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Saturday, July 1, 2006

Lessons Learned - TRACK

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I am not so far away from being a newbie myself. Oh, I have lots of experience in just about everything technical that you can imagine, but last year I started all over with Model Railroading. Here are some of the track related gotchas that have hurt the most.

TRACK
Oh how simple, but it gets weird almost before you start. Now, I am talking HO here so the first gotcha is what code track are you going to buy? As I wade through the issues that befell me, I need to let you know that I did not consider any of the Atlas, Kato, Bachmann or other brands of track and roadbed combinations. I was already set on 'track' on cork. I am sure those choices have their own liabilities.

The obvious choices for me were code 83 vs. code 100. Everywhere I read, it said that code 83 was more realistic, the inference is that by design, code 83 is better. The answer is maybe. Here is what I have learned about code 83 vs. code 100 rail.

Strength and durability code 100 is more durable and substantially built than 83. This means code 83 is more flexible and delicate. Code 83 will kink easier than 100. The ties are more delicate, the track requires a solid foundation, it will not support itself and it is easier to over stress the ties pushing nails into the holes. Oh, yea, the holes are not all the way through the ties code 83. So if you forget to push them through with a sharp needle or drill bit, you will have to drill your own holes. Believe me, you will discover you forgot to punch the nail holes after the track is soldered in and down..

Brands of track
After you have been in the hobby a while you start to notice little things in magazines and TrainBoard articles; stuff like I use ME track or Shinohora turnouts or Peco flex track. The point is simply, there are any number of manufactures of flex track, not all track is Atlas. . .

Code 83 Compatibility
Code 100 is pretty compatible with all the manufacturers of flex and turnouts. Code 83 is NOT universally compatible. For example, Peco brand turnouts have been granted saint hood by many serious model railroaders. As a newbie, you can be sure someone will advise you to scrap all your Atlas turnouts and go Peco. Now code 100 Peco turnouts and Atlas track are pretty much compatible and the problems are negligible. Not so with code 83 Peco and Atlas track, woe, woe, woe is me. Examine the next two pictures carefully and you will see radical differences between Peco, Atlas and ME code 83.

Peco turnouts and ME flex track
Look at the smooth joints on the top of the back rail.


Click to enlarge


Peco turnouts and Atlas flex track
Look at the rail mismatch on the top of the back rail. It takes a lot of filing to fix a problem like this. Cars will derail here!

Click to enlarge


Sectional or Flex
I first started with sectional track. Loads of problems with sectional track, especially in the radius available. The largest that Atlas currently makes is 24". IF you want to run a 4-8-4 or heavy weight 85 ft passenger cars, 30" is the minimum. You can make 24" work but it is not pretty! Sectional track as 3-4 times the rail joiners which are potential electrical problems, which means more soldering and more kinks.

KINKS
A Kink is that subtle misalignment from a radius perspective of one side of a rail joint to the other. Kinks are very hard to see from the side or any angle except straight down from above. Even then, they are hard to see. One of the easiest places to get a kink is joining a turnout to flex track at a curve. I've been able to kink straight sections of track too! Nasty suckers!

Solder or not to solder
If you are going to build model railroads, U gots to learn how to solder. It is not optional. With sectional track you could probably get by with out soldering the joints, but your trains would not nun well, with Flex track, I don't think you can get very far without kinking your track if you are not soldering. And to be clear, just because you solder does not mean you won't find kinks in your layout either.

Soldering every joint can only be practical when you have a temperature regulated train room. Your railroad will experience radical 50 - 75 degree temperature changes and the track will move and buckle if you do not have adequate expansion joints (gaps). You have probably already seen this by now. If not, you will in the spring and fall for sure.

If you are using mainly sectional track, soldering 3 - 5 sections of track together and putting a single feeder on the block makes a lot of sense to me. You will save time over putting in all those feeders and greatly increase your operational reliability.

If you are using flex track, soldering them together in curves is almost a requirement. I say almost, because keeping the kinks out of code 83 in a curve without soldering can be a challenge from my experience. Actually, the feeders are only necessary whenever the rail joiners are not making good electrical contact.

My first layout was sectional, my second is now all flex. I changed because I like the smoother, quieter operation.

Insulated Gaps (added 1-8-2007)
One of the dirty little secrets of DCC is that insulated gaps are required for reversing loops, power districts and any form of current block detection. Like many, I have been using the little plastic rail joiners to make my insulated gaps. An alternative to using plastic gaps is to cut your own. To make cut your own gaps, use your moto-tool with the cutoff wheel and slice the rail where you want the gap. I'd caution that you do this at least 3-4 inches from the nearest joint and where the ties and the 'spikes' are in good condition. After you cut the gap, insert a small piece of sheet styrene the thickness of your cut and use epoxy to hold the styrene in place. I use slow drying epoxy as it has better overall bonding properties. Let it dry for a day, then use a #11 blade to trim the styrene flush especially on the top and inside. Using your rail paint, color the styrene to match the rail and run trains. Using styrene cut in gaps is desirable in these situations:

  1. When your track is securely mounted in place.
  2. When you consider the big plastic joiners to be objectionable details on your layout.
  3. Certainly if your track is already ballasted.


More to come, I am not nearly through learning on this subject. . .

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