Chapter 5 : Makin' Tracks & Getting Wired

You've got your benchwork up and your topographical foundation set. Are you ready to get down to the nitty-gritty of deciding on your train route? It's time to lay some track and wire 'er up!

Wow! Just where do I begin? For the first year or so of your hobby, you may find it much easier just to buy tracks than to scratch build them. (Yes, those truly devoted to this hobby actually build their own!) And that's fine. The point of this hobby -- and any hobby for that matter -- is to simply enjoy yourself.

As a newcomer to the subject, jumping in with both feet, trying to do everything at one time -- build tracks, scenery, even cars -- may be a bit too overwhelming.

Many people prefer just purchasing products -- all their products, including scenery and other structures -- and just enjoy the locomotive and its cars. And you know, that works for me!

But if I'm going to talk about tracks, I may have to, by necessity talk about manufacturers. It just comes with the territory. When I mention certain brands or models of tracks (as well as other products), please don't take these to mean an endorsement of them in any way, shape or form.

As you progress in the pursuit of this leisurely pursuit, you'll see what I mean -- and you'll discover some favorites of your own!

Talk to just about any veteran model railroader and he'll (or she'll) tell you in no uncertain terms: good trackwork is essential to your operation.

In the next breath, they'll probably start talking about some horror story of somebody - or even themselves when they first began -- of trying to do a "quick start" at the hobby and laid their rail down quickly.

They soon discovered that they encountered derailments (trains falling off tracks). Locomotives and cars may have been damaged beyond repair in the process. It's possible even some of the scenery they worked so hard to build got damaged.
"Quick and haphazard" doesn't work for the real life-size railroads and it certainly doesn't work for your model either.

Makin' Tracks: What to expect

Before you even start, it's best to know a little overview of the track itself, what's it made of, what form you can expect to find it in when you buy it, the types and grades available to you.

Track, for the most part, is composed of one of four materials. You find it in brass, zinc-coated steel, steel, and nickel sliver. Of these, brass and zinc-coated are the most common, but some hobbyists swear by nickel silver.

Brass is a good conductor of electricity, but the care and cleaning associated with it tends to be a bit overwhelming sometimes.
For on thing, the oxide that forms on it is a poor conductor. That tends to inhibit the optimal working of the train.

In order to keep the train in running condition, you need to clean the rails frequently with track cleaning block. The other way to remove the oxidation is to keep running your cars over them.

The zinc-coated steel also has more than one disadvantage.
When the zinc coating wears away (as it eventually will), it leaves the steel exposed. Yes, you can see the problem right away: steel definitely rusts.

While nickel silver is not quite as good as conductor of electricity as the others, its residual oxide works every bit as well as a conductor as its original coating, providing you with reliable, consistent track no matter what the circumstances. Go figure!

Bringing your first set home

When you buy your first model railroad, you'll notice that the layout of your set is not . . . well, terribly imaginative.

For the most part, your initial model comes with a circular layout. Perfect for under the Christmas tree, but a little boring to watch for any length of time outside of Christmas morning!

Before you bring this set home, though, you may wan to give some thought to where you'll be setting it up in your house (yes, other than the under the tree!)

Your circular set, if it's an S gauge will probably be, once laid out, about 40 inches in diameter. This means you should plan on a space about this size.

Now you could place your set on the floor to start, or you could put a large piece of plywood on a tabletop to get you started. The choice is yours.

Circle or oval?

Some sets, instead of providing you with just a circular route, give you some straight track as well. This offers you the opportunity to have an initial layout of an oval.

If you use two pieces of straight track, putting one on either side of the layout, it creates an oval route for your locomotive so approximately 40 by 50 inches.

If you use two straight tracks on either side, effectively doubling your straight away on both sides, your oval should be about 40 inches by 60 inches.

You'll love this set up for a while. Guaranteed. But, I'm also guaranteeing you that you'll only love it "for a while." One thing I know about the average model railroader is his craving for change.

Before long, you'll be ready to go beyond the basics. After all, a simple circle or oval just isn't a very realistic replication of the prototype, now is it?

Beyond the basics. Yep, that's what it looks like your ready for. The look and feel of working with tracks and setting up your "railroad line" the way you, the CEO of your miniature firm sees fit.

Shapes, lengths: What you'll need!

Don't look so smug. That CEO thing is just a title, remember! And you, the CEO don't have a lot of employees to hand off the work to. So I hope you've loosened that tie and rolled up your sleeves!

Though you've decided on the material of your track, you still have a few more decisions to make before you can start laying track.

Do you know, just as a matter of curiosity, what lengths or shapes of track you're going to lay out for your model? This is one of those very big considerations. After all, the size, shapes and lengths of your individual tracks will eventually dictate the shape of your ultimate layout.

Several manufacturers make sectional tracks that easily snap together in varying lengths. Some of these manufacturers actually mount their track on plastic roadbed. These sections come not only in straight tracks but curved as well with radii of 15 inch, 18 inch and 22 inch.

But in addition to that, if you buy the Atlas brand, you'll be able to buy 1/3, ½, and 2/3 lengths. What's more, you'll be able to buy these in small straight and curved fitting pieces.

Sectional track utilizes a rail joiner; this is a slotted clip that actually connects the pieces of track together. This piece is essential. It provides not only the physical connections of keeping one piece securely attached to the other, but it also is the means that the electrical connections are made as well. For these reasons, the fit must be absolutely perfect -- it must be a snug fit.

The rail joiner actually slips over the end of the rail. They can, however, be misaligned to the point that one rail is on the top of the joiner. And if this were a real "full-size" railroad, you'd be feeling a very large "bump" when you went over it. The "bump" in fact would be so noticeable and unsettling, that would be possible for the train to derail.

The same thing, as a matter of fact, can happen with your train as well. We're sure that after all your hard work, you really want to limit those nasty derailments.

Closing the gaps!

Similarly, you should avoid gaps at the ends of the rails on both the straight aways and the curves. Gaps, by the way, are those wider sections of the track where no rail exists. They can - and often do -- cause derailment in both the prototype as well as your model.

Whatever you do when you're piecing the tracks together, do not force the sections together. They are manufactured to easily snap together. If you have to force them to fit, then something is wrong. That's why the track makers manufacture those short lengths! Use them!

You're going to discover a simple "law" of laying truck. I'd call it a rule, like many in the pastime call them. But rules mean you can get away with breaking them and nothing happens -- if no one catches you.

A law however is much more cut and dry. Think law of gravity, think Newton's laws of physics. These are more like the "laws of laying track." Oh, sure you can "break" these laws, but disaster occurs, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. And this is just one of those!

The tighter the curve you create, the smaller the cars and locomotives you can run. A 15-inch curve, for example, limits the size of equipment capable on running on it without derailing.

It requires about 40 inches to lay out a circle of 18 inch radius track. And it takes 48 inches to lay out a curve with a 22 inch radius. Of course, the 22 inch is easier to navigate. But if you're using a 4-foot by 8-foot sheet of plywood, you're going to discover, right away, that the 22 inch just doesn't fit very well. You'll discover, additionally, that using the 18 inch for the most part is just about your best bet.

Three feet of pure flexibility

Now, we've covered the basics with regards to sectional tracks. But you need to be let in on one of the dirty little secrets of model railroading. It's called flexible track and it's one of my favorite types.

Normally found in three-foot sections, flexible track is without a doubt, the standard track used on the majority of model railroads today. And it's exactly as it’s labeled; it's actually flexible -- especially compared to the rigid snap together pieces I've been describing.

You form these creatively made pieces into the shape you want, by simply bending them and they stay in that particular shape.

Its pieces are made by just about every conceivable manufacturer, so you should have no difficulty buying it. Having said that, you need to know that some differences do exist from one make to another.

The term "flexible" in this instance may not match your exact expectations. While they are more flexible than the snap together track, these pieces still have some rigidity to them. One manufacturer has a "flexible" track whose one side is floating and the other side of the track is rigid. While easy to bend, it springs back with relative ease when it's released.

Advantages of flexible track

The advantages of this type of track are many. For one thing, you have fewer joints in a run of track. That means a lot to railroaders.

You also have the ability to gently ease your model into curves, instead of going right into them as with the rigid track. Consider this, too! A three-foot section of flexible track can easily replace four nine-inch pieces of sectional track.

And perhaps what I appreciate most about flexible track is now I'm the one in control of the curves, not some stupid rigid track pieces. I can make the curves exactly what I need them to be. I don't feel as if I'm trapped into fixed radii produced for the mass market that couldn't possibly fit the area in which I'm constrained to work.

If you're considering giving flexible track a try, there are a few secrets that will make it more enjoyable, not only to install, but ultimately use as as well.

I realize, first and foremost, that I have to follow those laws of geometry and gravity. By that, I mean that no matter the type of track I chose, if my curve is too sharp (the law of geometry), the train will derail (the law of gravity!) So before I even begin to lay anything down, I take a pencil and literally outline the area I wish my track to follow.

In doing this, I can get feel for the minimum radii I have. And I know I'm not going to go beyond this point.

Sometimes, I'll even use the flexible track as a template of sorts, drawing around apiece that is temporarily laid out just so I can be sure I have the track locations right and that they flow smoothly.

Yes, I'm sure you've probably heard the advice that a yardstick, a pencil and a length of string is all you need for a straight track. But even armed with these instruments, I've been doomed to make errors. When I use the real thing, my efforts go more smoothly.

The real key to the successful use of flexible track though lies in that word "smooth." Let your track "do" everything smoothly. Don't force it into any sudden curves or unexpected kinks. And for that matter, don't try to fit it into any unnatural rises or valley.

Grading: And we don't mean a report card!

Adjusting the grading of your track is a problem many novices to the hobby have a problem with. Remember that your train is a mere model of the prototype. The gradient may not seem like it's very large to you, but seriously examine the size of the train you're asking to run up or down those hills.

For the small-sized conductor struggling inside that locomotive, it may look like a steep, steep mountain! Don't let the grade start up too quickly. One quick way to ensure that you keep your locomotive safe is by placing your eye at track level. Now just "sight" it along to keep the track flowing.

Most individuals don't realize that they have to be super careful if their train is only sitting upon a piece of plywood. This type of ground covering is actually notoriously uneven.

If you should notice any kinks, while you're "eyeballing" the situation, or any bad joints, bumps or dips, straighten them out immediately. If you can see them, they'll probably cause your train trouble.

How steep is too steep?

Just how fast and how steep can you climb to get over a track?  Most railroaders agree the maximum climb should be about two percent. By this I mean a two-inch climb in a 100-inch section of track. For ease, you may just want to round this rule of thumb down to 96 inches of track -- that makes it an even 8 feet -- which is much easier to measure.

These numbers are especially crucial when you're limited to a layout size of 4 foot by 8 foot. You definitely don't want to go any steeper than a two percent.

You may be able to incorporate a 3 percent grade (three inches per an eight-foot section) with few problems, but going any steeper than that inhibits the hauling power of your locomotive.

Where are my rail joiners?

You will not necessarily find rail joiners on flexible track. You'll discover that some brands of flexible track you need to trim away the ties completely. On others you may need to trim the spikeheads and the tops of the ties. This allows you to fit the rail joiner from the sectional track with this, and still be supported by the ties.

Don't be alarmed the first time you use this if the rails shift in relation to each other as the track is bent. You'll need to cut the ends even. This involves trimming the inner rail, which extends beyond the outer one.

This can be performed using a small modeler's razor saw. Don't attempt it with a wire cutters; they just don't cut the rail squarely (been there done that!)

One alternative to this problem is that you can cut the rail longer than what you need, then file it to fit. But remember, when you do bend the rail, follow that rule of doing it smoothly, allowing the curve to begin gently.

A word about roadbeds

Roadbed is the structure underneath the tracks that life-size track and ties sit on. Railroads spend a lot of time and money keeping it in good shape.

You may want to take a hint from the real world in this area. Why not add roadbed under your tracks to smooth out the plywood. Not only does this help to deaden the sound, it also makes it easier to actually fasten the track down using small track spikes or brads. It also provides the added advantage of giving your layout a raised right-of-way.

Many modelers swear by a roadbed no thinner than a half inch. A great way of creating this is by using plywood support well with crossmembers or risers.

If you'd like to check into ready-made roadbed, you can always consider using foam, split cork or even vinyl. These products are all sold by more than one manufacturer, so you should have no problem finding these.

Some layout ideas: The Out-and-Home Layout

Right about now, you're probably pretty excited to try a little different layout than came with your box. But you're not quite sure what. Why not start off with what I call the "out-and-home" layout.

Imagine this route for your model. Your locomotive starts at the terminal. You send it out and it arrives at a terminal in another "city." Well, okay, so this terminal has an eerily remarkable similarity to the one it started out it. That's because it is.

But, now you've used the power of your imagination between the "out" and the "home" stopping points of your train. And though it may sound lame when I describe it, once you learn the secrets to creating authentic and realistic scenery (that would be Chapter 6, you'll discover that your layout is not only pretty darn realistic, but quite satisfying as well.

But we can even kick this up another notch using some of the essentials we've just talked about in this chapter. Let's say you're starting off with an oval track on a layout space of 4 foot by 6 foot.

You're about to take your first step on the railroad track to variety using a pair of switches -- a right-hand and a left-hand.

Armed with all of this, you can now create an oval layout with a turn out on straight sides of the oval. These turnouts, when placed here create what railroaders call sidings. This is the area where railroad cars sit, out of the way, awaiting a locomotive to retrieve them.

If you then attach uncouplers to the sidings, you can detach these cars using the control box placed near your transformer. Uncouplers, by the way, can either be attached to the straight track or the curved using two rail S-gauge trains.

If switching operations appeals to you, don't hesitate to buy a second pair of switches, two curved sections of track as well as two half-length straight sections. Then you'll be able to make a primary turnout from the oval track itself, as well as a secondary turn out coming out of the first.

While the sidings aren't very long in this layout, they are long enough to meet your immediate needs. They hold a freight car or even two, which will make for. .. well, complications. And let's face it "complications" are exactly what makes this hobby so interesting.

Okay, let's go one step further than that. Using only your initial two turnouts, you can, create a smaller oval within your larger one. Place one turnout on either side. Then simply connect them with curved track. It's that simple.

Then your miniature conductor has a choice of doing the long route or the short route (and once you create scenery, you have the opportunity to develop an extra town or two at all the appropriate places!). Think about how much fun your kids you'll have deciding which route to take (that is if you let them touch your layout!)

Now, I could detail a couple more layouts here, but I think your creative juices are already flowing. If you have that double oval creation working, and you have two extra turnouts . . . think of all the ways you can use it; two sidings on either side of the other end of the oval. A second alternative curve inside the larger one, so that now you have one complete large oval and one complete smaller one.

Well, I'm sure you're way ahead of me on this. I'll keep the rest of my suggestions to myself, as I can see you're already hard at "play" designing your own individual layout.

Help! My railroad is outgrowing my space

Ahh! The true measurement of a person's passion for this hobby is when he or she utters those words: "My railroad is outgrowing the room I've placed it in!"

Short of convincing your spouse it's time to move to a larger house, or surrendering the master bedroom to remodel it to use as the new home for your railroading hobby, you may need to be creative in gaining more space.

Your first decision is to carefully examine where you're keeping your train set up now. What do you really need? If the room is large enough to hold a larger table and a wider layout, then you may not have to move to entirely new room.

If, on the other hand, this table already overwhelms the room, it's time to scout through the house looking for a more useable space. It could be that you may just want to start a second layout in another room (how kind is your spouse?). It could be as simple as confiscating the adjoining room. Or you may have a grown child whose bedroom is not being used.

A whole-house train?

Some individuals find a true delight in creating a scenario by which the trains travel through the entire house in some form. Some create shelf space near the ceiling (like you find in some old-fashioned toy stores), others use the flow.

And still other enthusiastic hobbyists allow their trains to roll right out the door and into their gardens in the back yard. But just remember if you do this, you have living creatures to deal with -- dogs, cats. You even have flower beds and herb gardens that may eventually encroach on your private railroad line.

Whether you're changing venues completely, "confiscating" another room of your house, or just having your train pass through more rooms, you'll have to consider the costs upfront. Let's face it, it just wouldn't be cool to get started only to find your train line stops somewhere in the kitchen to become part of Fido's toys!


Now you've hooked up your track, but don't expect those trains to go anywhere at the moment. Why not? Have you hooked up the power yet? I didn't think so. Not to worry. I'm sure you can do it.

First off, most of the sets now come with a terminal section. Armed with this you'll have no problem getting the power you need to move your track through your layout.

Remember those rail joiners we just talked about. We said that they not only physically hold the rails, but ensure the electrical connections as well. For the most part, these electrical connections are hidden away so most people never notice the connection.

If you'd like, you can solder wires to the outer faces of the rail. But think twice before you do that. You run the risk of melting the plastic ties. And in the process you're losing the correct gauge of the track.

A few companies even make retailer track sections some of which look like road crossings. There are also track crossing with different angles. This allows for the tracks to cross each other or even to create figure eights. The sectional track from various manufacturers is for the most part interchangeable.

Don't let them call you "loopy"

But you can certainly call your track loopy. Adding a loop to your layout allows you to run your trains continuously. And get this: a loop within a loop allows you to actually run two trains at once. Now, how cool is that.

But, wait till you learn about "turn outs." These are the marvelously creative structures that allow you (and the real-life trains, as well) to run two trains on one track. Oh yes, you'll love this.

Turn outs. You probably are more familiar with the term switches. These are the devices that allow the trains to be transferred or switch from one track to another. In model railroading, they can be found in different sizes as well as varying shades of quality. The most common of this sectional track is commonly just referred to as a No. 4. This piece roughly fits in the space of a 9-inch sectional straight piece.

The piece that fits to the left is (creatively enough) called a left or left-hand turn out. The piece that fits to the right is called a right or right-hand turn out.

Both of these, though, have a straight route through them. Something called a wye (think "Y" for its shape) turn out curves off to both the left and right, but it has no straight ahead part. Numbers used with the turn out describe the size. The smaller the number, for instance, the sharper the turnout.

A turn out referred to as a Number 4, actually moves away one inch for every four on the straight side. A No. 6 turn out or switch moves away one inch for every six on the straight side. This means that the No. 6 turn out is not as sharp a curve as the No. 4. And the No. 6 takes up no more space, since it's not longer.

In terms of sectional track, you could very easily consider the No.4 turn out to be similar to a curve with an 18-inch radius. The No. 6 turn out, similarly, can be easily compared to a 22-inch radius curve.

Even the least expensive switches probably will work very well for you right out of the box. But beware of this. The least expensive versions also use very thin metal stamping for the moveable point rail. Because of its thinness, this point needs to be straightened with a pair of needle nose pliers every now and then. You may also find that you'll have to tighten the pivot location as well.

The more expensive switches, by contrast, have points made from the same material as the stock rails. They may also have a notch in the stock rails so the points do not pick at the passing wheels of the trains.

But there are many different kinds of turn out controls which operate electrically, and many of these use different modes. For example, some controls are mounted right on the turnout itself. Others are mounted under the bench nicely hidden out of sight.

Then there are those "snap" action controls which literally make a snapping sound when switched on. Just about every one on the market today also comes with auxiliary contacts which indicate the position of the turnout or operate some other signal on the layout.

Some of these snap action machines, though, need a completely separate solenoid or relay which must be wired in parallel before they provide that auxiliary contact.

Just about all snap action turnouts work on low voltage -- 16 volts or less -- alternating current (what we normally call AC). This stands in contrast to the trains themselves which operate on DC.

Once you get more acquainted with the hobby, you may decide to use snap action switch machines with your model railroad layout. If you do, many hobbyists will advise you to actually buy and use a separate poer pack dedicated solely to this purpose. Why?

Granted, all power packs come with AC terminals, the actual activation of the switch machine, you'll discover, slows the speed of your train. You may want to consider purchasing a little higher quality power pack than the one the manufacturer supplies with your train.


You can also see the difference in switches when it comes to frogs. Yes, frogs. A frog in a turn out is the point at which the rails cross each other. Some switches have metal frogs; some bring the rails up to each other, then they're insulated with plastic.

If your frog is insulated, but not powered, then you may have issues with locomotives stalling on the switch. This may be especially prevalent if you're running an "N" gauge model. If you're running "HO" you'll experience less of this, but that's not to say you'll be total issue-free. Because you probably won't be.

Some turn outs come with a long switch machine mounted on one side. Others come equipped with a removable machine. Still others have what is called an "under the table" electrical switch machine. There are also manual "ground throw' switch machines.

Same, but electrically different

Now, let's talk about one more type of turn out. This one is physically the same as the ones I've been describing. But electrically it's different. The ones we've spoken about have the siding electrically live with the same power as the mainline. The only exception to this is if an electrical toggle switch is installed.

This other type of turnout is called a selective turnout. It selects the way the power is routed. It does this through the way the device is thrown.

When the switch is thrown for the siding, the siding itself is powered while the straight route goes dead. Similarly, when it's set for the main, the siding is dead. Thus, a different wiring situation is created. You must be certain, though, that the rails leading out of the turnout are insulated properly to prevent short circuits.

How DCC revolutionizes model railroad wiring

And indeed it has. Any discussion of DCC -- which is an acronym for Digital Command Control -- must, of necessity, start with the days of the hobby prior to DCC. It's the only way to truly under this awesome leap.

Prior to the creation of DCC, both the speed and direction of the model train had been controlled by adjusting the voltage and polarity on the rails. The higher the voltage, naturally the faster your train scooted around the tracks. The lower the voltages, then the slower the locomotive moved.

If the right rail has a positive charge with respect to the left one, the locomotive moves forward. If the right rail though has a negative charge, it moves backwards.

And that's just fine. If you're only controlling a single train. There's a bunch of us die-hard hobbyists though that need to control more than one at a time.

Throughout the years, the more ingenious railroaders among us have devised all sorts of tactics to be able to do just that. But every one of those methods revolved around what's called block wiring. In this technique, the railroad layout is divided up into separate electrical blocks, each of which controls only one locomotive. Called cab control, a cab -- or throttle -- is then used to control each individual train. Arrays of various selector switches then connect each block.

Without a doubt the best form of this method is called progressive cab control. In this one the train runs on the layout, while the connection between the cab and the block is automatically changed from one block to the next using relays. The first block is then free for another train to use.

This worked great -- if you only have one or two trains. For layouts with more than two trains, the task of wiring this becomes a bit overwhelming.

But hobbyists solved this problem in stride. The creation of command control came into being. This is a method of controlling the individual locomotives at the same time on the same rails. Now we're talkin'!

First developed by General Electric in 1964, it created quite a stir throughout the hobby. But, as it should happen, the popularity of model railroading grew right about the same time the largest strides in electronics were occurring in the toy industry. And our hobby was lucky enough to reap some of these rewards.

Soon, two commercial systems were developed that actually used audio tone to control the individual trains. Again, this was a marvelous step, but still left the hobbyist limited in the number of trains that could be run at one time (are you beginning to see that model railroaders are never satisfied running just two or even three trains?).

32 or 64? Wow! Now we're talking control!

By the late 1970s, several companies had cracked the code of how to run at least 16 trains on the same track (yes, they were some long segments of track!). Soon more firms entered the market with some touting the ability to run as many as 32 or even 64 trains at once!

While this sounds great, the complications here became the lack of standardization among these firms. Hobbyists could find no common ground among the various systems. So, by the late 1980s, the National Model Railroaders Association examined the issue to see if a standard could be created.

The group studied all the commercially available command control systems. Eventually settling on a system, the group chose one that it believed had the best electric signaling system, and offered the fewest limitations on expanding the number of trains run.

The group took the basic design and expanded on even this. The result is something called Digital Command Control. It's more than just a Johnny-come-lately of control. It is now the standard manufacturers use to make their products compatible with others on the market.

The signal used in this method is an alternating DC waveform. It contains digital information. This coded signal is what actually controls a specific decoder placed in one specific locomotive. This placement causes it to use as much of the voltage of the track is it needs to move either forward or backward.

This same signal decoder allows the headlight to go on and off as well. The locomotive can even dim the lights if it needs to. Decoders are simply set so that locomotives which have never run together with a conventional power pack can now "doublehead" or even operate in a "pusher service" without any loco working too hard.

Thanks to DCC, many of the newer locomotives even have light boards which can be removed, being easily replaced with a decoder.

You will still see block wiring for some time to come though. It may still be used for proper power distribution as well as detection or for the proper functioning of signal system. But it definitely won't be the main player.

But the most exciting aspect is that DCC can control more than just the locomotives on your track. Got a crane on your layout you'd like to hook up to it? Go right ahead.

"Next Stop: Locomotives and Rolling Stock!"

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