1 and checked it out. It calls for a standard initial weight for each car, plus added weight for each inch of body length. HO standard gauge cars, for example, should weigh 1 ounce to begin with, plus 1/2 ounce for each inch of length. For HOn3 and TT the numbers are 3/4 and 3/8 ounce.

Interpolating for HOn30, I came up with 1/2 ounce for initial weight, plus 1/4 oz. for each inch of length. The formula, for the mathematically inclined, is (A = car length in scale feet):

    Desired weight = .5 oz. + ([A x 12 w 87] x .25 oz.)
    or Desired weight = .5 oz. + (A x .035 oz.)

But that’s too much like work. Here is a table for common HOn30 car lengths:

    Length (scale)     Weight
    24'                1.34 oz.
    28'                1.48 oz.
    30'                1.55 oz.
    40'                1.90 oz.
    42'                1.97 oz.
    46'                2.11 oz.

If the weights in the chart look high or low compared to what is typical in your existing fleet, change the 1/2-oz. constant to something lower or higher, say, .4 oz. or .6 oz. What’s really important is that the weights all be in the same ballpark, with no really heavy or really light cars. (N scale cars are really light, way under an ounce, but they are all light, which is why those huge NTrak trains stay on the track.)

A postal scale is sensitive enough to weigh the cars. I use a simple stamped-metal pendulum affair that I bought at the post office 20 years ago, but a standard office postal scale should work just as well. Weigh the cars with the trucks attached.

Light cars can be brought up to minimum weight with bits of lead tucked into the underframe (the lower the center of gravity, the better, says the NMRA). Making the cars extra-heavy does not help; if you still have derailments with all cars at the proper weight, start working on your track and wheel standards.

Cars that are too heavy present a greater problem. I run several of the all-brass Sango cars on my layout, and these passenger cars weigh in at over 2 oz. each. To keep their weight down I make it a practice to add only wood or styrene details to these cars. The Sango tank cars are another problem: With them, I build the brass flatcar as a flatcar with a wood deck, then use the tank on a scratchbuilt lightweight wood or styrene flat with Grandt Line No. 5146 Delrin trucks replacing the heavy Sango brass ones.

And it works!

Back when I figured all this out I had derailment problems aplenty. After bringing the lightest cars up to standards (plus careful attention to track and wheel standards) I could run doubleheaded 17-car trains around the layout for hours with nothing popping off the track. Better yet, I can back 10-car trains around the main line!
Good Luck!

Revised 8.feb.2010
© Dave Frary, 1996
May not be reproduced for any reason without written permission.

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