Quite a number hobbyist are attracted to European railway models because of their exquisite detailing and superior running qualities. What prevents some enthusiasts from getting started is the lack of information regarding the prototype. With this in mind we present you with some basic knowledge of European Railways that we hope will inspire you to get started with European railway modeling. This information is by no means complete. The Europeans have an extremely rich history with their railways and we encourage you do to more research on your own either on the Internet or through the many books and magazines that are available on the subject.
Perhaps more than any other continent on Earth, Europe relies heavily on it's railways for both the movement of passengers and freight alike. This is mostly due to Europe's unique geography and relatively small size. Most people don't realize that the entire continent of Europe can fit into an area approximately the size of the south eastern United States. Also, the high cost of fuel in Europe makes traveling by plane or car between cities very expensive and somewhat impractical. Instead most Europeans depend on their ultra modern railway network as their preferred means of transportation.
Europe's history extends much farther back than North America's so it shouldn't come as any surprise that their railway history does as well. In Switzerland for example, the first trains were replacing stage coach routes as early as 1847 and by the 1930's most of their railway lines were completely electrified by overhead wires (called catenary) which powered the trains and offered a much cleaner and more powerful solution than coal or diesel fuel. In Germany steam engines ran well into the mid 1970's and they ran along side diesels and electrics. This time period is one of the most popular for European railway modelers since it gives the opportunity to operate a wide variety of motive power.
So what about the European railway models themselves? Most of the firms that produce European model trains today started out as traditional toy makers in the mid to late 1800's. These companies, many of which are family owned and based in the city of Nürnberg, Germany, which is considered the toy making capital of the world, started out making tin plate items such as ships. Some of these early toys employed clockwork (wind-up) mechanisms. In the early 1960's the firm of ARNOLD-RAPIDO started making model trains which ran on track with the rails spaced exactly 9 mm apart. They started referring to these new models as "N" which was derived from the first letter of the word "neun" which is German for nine. Back in those days the models were very crude and many called it "N-Gauge" referring solely to the gauge of the track. Today it's properly known as "N-Scale" and it has been assigned a proportion of 1:160 meaning that the models are 160 times smaller than their full size counterparts.
So you see the very first N-Scale models were of European prototypes. In fact it wasn't until the late 1960's that enterprising U.S. toy makers contracted with these European firms and commissioned them to build "N" models of North American trains so they could try their hand at marketing them over here. That is why to this day there is more variety offered in European N-Scale than other type although this is now changing as both US and Japanese firms have dramatically increased the scope of their offerings in recent years.
In the 1970's U.S. companies such as ATLAS, CON-COR and REVELL had locomotives and rolling stock produced for them by European firms such as ARNOLD-RAPIDO, FLEISCHMANN, RIVAROSSI, ROCO and TRIX (who refer to their N-Scale line as MINITRIX). The European firms were happy to supply the U.S. companies but their finest and most technically innovative models were offered for their home markets within Europe. As a result the European models became known the world over for their quality and attention to detail. European Prototype N-Scale models ran better and looked better than anything produced for the North American market. Today with companies such as KATO of Japan the gap has closed significantly but there is still nothing like a European made model that glows with old world European craftsmanship and quality.
Getting started with European N-Scale is very easy. We suggest starting with a catalog or two. Of course the catalogs contain the latest models but they also contain other valuable information such as the European Railway time periods (commonly called Epochs) as well as brief histories of famous locomotives, trains and routes. They also contain many photos of layouts which can be very inspirational to both beginner and expert modelers alike.
Key to European Railways Symbols
The following list should help you get started in identifying the country of origin of many of the European Railways (listed in alphabetical order according to symbol). Again, this list is by no means complete we have simply listed the railways that are most often produced in N-Scale models
Symbols of Modern Era Trains
The modern European Railways also use symbols to identify the type of train. The following list should help you to understand this further.
European Railways Time Periods (Epochs)
The European Railways can be broken down into five time periods commonly referred to as Epochs. Most manufacturers identify their models using these Epochs. The Epochs themselves are usually identified by Roman numerals I-VI (1-6). There is some disagreement among manufacturers as to the exact years each Epoch began and ended. Listed below are the six main European Railway Epochs according to MÄRKLIN/TRIX, one of the most respected manufacturers of European model trains.