North American Rail Eras

Published: 2016-10-28 - By: gdm
Last updated on: 2022-02-09
visibility: Public

At the request of the the NSE and of several of our users, the curators for the N Scale Database designed a very rough Era system for model railroading, similar to the NEM's European "Epoch" system. We use this for classifying the various prototype vehicles that are offered as model trains, whatever the scale actually. Every prototype has an associated era and there are different ranges of eras for each major geography (North America, Europe, the United Kingdom and Japan).

This article serves to elucidate the eras we selected for North America. Here is what we came up with:

Era I 1835 - 1900 Early Steam From the introduction of the steam engine in the 1830s, railroads and equipment took many shapes and forms. At the start, rail gauge was not standard, not was even the basic appearance of the locomotive. If it worked, it was used. During this period (by 1840), locomotives assume a 'normal' appearance. Towards the end of this period (around 1885) we see the standardization of gauge at 1435mm (4' 8 1/2"). This in turn allowed more and more mass production of equipment due to the fact that a given locomotive could run anywhere. The United States was now crisscrossed with competing routes which turned the railroads' attention to power.
Era II 1901 - 1938 Late Steam The railroads were rebuilt to be straighter, flatter and consequently faster. Most locomotives were now painted in plain black paint (in main due to the Panic of 1893). Standardization now was applied to couplers, air brakes and rules for interchange. Heavyweight steel passenger cars became common and we now see the first steel rolling stock. Steam locomotives become large, powerful and efficient.
Era III 1939 - 1957 The Transition Era The second world war changed everything. However, many of the major changes that occurred during the war were glimpsed in the late 1930s with the first diesel locomotives and early lightweight passenger cars. The war simply put into high gear the changes that were already occurring. It is during this period that diesel and steam motive power shared the rail network.
Era IV 1958 - 1978 Second Generation Diesel Steam is mostly dead or dying, but the development of diesel power is very rapid. We see low-nosed hood units take over and unit trains become ubiquitous. TOFC appears and mergers run rampant. Passenger service collapses due to the interstate highway system and Amtrak steps in.
Era V 1979 - Present Modern Diesel Cabooses and roof walks are now gone. FREDs have arrived. Containers are everywhere and are frequently stacked. A focus on cleaner burning diesels changes the way engines are designed.

We are aware that many people feel very passionately about these eras and their associated dates. The TroveStar N Scale curators do not pretend to be experts in this field, but we needed something to work with so here is what we have.

More articles on Eras and Epochs:

About the Author

George has been collecting trains for more than two decades. He started writing about the models and the process of collecting more recently. As well as the TroveStar Blog, George's written work has appeared in the N Scale Enthusiast Magazine. He loves talking about collecting, models, manufacturing and modular railroading. His background in management of massive amounts of financial data made him interested in using some of that knowledge to benefit various collectors. He lives on Cape Cod in the state of Massachusetts with his wife and three cats.