The model railroad and the diorama

German toy maker Marklin produced the first model train set in 1891. According to, it consisted of a wind-up locomotive with cars and an expandable track system. Electricity came to model railroads much later, and wasn’t popularized until the introduction of a 20-volt system in 1926, which replaced the former household current setup. These early train sets were commonly in O Gauge, which translates to 1:43 scale.

In 1935, O Gauge was “halved” into HO (1:87 scale), opening up model railroads to a wider audience. Although little historical data exists on the subject, it seems likely that this was the point when it became practical to begin creating realistic miniature train layouts. By the latter half of the 20th century, HO was the worldwide standard for model trains. To this day, many model train retailers continue to emphasize HO stock in their stores, although N Gauge (1:160) is also very popular.

About half a century after model railroads appeared, plastic kits came on the scene. Like model train companies, kit manufacturers introduced a series of scales (including 1:32, 1:48 and 1:72 for aircraft and 1:35 for military kits) which have been adhered to consistently ever since.

It would have made things far easier for the diorama artist if model railroad and plastic kit manufacturers had agreed to a common set of scales, but you can’t have everything. This lack of matching standards means that we sometimes have to resort to a bit of poetic license when adding items from the model train store to our dioramas. If you’re creating a scene in 1:72 scale, HO scenery and landscaping products will work quite well, but HO vehicles will look a bit too small.

Whether or not you like to get diorama accessories from the local model train store, diorama artists owe a great debt to the model railroad world. The whole concept of recreating vehicles—and entire scenes—in miniature was introduced by model railroad manufacturers a century ago. There were commercially available model trains well before plastic kits came out. You could argue that diecasts also predated plastic kits, but unlike trains, they weren’t usually used to create a complete scene like a model railroad.

It would be oversimplifying things to say there was a direct evolutionary path from the model railroad to the diorama. A better suggestion might be to think of them as following parallel paths, with the model railroad getting a head start on the historical timeline. There’s a lot of overlap between them. Both use realistic miniatures to depict places and events. Not all dioramas feature the lights and moving vehicles common to model railroads, and not all model railroads place as much of a premium on realism as do dioramas. But the similarities are there.

A good example of the overlap between model railroads and dioramas is Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg, Germany ( Billed as the “largest model railway in the world,” this permanent HO exhibition features several distinct sections depicting both actual and fictional locations.

What’s interesting about Miniatur Wunderland is that it’s much more than a model railway. There are moving cars, buses, ships, and even aircraft (not only can you see planes taxiing on the runway, but taking off and landing as well). To call it a model railway doesn’t really do it justice. With the variety of vehicles and scenes featured, you could call it a mega-diorama.

For the diorama artist, no trip to Germany would be complete without stopping in to marvel at this impressive exhibition. Is it a diorama or a model railway? The answer is “yes.”