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A tram (also called a tramcar, streetcar, trolley or trolley-car), is a rail vehicle which runs on tracks along public streets or a segregated right of way.

It is believed that the word “tram” referred to the wooden beams the railway tracks were initially made of (before the railroad pioneers switched to iron and then later to steel).

The English terms “tram” and “tramway” originated from the Scottish word “tram”, referring respectively to a type of truck (goods wagon or freight railroad car) used in coal mines and the tracks on which they ran.

The lines or networks operated by tramcars are called tramways.

Available Systems

Although Tramways has a universal appeal, modelers outside of Japan in general are frustrated with a shortage of rolling stock, track, buildings, and accessories.

There are only a handful of individuals who sell items in the US via e-bay, and another few sites in Germany, Spain, Italy, Australia and the UK who have managed to get some stock from time to time. As far as is known, I am the only one in South Africa to have modeled a Z-Scale as well as N-Scale tramway, while a few other individuals have managed some custom built specimens in HO/OO and G.

My advise to modelers wishing to model a tramway, include:

  • Shop around and persist in searching online sites
  • Use Chrome/Google translate to search Japanese sites – you will be amazed at whats available (you then use a mail-forwarding service to ship to your door)
  • Ready to run track is obviously most convenient, but you can quite easily adapt standard track to work – undeniably a lot more work!
  • If you really struggle to get stock, get in touch as I have built a good relationship with a few KATO/TOMY dealers in Japan..

The two primary manufacturers of tram systems and products are KATO and TOMIX, who both have a very nice range of N-Scale products. Other manufaturers such as OXFORD diecast models supply various busses and trams that can be motorised for use on your tramway.

While both Tomix and Kato offer well designed, quality product lines, of the two, Kato is better known outside of Japan due to stronger export distribution and marketing channels.


Kato has released a number of track systems that have evolved over the years, with the current Unitram v5 and v6 being their latest product iterations.

Long desired by modelers looking to create urban and city type environments in which to operate their trains (be it for inner city trams or to replicate heavier weight train lines that allow freight and commuter lines to run through city centers), UNITRAM offers a versatile street track system that integrates with the included road places to create the illusion of a proper city environment.

Take note that UNITRAM sections are primarily Left-handed, with Japanese-style street markings/printing. If you require right-handed (US style), you can try contacting KATO’s US distributor.. otherwise you will need to rework these to suit your needs.


Tomy (originally known as Tomiyama – 1924), was incorporated as Tomy Kogyo Co., Ltd (1963), and in 2006, Tomy merged with Takara (third-largest toy manufacturer in Japan) to form Takara Tomy. The company is simply refered to as “Tomy” in the rest of the world.

While Tomy has recently entered into agreements with, and made products for a number of US and European distributors, the company pretty much targets and sells its products to the Japanese market (I have found that almost all information on Tomix is in Japanese).

The combined Tomix and Tomytec model railroad product line is the largest in Japan and possibly the world, with a total product count of over 3000 items. A typical product catalog easily exceeds 440 pages in full color!

Tomix “Wide Tram Rail”

“Wide tram rail” is a product by Tomix that provides an integrated road surface (asphalt) and rail, and allows you to more easily reproduce a tramway.

Which System to choose?

As I own and have used both systems, I can make the following informed observations:

  • In general, Tomix offers more points/turnout sizes, gives a choice of larger-radius double viaduct curves or tighter “Mini” curves and turnouts, Wide PC Track, and Wide Tram (with the compatible Moving Bus roadway system).
  • A nice feature of TOMIX is the ability to add their “bus system”, adding
  • Kato offers more single-track viaduct pieces (of limited value), double-track curves (all super-elevated), tighter “Compact” curves and turnouts, and the Unitram street trackage system.
  • Kato offers a number of starter sets that are typically more readily available to purchase
  • Although the systems compete, both systems are similar, and it is possible to inter- connect components.

You can read this article on the “Design of Tomix and Kato N-Gauge Sectional Track Systems” for a more technical look at the different track systems.

The Tomy Bus System

Around 2011, Tomytec introduced a Bus system, similar system to Faller (possibly licensing some of Faller’s technology). The significant difference is that it uses disposable batteries (longer-lasting, but not rechargeable) and permanent magnets for controls.

It also has a motor unit that can be adapted to drive 1:150 bus bodies, and uses modular street segments designed to work with Tomix (a Tomytec brand) Wide Tram track, allowing the creation of streets containing light-rail track and moving vehicles, without the need to embed track and guidewire in plaster, or hand-make the same with sheet styrene.

Compatibility of Tomix / Tomytec products with other N and HO trains

N-gauge, defined as nine (“N”) millimeters, thats 9mm, between the tops of the two rails.

Note1: While it sounds obvious, I have found that the Tomix N-Scale trains will run on standard N-Gauge track (ie track from PECO, ATLAS), as well as running OK on Tomix track- this is not always the case.

Why is this? Slight incompatibilities have been found over the decades, due to varying heights of the metal rails and depths of wheel flanges made by various manufacturers, but in general nearly everything inter-operates.

Note: Tomix does not manufacture OO/HO gauge track, but their HO trains can run on HO and OO track made by other manufacturers.

Note2: This compatibility does not mean other manufacturers’ track pieces use the same connection system as Tomix track (or each other’s track), or that rolling stock coupler systems are always compatible (they sometimes vary even within one manufacturer’s own products).

Trams in SA:

Allow me a moment to reflect on South African trams..

Public transport in South Africa commenced in Cape Town in May 1801, when a weekly coach service from Cape Town to Simon’s Town was announced.

Many years later in September 1862, the ‘Cape Town and Green Point Tramway Company’ was formed, and began operations on 1 April 1863, with a horse-drawn service running on rails from the foot of Adderley Street and out along Somerset Road to Green Point. Both single- and double-Decker horse-drawn trams were used.

In 1879, the Cape Town City Council authorized a second tramways company, the ‘City Tramways Company Limited’, to operate a similar horse-drawn service, initially out to Green Point and Sea Point, and later to the Gardens and the southern suburbs.

Tram services also existed in Johannesburg, where the suburban railway to Boksburg (opened in 1890) was called the Rand Tram. So too where Tram services put into operation in Pretoria and Durban, but eventually all trams in the country were replaced by petrol, diesel and trolley bus systems by the early 1960s.

a few historic photo’s of Trams in South Africa..

Here is a video showing the movement of the Tomytec Moving Bus System and Kato Unitram:

Just a quick word about Gauge and Scale:

As discussed in my article on Scales and Gauges, there is a distinct difference between the terms Scale and Gauge, although many modelers use these terms interchangeable.

N-gauge versus N-scale

While the term “N scale” is used universally the following should be noted:

  • In North America and Europe, model trains that run on N-gauge track are generally built to a scale of 1:160.
  • Manufacturers in the United Kingdom use a scale of 1:148.
  • In Japan, where most rail lines are narrow-gauge, a scale of 1:150 is used
    (but standard-gauge trains, such as the “shinkansen bullet train” are built in 1:160 scale)
  • Since the 9 mm track gauge is the common denominator worldwide, the term “N-gauge” is actually more appropriate.

Well I hope that this Article has sparked your interest in Tramways, and that you too would consider adding a tramway to your layout..

Article by:   Stéfan Stoltz

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