The first thing I’d say if you are thinking about model railroading is “Don’t!!” It is a really easy hobby to get into. About $60 will get you a basic oval, a unit, and several pieces of rolling stock. However 6 years later and cough…cough thousand dollars later I am still collecting. Despite what some people say this is not a cheap hobby. I know people that have lost their marriages due to the financial outlay this hobby takes. If you are going to start: put limits on yourself, make sure you have your wife/husband/partner’s permission, and make sure you are financially stable. Of course that is probably good advice on starting any hobby.
So if I have not scared you off there is several things to consider before starting:
1) Scale – If you are really limited on space Z scale (1:220) is getting better every year. A little bit bigger, N scale (1/160 in North America or 1/150 most of the rest of the world) allows long trains and is the 2nd most common scale.
The most common is HO scale (1/87). Pretty much anything you can imagine is available in HO scale. As we get older and our eyesight weaker and hands shakier O scale (1:48) or G scale (1:22.5) may be the best option. Although for these scales you really need a lot of room. There are other scales but those are the most common you will find in hobby stores.
2) Era – Do you fancy Steam engines, the golden age of railroads, the diesel era… modern? HO scale will have just about anything you can imagine but once you go to the other scales you really have to make tradeoffs
3) Location – City scene, Europe, The Rockies, Desert. Are you modeling an actual place or a fictional one? How easy will it be for you to source the structures/scenery necessary?
4) Railroad(s) – Most people when collecting say “It all started with a boxcar.” The memory of a particular railroad that ran through your hometown or you saw when you were a kid are what most people start with. Not all cars from all railroads have been or will be produced. If you go to a less common scale you may have to look at kitbashing (altering a model by combining elements of other models or materials) cars/units. See what is currently available from different manufacturers and use different websites to research what has previously been produced and may be able to be picked up 2nd hand off of ebay or other re-seller sites. Take a look at my Links page to a good start on sourcing equipment (Sorry you might find the page a bit skewed towards N scale).
5) Room size and lighting. Windows are not a good thing! The sun can and will bleach models meaning a lot of your hard work can be discoloured or details erased, if you have windows in the room cover them up or make sure the sun doesn’t come through them. Ideally you want to reach everywhere easily on your layout. Shelves of no more than 2.5 to 3 ft in depth depending upon your reach. If doing a multi-deck layout shelves no higher than your armpit or lower than your hip height when standing.
6) Clubs – To Club or not to Club? There are a lot of great people that are modelers, and there are others… just like any random section of the population. It has been my experience that most modelers want to do their own layout. Sometimes you get a group of people that all have a common goal and work well together. These are the type of clubs we all really want to be a part of. However, even clubs that have people going in different directions have things to offer. Shared experience and resources can be invaluable. Not everyone needs every magazine, catalog, tool and boulder mould. Sharing these type of things will reduce your costs considerably.
7) Your local hobby store or buy online? Short answer is you will do both. The local hobby store will generally be more expensive but talk to them. If you are looking to spend hundreds (or thousands) of dollars or you want to pre-order they can generally give you a break. They know what the industry is like and they want your business. As long as they are not unreasonably expensive support your local hobby store. However some items, such as short runs, may only be available online.
8) The experts that know everything. No-one knows everything! There have been, and still are, so many small manufacturers. Many of which are just one man/woman operations. Chances are if you have seen it in the real world someone has made it at least in some scale. With N scale in particular North American stores tend to ignore the 1/150 scale European and Asian manufacturers. It can be almost impossible to see the difference in scale between 1/160 and 1/150 for items that size. You can also use 1/150 items in the foreground and 1/160 in the background to give the illusion of distance. Recently I was told by several self professed experts that there are no modern MOW machines in N scale or 40′ Yang Ming containers (although some 45′ ones have been announced). Well after some searching I just received four 40′ Yang Ming and four 20′ Yang Ming containers and a Hobbytrain Plasser Duomatic which I am going to alter to a North American machine. If someone says something does not exist, keep looking! [Note: Con-Cor have now brought out 40 ft Yang Ming containers in 1/160 scale 1st quarter 2014]
Finally, the best advise I can give you is have fun and enjoy yourself.