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Terms and Definitions

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AMERICAN FLYER - Shortly after World War II, the legendary A.C. Gilbert set out to design a line of toy trains that would compete with the other giant toy train companies. His ace-in-the-hole? Realism! The life-like qualities of the new 3/16 scale line of American Flyer Trains gave A.C. Gilbert a marketing edge. Along with many colorful and detailed engines and rolling stock, the A.C. Gilbert Company produced an impressive line of operating accessories. Coupled with two-rail track (an often emphasized feature in the marketing brochures), this line of classic toy trains makes an excellent starting point into many aspects of model railroading in 'S', including Hi-Rail, Scale and Narrow-Gauge factions. Original American Flyer Trains are categorized as Tinplate or Hi-Rail trains.

CODE - Train track, or more correctly, the iron rail used to make train track, is measured in pounds per foot in real life. The heavier the rail, the more traffic and the bigger the engines it can handle. In modeling, the track is measured by it's height in fractions of an inch. For instance, code 100 rail is about .100 of an inch in height.

To illustrate the differences in track size, the original American Flyer track is called code 220 track, almost 1/4 inch in height. American Models makes code 148 track, which is just tall enough to accommodate Flyer wheel flanges without the flanges hitting the top of the ties, and is often used in Hi-Rail layouts. Scale track can be anything from code 125 (normal size for scale) down to code 70 (used in narrow gauge layouts).

Sample Flyer TrackCode 148 Track

COUPLERS - The couplers in 'S' come in two classes, Tinplate and Scale. Tinplate (sometimes called Hi-Rail) are the original American Flyer knuckle couplers (or one of the new compatible couplers from American Models and Lionel). These couplers are much larger than they should be to fit the '3/16" to the foot' ratio for 'S' scale. A Tinplate train uses Flyer compatible couplers. Hi-Rail usually means the engine or rolling stock is as close to true scale as possible, but still uses the 'too large' American Flyer-type couplers. Scale couplers are much more accurate in size, and are not capable of coupling with tinplate couplers. They do, however, still allow automatic coupling.

FLANGEWAY - Part of a turnout that provides space for a wheel flange to pass through where two rails converge and cross one another.

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FROG - A term that refers to a part of a turnout (sometimes incorrectly called a switch)

GAUGE - The gauge of a model is a direct measurement of the distance between the model's wheels, or the distance between the rails of the train track. O, HO and S gauge means the distance between the wheels is in proportion (or in scale) with the original 4 feet 8 1/2 inch width of North-American Rail in respect to the size of the models. Anything that is less than the standard rail spacing, is called narrow-gauge.

HI-RAIL - A mixture of the scale and tin-plate aspects of modeling trains. The models themselves are built as close to scale as is possible. Usually, HI-RAIL also means the scenery is much more realistic with structures, accessories and figures all made to scale. The track and wheel flanges, however, are made more like the original A.C. Gilbert track. Hi-Rail track is an attempt to make track at a compromised size to accommodate both scale and tin-plate trains. The track is not quite as tall as the original Flyer track, but is still too tall for scale. Track size is measured by its code.

Another compromise of Hi-Rail, is the use of American Flyer compatible couplers. These are too large in proportion to the rest of the model, but work with the original couplers made by A.C. Gilbert..

MODULE - a modular layout is one usually built to be portable, using sections for easy transport that will be assembled at a location to create an operating display. Modules are usually built using specifications (see NASG S-Mod) that are publicly supported to allow any module to properly mate with any other module. This would allow, for instance, multiple clubs to join together to create a large operating display. The modules could be connected in any order since all modules are built to the same specification - and any size display could be created (assuming an even number of modules are present).

The disadvantage to modules, is the typically disjointed appearance of the scenery, since modules tend to be owned by individuals and may be connected in any order. A portable layout built using sections, tends to have a more scenic flow.

NARROW-GAUGE - This term refers to the distance between rails on train track. The North American Standard is 4 feet and 8 1/2 inches. Any distance less than that is given the term "Narrow-Gauge". Typically used in mining and logging operations where tracks had to be laid in less than ideal locations (such as mountain sides and under ground), 2 1/2 and 3 foot gauges were common (the term Sn3 would refer to the 3 foot gauge). Modeling in narrow gauge can be challenging and fun since almost anything could be found on a narrow-gauge railroad!

SCALE - Any model or structure that has been constructed to match the exact proportions of the original object is said to be built to scale. In model railroading, certain proportions have been standardized in the industry, such as 1/87th for HO scale and 1/64th (3/16" to the foot) for S scale. Sometimes the term gauge and scale are confused by newcomers to denote the reference size of a model. Train rail can be the correct gauge (distance between the rail heads), but incorrect in scale. Using American Flyer trains as an example, the original track produced by A.C. Gilbert is the correct gauge, but disproportionate in terms of the height of the rail. Flyer track is much too tall in relation to real train rail and, therefore, out of scale.

American Flyer trains are 1/64th the size of their respective prototypes and for the most part are sized correctly. However, some liberties were taken at times to accommodate the sharper-than-real curves in the track.

In terms of modeling, the word scale is sometimes used to define the exactness of a model or structure. A model that is "scale" usually means particular attention to detail and exactness to the original has been painstakingly followed (this is sometimes referred to as 'Finescale'). Scale models also use couplers that are in correct proportion to the rest of the model. Scale couplers (usually made by Kadee) are much smaller than tinplate or Hi-Rail couplers. Scale couplers are not operationally compatible to original American Flyer couplers.

Scale Chart

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SECTION - A portable layout is usually made up in chunks that can be easily transported, then fastened together at a location to create an operating display. A 'sectional' layout is a free-form design that does not follow a recognized committee-defined plan (such a "section" would be called a module.) Each section typically has a defined location within the layout, and all sections must be present for the layout to operate.

A sectional arrangement to a layout allows a club or organization to define their own set of design standards that will specifically meet the needs of that group. Such a design template insures that all the sections will fasten together properly, and will contain a scenery design that "flows" from one section to another. Such a portable display is usually owned by a group and is treated as a whole.

SWITCH - A term usually incorrectly used to refer to a turnout. See "turnout".

TIN-PLATE - A term coined to refer to the original (and classic) American Flyer, or Lionel trains. Usually these toy trains were constructed with certain liberties taken in the size and dimension of the models to allow for ease of construction, or to keep the overall dimensions of the train layout to a size that would fit in a house. The term tin-plate was chosen because the early trains were usually constructed of stamped and printed tin. Later, of course, plastics and other materials were used.

TURNOUT - There are some rather strange terms used to describe the various parts of a turnout. Things like frogs, switches, points, closure rails - just to name a few. I'm just a confused as you are - so I asked our clubs leading expert, Wayne Schneyer, to help explain such things and this is what he sent me. (Please note - a special thanks to Wayne's daughter Jen who did the typing. If it wasn't for Jen - you'd have to read this pretty darn slow, 'cause Wayne sure don't type fast!).

Your first question is, "What is a frog?". Well, it's this little green thing that hangs out in ponds. . . ummm, just a little humor there. The frog, itself being a key point of a turnout, is the joining of two rails converging and crossing one another at an angle with a channeled flangeway. The next is the switch. A switch is an electrical device. The mechanical trackage that changes the direction of the train is a turnout. As such, switch is not a correct term, although widely used. The next word was turnout, and this describes the entire section of track (again, that we mistakenly call a switch but is the turnout, the whole magilla!)  In railroading, points are the actual switch rails (and this is where the word switch comes from, but truly only refers to these two moving rails, not the whole magilla.) The points are the two connected short rails in a turnout that move to change the train's route. The short section of the straight track ahead of the point is called the toe - and that behind it is the heel.  And just for you, a bonus term - Closure rails! These are the rails connecting the points and the frog of a turnout.

WHEEL FLANGE - The back part of the train wheel that descends past the rail head and keeps the train on the tracks. In tin-plate trains, the wheel flange is greatly exaggerated and oversized to make it easier for children to place the trains on the track, and to keep de-railing to a minimum. This makes running tin-plate trains on scale track impossible as the wheel flanges would actually bump on the ties. On scale models, the wheel flanges are much more accurate in size and normally only run well on scale track.

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