Kato and the N-Scale Revolution

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Stepping into a brand new hobby can be an overwhelming experience. In the model train community, this is especially true considering we have so many avenues to choose from. From massive G-Scale engines that traverse layouts running through backyards to entire Z-scale cities that fit on a small desk, model trains can come in all shapes and sizes meaning finding the right fit can be a daunting task.

For many, finding the right scale is a fun challenge that allows us to test our imaginations. Perhaps Z-Scale is a little too on the “micro” size for you, and maybe G-Scale takes up just a tad too much room. Enter N-Scale, a size that’s a decent notch above its Z-Scale counterpart, and delivers a great realistic experience. 

With a variety of manufacturers making N-Scale trains, few have been able to capture the operating experience that Kato has with this smaller scale. From detail to functionality, Kato has been tackling everything from diesel engines, steam locomotives, passenger & freight cars, trams, and numerous layout accessories. Their work in N-Scale model trains has earned them a solid reputation amongst both operators and collectors. 

Kato: From Tokyo to the States

Per their ‘About Us’ page on their website, Kato first started operations all the way back in 1986 in Tokyo, Japan with their first release coming in 1987 in the form of a GP38-2 diesel engine. The launch would prove to be a mild success helping N-Scale model trains gain traction in both visibility and popularity within the Japanese market. Over the course of the 90s and at the start of the new millennium, Kato would see their popularity skyrocket into the stratosphere as they began to expand their market overseas to North America and Europe. 

While Kato didn’t necessarily do anything way outside of the norms of model train manufacturing, their success can be attributed to both consistency and execution. If you scan through Kato’s Wikipedia entry, you may notice that they’ve been making model trains since the late 1950s. The birth of Kato USA in 1987 saw the introduction of Kato Digital, and helped the Japanese manufacturer gain a massive foothold in the North American market. The US headquarters were based out of Schaumburg, Illinois roughly 30 miles north of Chicago. Their consistency and reliability were top notch and most could expect two things with every Kato steam engine:

  • Powerful 5-pole motors
  • Blackened metal wheels

Again, nothing too outside the norm – just a great game plan followed up with solid execution.

Several products have helped Kato become a household name in the world of N-Scale trains – from their patented UniTrack products to the 1996 release of the 2-8-2 USRA Heavy Mikado, both of which we’ll cover in more detail later in this article. 

Kato 2-8-2 Mikado: A revolution in N-Scale Steam

With a number of releases in the 90s, Kato would begin a steady rise to prominence, and while many engines had small impacts on the market, none would have the effect that the 2-8-2 Mikado steam engine did. The 1996 release of this famous steam locomotive would put Kato on the map, and on the radar of collectors around the world. As read on Spookshow.net, the 1996 2-8-2 had a massive appeal to model train hobbyists, though that didn’t mean the release was perfect. The 1996 Mikado was more of a DIY kit – those of you that run N-Scale locomotives know how challenging this can be, with Spookshow’s author likening the process to that of “plucking the eyebrows of a gnat” - yikes! Despite this, the 1996 Mike would prove itself to be the first ‘superstar’ within the world of N-Scale locomotives, and would further inspire three more re-releases of the world famous locomotive. 

In 2001 the 2-8-2 Mikado would see the first re-release with vast improvements in detail adding a graphite smokebox and firebox for improved aesthetics. Mechanical improvements to the drivers, adding a semi-automatic coupler, and a strengthened draw-bar only made the Mikado stronger, further creating a greater desirability on the N-Scale market. The success of the 2001 model was massive, firmly cementing Kato amongst the big boys of model trains like Lionel and MTH. 

The 2007 release of the 2-8-2 would see Kato perfect the N-Scale superstar with factory installed shell detailing and the addition of automatic couplers – a feature that was a long time coming. Massive success would once again follow the Mike locomotive promoting Kato to do one more release of the 2-8-2 with the “Kobo Custom” version in 2008. This release would see the inclusion of an animated firebox and DCC controlled couplers further making this a hobbyist-favorite. The DCC controlled couplers haven’t been re-released since, and according to Spookshow’s author, Kato doesn’t appear to have any future plans for this particular feature. 

T-Trak: The Birth of UniTrack

Originally introduced in 2000 during the Japan Association of Model Railroaders (JAM) International Model Railroad Convention, T-Trak refers to “a modular model railroad system based on standards for module size, track placement, track interface, and electrical connections,” per Wikipedia. These dioramas primarily feature Kato’s famous UniTrack, with the two now being synonymous with one another in the present day. 

The T-Trak/UniTrack concept was first introduced during the summer of 2000, and caught the attention of Jim Fitzgerald, founder of the NTRAK Modular Railroading Society and his wife Lee-Monaco Fitzgerald, a very talented layout designer in her own right during their trip to Japan. Lee Fitzgerald would then take it upon herself to heavily protomot the T-Trak concept over the next three years through a newsletter that promotes and showcases various N-Scale trains and accessories. Lee would build elaborate dioramas and share her experiences through a series of articles through the NTrack newsletter. After a few years of both testing and promoting the T-Trak concept, Lee would see the fruits of her labor as the first T-Trak/UniTrack kit would be released in January, 2003. 

As the popularity of T-Trak rose, Kato’s Unitrack would soon be the ‘unofficial standard’ track section for all T-Trak dioramas. T-Trak dioramas are built to N-Scale specifications (“T-Trak”), therefore making Kato’s UniTrack an ideal candidate for the concept. Providing UniTrack sections featuring a variety of lengths, Kato was able to offer a variety of options for modelers whether it was building a simple single T-Trak diorama or a more elaborate double diorama.  

As the new millennium rolled on most T-Trak kits featured Kato’s famous Uni-Track, and would soon become the go-to option for modelers that ran N-Scale trains. Kato once again found success through a simple, yet effective game plan with UniTrack. By creating a solder-free method of assembling track sections on layouts, Kato was able to offer the most simple method to build a grand layout. 

A Kato Trainz Experience

With a history of solid products and a great reputation of reliability, Kato products have found themselves on a variety of retail shelves with Trainz being no exception. Trainz.com has proudly been carrying Kato’s UniTrack products, and has just about every Kato steam locomotive you can imagine grace our shelves. 

I won’t delve into the massive catalog that Kato has to offer, but I will cover a couple of my favorite steam engines that the N-scale manufacturer has produced over the years. 

One of the first models I had to bring up is Kato’s version of the world famous Union Pacific Big Boy. Known for their ability to capture intricate details on one of the smallest scales that model trains have to offer. This particular Kato steam locomotive is a carbon copy of the real-life #4014 Union Pacific Big Boy boasting dual core-less motors and brass flywheels making hauling a fleet of freight cars a breeze. Personally, I’d like to thank the previously mentioned 2-8-2 Mikado for laying down the groundwork for their current locomotives. I’ve got a direct link here, if you’re wanting to take a closer look at one of Kato’s finest models. 

Much of the same features accompany the Southern Pacific Daylight 4-8-4 locomotive that were mentioned earlier in Kato’s Big Boy. Kato does a masterful job of producing DCC friendly locomotives, and the EM13 Motor Function Decoder found in this 4-8-4 is a great example of how they do it. Boasting incredible pulling power (up to 18 cars) and a long life-span, it’s no surprise that this is one of their best selling N-Scale locomotives to date. From directional headlights to illuminated number boards, Kato doesn’t miss a beat when it comes to adding all of the bells and whistles to their locomotives. I’m not sure that any N-Scale manufacturer has been able to offer the authentic experience that Kato has for N-Scale operators. 

I can’t go on any further in this article with mentioning some Kato UniTrack products. There’s a reason why the early T-Trak kits came with Kato’s Unitrack. Producing some of the sturdiest roadbeds in the N-Scale game with some of the most precise radius curves, Kato has cemented themselves as the go-to for layout design. We’re fortunate enough at Trainz.com to be able to offer a variety of different Kato UniTrack options from 15 degree - 45 degree curved track sections and a whole slew of different straight Unitrack sections to go along with those curvy sections. 

In addition to Unitrack and steam locomotives, there’s also tons of Kato diesel locomotives to choose from as well like the SD70ACe and C44-9W. Kato certainly isn’t a one-trick pony when it comes to locomotive production – also offering great N-Scale electric locomotives if you’re looking to put some pantographs to work. Variety is the spice of life, and that’s all Kato tends to cook with! There’s also a ton of Kato layout accessories on our shelves too, that you can check out here. 

Kato Into the Future

With new N-Scale trains being released every year, Kato doesn’t appear to be slowing down at all for the foreseeable future. They’re always adding to their catalog and expanding their inventory, so there’s never a lack of options from the Japanese based giant. We’re fortunate enough to offer a variety of Kato products at Trainz.com for your N-Scale layouts – making your layout design a breeze. With a bright future of exciting new releases on the horizon, we’re committed to keeping you updated and informed on all Kato has to offer. You can check out our full Kato catalog on our website, who knows, maybe that Big Boy from earlier might just find its way into your cart. 

Works Cited

“About Us.” Kato USA, https://katousa.com/about-us/. Accessed 2 January 2024.

“Kato (Japan) 2-8-2 USRA Heavy Mikado.” Spookshow, http://www.spookshow.net/loco/kato282.html. Accessed 2 January 2024.

“Kato Precision Railroad Models.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kato_Precision_Railroad_Models. Accessed 2 January 2024.

“T-Trak.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T-Trak. Accessed 2 January 2024.

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