BUILDING A GARDEN RAILWAY - PART 7

Choosing the Track



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. These days there is a wide and somewhat bewildering variety of garden railway track available world-wide. 


Sectional Track

Most garden railway layouts are laid using proprietary sectional track  - mainly because the quantities likely to be required are much greater than that which  the majority of people 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. Whilst this is convenient there is no real reason why you should feel obliged to do this as most makes of sectional track are compatible and interchangeable with one another as we shall discover later in the chapter. The major exception is the 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.  


The majority of straight sections supplied with sets are 1' (or c.300 mm) in length whereas the curves are invariably 2' radius (or c.600 mm) and commonly referred to as Radius 1. However, most G Scale track suppliers offer a range of track pieces for expansion purposes. Straights come in numerous lengths from short pieces (around 41 mm) up to 3' (900 mm) or even 5' (1500 mm) whilst curves can be obtained in a variety of wider radii up to about 10' Radius (equivalent to 20' Diameter). As well as essential straight and curved sections they also offer a number of points, crossings and buffer stops to add interest to your layout but some firms market a much wider range of products that others so always check out competing offers before making your selection.


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.


In this chapter I will focus on the myriad choices available for G Gauge (45 mm) but there is also an expanding selection of  track for smaller gauges (such as 32 mm), especially if you have the requisite skills, patience and time to build your own track from parts sold by specialised suppliers.



Rail Type

If you discount 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 can be mixed on your layout  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  plastic sectional track made in China.


Track Type

By far the most common 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 designed for Gauge 1 has sleeper spacings typical of standard mainline operation whereas that intended for  G Scale Narrow Gauge operation 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 has moulded chairs and bolts just like on the prototype. There are also differences in the sleeper spacing between USA track (which has 14 narrow ties to the foot) and European track (which has 11 wider sleepers to the foot) but this is not too noticeable when bedded in the ballast.


Track & Rail Connection

Pre-formed brass rail joiners are the primary means of connecting adjacent track section 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, have overcome this potential problem by adopting a 'belt and braces' approach and achieve a more secure joint by the use of tiny hexagonal screws at rail joints. If your eyesight is not too good these can be very fiddly to insert and tighten and it is all to 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 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).



Whatever the type of joiner make sure to pack them with a conductive grease (graphite based pastes are ideal) as this will reduce the risk of voltage drop other than on very large layouts. 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


Wooden Sleepers

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.


Flexible Track

For those modellers who prefer to create more ambitious layouts with sweeping curves that are unconstrained by fixed radii there is flexible (or flex) track. With flexible track you are not restricted to any particular radius and many modellers prefer the freedom this allows. Unlike flexible track used for smaller gauges (which can be easily 'flexed' or bent) 45 mm brass rails are more difficult to bend and require a specialised rail-bending tool for best results. For this reason flexible track sometimes comes unassembled as a bundle of components  i.e.  loose rails and tie strips which have to be slid on to rails after being bent to the required form. The best machines for this task (particularly the Swiss precision type)  can be quite expensive but are a "must" in order to achieve the best results. Reliance on other hand-bending techniques is rarely successful and the resultant 'kinks' and wasted rail can prove just as costly. The picture gallery below shows just some of the rail bending tools available.

 Wide Radius Curves

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. Whist smaller radius curves are usually much cheaper to buy many large locomotives perform best with a minimum radius of 4' (8'diameter) so avoid minimum radius curves (600 mm) as much as possible except at points and in sidings.


Codes?

LGB track is often perceived as the market leader and whilst certainly strong and durable this is achieved 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 scale 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). Notwithstanding the over-scale appearance most manufacturers of large scale track systems have followed the de facto standard set by LGB which uses a narrow gauge spacing ratio between the sleepers (or ties).

Track descriptions often refer to a CodeThis is rather an anachronistic reference these days to imperial units of measurement (not metric) and refers to the height of the running rail in hundredths 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.) 

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 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 compare with Code 250 thereby reducing the incidence of debris-related derailments compared to the smaller rail. 

However, some enthusiasts prefer a rail which is proportionate and closer to scale so if you really demand a more prototypical appearance the Code 250 and 215 appear the most correctly proportioned (albeit at the expense of strength). Bear in mind that these codes are less tolerant of mistreatment and foot traffic but if realism is important to you and 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.

Availability

Some types of track e.g. Aristo-craft, Piko and to a lesser extent these days, LGB, are more readily available in the UK than others such as USA Trains, Accucraft, Trainline45, Thiel, etc. although there is usually at least one stockist to be found.



Abridged Particulars of each Manufacturer's Range (for much more detail click on the link in green under each heading).


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 (and no points) whereas Aristo-craft 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.


Accucraft AMS Code 250 and 332 G Sale 45mm garden railway track is possibly not that well known to UK modellers but they supply an extensive range, including flexible track) which is fully compatible with other makes such as LGB, Aristo-craft and Piko. This quality track has flat bottom brass rails and is ruggedly designed for both indoor and outdoor use. The authentic looking sleepers are UV resistant and have spike-head or bolt detail as per prototype..


Click here to see a detailed description.


Aristo-craft, on the other hand, market an impressive assortment of pre-formed track sections in no less than 4 materials (brass, stainless steel, nickel-silver and aluminium); USA Standard Mainline and Narrow Gauge sleeper variants  and no less than 15 radii curves up to a massive 20' diameter. It is probably the most comprehensive range offered by any manufacturer and a good choice for ambitious layouts where flexible track is not the preferred solution. Whilst the rail height is the same as LGB it is not quite so wide saving on brass and no doubt contributing to the lower price.

Availability in the UK is fairly good and they sometimes make special offers via their retailers - unfortunately their more generous USA deals (e.g. 3 for 2) are not usually available in the UK

Note:  As reported elsewhere on this website Aristo-craft closed their doors for business on the 31st December 2013 as the company were no longer viable. The good news is that members of the Polk  family have resumed activities as Polk's GenerationNeXt LLC and their new website is due to go live in early February 2014. Initially they seem to be concentrating on selling the old Aristo-craft Track at discount prices (a fresh consignment has just arrived from China) but it is not clear whether they will continue to distribute within the UK. Watch this space for further developments.

Click here to see a detailed description.


Until recently Bachmann for instance (reputably the largest model train manufacturer in the world) only produced, an extremely limited selection of proprietary track modules comprising 12" (300 mm) straights, small radius 1 (2' or 600 mm radius) curves, a pair of radius 1 manual points (or turnouts) and a 90° crossing.This proprietary Steel Alloy Track is made from thin strips of hollow tubular steel bent into the shape of a rail and then tin plated. Bachmann still supply circles or ovals of this track with their popular complete train sets but is only really suitable for indoor use.  Best avoided altogether by serious modellers except for constructing indoor test tracks or running your train around the Christmas tree.

The company have now decided to introduce a completely new range of G Gauge brass track based on North American Narrow Gauge practice in order to compete more effectively in the market. They have released an initial range of 2 lengths of straight track and 3 radii of curved track all consistent with the conventional 332 Code profile and has USA sleeper pattern (tie spacing). It looks as though they intend to expand this range in due course no doubt to include points. Hopefully they will eventually include this improved track as standard in their Big Hauler Train Sets as they have started doing in the UK with the popular Thomas the Tank Train Sets.

Click here to see a detailed description.

PECO ( 'pe-ko' (not to be confused with PIKO  pronounced 'pie-ko') produce their SM32 and 45mm Gauge Track in the UK.  Peco SM32 garden railway track is ideal for 16 mm 1:19 scale narrow gauge models using 32mm gauge. It is also suitable for use as a coarse O Gauge track.  With its slightly irregular 'weathered' finish sleepers, Peco SM32 track captures the narrow gauge character to produce a strong, yet readily flexible track, ideal for 32mm gauge garden railways.

Peco G - 45 track, with its moulded wooden type sleepers and code 250 Nickel Silver rail, creates a more prototypical appearance than the heavier Code 332 rails of other types. Peco G-45 track can be joined to AMS Code 332 track using special Peco rail joiners

Click here to see a detailed description.

USA TRAINS

USA Trains brass track is very similar to that produced by Aristo-craft but does not appear to be as widely available in the UK or come in quite the same variety of types and materials. Nevertheless there is a choice of 4 straight sections (6", 12", 24" and 60") and no less than 5 curved sections up to 20' Diameter (4', 5', 8', 10', 16' and 20' Diameter). Their range also includes wide radius remote controlled switches (points).


For Garden Railway projects most modellers now opt for 45 mm gauge track which is generally more stable, durable and easy to lay but this is not the only choice. 32 mm Gauge track is popular when modelling a 2' line (especially for Steam Powered locomotives) as it provides the most accurate representation of the prototype and there are devotees of other gauges but on balance, 45 mm remains the gauge of choice for the majority. One of its major advantages is the degree of compatibility between track from different manufacturers. Most brass Code 332  track looks very similar and any difference between brands is usually quite subtle (probably to avoid patent and design infringement suits) enabling enthusiasts to extend their layouts with virtually any make according to whatever brand is available and priced advantageously at the time of purchase. (Bachmann Steel and Peco Code 250 are the notable exceptions having differing profiles).

 

HOMEMADE TRACK

As mentioned previously it is quite possible to make your own track (or at least a way of creating flexible track to your precise requirements) if you are that way inclined and several suppliers (such as Tenmille,  Sunset Valley Railroad, etc)  offer "kits" of parts to make this approach a little easier although it is not one recommended for the average beginner. 

Essentially home made track is constructed from wooden sleepers cut to length from hardwood square-section (10 - 15 mm cross-section) and then treated with preservative against the elements and other infestations. Commercially available flat-bottom or bullhead rail is then affixed in position on one side using suitable pins or tiny chairs. If using the latter you will probably need to slide these on first. The second rail is then laid on the other side maintaining a 45 mm distance between the faces of the two parallel rails using a track gauge to check for accuracy. Care needs to be taken when forming into a curved shape and it is common to use a jig for this purpose. The construction of matching point-work incorporating complex frogs and blades is an art in itself and better left to the experts although pre-formed components obtained from specialist suppliers can save you a lot of work.


 CONNECTING POWER FEEDS TO THE TRACK

When you come to fixing the electrical feed (s) to the track from your control equipment you have a number of options. You could just rely on a simple solder joint but if your soldering skills are anything like mine it is better to use a form of proprietary commercial connector or clamp to ensure good electrical conductivity. LGB and PIKO make excellent brass connecting clamps which incorporate wires that are independently fed to each rail and screwed into position. You can also use brass rail clamps similar to those used at rail joints described above. Accucraft AMS rail power connector clamps are particularly well made for Code 332 rail section.


Examples of PIKO, LGB and AMS POWER CLAMPS 

 


 LIST OF MAJOR TRACK MANUFACTURERS

The principle manufacturers of quality track purely in alphabetical order are;


Despite the location of the supplier don't be surprised if the track has been manufactured in China like everything else!  Abridged particulars of each manufacturer's products can be found by clicking the appropriate links in this Chapter.

As I mentioned before, and cannot stress enough, whatever type of track you ultimately decide to use the best advice is always to use the largest radius curves that will fit into the available space. Minimum radius curves (e.g. 2 foot or less) should be avoided, except for entries to sidings or passing loops. If you aim for a minimum radius of 4' this should ensure that the majority of G Scale locomotives on the market both now and in the future will be able to negotiate your layout so that you have no regrets at a later date.

Maintenance

Track also needs regular maintenance if it is to provide years of reliable service.  Clean the tops of the rail often with a suitable abrasive (such as the LGB Track Cleaning Block Cat.No. 50040) for optimum electrical contact and make sure that point blades are free to move with no debris.   It is possible to acquire adapted track-cleaning locomotives or wagons fitted with special abrasive pads affixed to the underside to automate this process and reach places e.g. in tunnels, which are hard to access. These need to be run round all the track at regular intervals for optimum effect. 

Make sure that dead-leaves and plant detritus are removed and also anything metal that could cause a short-circuit. Nothing should be allowed to project above rail height.

You will also find that other events serve to frustrate the running of trains such as mole-hills, fallen branches, etc. which all have to be coped with just like on a real railroad.