There are a number of different kinds of model rail track to choose from. The main choices are :-
Set track or Flex track? The traditional train set comes with a circle or oval of track. This consists of 'set' pieces of straight and curved sections that are assembled to make the required shape. Usually there are 12 sections to make a circle, sometimes 8 or 10, depending on the manufacturer. The advantage of this kind of track is that it can be quickly set up on the table (or floor - although this is not recommended in most cases) and quickly pulled apart and packed away later. The disadvantages are that the pieces get loose with repeated assembly and disassembly. Also you are 'stuck' with certain formations based on the fixed geometry of the track.
Flexible track, as its name implies, can be bent to any shape you want. The track is usually sold in 1 yard (914mm) lengths and may be laid curved or straight or any combination you wish. This means that the track must be nailed down to a board and also needs the rails trimmed to length as you bend the track. Curves can start gently and become increasingly tighter as on the prototype so that your trains don't lurch into a tight curve like a roller coaster.
It does not matter what kind of track you use. You can even use both kinds together. What you use may depend on your preferences. Flexible track is more work to set up, but the extra time and effort rewards you with less joins, more realistic looking curves and often a cash saving as flex track is usually cheaper than the equivalent length of set track.
Steel, brass or nickel-silver rails. Model rails are usually made from one of these materials. The track found in many train sets has steel or brass rail. This is slightly cheaper than nickel silver and over many thousands of sets, probably represents more of a saving for the manufacturer than for the buyer. However, if you intend to construct a permanent model railway, it is STRONGLY suggested that you avoid the temptation to save a few dollars on using steel or brass railed track. Nickel-silver is the only way to go. And here's why.
All metals have an oxide form on them when in contact with the atmosphere. The oxide that forms on nickel silver happens to be electrically conductive, whereas that which forms on steel and brass is not. What this means is that you will find that trains tend to run erratically on steel and brass rail after a while and you need to clean the rails frequently to overcome this. Using nickel-silver rails means you will have better running trains and less time spent cleaning rails.
The rail material is easy to differentiate. Steel is a silver colour (or
rusty if not looked after properly). You can also use a magnet to
find out if it is
steel. Brass of course has its own distinctive colour/s. Nickel silver is silver
coloured, but has a slight gold tint to it.
Track cleaning. This is one of those subjects which brings much debate from modellers as to the 'best' method to use. So I shall begin with the methods NOT to use (in red) followed by some of the popular methods that are generally accepted.
Roadbed or standard track. Yet another
choice is whether to use standard track or the newer varieties that include a
base which simulates the ballast under the track. The advantages of the roadbed
track is a more realistic appearance without the mess involved in adding loose
ballast and then having to glue it. Of course it is also more expensive. The
roadbed track appears in a number of train sets - especially USA ones. The main
reason for the appearance of this kind of track is that it is somewhat more
stable on temporary layouts and also better if you should decide to set it up on
the floor. If standard track is put on the floor, especially on carpet, then no
matter how clean you think it is, trust me, grit, hairs, fluff, cotton and
things you never knew were on the floor will get inside and ruin the mechanism.
Some brands of roadbed track can still be joined
with standard track (pictured below) but you will need to make a ramp to adjust
the height for the standard tracks.
Ideally you should have your trains running on a permanent board or base rather
than loose on a table. The floor is far from ideal as fluff, dirt and hairs can
easily work their way into the mechanisms on model trains (you'd sometimes
wonder how it does this, but I've removed many metres of hair from model
locomotives brought in for repairs over the years. So believe me, it does). Also the risk of damage from
being trodden on is very real. Some kinds of track are have a base under them to
represent ballast (Roadbed track, discussed above). If you must set up
track on the floor for any reason, then these types of track are better for floor use.
Standard track has gaps
between the sleepers - which allow the hair and fluff through to the models.
What you construct your board from is a matter of
personal preference. Chipboard or particle board is a common material as it is
relatively cheap and doesn't require lots of framing. But it can be rather heavy
too. Many people choose to build a layout on the ubiquitous 8' x 4' sheet of
chipboard as it is a convenient size to build a HO or OO scale model railway.
But keep in mind that if it is against a wall, you may have trouble reaching a
stalled or derailed train if it is at the back of the layout. This size also
tends to dominate the average size room.
While particle board is popular, plywood is also very popular. And lighter. It does need more framing however. Also think about the scenery you intend to build. Do you really need all that flat table surface if most of it gets covered by scenery? And what about scenery below track level? By cutting the table-top either side of the trackbed, you leave open framework for more realistic scenery. Also you save weight if you need to move the layout. There are other materials useful for making a base for your model railway. Construction style extruded polystyrene foam (the blue or pink insulation kinds - not the expanded white packaging stuff) has been shown by many to work well. It is strong and lightweight. You may not even need any timber at all with this method.
For more ideas, call in and see our range of books on building a model railway.
Laying track. Fortunately, you won't need any of the expensive gear these guys are using. Track can be nailed or screwed to the baseboard. It can also be glued down, but best not to do this until you know it is in the right place and you have run trains on it to know it shall work. The important thing to remember when laying track is that the surface should be smooth. A small lump on the chipboard may look harmless, but if the track is curved, it only has to lift the inside rail slightly higher than the outer rail to cause derailments to occur. Also be wary of rails sitting on rail joiners rather than in them. Run your finger along the joints. If you can feel them catch your finger, then they will likely derail a train too. When nailing the track down, try not to drive the nail all the way in. This makes it easy to remove later if you decide to move the track and if you add ballast to your track later, you can pull the nails out as the ballast glue will hold the track in place later. Also, driving the nails in too far can distort the plastic sleepers and cause the the rails to move inward at the top. This may result in derailments as the wheel flanges ride up on the rail.
Page updated 16/10/2012.