Getting Started In Z Scale: Starter Sets

I remember  being young and my father coming home with an Atlas N scale starter set.  I can still picture the box with the Santa Fe diesel locomotive and the 0-8-0 steam locomotive.  Inside you received a small oval of track, a locomotive a few cars and caboose and a controller.  It was a great way to get started, you could open the box and run your trains.  You can have the same experience with z scale.  There really are just a  couple choices for z scale starter sets.  Marklin has offered starter sets for years, since the start of z scale in 1972.   Micro Trains offers a starter set both with and without track, neither with a controller.   Zgauge.com offers the MTL sets with controller and track ready to go and also offer custom AZL/Rokuhan packages as well in an effort to give you the same out of the box experience that is common in other scales.  As we have stated in other posts in this series have stated, you end goal will likely influence what you start with.  If you want to open a box and start in the hobby today, check out our ready to go z scale starter sets on line.  Start your model trains memories today with a ready to go z scale starter set.  But fair warning, it is an addictive hobby!

Getting Started In Z Scale: Track

Choosing your z scale track is much easier than choosing your locomotive or rolling stock.  Choosing your layout…. that may be a little harder.  Let’s take a quick look at track.  For z scale layouts, you have a few basic choices.  The originator of z scale Marklin, Rokuhan, Micro Trains or hand laid track.  As with so many aspects of this hobby, your end goal will determine your track choice.  If you want the ultimate in realism you will likely hand lay your track.  Even your switches can be hand laid.  Check out Fast Tracks for supplies and jigs for laying your own track.   If you are going to add ballast to your track, you will want to either use Marklin or hand lay your track.   Marklin turnouts are very reliable and can even help avoid derailments if you go the wrong way over a switch.  They offer a variety of turnouts, straights, curves and even adjustable track to help you make your layout.

Rokuhan and Micro Trains line offer track with a pre installed roadbed.  While you cannot achieve the level of realism that adding your own ballast offers, you can achieve a very clean and operational layout using this type of track.  The Micro Trains Line of track is somewhat limited so my recommendation is the Rokuhan as they have a large selection of turnouts, crossings, flexible track along with the standard curves and straights.   I am biased towards Rokuhan.  I like their selection and and the way their controllers connect to the track and work with their power turnouts.

If you are just getting started, consider a starter bundle of Rokuhan Track.  The layout pictured above, the double oval, is a really nice starting point.  If you already have some railroading experience under you belt perhaps in another scale, search for some z scale layouts online or design your own with a program like AnyRail.  They have light version you can use for free.  The full version is awesome!

So we have our controller, our locomotive and our track.  But a train isn’t a train without cars.  Our next segment in getting started in z scale will talk about the ever growing offering of z scale rolling stock available.

Getting Started In Z Scale: Locomotives

Z Scale Locomotives

Z Scale Locomotives

Nothing is more important to any train than the locomotive.  No locomotive, no train!  Aside from being the key part of your z scale railroad, the locomotive is one of the more interesting aspects of the hobby.  Car after car may go by but your focus is on the locomotive.  Finally, the type of locomotive you prefer will have an impact on your layout, especially on radius of the turns.  So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the locomotives available.  If you missed part one on controllers, please check it out here.

One of the most iconic locomotives has to be the Marklin 0-6-0 that was introduced in so many starter sets in 1972.  These little locomotives are still around and you can find them on ebay used for around $50.  These little guys are still a great choice for small radius layouts, like 120mm or even less they did just fine.  So if you are modeling a small European railroad with tight curves these little locomotives do well.  But for the purposes of this series, we are focusing on US prototypes. which brings up one of the problems in my opinion with z scale, their simply isn’t enough small z scale switcher locomotives available.    Marklin offers several US locomotives including steam locomotives.  They have made available 2-8-2, 4-6-2 and 4-6-0 steam locomotives which seem to do ok on a 145mm radius.  Their F-7 diesel locomotives also do well on a smaller radius turns.  Marklin has recently released E-8/9 units, not sure what the recommended radius is on them, but on larger locomotives, a larger radius makes for smoother operation and looks better.  Another very cool Marklin unit is their GG-1 locomotive.

American Z Line, or AZL has really opened up the door to z scale railroading with very nice selection of locomotives.  Steam offerings include the Mikado, a real workhorse for many prototype and model railroads alike.  But their is also some real high end steam units available, including several versions of a Big Boy and a SP Cab forward, both in brass.  Sold out and very hard to come by are the AZL GS-4 units and Challengers.  While AZL recommends a 220mm radius on the Mikado, some report running them on 170mm.  195mm seems to be a realistic minimum.  As for the bigger locomotives really need 245mm plus.  

AZL also offers a wide variety of diesel locomotives as well.  Smaller GP38-2 locomotives can be had for under $100 and are billed as entry level locomotive.  They really are a great value and can be upgraded to DCC and Micron Art offers a super detail kit if you want to dress them up a little.  They do well on a 195mm radius and are available in variety of roads.  Other smaller diesel locomotives include GP-7’s and 9’s, and GP30’s.  A very nice series of SD70 and SD75 locomotives is also available with more modern diesel power promised this year.  The E8/9 units have been an awesome addition to the z scale line up as well.

Micro Trains Line has been offering diesel locomotives for some time.  While they have made some very nice SD40-2, GP35, GP9 and F7 units,  currently their F7 A&B units are by far the most readily available with a nice variety of road names.

Marklin, AZL and Micro Trains all use different couplers.  While AZL & Micro Trains couplers are compatible, Marklin is stands alone so you would have to convert them or use a conversion car to use them with cars and locomotives other than Marklin.  We will address couplers a little bit later.  In part 3, we will get to your track options in z scale.

Getting Started In Z Scale: Controllers

Rokuhan RC03 Controller

Rokuhan RC03 Controller

I have been around model railroading since I was a little boy.  My father was an avid model railroader, modeling the steam/diesel era on his own prototype, the Credit River Northern.  But I have to admit, that when it comes to z scale, I am relatively new to the hobby.  So with that in mind, I wanted to offer some very basic information on modeling in z scale to hopefully get you interested in this awesome little gauge train that is growing by leaps and bounds.  This first in the series is on controllers.

Z Scale Controllers
I know, the controller is really a boring thing to start with, but when you understand why we started with this,  you will see that even before the track and your first locomotive, the controller must be taken into consideration.   Z scale locomotives are incredible little pieces of equipment.  While the detail on these little gems is absolutely incredible, especially  when compared to the first z scale locomotives Marklin introduced in 1972, one thing has stayed the same over the years, they use tiny little motors that can be fried by controllers made for larger scales.  Buying an oval of z scale track, a locomotive and a few cars and then hooking it up to your controller used in N scale or HO scale, can make for an very disappointing z scale experience.  Not to worry, there are several good good choices for you, all fairly inexpensive.  Let’s start with the original, the Marklin Mini Club controllers.

Marklin Mini Club Controllers
When Marklin introduced z scale,they were smart enough to offer a complete set that came with the correct controller.   The familiar 6272A is available used on ebay, usually for around $40-$60 and is a real work horse.  The model 67271 usually sells for $125 or so new and used on ebay for around $75.  These are both excellent choices, I lean towards the 67271 as it is the more modern version and has easy to use hook ups.

Rokuhan
The Rokuhan Company continues to add value and versatility to the z scale line.  Currently they offer the RC02 and the RC03 controllers which both offer the constant lighting feature.  They also both are expandable in that you can snap on turnout controllers and other controllers on the end of the controller.  The RC03 comes with two turnout control switches already installed.  Both can be operated on AA batteries or you can purchase a AC adapter.  Cost ranges for about $40 for the RC02 and $75 for the RC03.

MRC
While MRC does not offer a z scale controller per say, the MRC1300 is available modified for safe use for z scale.  Usually they are easily identified by the yellow sticker on the front of the controller.  Usually selling for around $50-$60.

DCC
DCC control has been around for years now and the pricing is starting to come down.  Most modern locomotives offered by AZL are very easy to switch to convert to DCC with simple drop in decoders.  We won’t spend time here on DCC, again, this is basic info to help you get your feet wet in z scale.

So there you have it.  Boring yes, important absolutely!!!  When you consider you will be spending between $100 to $250 on any given z scale locomotive, you want to make sure you have the correct controller.  In part 2, we will move on to locomotives.  Locomotives are much more fun to talk about and offer much more to look at.

Getting started in z scale?  Check out our store, Zgauge.com