Now that you have finalised the overall layout design and constructed the roadbed for your railway you will be relieved to know that it's now time to actually acquire and lay some track. After all the hard preparatory work some would say that the fun really begins here.
It goes without saying that good quality track is absolutely essential for first-class running and investment in a robust and durable track system (the cost of which is likely to absorb a significant part of your budget) will generate dividends in the long run.
What exactly is track?
I am indebted to Wikipedia for a definition of what the term “railway track” actually embraces.
“The track on a railway or railroad, also known historically as the ‘permanent way’ Note 1 is the structure consisting of the rails, fasteners, railroad sleepers (ties, U.S. English) and ballast (or slab track), plus the underlying subgrade Note 2.
It enables trains to move by providing a dependable surface for their wheels to roll. For clarity it is often referred to as railway track (British English and UIC terminology) or railroad track (predominantly in the United States). Tracks where electric trains or electric trams run are equipped with an electrification system such as an overhead electrical power line or an additional electrified rail.”
Note 1: According to Mike’s Railway History the term ‘permanent way’ was probably used in the early days of railway construction to distinguish the "permanent" track, then under construction, from the temporary track that was used in the meantime, but as he points out the permanent way is anything but permanent as it has to be regularly maintained and replaced.
Note 2: In transport engineering ‘subgrade’ is the native material underneath a constructed railway (US: railroad) track. It is also called formation level. The term can also refer to imported material that has been used to build an embankment.
This chapter will help you choose the best selection of track products for your railroad.
There seem to be an abundance of choices, but a few key guiding principles should be born in mind when making your decision:
Consider track as an investment
At the outset your initial investment in track is likely to be far in excess of your expenditure on trains and this is at it should be. Track is the very core of your railroad and you should not scrimp in this area if you want reliable operation. You can always add more locomotives and rolling stock as your finances permit but an investment in track is for a lifetime.
Whatever make(s) of track you select for your layout always use the widest radius curves you can fit into the available layout space. All prototype track radii are much larger than represented on model layouts. Your trains will look better and run more smoothly with fewer derailments on large radius curves and in the future, you may well decide to run locomotives that require at least 4’ radius (8’ diameter) curves to operate. Ideally one should aim at curves of 10’ diameter or more. Short Radius 1 curves (600mm Radius), that invariably come with starter sets should seldom be used except as a test track or for running trains round the Christmas tree.
Use compatible points or turnouts
When selecting points (sometimes referred to as turnouts or switches) through which your mainline traffic will be running, select those that have at least as wide a radius as the track you are using i.e. for 3’ radius curves use 3’ radius points. I know that is tempting to use the cheaper Radius 1 short versions but they are far from ideal and the extra outlay on larger radius points will be money well spent in the long term. Admittedly for some types of operation, such as logging or mining, it may be permissible to use tighter points in conjunction with tighter curves but otherwise limit the use of the latter to freight yards and sidings.
Use same style of track
Having selected an overall style of track (say Narrow Gauge on USA style solid brass), endeavour to keep subsequent purchases in the same style so as not to “mix and match” too much. Obviously if you get the chance to acquire alternative style track at an advantageous price there is no need to be too prescriptive.
Keeping to the same brand of track can sometimes seem the easiest and safest solution but as most Code 332 track is interchangeable I personally would be more flexible on this issue and at least experiment with other brands. I have a mix of USA Trains, LGB, Aristo-craft, Bachmann and Piko on my garden layout and judicious use of ballast can cover up a lot of disparities. dissimilarities.
Consider elevating your track
Many modellers are quite happy to build their layouts at or near to ground level but there are several reasons why it might be better to raise your track to a higher level more akin to that you might find on smaller gauge indoor model railways. Firstly, by viewing at closer to eye-level you will get a far better view of your trains and scenery. It is also much easier to place your locomotives on the track, attach and couple your cars and also reach any manually operated points. Not being ‘under foot’ your line is also likely to suffer less accidental damage and height will improve drainage. When you reach old age, there is a lot to be said for not having to bend down to operate your railway.
Ensure ease of access
Whatever level you decide to use for your railway always ensure that you can easily reach all sections of the line. Murphy’s Law says that anything that can go wrong will go wrong (eventually) whilst Sod’s Law ensures that if there is a derailment it will be in the middle of the tunnel you have created on the far side of the track and often inaccessible.
Generally, if a layout is larger than 8’ x 4’ (and garden layouts usually are) it will require considerable agility and skill to reach anything in the middle. Try to make certain that you have ready and unimpeded access along the full perimeter of your track even if you don’t need it for operational running. On large raised layouts incorporate some means of either crawling under or over to reach the interior in emergencies without making it obvious e.g. a removable bridge or viaduct.
Plan your layout for reliable operation
Eliminate any track features that are likely to result in derailments of other mishaps. These include ‘S’ bends, excessive grades, poorly located sidings, inadequate clearances, etc.
First a few words on the subject of codes (not ciphers or cryptograms) which in this case refer to the size of the actual rails in ‘thousands of an inch’. I have not yet come across a metric equivalent in widespread use despite the creeping progress of metrication.
We will cover the aspect of the rail itself in greater detail later in this module but unlike full-sized prototype rail, which is produced in a rolling mill from white hot steel alloys (as demonstrated in the following videos) model rail is manufactured from wire which is drawn through dies to produce the required profile.
Use the widest possible curves
In Europe LGB pioneered a strong and durable track which is often perceived as the market leader and whilst the company achieved its aim this was largely gained by compromising on realism (the rail is much too high) and can appear somewhat crude when compared to the more slender and delicate visual realism afforded by well laid finescale track.
However, LGB were intent on achieving maximum rigidity and robustness in a garden environment (they used to promote it by getting an elephant to stand on it without any damage being caused to the track). Notwithstanding the over-scale appearance most manufacturers of large scale track systems have followed the de facto standard set by LGB which also uses a narrow gauge spacing ratio between the sleepers (or ties).
In Large-Scale track descriptions often refer to a "Code". This is rather an anachronistic reference these days to imperial units of measurement (not metric) and refers to the height of the running rail in thousandths of an inch so Code 250 for example is 0.250 inches high and Code 332 rail is 0.332 inches high (equivalent to between 6.7" high at 1:20.3 scale to 10.6" at 1:32 scale.) There is also a Code 215 (0.215 inches) rail which is sometimes used by finescale enthusiasts as it is closest to actual scale and thus, more authentic.
The heavier Code 332 rail is a more solid and resilient rail (and taller than the actual prototype) but LGB were at pains to ensure that it should prove very strong and durable. It also has the largest cross section and therefore the lowest electrical resistance irrespective of what material it is made from. The added height of Code 332 also allows a bit more debris to fall between the rails compared with Code 250 and Code 215 thereby reducing the incidence of debris-related derailments in contrast to the smaller rail profiles.
Nevertheless, some enthusiasts prefer a rail which is proportionate and closer to scale so if you really demand a more high-fidelity, prototypical appearance the Code 250 and 215 appear the most correctly proportioned (albeit at the expense of strength). Llagas Creek Railways and Cliff Barker are two companies who supply the latter sizes.
Some manufacturers also offer Code 200 and Code 180 and even Code 197 (Marklin) and Code 205 finescale rail but these are probably best left to the aficiandos. Bear in mind that these codes are less tolerant of mistreatment and foot traffic but if realism is important to you, and appearance is paramount, it may be worth the risk.
Unless you are fortunate enough to be given a large quantity of a different Code track to extend your line it is best to avoid mixing different codes e.g. 332, 250, 215, as it can be quite tricky to join rails of differing heights and profiles although shims and a soldering iron can sometimes work.
Of cause, rail height and profile (bullhead or flat-bottom) is not the only differences when comparing track from different suppliers.
The material from which the rails are actually 'drawn' (brass, aluminium, stainless steel and nickel-silver) also has a bearing as do the type of sleepers (ties) supporting the rail (Note 1 European or North American, Standard Gauge or Narrow Gauge, Concrete or Wood textured, Colour, Moulded tie-plate details) together with the method of joining track sections together (brass joiners, clamps, miniature screws, etc.) Most of this descriptive detail can be gleaned from the manufacturers websites or printed catalogues.
Note 1 European sleeper strips are normally thicker and 11 to the foot whereas USA style ties are thinner and much closer together, typically at 14 to the foot).
We shall go on to examine these materials in more detail later in this module.
Some types of track e.g. Piko, LGB and Peco, are more readily available in the UK than other popular makes such as Aristo-craft (now becoming quite scarce); Bachmann Brass, USA Trains, Accucraft (AMS), Trainline45, Thiel, etc. although there is usually at least one stockist to be found by consulting the manufacturers dealer network page.
Types of track
These days there is quite a wide and somewhat bewildering variety of garden railway track available world-wide and the following information will help you to make an informed decision whether you are you are seeking absolute fidelity to the prototype or just looking for some reliable track to run your trains on:
By far the most universal track in use today are individual sections of pre-formed sectional track which can be connected together in an infinite number of layout designs for use indoors or outside. Such proprietary track comes in a variety of straight and curved pieces of various lengths / radii together with special points, crossings, etc. This branded track is available from a number of commercial suppliers and comes “ready-to-lay” according to your own requirements.
Most garden railway layouts are laid using this proprietary sectional track - partly for convenience but also because the quantities likely to be required are much greater than that which the majority of modellers would contemplate constructing by hand. It is also customary for manufacturers to include a circle or oval of sectional track in Starter Sets which encourages you not only to begin building your layout with sectional track at the outset but also predisposes you to extend your line using their particular brand of track.
It’s a bit like the companies who make colour printers and tempt you with models possessing an impressive array of features at a seemingly incredible price only to make their fortunes by selling you their own proprietary make of ink at 10 times the price of the equivalent Champagne (and telling you that if you use any other make of ink it will invalidate your guarantee and cause all sorts of problems.)
Fortunately, large scale train manufacturers tend to be far less avaricious and calculating and to the best of my knowledge do not seek to erect artificial barriers to you getting the maximum pleasure from a great hobby.
Whilst continuing to purchase the same brand of track that you may have received as part of a set is certainly expedient there is no real reason why you should feel obliged to do this as fortunately many makes of sectional track are compatible with one another thus enabling you to mix-and-match brands according to price, availability and the type of track formation you wish to represent (but watch out for the exceptions).
The major exception is the rolled steel alloy track included by Bachmann in their Large Hauler Train Sets which is wholly proprietary in nature and is only easily expanded using Bachmann’s limited range of sectional track.
Whether you adopt fixed or flexible track (or a mixture of both) always use the widest possible radius curves that space permits for greater realism, reduced drag and optimum operational reliability. Smaller radius curves are usually much cheaper to buy but many large locomotives perform best with a minimum radius of at least 4' (8' diameter) so avoid minimum radius curves (600 mm) as much as possible even for turnouts (switches, points).
Straights come in numerous lengths from extremely short 1.6” specialist
pieces (around 41 mm) up to 5' (around 1500mm) or even 6’ (1800mm)
whilst curves can be obtained in a variety of wider radii up to about 10'
Radius (equivalent to 20' Diameter).
As well as indispensable straight and curved sections they also offer a number of points (also called turnouts or switches), crossings and buffer stops to add interest to your layout together with all the power and control equipment you will need to operate your trains successfully.
Some firms market a much wider range of products than others. In some respects, track proliferation in terms of sizes and materials might be said to have contributed in some measure to the financial downfall of both LGB (with an unsuccessful venture into nickel plated brass) and Aristo-craft (offering the widest choice of curved track in several different metals, including stainless steel, before they went into liquidation).
Always check out a company’s complete track offering before making your selection. You can find the relevant company websites by clicking through on the links provided elsewhere in his chapter.
Having to depend on ready-made track is not necessarily a limiting factor in the majority of cases because the space available in a garden means it is usually possible to design a layout around the geometric limitations imposed without too much difficulty.
For those modellers who prefer not to be confined by ready-made track options and yearn to create more ambitious layouts with long sweeping curves unconstrained by fixed radii there is flexible (or flex) track. With flexible track you are not restricted to any particular radius and whilst it is more difficult to lay it does give you much more freedom to create your perfect layout.
It also has the inherent advantage in that longer runs involve fewer rail joints which help to maintain electrical conductivity. You can also adjust the route of the track more easily should you need to whereas relocating fixed radius track sections could be more complex.
Bending "Flexible" Track
Unlike flexible track used for smaller gauges (which
can be 'flexed' or bent quite easily) the heavy profile
45 mm brass rails used in large scale modelling are
far too rigid are much more difficult to bend and
requires a specialised rail-bending for best results.
Reliance on hand-bending techniques is rarely
successful and the cost of rejects due to 'kinks' and
wasted rail can quickly mount up if you lack the
requisite skills. .
Flexible Track Components
Because of the need to bend the rails, large scale flexible track sometimes comes unassembled in the form of separate components i.e. a bundle of loose rails (usually Code 250 or Code 332) in long lengths and individual short plastic sleeper (tie) strips (often the same length as pre-formed sections) and the necessary rail joiners, as opposed to fully assembled.
Once these rails have been “bent” to the required curvature (not as easy as it sounds often resulting in costly rejects and considerable frustration according to enthusiasts who do this regularly), and depending on the type of railbender employed, you may then have to feed the individual sleeper strips onto both rails to produce long lengths of track. This process prove to be “finickity” requiring patience and persistence so if you do not possess these qualities in abundance I respectfully suggest that you stick to using pre-formed track.
More recent designs of Rail Bender can bend two rails at once with the plastic sleeper web in place which would seem to avoid the problem of dismantling "ready-built" trackwork.
All the evidence suggests that it is far better to invest in a precision rail-bending machine that will form the rail smoothly and accurately into the desired shape.
These specialised tools usually have three wheels (or sometimes more) that bear against the “web” of the rail – two fixed on one side and an adjustable one on the other. Tightening the adjustable roller using some form of crank applies force to the rail sufficient to gently bend against the other two rollers as it passes through.
The amount of pressure you apply is largely a matter of trial and error and comes with practice but unlike irreparable “kinks” caused by attempts at hand bending rail the mechanised process can sometimes be reversed to reduce the amount of curvature.
These useful devices do not come cheap but if you have a lot of track to construct such a tool can prove invaluable. It still requires a fair bit of practice but you will probably have less wastage at the end of the day.
Rail Bending Machines
The best machines for this task (particularly the Swiss precision models) can be quite expensive but are a "must" in order to achieve the best results. The picture gallery below shows just some of the rail bending tools available.
Never try to bend brass rail around a knee or object – this is only likely to kink it.
After creating your curved track the inside rail will be quite a bit longer than the outer rail and will need to be cut evenly using a hacksaw or miniature drill cutter. It is also possible that some rail benders do not always bend the last inch or so of rail and this may also need to be removed in the same manner.
Always use the widest possible radius curves that space permits for greater realism, reduced drag and optimum operational reliability.
Smaller radius curves are certainly cheaper but many large locomotives perform best with a minimum radius of 4' (8' diameter) so avoid minimum radius curves (600 mm) as much as possible
If you discount plastic and the tin-plate track which comes with the ubiquitous Bachmann Train Sets (which is unsuitable for outdoor use) rail is usually made from either Brass; Aluminium; Stainless Steel or Nickel Silver. All these metals have their advantages and disadvantages but overall brass seems to have the edge.
All of these metals can be mixed on your layout if you wish apart from aluminium which can apparently react adversely to other metals.
Rail itself comes in two principle types: Bullhead and Flat Bottom. Bullhead rail was widely used on Britain's standard gauge railways until being replaced by the cheaper Flat Bottom rail in the 1950‘s. It was claimed that Bullhead rail would last longer as when worn it could be "turned over" and used again but this did not work out in practice. Most European and American railways used the Flat Bottom type of rail from a much earlier date.
Of course, if you intend to use battery power you can always use all-plastic track but there seem to be a dearth of suppliers for this particular solution although Hammonds Toys in Salt Lake City market 45mm gauge plastic sectional track made in China by Trainline.
Rail Materials in Detail
Solid Brass Rail
Solid brass rail is probably the best choice for most people. Whilst it is very bright when new brass track starts to tarnish as soon as it is laid and after a year or two it will have developed an attractive “patina” which will make it less conspicuous. Normal passage of the trains (assuming they have metal wheels) will keep the rail surface fairly clean but you will need to carry out regular cleaning as part of your track maintenance regime in order to ensure good connectivity. There are many ways of doing this without damaging the rail head including a purpose designed track cleaning pad or even a piece of rolling stock specially adapted with cleaning brushes or mildly abrasive pads.
The propensity of brass track to oxidise is offset by the many benefits of brass in terms of good electrical conductivity; wide availability both as sectional and flexible track; ease of working (especially when it comes to soldering) and the relatively low cost – although prices have increased considerably in recent years.
Stainless Steel Rail
Railway enthusiasts who use stainless steel track report that they virtually never have to clean it (except for spot cleaning due to the odd bird dropping, etc.). This will significantly reduce the amount of maintenance work required on your layout but comes with certain disadvantages.
Firstly, stainless steel track tends to be a lot more expensive than other types unless you can negotiate a good deal. It is also in limited supply as few of the major manufacturers produce stainless steel track in significant quantities and there are a lot fewer points (turnouts); crossings; etc.
The metal is also less conductive than brass necessitating far more power feeds; rail clamps; jumper leads; etc. to avoid the dreaded voltage drop. Stainless steel rail is also very shiny and whilst you can always paint it adherence may be a problem.
The main advantage of aluminium track is its low cost compared to other materials although it tends to be available only as Flexitrack from a relatively small number of vendors. It also requires a very solid roadbed to support it (it flexes a lot more than brass) but offers good conductivity and low drop characteristics.
Aluminium does have some reported problems. Primarily, the metal is not as strong as brass so if you or anyone else accidentally step on it you are likely to damage the rails.
Secondly aluminium absorbs moisture which can condense on the rails in damp climates. I recall this from my youth when my father replaced the roof of an old caravan with aluminium that it was always very wet early in the morning. This deliquescence (there’s a word you might not have expected to see in this manual) would need to be wiped off before running commences as otherwise locomotives may slip. Garden rail enthusiasts in drier climates may not find this to be such a problem.
Another issue could be that when the aluminium begins oxidising it produces white aluminium oxide powder which coats the track and anything else it comes into contact with. In the worst case this can prevent trains running altogether until it is removed. The problem is said to be more acute when metal wheels are used. Whilst these help clean brass track they appear to exacerbate the condition of aluminium rails.
If you intend to use only battery power this may be something you can live with.
A further complication arises when connecting feeds to the rail which does not accept soldered joints too well and you made need unsightly rail clamps rather than conventional joiners to ensure conductivity. On balance I would not recommend for beginners.
If you have purchased a Bachmann Starter Train Set, newcomers will already be familiar with the rolled steel alloy track supplied with the majority of these sets which are designed for beginners to the hobby.
Although quite acceptable for use indoors this track should never be used outside except perhaps on a warm dry day and then lifted after each running session. Left outside the rail will corrode in weeks and eventually turn to a pile of rust within a year.
You can still obtain Bachmann proprietary track from some outlets but it is often no cheaper than the superior brass version so I always advise my customers that if they intend to operate their train outdoors they would be wise to invest in durable weatherproof track at the outset. It is not that much more expensive and should last a lifetime if properly maintained.
Nickel Silver Rail
Nickel Silver track is designed to combine the low maintenance benefits of stainless steel with something approaching the conductivity of brass. It is commonly used on smaller scales. If nickel plated brass the coating wears off quite easily and one needs to be careful not to remove the layer on the top of the rail thereby losing the main benefit.
It is rather expensive and LGB’s foray into this market with just such a product a few years ago proved generally unsuccessful and the range was eventually abandoned and might well have contributed to their bankruptcy at the time.
While some modellers may claim that all plastic track is perfectly OK in the garden environment when running battery powered locomotives, I have yet to come across a serious enthusiast who would advocate its prolonged use
You might get away with it for a few years if your layout is mainly in the shade during the hotter months (not always a problem in the UK) but if exposed to direct sunlight it will exhibit UV damage and could melt altogether in very hot weather.
Apart from the plastic sectional track that is supplied with sets at Christmas there is surprisingly little of it on the market and only comes in limited lengths – usually one foot straights and radius 1 curves.
I would suggest that this material is best avoided other than for children’s indoor layouts.
By far the most readily available sectional track (such as LGB, PIKO, Aristo-craft), etc.) is made from heavy solid brass rail mounted on injection moulded imitation wood-textured sleeper (tie) strips usually made from UPVC plastic with UV protection against the effects of the sun's rays. Even longer lengths of flexible track trend to use multiple short sections of webbed sleepers.
In general 45mm track originally designed for Gauge 1 has sleeper spacings typical of standard mainline operation whereas that intended for G Scale Narrow Gauge layouts comes with more irregular wood-grain sleepers to replicate the type of track usually found on such lines but there are no hard and fast rules.
Track designed to represent North American railroads incorporate small plastic spike-heads to retain the rail in pace whereas European style track usually has moulded chairs and bolts just like on the prototype.
There are also differences in the sleeper spacing between USA style standard gauge track (which has 14 narrow ties to the foot) and European style narrow gauge track (which has 11 wider sleepers to the foot) but if you happen to buy the “wrong” track for your layout don’t worry unduly as this is not too noticeable when bedded in the ballast.
Track & Rail Connection
Pre-formed brass rail joiners (often referred to as 'fishplates' in the UK) are the primary means of connecting adjacent track sections and the strength of this connection can vary between makes. If these joints are too loose it is likely to result in poor electrical conductivity and the dreaded "voltage drop".
I have found the joiners on Piko track are particularly tight but other suppliers, notably Aristo-craft, USA Trains and now Bachmann Trains, have overcome this potential problem by adopting a 'belt and braces' approach and achieve a more secure joint by the use of tiny 2mm hexagonal screws to sevure the rail joints. If your eyesight is not too good these can be very fiddly to insert and tighten and it is all too easy to lose the screws - usually a sheet of white paper or card located beneath the joint avoids undue frustration.
As well as the small hexagonal screws for securing rail joiners between track sections you can also use various third-party proprietary clamps (such as those made my Hillman, Piko and Splitjaw Inc. to ensure strong physical alignment and electrical continuity. These clamps work very well but I have yet to see one that doesn't look rather unsightly when used extensively (see some examples below).
TIP: Cut off the vertical location tab spigots on the bottom of each rail joiner to be able to slide the sleeper strips closer at the rail joints
Unless you are using rail clamps it is also advisable to pack the joiners with a conductive grease (graphite based pastes are ideal) as this will help to reduce the risk of voltage drop even on very large layouts by inhibiting the ingress of dirt and oxygen. This does not apply to insulated plastic joiners used to create isolated sections where the deliberate intention is to create a "bad joint".
Another popular method, especially with longer track runs, is to solder wire jumper leads across each rail joint to supplement the rail joiners. As previously mentioned you can also use proprietary special metal clamps designed for the purpose which can be used in lieu of or in addition to the metal joiners depending on the type (although to my mind they tend to detract from the appearance of the layout). These clamps (examples pictured above and below) can also be useful if you wish to "lift" a piece of track or point at some future date.
Some garden railroaders using flexible track prefer to solder each rail together to create a stronger mechanical joint thus ensuring good electrical conductivity. There are various arguments voiced in the model railway press against this practice claiming that you need to have expansion joints to allow for movement during hot weather or that soldering only creates problems when you wish to lift and rearrange track. The jury is still out.
Sleepers or Ties
It is also possible to buy sectional track mounted on hardwood sleepers e.g. GarGraves Track Corporation (USA) who have been supplying just such a range since 1940 and Cliff Barker Rail Track also offer a similar solution. Wooden sleepers are generally preferred when building your own track as they are relatively cheap to produce and can we treated with preservative. They also 'weather' a lot more realistically than the plastic variety.
As mentioned previously the range of pre-formed sectional track sizes available can vary considerably according to the manufacturer. At present Bachmann are unable to offer more than a few straights and curves in brass (small radius points are now becoming available) whereas Aristo-craft used to pride themselves on the huge range of individual sections in brass, stainless steel and even aluminium (or aluminum as they refer to this metal in the States) which can be ideal for battery operated locomotives.
Unfortunately the latter brand is no longer in production but occasionally small batches come onto the market.
The next Module 12 comprises abridged particulars of each of the ranges from most of the major manufacturer's (for much more detail click on the button hyperlinks in green under each heading to visit the appropriate website.)
Too many to reference here but I recently came across an old archived video posted by Garden Trains LSOL in 2003 which brings into question how accurate some Code 332 rail tracks are in practice.