|Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm) and Garden Train Store(tm)|
Is Aluminum Track a Viable Option?
Since the advent of modern garden railroading, we have assumed that our trains would run on sturdy brass rails. In fact, LGB made their rails as large as they could be without looking silly, so that the track would be as strong as possible. (LGB rails are "Code 332" which means that they are almost 1/3" high - think "thousandths of an inch" when you see a rail's Code value.) Most other manufacturers followed suit, including AristoCraft, who used the same size rails but added screw-on track and power connections that made their track much more conductive and reliable in the long run.
Early Aluminum ExperimentsA few companies, such as Llagas Creek, began making track with aluminum and smaller track profiles, such as Code 250 (about 1/4" high). Many people used and liked it; some used it and weren't quite so thrilled, so it never quite caught on as it probably deserved. One factor was that the companies that could manufacture aluminum track cheaply didn't always have the resources to make turnouts (switches) cheaply, so the overall cost savings wasn't always what it should have been. Also, model railroaders and garden railroaders were used to the appearance of brass, which turned a realistic brown in a few years. Llagas Creek did offer aluminum rails that were prepainted brown, which helped, but the paint didn't always stay where it was supposed to. Still, it was a very nice look, and frankly, I like the look of Code 250 rail, but I don't always appreciate its weaker structure.
Several friends who use Llagas Creek track in dry climates seem to like it. But some of my other friends experienced glitches.
Aluminum Oxide Powder - One friend in the Dayton, Ohio area replaced his aluminum rails after several years with nickel silver. He runs long trains with all metal wheels - which would have kept brass track relatively clean. But apparently once the aluminum rails began oxidizing, the aluminum oxide dust generated by running trains would coat track, wheels, drivers, etc. to the extent that he couldn't run more than an hour between track cleanings. For folks who run mostly or only battery power, though, this is not a significant problem.
Condensation - Aluminum draws heat from its surroundings so well that it is more prone to moisture condensing on the track in damp climates than brass or stainless, especially as the temperature drops around track that is on the ground. If your air quality is bad, the moisture will even feel a little "greasy." (Folks in dry regions never notice this problem; in fact one fellow from the American Southwest told me I was crazy for reporting it.) Some folks with small railroads in damp climates keep an old towel out to wipe off the track if it gets too wet. But some folks who run long trains have trouble with their locomotives slipping excessively on humid evenings (about the only kind we get during Ohio summers).
Strength - Aluminum rail is not as strong as brass. My friend George Schreyer reminds me that if you step on aluminum rail it will bend over, even if it's on a very solid foundation. So if you use aluminum rail, it's a good idea to design your railroad in such a way that it's virtually impossible to step on the track. Not everyone has done that, unfortunately, and it is possible to lose your balance and take a mis-step, or for "helpful" friends to not pay attention . . . .
Electrical Connections - People used to soldering electrical connections and jumpers to their rails discover quickly that the "rules" are different for soldering things to aluminum (it can be done, though). Issues of rail-to-rail connectivity have also been reported, though I'm not sure they're worse than on brass track with slide-on rail joiners (On the other hand, all of AristoCraft's track has features like screw-on rail joiners and power feed connections that should make this a non-issue, even with their aluminum track.)
AristoCraft's First Aluminum TrackIncidentally, sometime (in the late 1990s, I think), AristoCraft offered Code 332 aluminum track as a low-cost alternative to brass, but hardly anyone was interested, because brass was still fairly reasonable in price and aluminum was considered "iffy" for track powered railroads in most of the northern and eastern parts of the country. I don't know how exactly the older Aristo aluminum track compares with the aluminum track Aristo started offering recently, because I haven't been able to try any out for myself, but some friends in Florida who run short trains on battery power love it. I do know that it did offer better rail-to-rail electrical connections than the other aluminum track brands, because of the screw-on rail joiners.
Good for Some but not AllIn other words, the long-term results of early adoption of aluminum Code 250 track are, let's just say, uneven, and there aren't enough reported installations with AristoCraft Code 332 aluminum rails to know for sure how much better it performed longterm in borderline situations.
A Jump in Brass Prices Makes Aluminum Look More AttractiveIn the last few years, China began several huge electrification projects, which caused a rise in worldwide demand for copper, the main ingredient in brass. AristoCraft had the vision to negotiate several-year contracts that froze their wholesale cost for copper, so they were able to keep the lid on track prices for several years, even though they used far more copper in their track than their competitors did. But eventually those contracts ran out, and when AristoCraft renegotiated, the cost for copper had nearly tripled, approximately doubling the cost of their brass track. In addition, LGB brass track also became harder to find because of financial troubles at that company. Consequently, many garden railroaders suffered serious sticker shock when they tried to buy track in 2007. People responded in various ways:
Aluminum is BackNot that it ever left - some of my friends with Llagas Creek track have been virtually unaffected by the whole track price jump thing. But about the same time AristoCraft realized they were going to have to kick up the price of their brass track, they announced that they were going to be reintroducing aluminum track, in at least a few formats.
Initially, only a few products were available from AristoCraft, and they were mostly available only in large quantities, to help big customers get the track they need for their summer projects quickly. A few examples include:
One of those product lines I might consider would be the AristoCraft 72" flextrack (#12190) and an AristoCraft railbender to go with it. (Aluminum IS easier to bend than brass, but a railbender will help you get the optimum results.) You'll have a lot more "flexibility" (no pun intended) in your overall design, have fewer joints to go bad, and have a smoother finished system overall. Other pointers for potential users of aluminum track include:
ConclusionYou may have to draw your own - I admit that most of my examples of what worked and didn't work about aluminum track are "anecdotal," and your situation will be different. If I was building a railroad this year, especially if I lived in a drier climate, I'd consider starting with a loop or two of aluminum track just to see how it fares for me. If you are planning on using mostly or all battery-powered locomotives, that would be another point in aluminum's favor. On the other hand, if you live someplace with humid summers (like Dayton or Pittsburg), you plan on using track power, and you want the lowest maintenance track available, you might want to consider stainless steel, even if it means a smaller railroad at first.
Me, I have enough Aristo brass track left over from what I bought to put on last year's clinics that I don't need to think about it for a while. Now if I had just bought enough gasoline last year to last me until now, I'd REALLY be in good shape.
Please contact me with any feedback, corrections, additions, and/or personal abuse that you feel this article warrants, and I'll publish the bits that seem useful to our readers.
Best of luck,
Reader FeedbackRichard Friedman, in Sacramento, California, writes:
I've been using Llagas Creek code 250 aluminum with track power since the beginning (2001). Because it's code 250 and aluminum, it's not as robust at 332 brass, but it cuts easier. Aluminum is the second best conductor of electricity next to copper. Because of its light weight, it is often used in aircraft.
It does need to be cleaned, but I've run trains for four hours or more before that became a problem. With a track cleaning caboose, that problem ended.
The solution to electrolysis is simple (now)! I've used Hillman Clamps since I put the track down, and the brass and aluminum did cause problems. I now put heavy gauge aluminum foil around the rail and tighten the clamp. Electricity, being lazy, never goes into the brass. I've also used some of Hillman's stainless clamps. They seem to work fine.
I have some Sunset Valley aluminum track, and while others have reported problems with the ties breaking off the rail, I haven't. It mates with Llagas Creek, and looks fine.
I recommend aluminum because it's cheap, the smaller size looks great, and mine works fine.
I live in Sacramento, CA, and get a foot of rain a year. The summer heat does not cause ME any kinking problems because much of the rr in in shade, and I've got very little absolutely straight track. Minimum radius is five feet, but use long gentle curves around the rest of the layout.
Bradley Dobbins, in New Castle, Virginia, writes:
On type of rail used, I have been using Peco Code 250 Nickel silver track indoors for some years with no problems (using DCC). I tried some of their aluminum rail track but contact was so poor, I am replacing this with NS and using the aluminum rail for guard rails . . . .
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