With a scale ratio of 1:220 and a track gauge of 6,5mm (0.26"),
Z Scale is the smallest commercially established
electric model railway system in the world,
operating on 8-10V DC

Z Scale is set apart from the larger modelling scales not only by its tiny size (models are scaled at 1:220) but also by a number of idiosyncrasies which have characterized Z Scale for most of the first 50 years of its existence.


Introduced in 1972 by long-established toy and model trains maker Märklin of Germany as "the smallest model railway system in the world", the launch came with a complete range covering track, rolling stock, structures and accessories - all provided by Märklin.

Z Scale operates on 8-10V DC with an overall track footprint over ties measuring only half an inch (12.4 mm) for a single line of straight track.

And a double track line only takes up 1.4 inches (36 mm) in width, or 1.6 inches (40 mm) when using track with a permanent plastic roadbed base imitating ballast.
Being only 72% the size of N Scale (and a mere 40% of HO Scale), Z Scale requires substantially less space than other modelling scales.

Grey River Northern Trackplan (c)
David K. Smith

  As a result, the rather complex trackplan shown here has a footprint of only 24"x48" (60x120 cm) in Z Scale yet offers continuous running (even twice around) along with several spurs and the potential to model scenic variety. Reliable continuous running with medium and larger locomotive on a full circle of track is even possible in as little space as 20"x20" (50x50 cm); tight curves will even find sufficient space within the confines of a briefcase, and short rolling stock will run flawlessly on such a micro track layout.

But Z Scale was essentially launched to be Märklin's very own and exclusive model railway range, and for a very long time did remain a single manufacturer product range.

In promoting Z Scale, Märklin always emphasized the smallness of the models:

"[Z scale] opens up new possibilities for operating electric model railroads in the smallest possible space." (Introduction, 1986/87 Märklin Z Scale Catalogue)

Over the next few decades, the models became more advanced and intricate, leading Märklin to focus more on the engineering precision involved when celebrating 50 years of Z Scale in 2022:

"[Z Scale offers] perfection in the scale of 1:220 (...) it has affectionately been called "Mini-Club" too for decades as a symbol for exclusive fine mechanics in railroad model building. What came out (...) in 1972 with plastic wheels and a lifestyle image has grown into a full-fledged model train system." (Märklin 2022 General Catalogue)


Nonetheless, Z Scale couldn't generate any substantial interest in other major manufacturers (quite unlike N Scale), and Märklin seemed quite happy to have the market (that they themselves created) cornered.
  With regard to European rail prototypes and the European market, Märklin (who introduced their first non-German Z scale locomotive, the Swiss "Crocodile", in 1979) has therefore pretty much managed to preserve its exclusive standing for Z Scale right to this day. In spite of a few small enterprises offering accessories and even rolling stock, there is no serious challenge to Märklin's market dominance to speak of.

Whilst this has clearly prevented Z Scale from becoming as popular and widespread as N Scale and forced it to remain a niche interest, the story of Z Scale followed a decidedly different course of events with regard to North American and Japanese rail prototypes,



Märklin essentially aimed Z Scale at its traditional and fairly large German home market and only gradually added models based on non-German locomotives and rolling stock during the 1980s - but the scope of "foreign models" remained very limited.

This didn't mean, however, that people outside Germany weren't taking notice of Z Scale, and one individual taking a very pronounced interest was Nelson Gray (1916-2017). He had been scratchbuiling items for his own model railroading needs since High School, decided to explore the possibilities of creating US prototype Z Scale items, and eventually offered a range of highly detailed freight cars and an F7A diesel locomotive out of his small workshop in Syracuse, NY in 1978.

Gray's complete line of Z Scale tooling was acquired in 1982 by Micro-Trains (still operating under the name of Kadee at the time), who released their first Z Scale items in late 1984, consisting of a F7A diesel locomotive (initially in Pennsylvania and Western Pacific colours), a 40' gondola, a 40' flat car, a 40' wood-sheathed box car, a bulk-end flat car, a 40' livestock car, a 50' rib-side boxcar and a center-cupola caboose.

By a strange twist of coincidence, Märklin not only entered the US market in 1984 as well, but they did so with the very same Z Scale model - the F7A diesel, albeit available in three different paint schemes than those initially offered by Micro-Trains (Amtrak, Santa Fe Red Warbonnet and Southern Pacific Black Widow). The Märklin locomotives were accompanied by a 50' box car, a 45' gondola and a Santa Fe style caboose. Where Märklin did manage to set itself apart from Micro-Trains was with the launch of no less than six different body style passenger cars in AMTRAK livery to go with the F7: baggage, coach, diner, sleeper, dome and observation.


  This first batch of Märklin models was followed in late 1984 by a Chessie freight train set which consisted of a Chessie F7 with three matching blue boxcars (lettered for the Chessie railroads C&O, B&O, and WM) and a yellow caboose, whilst Micro-trains added Southern Pacific and Lehigh Valley to its selection of paint schemes.

On the surface of things, the offerings of the two companies looked very similar - but the differences were actually quite pronounced as far as the individual models were concerned. Whilst Märklin stretched the F7 body to fit an already available chassis from a German prototype model, Gray's original tooling produced a fairly accurately scaled model.

Following an extended period of non-existence in Z Scale, US prototype modelling was suddenly here with a bang, and in April 1985 Model Railroader announced that "Z Scale has arrived!" - which not only was the title of that issue's editorial but also the general tone set by an in-depth introduction to the scale ("Some ABCs of Z Scale") and a staff layout project.

Editor Russ Larson saw what he believed to be the real beginning of Z Scale as a major modelling scale in North America, and this enthusiasm was mirrored in a featured layout project, aimed at showing just what could be done in Z scale in what little space.
  And the Pennsylvania & Pacific certainly packed a lot of model railroading and inspirational allure into a mere 2'x3' (60x90cm).

"What's the future for Z scale? I think it can be very good. If Märklin is able to sustain its promotional efforts (...) I think it could even give N scale a run for second place in popularity in the next 5 years." (Editorial, April 1985 Model Railroader)

The momentum was there, but the promises for the future evoked by Model Railroader did not match up well with the fact that no major new manufacturers stepped into the scale.

Model Railroader highlighted Z Scale for a second time in its February and March 1986 issues with a larger size modular layout based on the Western Pacific's Feather Canyon route. But the fact that Micro-Trains and Märklin were still the sole major suppliers, and the F7 still the only ready to run motive power available, essentially only served to show that Z Scale hadn't moved on and was essentially a modelling niche. Not surprisingly, Z Scale would not feature in Model Railroader again for many years to come - not the least because for an extended period of time, nothing moved in Z Scale.

Attempts to produce ready-to-run models of other US diesels were made during the 1990s, but the road was long and winding.
A GP38-2 was introduced by Rogue Locomotive Works (founded in 1997 as Small Scale Works), but the very first hood unit in Z scale encountered various production problems, and in the end only a very limited number of these locomotives actually reached the market and Z Scale layouts.

But it was a start, and RLW's tool-maker Don Bouchard proved, above all, to the Z scale community as well as to its suppliers at large that, yes, it could be done. And indeed, things began to move as the new millenium settled in.


Initially, however, this only applied to the upper end of the scale as American Z Lines AZL (born from the ashes of RLW) introduced a stunning brass C44-9W in September 2000. Manufactured by Ajin in Korea in fairly small numbers (500 per one of eight roadnames), their price at the time (USD 550.00) was actually affordable in comparison to brass model imports in larger scales, yet obviously still put them outside the regular ready-to-run market.

  For a couple of years AZL continued to fill the void with select brass models (such as the PA and E8), but the scale as a whole did not receive any true overall boost from these models. It wasn't until Micro-Trains and AZL introduced plastic injection models that Z Scale awoke from its general lethargy.

MT launched its GP35 in 2006, followed only a few months later by AZL's GP7, which in turn saw MT's GP9 (seen here below the GP35) hot on its heels in early 2007, joined by an SD40-2 (also from Micro-Trains) in 2009.

In a flash Z Scale had gone from being a one horse town to actually offering modellers various choices in the motive power division.

Unlike in previous years, Z Scale now kept the momentum and stayed moving - and in 2012/13 there was almost an explosion of new motive power.

AZL launched its GP38-2, an improved version of the old RLW model with closer to scale handrails and horns (the body shell still has ROGUE stamped on the inside) as a competitively priced entry-level model. It is now available in many roadnames and paint schemes.

In addition to this diesel, AZL somewhat dipped into their past by launching a high-end limited run brass model of UP's Big Boy 4-8-8-4 steam colossus (providing, if nothing else, a good "talking point" for Z Scale), but fortunately this was also joined by a plastic injection Mikado 2-8-2.



The introduction of heavyweight passenger coaches (AZL) as well as a multitude of freight models from smaller companies (e.g. Full Throttle) has further enhanced the choice available in Z Scale.

New freight car types were also introduced regularly by AZL, with monthly repaints on existing models (including the F7A and B between 2013 and 2017) coming from Micro-Trains as well.


Since 2013, AZL has released more and more models of both locomotives and rolling stock, to the degree where they clearly are the market driver for North American Z Scale.

  Today, AZL offers an amazing range of locomotives (ranging from steam engines to both first generation and modern diesel locomotives) and rolling stock, with a wide variety of railroads and paint jobs to boot (although the specifics of the still small Z Scale market result in items being sold out either very quickly or over time, and once that happens, re-releases are the exception).

AZL continues to add to its range of Z Scale models every month; Micro-Trains, on the other hand, seems to have dropped Z Scale locomotives for good and focusses on pleasing repaints of existing rolling stock. Well-known manufacturer Atlas entered the market with their flextrack and points in 2019 and have announced dipping their toes into Z Scale rolling stock in 2024, provided customer demand is sufficiently high.

It is a stark and pleasant contrast to days gone by, when the small size of Z scale was mirrored by an equally tiny selection of models, track and accessories. In addition, both track and wheel standards of any Z scale model these days are at least equal to those of larger scales, and the advent of 3D-printing has further increased available options.



Given the traditionally strong position of smaller modelling scales (especially N Scale) in Japan it is perhaps somewhat surprising that Z Scale does not have as long a history in Japan as it does in Europe and the US.
The first Japanese Z Scale models were introduced along with a limited range of sectional track in 2006 by a company named RealZJ (which is still active today but now known as Crown).

In 2007 Tokyo Mauri launched its ProZ range, and since then a number of different manufacturers (including well-known names such as Tenshodo) have added to the offerings, which are all exclusively Japanese prototype models. Whilst gradually building up a Z scale market, the impact has been very much limited to Japan itself. Quite the opposite is true with regard to the product range offered by Rokuhan, who entered the market in 2008.


The fundamental difference was that Rokuhan concentrated on a complete track and controls system which quickly extended even beyond the established Märklin track geometry.
  Including a moulded ballast base the track looks very much like a smaller cousin of Kato's Unitrack - a reference explicitly made when the German specialist company NOCH started distributing the track system in Europe in early 2011.

Rokuhan thus very quickly established itself as the go-to manufacturer for Z scale track, even successfully challenging Märklin on its home turf market.

Rokuhan has since built up an amazing range of controllers and structures (including various bridges, buildings as well as a turntable) which since 2013 is complemented by a growing selection of motive power and rolling stock - as well as the all-important starter sets that provide an easy access and entry to the scale.

The models are all of Japanese prototype, a clear indication that Rokuhan is seeing its home market as its true base. However, by virtue of its (still expanding) track system and range of controllers (which can be operated both on batteries and mains power), Rokuhan has had a major impact on Z Scale in Europe and the US and continues to do so.

The company also maintains a presence in social media, including a YouTube channel where new items are presented in video form in addition to their website.





Any commercial products or companies mentioned here are purely bona fide indications of what I have been using myself.
I have no connection to any manufacturing companies nor do I profit from listing any products or brands.

American Z Line AZL
US manufacturer who specializes exclusively in Z scale locomotives and rolling stock

Full Throttle
William Dean Wright specializes exclusively in Z scale rolling stock, trucks and wheelsets

Z Scale pages from the original creator of Z Scale (in German, English menu)

US Manufacturer of Z scale locomotives, rolling stock, track and accessories

Japanese manufacturer who specializes exclusively in Z scale locomotives, rolling stock, track, controlers and accessories

Trainboard Z Scale Forum
Message board for Z Scale enthusiasts, lots of news, pictures and projects

Z Scale layouts & track plans @ RailServe.com
A comprehensive listing of Z Scale layouts and websites (including a few dead links but well worth the visit)

Z Central Station
Meeting place for Z Scale enthusiasts, with news, pictures and message boards

Ztrack Magazine
The magazine for Z Scale model railroading




(c) 2012-2024

page created 3 April 2012
page updated 17 March 2024