Once you have an idea of the type of operation your track plan will call for, it’s time to start on the plan itself. Be aware that there are two main types of track available in most scales— sectional and flexible, with the only alternative being to hand-lay your track.
- Sectional track — Each piece has rails attached to plastic or wooden ties. The ties are attached to each other as well as the rail. The sections are not bendable. The sections are pre-determined lengths and in the case of curves, are pre-determined slices (arcs) of a circle. Each end of the section has metal joiners that attach to the next section. Sectional track is a great way for beginners to get up and running right away, but there are downsides. Every join between rails is an opportunity for misalignment or derailment, especially if arcs are pulled or bent into shapes they were not intended to follow. Every wheel will click on every single join it crosses. This can get noisy and drown out some of the great digital sounds that modern trains are designed to generate. If the track is not attached down to the surface it is sitting on, the joins can separate from the vibration of trains passing over. Nevertheless, sectional track has its uses and unless you intend to hand lay every piece of rail by hand, some sections, such as switches, are inevitable on any layout.
- Flex track — Flex track has rails attached to ties like its sectional counterpart, but the ties are attached to each other in such a way that they can slide back and forth a small amount. This lets you bend the flexible metal rail of the track around a curve. As you do this, you will see the difficulty of flex track, that one rail on the outside of the curve will seem to be getting shorter than the other rail on the inside of the curve. This will require that the track be carefully cut with special tools. In most cases, extra ties will be removed. There is no question that the track must be secured down to its surface or it will wander out of place. There are limits to how small a curve can be made with flex track. Some curves will be too small for your equipment to run on and the train will simply derail. Only very short equipment can run on very tight curves.
The advantages of flex track are several: The sections are two or three times longer than most sectional pieces. Fewer rail-joins mean fewer opportunities for trouble. The fact that rails must be trimmed allows you to stagger the joins, so that there is a small distance between the join on one side and the other. This increases reliability too. Fewer rail joins improve the electrical situation as electricity flows better along a solid rail than through sections joined by little metal clips.
- Hand laid track — As mentioned before, there is the third alternative of laying track using individual wood ties, spikes, and rail pieces. This is an option for the serious and experienced railroader only. This approach requires intense precision in maintaining the gauge (the distance between the rails) constantly across the entire run of track everywhere. Needless to say, patience is a key element.
At SMARTT, most of our track plans call for a variety of curve radii as well as frequent long sections. For this reason, we mostly employ flex track in construction of a layout. As mentioned above, some sectional components, mainly track switches, are essential to layout building. On rare occasions, we have commissioned special switches for unique situations be hand laid by a specialist for us. Otherwise, we always go with available commercially produced track, usually flex track. In this way, we can provide a neat, unique, and reliable product with a reasonable assembly time.
In model railroading, the track height(profile)that determines how real the track looks is generally referred to by a Code number. The Code number tells the user how many thousandths of an inch tall the metal rail is. Taller rails allow the rolling stock to have deeper flanges on the wheels. This looks less realistic to seasoned fine scale model railroaders, but it increases operational efficiency and reduces derailments for the casual hobbyist.
Code numbers are used for all model railroad scales from N thru G, though for 3 Rail O Gauge, code numbers are not used much in practice.
In HO scale, Code 100 (0.100” tall) is a common code for track accommodating rolling stock with deeper flanges, often found on European HO or British OO models, and ready-to run train sets in the U.S., while Code 83 (0.083” tall) is much more realistic for “high iron” mainlines on North American HO models. All HO scale wheel sets that conform to NMRA RP-25 wheel standards will run on Code 83 track.
Generally, the Code should be consistent across a layout, but in the case of wheels that do conform to NMRA standards for the scale in question, one can use lighter rail (lower height), just as the real railroads do, in seldom used spurs, yards, and branch lines. For example, in HO, with NMRA compliant wheels, one can use Code 70 in yards, and even Code 55 on lightly used industrial spurs, etc.
For wheels that do conform to NMRA standards, a typical mainline track guideline for the popular scales is as follows:
- N Scale: Code 55
- HO Scale: Code 83
- S Scale: Code 100 / 125
- O Scale: Code 148
Next time – ways of creating the actual track plan
from the October, 2011 SMARTT Newsletter