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N Scale Wheels, Trucks and Couplers

I am frequently asked questions about the various types of trucks and couplers available in N scale.  What does that look like?  What works best?  Why won't this work? 
Nothing is more frustrating than trains that derail and uncouple.  In my experiernces with model railroading, good trackwork is a key component to reliable operation.  But... trucks, couplers and car weight are equally important... no matter what scale you run in.
Before going any further, I think it is important to note that the NMRA has developed a series of specificatons and recommended practices on this and many other subjects related to model railroading.  It is worth reviewing these as they have been tested over time and are proven to lead to better products and better performance.  Do yourself a favor, get an NMRA Standards Gauge and join the NMRA today.  It really does make a difference.
Car weight requirements have been defined by the NMRA and proven over and over.  Here is a link to the information, NMRA RP20.1 - Car Weight.  I simply can't state it any better than that.  Bottom line here is make sure your cars have enough weight.  You really will benefit from this effort.
Wheel gauge requirements have also been defined by the NMRA and proven over and over.  Get an NMRA Standards Gauge and make sure everything is in spec.  You really will benefit from this effort.
Coupler height requirements have been defined by the NMRA and proven over and over.  Get an NMRA Standards Gauge or an MT Coupler Height Gauge and make sure everything is in spec.  You really will benefit from this effort.
You can make a "Dollar Box" special run better than any $25 beauty queen just by making sure the car is of sufficient weight, has good quality wheels that are in gauge, and the coupler functions correctly and is at the correct height.

N Scale Trucks

N Scale trucks are generally of good quality as delivered from the OEM.


The basic reason or need to replace the OEM truck is get an operating coupler or to get metal wheel sets.  Both of these are available individually but sometimes it is just easier to do it all in one shot.


Most manufacturers offer complete truck sets for replacement or upgrade of an existing car.


Micro-Trains is the most prolific manufacturer with a model of nearly every type imaginable.  The advantage to the MT truck is that it comes with or without a MT coupler.  If you are looking to upgrade your fleet to MT's, this is a very convenient path.  Simply remove the original kingpin and truck then install the replacement kingpin and truck.


The new Con-Cor Rigid Coupler line follows this concept also and they offer many different types to fit the car being modified.


Some brands are little more tricky, especially if they manufacturer used a screw instead of a kingpin.  These conversions will require you develop your modeling skills beyond plug-and-play.  Or... you could always hire me to do it for you (he says with a smile)...

The alternative to replacing the complete truck to get an MT coupler is to use a MT conversion kit.  They have lots of choices and offer a cross-reference sheet to help narrow down the choices.


N Scale Couplers
N Scale Couplers come in many designs and styles.  Some are compatible with other and some are not.  Here is a summary of what I have found.
Rapidos - This is the original N Scale coupler.  It was designed by the manufacturer Arnold-Rapido for use on the new line of 2mm model trains.  It has been used by nearly every manufacturer over the years.  The coupler functions by moving up and down when the point of the opposing couplers meet. The coupler functions OK but does not have a prototypical appearance.  It suffers from frequent uncoupling especially when traversing uneven track or pulling heavy trains.  This type also suffers from the lack of easy or automatic uncoupling simply because of the nature of its design.  The Rapido is not compatible with any other type of coupler.
Micro-Trains - This is the gold-standard of N Scale couplers.  The design was first introduced in the 1960's and has sod the test of time.  MT's, as they are often referred to, and conversion kits are available for nearly every N Scale model produced.  The coupler functions much like the real thing in that the coupler swings from side to side when opposing "knuckles" come together and hook onto each other.  This coupler performs extremely well since it has no vertical motion and there are tiny hooks on the inside face of the knuckle to minimize accidental uncoupling.  The MT is generally considered to be the best performing N Scale coupler on the market.  The MT is more-or-less compatible with most other types of knuckle couplers however the best performance is achieved by MT-to-MT connections.  This type have a very prototypical look.  Some modelers use the Z Scale version as they feel the N Scale variety is oversized.  If you plan to do this, just make sure your trackwork is superb and you have been meticulous about coupler heights as there is very little forgiveness when you make a small part smaller.

Accu-Mates - This style was introduced by Accu-Rail in the 1980's and has been adopted by Atlas Model Trains for use on their N Scale locomotives and rollingstock.  It functions much the same as the MT.  This design performs well and is generally compatible with MTs and other knuckle-type couplers.  There are some early versions that were affectionately referred to as the "exploding" coupler because the retaining would come loose under pressure and the whole kit would explode.  Good luck finding all of the parts!


Katos - This style was introduced by Kato for use on all of their N Scale locomotives and rolling stock.  It functions muchs the same as the MT.  This type is probably the best looking variety too.
The design performs well but tends to work best with other Katos.  You will likely experience more uncoupling than normal with a Kato-to-MT or Kato-to-AccuMate coupling.  This is not a problem when both car and loco are of the same brand (like on a passenger set) but can become problematic in a long freight drag where the kato is in the middle of the train and continually uncouples. 

McHenrys - This style was introduced in the 00's and has been adopted by Athearn as the standard coupler for thier product line. 


I don't have a lot history with this design and so will not comment except to say that they are more-or-less MT compatible.

Uni-Mates - This style was introduced by Red Caboose many years ago to eliminate uncoupling of long trains.  It is generally referred to as a non-operating or "dummy" coupler.  These can be hard to find so keep your eye out at flea markets and on ebay.  It has the shape of a traditional knuckle coupler except that there are no moving parts to allow knuckle to move past the thumb.  It worked.  It works so well that you typically have to slide the two couplers together vertically.  This type tends to be oversized in appearance and can be a pain if you have any desise to "operate" your layout or even infrequently change the consist of a train.  But... they will stay coupled.  They are more-or-less compatible with MT's but your mileage may vary.
Roundhouse and Intermountain have introduced variations of this concept and included them with their models.  They too are more or less MT compatible but do tend to be closer to scale and look better.

Con-Cor Rigid Jaw - This is the newest style coupler to hit the market.  Released by Con-Cor in 2011, this type was developed to provide an a good-looking alternative to operating couplers and that could easily replace the Rapido style.  They developed a complete line to allow this type to be used with nearly any type of rolling stock on the market.  Best of all, they made sure it was 100% compatible with the MT.


I have yet to try one so will comment on performance except to say that it should stay coupled.

N Scale Wheels

N Scale wheels have evolved over time.  Just like everything else, there are many varieties to choose from.


There are two specifications to condsider when shopping for a new wheel set; axle length and flange type.


The third specification for N Scale wheels is tread width but this is more about appearance than performance so I won't try to adress that here.


Finally, all wheels, no matter what the axle length or flange type, should have the exact same gauge of 0.297 inches back to back per the NMRA Specification S4.2 Wheels, Standard Scale.


You can check this with your NMRA Standards Gauge to make sure your cars will perform correctly.


Axle Length


The manufacturers have never settled on a standard axle length for their trucks.  This can make one wheel set fall out of the frame and another so tight it won't roll if you don't get the right size.


The following is a general list of known axle lengths:


Arnold-Rapido - 0.573 in

Athearn - 0.540 in


Atlas - 0.553 in

Bachmann - 0.560 in


BMLA - 0.540 in


Con-Cor - 0.563 in


Deluxe Innovations - 0.553 in


Exactrail - 0.540 in


Fox Valley Models- 0.540 in


Intermountain - 0.553 in


Kato - 0.563 in


Lima - 0.549 in


Micro-Trains - 0.540 in

Model Power - 0.567 in

Roundhouse - 0.549 in


Rivarossi - 0.549 in


Walthers - 0.545 in


The sizes listed are not meant to be inclusive of every item ever manufactured by a particular OEM but should serve as a general guide for finding the correct replacement wheel sets.


Flange Size


N Scale flanges have evolved over time to try to become more prototypical in appearance and closer to scale.


There is great debate as to how important it is and whether this has affected the performance of the scale.


Generally speaking the answer is, it just depends!


The NMRA also specifies this as 0.022 inches in the NMRA Specification S4.2 Wheels, Standard Scale but there has been a lot of deviations to this spec over the years.


Flanges come in three basic varieties; Standard, High Profile, and Low Profile.

High Profile - a.k.a. "Pizza Cutters".  This type of wheel was used predominately in the first forty years of N Scale modeling by the OEMs.  The flange is horribly oversized but made it very hard to derail a car on even the worst laid track.  The only performance issue with this type of wheel is on Code 55 track and on and around the switches.


The High Profile wheel flange can be so tall that it actually touches the ties when running on a fine scale Code 55 rail.  You can actually see the car bouncing down the track and it will make a locomotive stall because it can't make good contact witht he rail.


The High Profile wheel can also have too thick of a flange causing it to short out on switch points and frogs.  This is a very common problem and can be a buig nusance when using DCC.

Low Profile - a.k.a. "Fine Scale".  This type of wheel has become very popular in the mid-00's as N Scale modelers seek more fidelity and adhearance to scale standards.  It also became a necessity with the introduction of Code 55 rail.  They look great but require near-perfectly laid rail and meticulous grooming of rail joints, ballast and switches.


The other major operational issue is that the finer flange will allow more derailments than other types.  This can be especially problematic when backing a long cut of cars into a yard track.


My best advice for using these is get a Standards Gauge and use every aspect of it.  Also, make sure every car meets the NMRA weight recommendation.

Standard - this flange type is the best of both worlds.  It is not so tall it appears to be horribly out of scale but not so fine that it compromises the operation of the wheel.


If you are intentionally replacing a wheel set and are not terribly concerned with fine scale modeling... this is your best choice.