About to lay the track for a model railway? Stop. Go no further. Well not before you’ve read these three quick tips anyway.
1. Start At The Points
If there was in just one tip I could share for track laying it would be this.
Points, or turnouts, are the most arduous of track sections to lay. They need precise positioning to align different runs of merging track while needing to fit closely with point motors and wiring yet are also the most fragile of track elements to work with. I broke one only the other day while fixing it place and at around £15 for a typical Peco switch that’s not something I want to do often.
For this reason, I always wire up, test and fix my ‘switches’ in place first and work outwards from there.
Another benefit of securing the points first is that other sections of track can be soft laid – connected but not permanently secured in place – in-between the points – to test the electrics before everything is permanently secured in place.
2. Temporary Track Tacks
There’s nothing more frustrating than fixing your track down only to find it doesn’t all match up. A curve turn is too tight or the electrics don’t work. This is aggravated further if you happen to be using flexi-track which by its nature can move while being laid.
I’ve found inserting a small screw or drawing pin between the sleepers of alternate track sections to temporarily fix it in place and prove alignment a lifesaver.
It’s helped me get my curves right numerous times, allowing me to test easements (where a straight section transitions into a curve and the side force on the wheels gently increasing as they move into the curve) for example. There’s more on easements here
if you’re interested.
3. Allow For Movement
Leaving a slight gap between the railheads allows the rails to expand with air temperature changes between seasons and preventing buckling. I’m writing this on the hottest day of the year so far, with temperatures in the loft where my railway is located hitting 100F and can testify to the importance of this!
There’s no hard absolute about how often or how wide this gap should be although the consensus amongst long term modellers seems to be having a gap of approximately the width of a business card every few feet. (There’s a helpful discussion of this over on the Hornby forum here
To do this I fix all my track and the cut the gap where required with my Dremel
but rail cutters or saw work just as well. Whatever you use, file the ends to remove burs and give a smooth flat ending.
Equally, build in some vertical movement of the rails to help your rolling stock run smoothly. I do this by using pins to hold the track down and leaving a tiny gap between the sleepers and the pinhead. This allows the track to rise and fall as trains roll over it while still holding track sections in place.
A piece of v-shaped card slotted around the pin prevents me pushing the pin in too far while doubling up to protect the railheads and sleepers from damage caused if the hammer or pliers slip while I’m fixing the pin in place. Once the pin is in place, the card is removed.
You may not want to think about it now but at some point in the future, you’ll want or need to pull up your track. Whether it’s to alter the track plan or perhaps start over a fresh there will come a time when the track is pulled up.
And lifting track free from ballast and baseboard is tough enough without having to first scour the track with a magnifying glass for the pins.
I’m not sure where I first got the idea but I now religiously signpost where the pins are with discreet trackside markers. It’s saved much eye strain and time over the years.
Precisely what is used for this purpose is personal preference. I use a particular type of tree or bush, Miniatur Wunderland seems to paint the pinheads a slightly different colour. Whichever is used, the key is to employ a visual cue that you can use to quickly identify pin locations later.
If you have any tips to ease and simplify track laying I’d love to hear them. Share your tips below.