Track Selection Tips

[ Home ] [ Up ] [ Previous Page ] [ Next Page ]

This page differs from my other pages in that much of the information presented does not come from hands on experience. Instead, the page is more of a FAQ page with the information gathered from a variety of sources. One of the most important sources of information is communication between individuals on the now defunct Large Scale On-Line Workshop and General Chat Room.

The information presented in this page will be of most use to new entrants to our hobby. Those of you that have already laid your track are already experts on track.



The selection of track for a large scale layout is an exercise in compromise. No one type of track is best in all or even most circumstances. To select the "best" track for your particular situation you will have to weigh many track characteristics against your requirements for performance, cost, installation effort and visual appeal.

Most large scale track replicates modern prototype rail profiles. Hundreds of profiles have been used in the history of 1:1 scale railroading. Over the years, the "tee" profile has survived as being the most practical.

In the earliest days of American railroad practice, rail was often hardwood with an iron strap spiked to the top. There were no facilities in North America to roll iron rail so rail was either imported from England or improvised. In some cases, wooden poles were used with pulley shaped wheels to traverse the "pole roads."

Strap rail was high maintenance and dangerous. The strap ends would tend to bend upward under repeated loads and if the end bent high enough, a wheel could catch underneath it and roll the strap right off the wood beam. The wild strap, called a snake head, would be forced upward right through the floor of the car causing great damage and often death.

Iron rails were a great improvement, but the material was often very light, maybe 30 lbs per yard, and didn't wear exceptionally well. Iron was brittle and susceptible to breakage resulting in derailments and wrecks. Train speeds were slow in those days, so even with the accidents, the death totals didn't get too high.

With the advent of the Bessemer steel process and the construction on rolling mills in North America, steel rail began to replace iron rail as the standard rail material. Rails were cut to 39' length to allow the rail to be transported on a standard 40' flat car. The most common method of attaching rails are spikes driven into the heavy wooden ties. Each rail attached to the next rail by steel plates and bolts. This joint has a little give to allow for expansion and contraction.

The next advance was continuous welded rail which was delivered in lengths up to 2000'. The rail was still spiked to wooden ties. These long rail lengths are laid in hot weather and welded together. When the rail contracts in the cold, it goes into tension and the cross section contracts as the rail stretches.

On heavy traffic lines, the railroads are changing some lines to concrete ties which use spring clips to hold the rail. The object is to reduce costs in tie replacement and maintenance. This changeover has been going on for many years, so it must be working or the railroads wouldn't continue to do it.

Over the years rail weight has been steadily increasing from the early 30 lbs/yard to 165 or more lbs/yard for the heaviest mainline rail.

[ Top ]

Track Materials

The most common large scale rail materials are brass, aluminum, nickel silver and stainless steel and formed steel. Each of these materials has its own advantages and disadvantages. The formed steel track is the track that comes with Bachmann sets.

Rail Materials

Rail Material Brass
(66% Cu 34% Zn)
(100% Al)
Nickel Silver
(64% Cu 18% Zn 18% Ni)
Stainless Steel
(0.1% C 18% Cr 8% Ni 73.9% Fe)
Formed Steel
(0.5% C 99.5% Fe)
Hardness Hard Dead Soft (usually alloy 1000) Hard Very Hard Hard
Oxidation Resistance Fair Poor Good Excellent Poor
Electrical Resistivity with respect to Brass 1 0.67 7.2 23 3.3 to 5.6
Thermal Coefficient of Expansion (ppm/degreeC) 16 24 15 TBD TBD
Color when new Bright Gold Dull Gray Silver Dull Silver Bright Silver
Color when naturally weathered Dull gold to brown Dull Gray Dull Silver Dull Silver Heavy rust
Solderability Excellent Not Solderable Excellent Poor Good
Availability Excellent Excellent Good Good Good
Cost Moderate Lowest Highest Moderate Low

Note the extreme range of resistivity between the materials. Stainless steel has 23 time the voltage drop per unit length as compared to brass, nickel silver is 7 times. I've used brass as the standard of comparison as most track powered layouts use brass rail. Also note that there several types of brass that I know of, the data provided is for the most common type of yellow brass. LGB brass rail is reported to contain some lead so its electrical characteristics will be somewhat different. Also note that nickel silver has no silver in it. This is an old jewelers phrase that means "nickel that looks like silver." There are also several kinds of stainless steel alloys available. I do not know the specific alloy that is used in any particular track.

Also note that the rail size has a lot to do with the effective resistance. Smaller rail has less cross section and therefore more voltage drop. The cross section changes by the square of the height (if the profile remains constant) so that Code 197 rail has about 3 times the resistance and voltage drop as Code 332 rail.

Bachmann formed steel track is not solid so its voltage drop will be much higher than indicated by its resistivity. Out of doors, it will rust away in no time. Lionel brass track is formed as well, but enough material left to make it an effective conductor.

[ Top ]

Battery or Track Power

The choice of rail material is profoundly impacted by the method that is used to power the trains. In the case of battery power the electrical conductivity, oxidation resistance and solderability of the rail material means virtually nothing. In the case of track power, these parameters are critically important.

Oxidized and dirty rail provides better traction than clean rail. If you run track power, you are going to have to keep your track reasonably clean so you won't get as much traction as the battery folk. I like to run my brass rail just clean enough to work, but not clean enough to get slippery.

Track Power. Aluminum is generally considered to be a poor choice of rail material for track powered trains although it has been used successfully. Brass rail costs somewhat more than aluminum and works well although it oxidizes more than nickel silver or stainless steel. Oxide is only one part of the overall track cleaning problem and in many cases, oxide is not the dominant problem in reliable power delivery to track powered trains. See Track Cleaning Tips for more information on track cleaning. Nickel silver is MUCH more expensive than brass. Both nickel silver and stainless steel have much higher electrical resistance than brass so that feeders will be required more often. The color of brass is less than desirable, but the rail will eventually darken when used out of doors, LGB rail darkens more than Aristo rail. Brass rail will not darken much by itself indoors. It can be painted, but only on the outside edge of the rail. The top and inside edge must be left unpainted. Rail joints in aluminum rail cannot be augmented by soldering so that they should be augmented with some sort of clamp or screwed connection. With brass or nickel silver rail, soldered connections, screwed connections, or clamps can be added to reduce or eliminate conductivity problems at the rail joints, see Track Soldering Tips for information on soldering track.

Battery Power. Aluminum is probably the best choice for battery power as it is easily the least expensive rail, easiest to form and easiest to cut. Since cleaning is not typically required, aluminum's oxide is no problem. Aluminum's color is not great, but it can be painted, top and sides, to get any color that you would like.

Indoors. Rail choice is also impacted by the environment. In an indoor environment most forms of rail contamination do not exist. Even the oxidation of brass rail is no big deal so cleaning is not a large issue. Except for its color, brass rail is probably a good choice.

[ Top ]

Sectional, Flex or Hand laid Track

Large scale track comes in three varieties, sectional track, flexible track or hand laid track. Sectional track has the advantage of making it easy to knock together a quick layout and is very good for trains run on the floor. In a permanent layout, this "advantage" becomes a liability. There are more joints in sectional track to cause trouble.

Sectional track restricts the track plan to fixed radiuses and unless some sections are cut, it also can be difficult to work into some situations. There are lots of rail joints to get dirty, work apart, or be misaligned. Sectional track sometimes costs more or less than the equivalent length of flex track. It depends on who's you buy and how you buy it.

Flex track typically comes in 5' or 6' lengths of rail and 1' lengths of tie strips. The track must be assembled and bent to follow curves. The rails must be cut to length where a full length section will not fit. While this extra work makes installation of flex track somewhat more difficult than sectional track, the advantages outweigh the effort. There are fewer rail joints to cause electrical or mechanical troubles. The track can follow any path at any reasonable radius curve and can be bent into transition curves which materially enhance the visual appeal and operational reliability of the trackwork.

Flex track can be cut with either a hacksaw, razor saw or a motor tool with a flex shaft and a cutoff wheel. Always wear eye protection when working with a motor tool, the cutoff disks break often and fly off in any direction with considerable force. Stainless steel track will be considerably more difficult to cut than the other materials.

While flex track normally comes as separate pieces, Aristo 5' straight sections can be made into flex track with a little effort. The screws that hold on the tie strips can be removed and discarded. The tie strips are slipped off the track and every other joiner strip on both sides is cut so that each tie strip can flex in either direction but is still one piece. The strips are threaded back on the rails and the track can be bent by hand to the desired form. The tie strips will keep it in gauge. When the rails are trimmed, new #53 holes are drilled for the joiners and tapped to #1-64 (close enough to the metric thread). A drill and tap set that is the exact metric size can be purchased from Aristo.

Hand laid track is the most work of the three types and it has all the layout flexibility advantages of flex track. It also is far and away the best looking. Since I've only hand laid short sections on trestles, I'm not an expert. To properly hand lay track you will need a rail bender and at least two good rail gauging tools. A pair of pliers modified to hold spikes is nearly essential. I used redwood ties and MicroEngineering steel spikes. The steel spikes will eventually rust slightly and bind the spike in the tie. The spike holes in the ties should be predrilled to prevent the ties from splitting as the spikes are driven.

[ Top ]


Model railroad rail size is measured by "Code." This is simply the height of the rail. Code 332 rail is 0.332" high. Code 332 rail is very big rail, it scales to between 6.7" high at 1:20.3 scale to 10.6" at 1:32 scale. In any case, it represents rail that was heavier than ever used in the prototype. Standard LGB rail is Code 332. This size was chosen for durability in outdoor railroad applications in deference to scale. It can be walked on or even driven over with a car. To service the desire for modeling closer to scale, other manufacturers have produced rail for use in large scale in Code 250, Code 215 and even Code 197 rail in various materials. If you want smaller rail yet, go to the stuff made for O, S or even HO scales.

Code 332 rail has the advantage of durability and toughness, especially in the harder materials. It also has the largest cross section and therefore the lowest electrical resistance for any given material. The smaller rails use less material per unit length and you would think that they would cost less except that lower demand tends to result in costs that are similar to the larger rails.

The smallest rail profiles sometimes require the use of fine scale wheel flange profile to keep the flanges from bumping on the spike heads. Especially in aluminum, smaller rail is more susceptible to damage from being stepped on unless the roadbed is very firm.

Visually, the smaller rails have a distinct advantage. They do look much better proportioned with respect to the trains. To choose your rail size, you need to determine what kind of rail your prototype road used in your scale. If absolutely correct scale is not critically important, then use the larger rails.

[ Top ]


There are two common methods for implementing ties, wood and plastic. Wood ties can either be purchased or made on a table saw. Track with wood ties is invariably hand laid. Plastic ties are available as individual ties or in tie strips from several sources.

Tie Issues

Wood Plastic
Weather Resistance Strongly depends on wood used, fine grain redwood heartwood preferred Usually good, most materials UV stabilized, but not all of it holds up well
Weathering Weathers like the prototype Will tend to whiten with age
Appearance Excellent Fair
Track Attachment Track is usually spiked Ties slide on rails, plastic clips hold rail in place
Ease of Installation Lots of work Easy

LGB standard ties are spaced 11 to the foot. Most prefabricated bridges and other equipment that is designed to fit on or under the ties will fit this tie spacing. Aristo makes ties in this spacing, called "Euro" spacing. They also make "American" tie spacing that comes 14 to the foot. The ties are also smaller.

I used Aristo American ties, however if I had it to do over again, I would have used the Euro ties. Due to the narrower spacing between the ties, rail joiners won't fit between them at the regular tie spacing so the spacing at track joints is somewhat larger. This regular increase in tie spacing stands out visually as somewhat unpleasing. Also, the rail clips cast into the ties are smaller on the American ties so that if you step on a tie end, it is more likely that the tie will pop off the rail and it is really hard to get them back on without damaging them.

070824_girr_tie_strip_comparison.jpgAristo and LGB ties are UV stabilized so that the sun won't tear them up. After 10 years in the SoCal sun, the LGB ties in the turnouts are fine. However, about 1/3 of the Aristo tie strips have simply disintegrated and the rest are fine. There was apparently a quality control problem with the content of the UV inhibitor on some of these strips when they were made. The bad ties seem to be all in the same 5' sections of track, if one is bad, they are all bad so this problem would appear to be batch related.

[ Top ]

Rail Joiners

There are four common types of joiners used for large scale track, the LGB type slip on joiner, the Aristo type screwed joiner, the clamp type joiner and insulated plastic joiners. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

The LGB slip on joiner is the easiest to use with sectional flex track. It grips the rail fairly well, is easy to connect and disconnect and interfaces well with other brands of Code 332 track. However, after repeated connections and disconnections it gets loose. It can be tightened with a pair of pliers. For semipermanent layouts, there are plastic clips that connect between the end ties of the sectional track to hold the track together.

Aristo uses a joiner similar to the LGB joiner but it is augmented with small stainless steel Phillips head screws on the older track and hex head cap screws on the newer track. The joiners are looser than LGB joiners and do not hold together well without the screws which are a major pain in the backside to install. A Kadee 5-finger grabber tool is indispensable in starting these screws. However, once they are in, they provide a very stable mechanical and electrical joint. Plastic track clips are not required.

There are several aftermarket companies that make clamp type rail joiners. These are fairly expensive items, but they work very well. Reliable electrical and mechanical contact without the need to solder rail jumpers is the main advantage. There are types designed to clamp over existing joiners or to replace existing joiners. There are also types designed to match differing rail sizes.

Rail clamps are especially handy in connecting turnouts to regular track. If the joinerless type is used, the turnout can be lifted out of the trackwork for maintenance without disturbing the adjacent trackwork.

Insulated rail joiners are designed to allow mechanical track alignment where an electrical block is required. In this case, some alternate form of mechanical connection is required to hold the track together. On LGB track, the plastic clips work fine. For Aristo track, a black cable tie wrapped around the ties works but is less attractive AND you have to use UV stabilized cable ties. For hand laid track with wood ties, a wood runner under the ties is effective. If a rail block is needed within a track section that has already been installed, it is possible to cut a gap with a saw or motor tool and insert a small piece of styrene into the gap that is held in place with super glue.

Bachmann track uses a plastic probe to guide the rails together and is generally not compatible with the other types. Lionel track has a brass pin in the end of the rails to guide them. These pins can be cut or pulled and then regular rail joiners will work well enough on Lionel track.

[ Top ]

Track Tools

I've laid only a few feet of hand laid track on trestles, but I've found that there are some tools that are absolutely necessary to do the job right. You'll need at least two good rail gauges, a rail bender, a handheld drill (preferably battery powered with a #70 or so drill bit) and a pair of spiking pliers. For the most part, you'll buy the first three, but you'll have to make the last item.

closed spiking pliers Fortunately, making a pair of spiking pliers is easy. All you need is that cheap pair of needle nose pliers. Use the ones that have the jaws than never closed properly and are made of soft steel. Modifying a pair of good pliers is not only a waste of a good tool, but the better steel will be harder to modify. The object is to make a channel that will hold a spike securely and provide clearance for the spike head.

open spiking pliersUse a motor tool with a cutoff wheel to grind a groove straight up each jaw for about half an inch. Grind the grooves deep enough so that you can hold the pointed end tightly. Then cut a deeper groove crosswise about half the spike length back from the end. This groove will clear the spike head. You should then be able to grab the head end of the spike in the cross groove. Then grind the tip of the pliers flat if they are not flat already.

Spiking is then simple. Set the location of one rail and drill a small hole in the tie next to the rail on both sides, offsetting the holes so that they aren't in the center of the tie. If you don't drill the hole, you probably split the tie. If the both holes are exactly in the same grain line, the chances of splitting the tie anyway are greater. Grab the spike in the pliers and drive it into the predrilled hole as far as the pliers will let it go in. Then release the spike and close the pliers and use the flat end to press the spike home. Do the both sides of the rail for some distance and then use the rail gauges to locate the other rail and spike it down.

[ Top ] [ Home ] [ Up ] [ Previous Page ] [ Next Page ]

This page has been accessed hit counter times since 22 Feb 1998.

© 1998-2007 George Schreyer
Created Feb 22, 1998
Last Updated December 7, 2007