This page will help you choose the best combination of track products for your railroad. There seem to be many choices, but a few key principles might be:
- Use the widest curves you have room to use conveniently. Trains look better and run better on wider curves.
- For turnouts (switches) that your mainline traffic will be running through, select turnouts that have at least as wide a radius as the track you are using (for sidings that you will only be putting short freight cars on, you may use turnouts with tighter curves).
- Once you've selected an overall style of track (say Standard Gauge/US-style solid brass), try to keep subsequent purchases in the same style so you don't mix and match too much. Staying in the same brand is helpful, too. In fact, Piko track doesn't "plug into" most other track brands.
- At first your investment in track may be more than your investment in trains. In fact it probably should be. Think of your roadbed and track as the "hardware" and the trains you run it on as the "software." You can always "upgrade" software (or buy another train) later, but if the "hardware" you're running it on isn't up to the task, you won't get what you need to out of the system anyway.
Note: I confess that most of the examples shown on this page are AristoCraft. That's because it is the line of track I found most useful over the long haul. (Nowadays, the same track is being distributed by Polk GeneratioNext - some of it is still market AristoCraft on the ties). Its screw-on rail joiners provide effective mechanical and electrical connections between track pieces of any off-the-shelf product. Since Aristo developed this system, it has been copied by USA Trains and by Bachmann's solid brass track.
That doesn't mean that the other brands suck. I have friends who are delighted with track from Llagas Creek, LGB, and several other manufacturers. In fact, the only Large Scale manufacturers whose track is useless outside are Bachmann's indoor track (the kind that comes with their train sets) and Lionel (who has just about given up on track-powered Large Scale anyway).
Confusion Solution - If you're having trouble keeping all of this straight, or narrowing your choices down to the products you will probably find most useful, check out the Track Order form page. That page includes a checklist of the most useful AristoCraft, LGB, Bachmann, and Piko track products, sorted by material, style, and length.
Most Large Scale railroaders use solid brass track because it's durable and widely available, and because it matches the track that came with their LGB or AristoCraft starter set. If you want your track to conduct electricity, you will likely find yourself choosing between brass and steel track (although aluminum also seems to work great for some folks, and costs less).
Another factor you may consider is "rail profile."
- Solid Brass - Solid brass meets most people's needs. Brass track turns brown in a couple of years, depending on your climate, so it will quite properly recede into the "background." If you put metal wheels on all of your rolling stock, just running your trains will keep it fairly clean. I clean my brass track maybe twice a year, except for spot cleaning where pine sap, bug juice, or bird poop has damaged connectivity.
To see a list of solid brass track products that have been offered by AristoCraft, LGB, Bachmann, or Piko, check out the Solid Brass Track section of our "Track Order" page.
- Solid Stainless Steel - On the other hand, people who use stainless steel track say they almost never need to clean it (except for the exceptions noted above). If, from the start, you feel that reducing maintenance to almost zero (say for a "display" railroad you are building for someone else) is more important than saving money on track, stainless may be your best bet. Also, since prices for good brass track have jumped up, some folks are opting to use stainless steel. In some cases, they have to start with a smaller railroad, but the maintenance for stainless is so low that they tend to stick with stainless once they've started.
At the moment, no major manufacture is producing stainless steel track in large quantities. To see a list of solid stainless steel track products that AristoCraft has offered in the past, check out the Solid Stainless Steel Track section of our "Track Order" page.
- Aluminum - Aluminum track has long been made by Llagas Creek and a few other suppliers. This product is very useful for people who are comfortable with flextrack, especially if they are going to build a very solid roadbed to support it (it flexes a lot more than most brass track).
Some folks say that they have trouble with with aluminum, but other folks say it's just fine for them. Aluminum track is usually much expensive than brass track, so if it would work for you, it's worth a look.
For an article that may help you determine if aluminum track is right for you, check out "Is Aluminum Track a Viable Option?". To see a list of aluminum track products that AristoCraft has reintroduced and is planning to introduce, check out the Aluminum track section of our "Track Order" page.
- Nickel Silver - combines the low maintenance of stainless steel with something close to the conductivity of brass, at a generally higher price than either. Unfortunately, I don't have any vendor links for Large Scale track using this material, but I'm told it is the best possible to use in most circumstances - and usually the priciest.
- Plastic - Don't laugh. If your track is mostly shaded during the hot months, and you use exclusively small, battery-powered trains (that can handle the 48" radius), it will usually last for several years. I have left a couple circles of this track in direct sunlight for about two years, and it's just starting to show UV damage. If I spray painted it (say with rust or gray primer), I suspect it would last indefinitely. Other folks who use New Bright or similar locomotives report that the plastic track has lasted them outside for years. Again, this is not really for permanent use, but I don't see why - if you build a solid support for it - you couldn't use it for temporary, seasonal, or kids' railroads.
- Note: The track that comes with Bachmann train sets is not designed to be used outside. Lionel's Large Scale "brass" track will breakdown quickly outdoors. But that's okay;
you don't want to use 4'-diameter curves anyway, if you can avoid them. Save the track that comes with your starter sets for use around Christmas trees or to set up "Christmas Villages" at the old folks home or whatever.
The most popular Large Scale rail sizes are known as Code 332 rail and Code 250 rail. When you hear a rail code, think "thousandths of an inch". Therefore Code 250 rail is 1/4" high, and Code 332 rail is just under 1/3" high. Code 215 rail is also made, but not all Large Scale trains run on it properly, because the wheel flanges are too deep on many out-of-the-box pieces.
Most beginning railroaders are more used to track with preformed curves, since that's what comes with their starter sets (and any "train sets" they played with as kids). In fact, most garden railroads today are built with mostly preformed curves. That said, flexible track is great for large layouts with sweeping curves. It is also used for most display railroads (the really big ones in botanical gardens, etc.). Still, for most people starting out, a couple circles of preformed curves and a dozen or two pieces of straight may be more useful than a case of flextrack. For that reason, our articles frequently refer to preformed curves
- Code 332 rail is the kind popularized by LGB. It's the kind that still comes with most Large Scale train sets. Technically Code 332 rails are a little too big to be quite in scale with many Large Scale trains. But people like it, not only because LGB started a tradition, but also because Code 332 brass rails are structurally very rigid; they stand up better to kids and deer walking on the track, sagging roadbed, and other mechanical problems that would cause problems with smaller rails. Professional installers who don't want to be called back frequently for minor repairs due to soccer balls, errant toddlers, etc., almost universally use code 332 track for a more "bulletproof" installation. Also, many more kinds of turnouts (switches), crossings, and other track accessories are available for code 332 track. If you want to see a list of the kinds of products available in Code 332, plus links to suppliers we trust, check out our "Track Order Form" page. Currently, LGB and AristoCraft track use Code 332, making them very compatible. Track from HLW and USA Trains track do as well, although you won't come across them as often. Bachmann's new brass track is shaped like Code 332, except that the bottom has a depresion in it, perhaps from the manufacturing process they use. That doesn't affect the rest of the shape, and you can consider it compatible with Aristo and LGB as well. However Piko track uses a unique profile. Although it is fine track if you stick with that brand, you won't be mixing and matching it with other brands.
- Code 250 rail is more in scale with Large Scale trains, so it looks more realistic. It's also less expensive per foot than track made with code 332 track, unless you want to use a lot of turnouts and crossovers and don't feel up to making them yourself. It isn't quite as strong as Code 332, though. It is also less standardized than Code 332 track, so if you go with Code 250, consider getting all of your track from one supplier, or if you are going to order from multiple suppliers, get samples before placing a large order.
- You can use Code 332 and 250 on the same railroad - many adapters are available. However the appearance is different, so I wouldn't go back and forth too much. By the way, I use Code 332 exclusively on my railroads because of the reliability factor I mentioned above - however, if a good source of Code 250 stainless (including turnouts and other track accessories) was available at a reasonable price, I could be tempted. . . .
By the way, LGB started a tradition of calling their 4'-diameter track circles "R1," their 5'-diameter track circles "R2," and their 8'-diameter track circles "R3." Although AristoCraft and Bachmann brass track product lists don't use that terminology, they follow LGB's example of making 4', 5', and 8'-diameter circles, and hobbyists will also call the AristoCraft or Bachmann versions "R1," "R2," or "R3." respectively. Interestingly enough, AristoCraft and Bachmann brass track also imitate LGB by having 16 pieces to a circle of "R3" track (almost all other radii are 12 to a circle).
That said, Piko's "R1," and "R2" approximate LGB's but after that the numbering system changes.
Flextrack tends to come in long straight pieces usually 5'. In some cases, you order the rails and tie strips separately. If you're used to flextrack in HO, you're probably used to wrapping a 3'-long section around a curve and tacking it down to ge the radius you desire. In Large Scale, the term "flextrack" is relative, especially if you're using Code 332 solid brass rails. It is impossible to curve most Large Scale flextrack without a "railbender," a device that makes certain that the rail bends smoothly and evenly. Our article Flextrack and Railbenders provides more information on that topic.
Track made to suit modern US equipment has more, smaller ties than track made to suit narrow gauge equipment such as the old US 3'-gauge or the European metre-gauge trains. If you want an old-timey or Euro look, or if you've got a bunch of LGB track onhand that you need to match, go for the Narrow Gauge (Euro-style) track. Otherwise, you'll likelier prefer the Standard Gauge (US-style) track in the long run. (It's also what comes with AristoCraft starter sets, but since those use 4'-diameter circles, you won't necessarily be using that track on your permanent railroad anyway.
On the other hand, choosing "wrong" here doesn't mean you have to replace your track if your taste in trains changes. As long as you don't mix track styles in the same part of your railroad, 99% of your visitors will never notice if your ties are "too small" or "too large" for the trains you are running. When I started my New Boston and Donnels Creek line Euro track was the only kind available. If I was starting another railroad now, I'd probably use Standard Gauge (US-style) track. But the track that's out there has faded to brown and settled so nicely into the ballast and woolly thyme that it looks fine no matter what I run over it.
- Curves - Order the widest curves you can conveniently use. If you plan to run equipment with really long cars and locomotives (such as heavyweight coaches or Dash-9s), consider 10'-diameter the minimum (15'-diameter is better), although most pieces will negotiate 8' curves if that's all you have room for.
- Straights - For straightaways, a few longer pieces are better than many short pieces; however it makes no sense to order a case of five-foot pieces if you only need 20' of straight track. For starting out or a very small railroad, most of your needs would be better met with a case of 2' track. You may be surprised how seldom you need 1' pieces, though.
You do not have to order turnouts that match the diameter of your mainline as long as the straight leg of the turnout (not the curved leg) is on the mainline (a good practice at any rate). However, you should also know that:
Rerailers are pieces of track with huge flanges to help "rerail" cars that are slightly "derailed" before they hit the flange. (If a car is really derailed before it hits the flange, a rerailer will only make it worse, though). I actually like having a few around as generally I have more of the former problem than the latter. Rerailers are molded to represent grade crossings, so I try to use some of them that way. Putting a rerailer near where you put the trains on the track helps some people get their trains properly on the track more quickly, as well. A couple of these might be helpful to have on hand as a "preventative," although some people think they cause more trouble than they're worth. (As always, your mileage may vary.)
- The turnouts that match 4'-diameter curves look silly unless you're using curves almost that tight on your mainline as well (not recommended). Also, running really long pieces of rolling stock through 4'-diameter curves can get interesting. That said, if most of your cars and locomotives are 2' or less in length, and you are pressed for space and money nobody will die if you use some on your sidings.
- The wider turnouts do not exactly replace curved pieces, so if you're hoping to exactly replicate a tinplate railroad (like the old Lionel, where the curved side of a turnout exactly replaced a curved piece of track), you'll need to make some adjustments. (One exception is the LGB 16050/16150 line of turnouts, which are made to go with the 8'-foot diameter curves, such as LGB 16000 (R3) or AristoCraft 11600. These turnouts are slightly "tighter" than the AristoCraft Wide-Radius turnouts, but they have an excellent reputation and will handle almost all currently-available rolling stock.)
- Most brands of turnouts can be changed from manual to automatic simply by adding switch machines (available separately). Note: Among Garden Railroaders, LGB's switch machines have an especially good reputation for long-term durability, although I've never had enough experience using remote turnouts outside to give me an "authoritative" basis of comparison.
- Extra track joiner screws - Each piece of Aristo Track comes with rail joiners and screws (including screws that are fastened to the bottom side of the ties with wax). That said, you'll probably need to replace some rail joiners eventually, and you ought to have extra screws onhand before you start assembling any stretch of track - the chance of dropping a screw into the ballast and not being able to find it is high and the cost of having an extra pack of screws onhand is low.
- Extra track-to-pack connector wires - Aristo uses little wires with eyelets on one end and tinned leads on the other that you're supposed to use to run between the power pack and the track. You screw the little eyelet under the rail using the screws that hold the tie strips in place. LGB and Piko offer more elaborate setups with little brackets that snap onto the rails themselves.
- Plastic Track Joiners - use to connect rails between "blocks"
(So you can run electricity to one section and not to another--
this is especially helpful for sidings.)
- Lighted bumper without track - These clip onto almost any kind of commercially available Garden Railroad tracks to mark the end of each siding. The light also lets you know if there is electricity going to the siding.
- Reversing System (for back-and-forth running) - AristoCraft once offered a setup that let you create a back-and-forth system, say for a trolley or a "shelf" railroad.
- Reverse Loop System - LGB offers a system that lets you put reversing loops at each end of the mainline, so the train actually turns around. With out a system something like LGB's the track will short out when you set it up this way.
- Waterproof remote switch machine - These convert turnouts to remote operation. (That said, I try to structure my railroads so that I can reach most turnouts from my ordinary operating positions anyway, just to keep a close eye on things while I'm doing any operations.)