What is Z gauge: Six things you’ll want to know before starting

Märklin Modellbahnen Z gaugeIf you’re itching to build a model railway but don’t have space, Z gauge is the answer. Here’s a quick primer on what you need to know to get started.

I suspect most frequent visitors to this blog work in N, OO or HO gauges but there are other sizes, both larger and smaller.

If you’re pushed for space, Z gauge should be high on your list of model railway scales to consider. It’s the second smallest mass-produced model railway gauge and is surprisingly quite popular. Yes, I know there are smaller gauges (T gauge, for example, at 1:450 scale) but Z is really the smallest if you want a ready and easy supply of trains, track and accessories in the UK although there is a footnote to this, read on for the details.

The ready availability of parts is largely down to the fact that Z gauge was created by one of the largest model train manufacturers — Märklin — and who continue to support it.

Märklin introduced it in 1972 and thinking it would be the smallest gauge possible they named it as the last letter of the Alphabet. Subsequently, of course, other gauges have been introduced but the Z moniker stuck.

And it really is tiny.

By comparison, while the well known OO scale trains are 76 times smaller than a real train, Z gauge engines are an astonishing 220 times smaller! This means you can fit a fun layout into spaces that you could never consider for OO or N.

Despite this tiny size, however, Z gauge trains are incredibly detailed and can give just as much fun.

How much space is needed for a Z gauge layout?

The short answer is… Not much.

A Z gauge layout can be built in just 1/2 the area of an equivalent N scale layout and 1/8th of the area of its corresponding OO scale railway.

With a scale of 1:220, a track gauge of 6.5 mm (0.256 inches) and the smallest sectional radius being 145mm (5.7 inches), a circle of oval can be built on a board or shelf just 306mm (12.04″) wide. And with flexi-track even tighter curves are possible,

This means simple layouts can be built in tiny spaces — there are many Z gauge suitcase layouts — and a fun interesting track plan can be laid in an area no larger than a coffee table!

Rolling stock and track availability

Backed by one of the biggest model railway makers, there is a good range of track, trains and parts available with which to create a Z gauge layout. Compatible products from other manufacturers have also long been available so a wide range of locos, rolling stock and track are now available.

In terms of quality, Märklin track is the obvious daddy of all makes but is starting to look dated compared to the track from other manufacturers.  Peco — of OO and N gauge track fame — do flexitrack while Micro Trains and Rokuhan make some of the best-looking track and with integral plastic bases, making assembly easier.

But Not British

Given its base of German, Japanese and US manufacturers, it’s not surprising that there are plenty of German, Swiss, Japanese prototype trains available in Z gauge. Unfortunately, there are still no mainstream British Z gauge manufacturers so if you do build a Z scale layout it’ll have a distinctly European or Japanese theme.

Are They Reliable?

Märklin Modellbahnen Z gauge size compared to OO model train

How small? A Märklin Z gauge loco compared to a OO model train.

In the past, people have commented that Z gauge locos were unreliable. I can’t comment on previous locos only on the latest Märklin engines and sets I’ve used — such as the Märklin starter set — and with which I’ve had no problem.

I’ve had one which has been regularly run for over a year now and as long as it’s treated properly, operated with the right power supply (see voltage below) it operates flawlessly. Others have run them continuously for weeks, in 1978, Märklin ran a Z gauge loco pulling six coaches for 53 days!

As with all model trains, in most cases, reliability problems aren’t due to motor failure but track quality.

This is even more so for Z gauge.

It’s easy to appreciate that given the tiny size of the wheels, even the smallest debris track problems will cause problems so laying the track perfectly flat and having a regular track cleaning regime is far more important for this gauge than larger scales but as long as the track is laid perfectly flat and cleaned regularly the trains locos should run for years without problems.

What Voltage Is Used?

Märklin and Micro-Trains locos should only be powered by 9 or 10V max DC. Using higher or AC supply is likely to burn out the motor in the trains and should not be used so stick to manufacturer supplied controllers for Z gauge layouts.

How much do they cost?

In my guide to N gauge vs OO gauge, I noted how N gauge layouts often work out more expensive than OO layouts.

This is undeniably the same for Z gauge too with locos and wagons being more expensive than other gauges.

Is DCC Possible

As we’ve already seen, Z gauge locos are tiny. And this creates a problem if you want to digital control. How can you possibly fit a DCC decode circuit board inside a loco? It’s already tight for N gauge trains, can it possibly be done for Z gauge?

Surprisingly, the answer is yes. With a condition.

That being that it’s only possible with modern era engines. Diesel and the like have more space inside in the body shell and so there’s just about space for the circuit board.

The German company Velmo provide the decoders for a range of Märklin locomotives. Their website (which helpfully also has pages in English) tells you everything you need to know. They’ll even fit them for you.

Coastal DCC in the UK also offers Z gauge decoders although I don’t know much about what precisely they offer. Your best bet would be to contact both and see what they can do.

And that’s it for this roundup. I hope this has answered some questions and encouraged you to explore the diminutive but fascinating world of Z gauge. The cheapest way to get started with Z gauge is through one of the Märklin starter sets. A while back my wife bought me this starter set and I haven’t looked back since. You can read my review of it here.

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