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You may have noticed when traveling on a highway in hilly country that nearby railroad tracks do not follow the terrain as closely as the highway does. Railroad grades are measured in the percentage of rise over distance traveled; a rise in elevation of one foot per 100 feet traveled would be a 1% grade (see Figure 1).
Going back to Figure 1 it’s good to note that model railroaders can use much steeper grades than prototypical railroads.
In the case of one track crossing another, no matter what scale you are modeling, there are several measurements you must make to calculate the grade you have to use to achieve your purpose (see Figure 3).
Figure 4b: Make sure you measure your tallest rolling stock if the crossover is on a mainline. Adding a safety factor to your maximum car height gives you your minimum clearance needed for one train to pass beneath another.
But, the height the train must climb to give you the minimum clearance is actually railhead to railhead.
Adding these figures together, is shows we have a total track run of 212.25” before our first crossover, more than enough to reach our minimum height at a 5% grade. Next we need to create risers to put under the roadbed of the grade track to lift it to its intended height (see Figure 6). Remember to cut two of each riser, since the track must descend after it crosses over the lower track, and as many of the tallest ones needed to support the track as it travels at maximum rise.
Figure 7 shows the risers placed under the roadbed of the 54” loop of our O Gauge Project Layout, raising the track to the point it crosses the lower tracks of the 42” return loop. Grades create an area of interest on a model railroad layout and add to operational interest. This small HO scale layout packs a lot of action into a small footprint by using sharp curves and steep grades.
A 2 percent grade for example would climb 2 inches in every 100 inches (or 1 inch every 4 feet, 2 inches).Maximum GradeSo just what is the steepest grade a train can climb? If you find something of value here, please "pay it forward" and help us keep the site operating by a secure donation through PayPal (PayPal account is not required), or by shopping with our advertisers. While the road may go up and down repeatedly, the railroad track instead follows a much more gentle up and down path, with earthen fills or bridges over the lowest elevations and cuts through the highest points in the terrain.
Among prototype railroads, this would be a steep grade for all but those railroads traversing tall mountain regions.
But probably the most common reason for a grade on a model railroad layout is that, due to limited space, our tracks must cross over one another as we bend them to fit the space available.
A 1% grade on most model railroads, because our trains tend to be much shorter and our cars much lighter proportionally, is not a steep grade. This distance includes not only your minimum clearance, but the thickness of your roadbed and the height of the track on the upper level.


With O Gauge track, the 54” measures the diameter of the circle those tracks would make (in other scales, size of the curve indicates the radius of the circle those tracks would make). Since we don’t have a complete circle, it helps us to know that it takes 16 pieces of 54” diameter track to complete a circle.
Given this extra distance we could create a transitional grade of 2.5% on the first and last 10” of our track to ease the change from level to grade track.
As these risers fit between “ground level” and the bottom of the roadbed of our grade track; at full height, they will be our “minimum clearance height” of 8”, which we discussed earlier. If you have an adjustable miter saw, you can cut the top of each riser at the angle of the grade at that point, either 2.5% or 5%, for a better fit, or you can just use shims between the riser and roadbed on the high side. With the formulas provided here you have a jumping off point to add much more interest to your model railroad layout. So many in fact, that I've started considering just ripping out all the track and starting from scratch with a new roadbed. He developed an interest in N-Scale and, rather than tear everything out and start over from scratch, he decided to see what could be done using his existing HO-Scale engineering.
This is because a railroad locomotive, pulling a much heavier load than an automobile or semi-truck, depends on the friction of its steel wheels on steel rails for its pulling power. As an example of what a challenge to railroad operations a grade introduces, to keep its grades at no more than 0.5% on its route along the upper Potomac River in the hill country of western Maryland, the Western Maryland Railway went to the expense of building miles of retaining wall, six multi-span bridges, two creek crossings, a number of concrete culverts, and three tunnels over a distance of less than 35 miles. And an O gauge model railroad will often utilize even steeper grades than even most “scale” model railroads – as much as 5% on the mainline (confused about the difference between “scale” and “gauge”? This is about an 8-inch clearance from “ground level” of our plywood base to the bottom of upper roadbed. If you have the pieces, you can assemble them and then run a string down the center rail, and then measure the string (be careful not to stretch the string when measuring it). How steep is too steep?Model or prototype, the severity of a grade has a major impact on the operations of the railroad. Anyway, I've always wanted to build an N-scale railroad and I hatched this crazy idea that I might be able to lay down N-scale track instead. It was then a project railroad for MR, written in a series of articles by MR editor Linn Westcott. It simply cannot climb as steep a hill as a lighter road vehicle traveling on rubber tires.
Even this grade would have required the use of “helper” locomotives added to trains heavy coal trains along this route. However, make sure if it’s a mainline crossing that you measure the height of your tallest rolling stock (see Figure 4b).
Remember, our first and last 10” of track rise at only 2.5% as a transition from level to grade track.


Grades determine the length and weight of trains, the number and type of locomotives assigned and the speed limit.
Gauge page – however in this use, I make the distinction between model railroaders looking to reproduce very-close-to-scale layouts as opposed to an O or S Gauge “toy” train layout, even a realistic one like our O Gauge Model Railroad Project). Also, I thought it would be cool to put in some parallel lines in a few places where there are single tracks now. Most “scale” model railroad layouts would only use a 5% or higher grade as a deliberate challenge to operations to mimic mountain railroading. In some cases engineers have gone to extremes with tracks that look like a prototypical helix,  but they are an unavoidable part of life in most places in the world.Plan your grades to make the most out of the track and not overtax your locomotives.
I probably should take a hard look at some of the slopes to see if the grades are too steep. To calculate the height of our second riser, we need to start with the height of our first riser, and add to that. Calculating grades is easier than you think.Calculating the GradeGrades are written as a percent, with the height of vertical rise divided by the length of horizontal run. Below is a table showing the height of each riser needed to reach the height we calculated to cross over another track.
A train has a lot of momentum - enough that it can help power a train up a short grade without great difficulty.Because the method of calculating a grade is the same for both model and prototype, the same standards generally apply.
Since most model trains are short by prototype standards, a 4 percent grade, or even slightly greater, is still quite steep but manageable for most layouts. Grades of around 2 percent are much more realistic and manageable but will still impact train speeds and engine capacity.
Grades of 1 percent or less can be handled without any concern.Curves and GradesIn addition to the length and percent of a grade, curvature within a grade also has an impact on operations. Curves increase the friction between wheels and rails, consequently it will be both harder to pull a train up a curving grade and easier to bring it down.Adding curves to a grade on a model railroad can help provide a longer run in a smaller footprint and therefore actually reduce the percent of grade.
Unlike grades, minimum curve radius varies between scales.TransitionsAs with an easement on a curve, it is important to make gradual transitions when building a grade. Avoid kinks at the top and bottom of the grade to prevent derailments and accidental uncoupling.



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