Model Railroad Track – Choices are plentiful, which is right for you?
Whether you’re just starting out or you’re a seasoned modeler, every model railroad needs good track. It’s important to choose the track type that best suits your needs.
One Piece at a Time: Sectional Track
If you like to simply run model trains, want to get up and running quickly, or you don’t wish to mimic real-life track arrangements, sectional track might work best.
Sectional track is great for beginners. It consists of fixed-radius curves, multiple lengths of straight track and turnouts (also called switches) that match, or are compatible with, the basic track sections. Rail is often slightly oversized for sturdiness. If you are beginning, or started with a basic starter train set you are likely familiar with sectional track.
Roadbed vs Conventional Track
Generally speaking there are two common types of sectional track, roadbed and conventional. Here are some explanations.
Roadbed track combines rails, ties and ballast roadbed (on real railroads ballast is crushed rock that holds track in place and aids rainwater drainage) into a single track piece. Some roadbed track has hidden electrical contacts for added reliability. In recent years roadbed-style track has become standard in many train sets from Z to O Scales.
Roadbed-style track is a great way to get started because it provides consistent electrical reliability – track pieces lock together in alignment making it great for beginners. It can be set up anywhere (even on carpet) and its profile negates the need for roadbed, so you can simply affix it to plain sub-roadbed like a wood or foam tabletop.
Its appearance looks like heavy-duty mainline track with perfectly aligned ties and manicured ballast – a far cry from the look of real track or track on secondary lines and branches. There are methods of weathering, painting and ballasting that will improve realism, but it’s another step you have to consider if realistic appearance is important to you.
The disadvantage to roadbed track is once you choose a system, you’re locked into its geometry including curve radii, turnouts and straight lengths. Some manufacturers make only a limited selection of track pieces, so you may have to compromise as you design your track plan. Very few systems have conversion track sections to join with other makers’ systems, but most do offer a transition piece for connecting to conventional track. That said, there are many large layouts built using roadbed track because of its reliability.
If you can see through the spaces between the ties on your track then you have conventional track. Nickel silver rail molded onto injection-molded ties is a quick definition for this kind of track in most scales. At one time conventional track dominated the model railroad industry – it was standard in train sets and was available anywhere trains were sold. While still popular with layout builders and very widely available, it has been largely replaced by quick-setup roadbed track in train sets.
Conventional track offers far more choices for track planning. Many advanced model railroads are built using conventional track. It’s available with a variety of rail sizes in most scales, so fine scale modelers can choose scale-height rail, also referenced as rail “Code,” and ties that look like wood or concrete.
Sectional conventional track, like roadbed track, is fast and fun to set up – but you must set it up on a suitable base or roadbed. Because this type of track is open, using it on uneven surfaces, carpet or dirt is not advisable. Many modelers choose strips of cork or foam roadbed between the track and benchwork/layout table to suggest a subgrade and reduce noise and vibration.
Unlike with sectional roadbed track, most conventional track is interchangeable with that of other makers provided the rail size, or “Code,” is the same. Some manufacturers also offer transition track or rail joiners so you can mix rail sizes. A variety of turnouts that match or complement sectional track geometry are available. As with roadbed track, the geometry of conventional sectional track “systems” limits your track planning if you stick solely to sectional track.
Looking for more flexibility, why not flex track?
Flex (flexible) track is available in most model railroad scales and each system has a unique appearance. Here is a sampling of HO and N scale flex track sections. As you can see in the second image the track is easily bent to custom curvatures.
In addition to fixed-geometry sectional model railroad track, flexible conventional track is also available, and that’s where conventional track shines!
Flex track allows nearly unlimited possibilities for adding various curves because it has no fixed geometry. It can be bent to very gentle or sharp curves. Use care to not make the curves too tight – 18″ to 22″ radius is usually the sharpest for most equipment to run smoothly. Additionally, turnouts that mimic real track geometry are also offered, mostly for use with flex track, however, they still work with conventional sectional track. With flex track an added advantage is that there are fewer joints in the track over long distances, so electrical continuity is much improved.
Flex track, however, requires more skill if you’re planning a layout beyond what sectional track offers.
If flex track appeals to you but you’re just starting out, it’s a great learning opportunity. Using flex track requires special, but easy-to-learn skills. Practice track cutting using flush cutters, rail saws or a rotary tool with a cutoff disc. For smooth curves, learn how to use a radius tool to plot out a centerline on your sub-roadbed. Some modelers use a mix of sectional and flex track out of convenience or if they’re expanding a sectional track railroad.
Finally, you’ll have to affix your model railroad track to your roadbed and layout base so it stays put. Don’t attach it directly to plywood or boards – it’s noisy and real track is usually elevated for drainage, so it just won’t look realistic enough.
When you consider purchasing track from Walthers.com we’ve put together some search links for you to browse model railroad track more effectively.
https://www.walthers.com/products/layout/track-and-accessories/flexible-track/show/120 – Flex Track
https://www.walthers.com/products/layout/track-and-accessories/roadbed-track Roadbed Track
https://www.walthers.com/products/layout/track-and-accessories/sectional-track Sectional Track
Model Railroader has great track articles here: http://mrr.trains.com/mrvp/how-to/track