In the 10 years since I set up this blog I’ve visited more exhibitions and clubs than I can count; met hundreds of fellow model railway enthusiasts, and come into contact with thousands more on social media.
These are the best model railway track planning tips I’ve picked up from this wonderful community of experienced builders.
From O to OO to N gauge, I’ve been building model railways for years, years and years – too many to think about if I’m honest – and most of the time I was happy with my results.
Sure my layouts weren’t perfect but they were okay for me and I was happy in my innocence.
Then I started this blog.
To get material for ModelRailwayEngineer, I started visiting clubs and exhibitions*.
The idea was simple. Go to a show, take some pictures, and figure out what was done better or worse. Write up a post. Job done.
Then I went to these shows.
The layouts on display were amazing! Not just in how realistic they looked but in how they operated. Shunters could make their way around sidings easily; express trains could travel around a circuit at speed without having to slow down to negotiate
My layouts didn’t compare. My innocence was shattered.
I started to ask questions. I devoured books, visited prototype railways, and exchanged ideas with friends I made on social media.
Skip forward to now and I’ve learnt good track laying is one of – if not the most important – the foundation of a successful model railway. The poorly laid track will ruin the look, operation and fun you get from your layout. Perhaps no other element is as important.
Luckily, I’m now at the point where I almost enjoy track laying now and my results are a million times better than they were before.
Here’s what I’ve learnt, the best model railway track laying tips I’ve picked up, distilled for your reading pleasure.
#1 Test your track before using it
Track doesn’t change, right?
Track can and does change, distort and bend over time causing all manner of problems so what looks at first glance like good track can be anything but good.
I didn’t appreciate this until talking to a couple of traders at shows some years ago. I was picking my track and preparing to buy it when one asked if I’d checked it.
What followed was an eye-opening conversation about track problems. I’d never even thought about rails coming free of the sleepers and moving as trains journeyed over them!
I went home and researched further, I found those track problems were surprisingly common even with a new track and now I recommend checking all track before laying. (There’s a great discussion about underlay for track that touches on issues with new points on MRF).
Before it even gets near a baseboard I now lay all mine on a trusted flat surface and use a straight edge rule to prove it’s straight. For recycled track, I use a jeweller’s loop (magnifying glass) or head visor to check the rail ends have a clean profile and flip the points a few times to ensure they ‘click’ firmly into place when operated. Finally, I run a trusted wagon over it to check the distance between the rails – the gauge – is consistent.
Track does change so check and test it before use and your track will have fewer problems.
#2 Use new rail joiners
This is one of the first improvements I learned after setting out to learn how to lay track correctly and it’s one that has arguably made the biggest difference in the smooth running of my rolling stock.
Essentially, if you use rail joiners — as opposed to soldering — chuck out those second-hand fishplates and go with new ones.
A joiner that doesn’t grip the rails firmly will cause problems later. These can either be a failure to conduct electricity between sections and rails causing train motor problems or gaps and uneven surfaces where rails meet creating opportunities for derailments. And once your track is laid and secured, it’s a pain to replace them.
The conversations on Hornby’s forum put it best:
- New and Tight = Alright;
- Old and Loose = No Use
Trust me on this one, use new rail joiners/fish plates from the start.
#3 Spend time on track joints
But even with new fish plates track joints can be problematic.
Just because the track holds together don’t assume the rails have slid into the joiners correctly or that they’re aligned both vertically and horizontally.
Even very slightly misaligned will come back to haunt you — don’t tolerate a joint that’s less than perfect. In the eagerness to get the track laid, it’s easy to slide track and joiners together, think it looks okay and move on but don’t.
Instead, spend time on the joints, examine them with a magnifying glass (if your eyesight is like mine and not up to the job) and run your finger over the rail ends to look for ridges and gaps. If the rails don’t meet smoothly, separate them and start again.
Extra: A neat extra tip to ease joining tracks is one I came across in Making A Start In N Gauge Railway Modelling by Richard Bardsley, the book is for those making the move to N gauge but the tip equally applies to OO.
Richard’s suggestion is to bring two pieces of track together at a slight angle so that one rail joiner will slot onto the opposing rail before the other rail joiner does. Once the first joiner is connected reduce the angle to bring the other joiner into play and then slide it over its opposing rail. Once the rails are in both joiners push them together. By doing this you can focus on one rail joiner at a time rather than two and concentrate a getting a good firm connection. It’s a good tip that has resulted in faster fish plating since I started using it.
Another tip I’ve learned is to use the camera on your mobile phone. With this, you can get a track height view of the rails and easily identify problems.
#4 Fix joints that aren’t perfect
This is an invaluable tip I’ve learnt since talking to other enthusiasts at shows and exhibitions over the last few years. All railways have their weak spots — even if we don’t care to admit them — but if you want a reliable railway that’s fun to operate and watch you need to tackle them and get correct those bad joints.
It’s a lot of work to cut out a section of track — which is why you should fix joints the first time, in point 3 — but if you’ve got problematic joints then get rid of them and the sooner the better. See my previous post on replacing laid track on how to do this.
If you have excessive gaps between rails and you don’t want to refit them you could fill in the gaps. This is something I’ve done in a few places and as long as you file down whatever material you use to fill in space so there’s a smooth surface for the wheels to roll over there’s no reason not to do this.
I use solder — a soldering iron with a 1mm tip works a treat — or a spare bit of rail but as long as the fishplates are good and conduct electricity between the rails any material can be used. I’ve heard of some people using Polystyrene.
Extra: Gaps between rails aren’t always a bad thing and you might choose to actually engineer them in. In The Story of the Craig and Mertonford Railway modelling pioneer, P. D. Hancock explained how he left gaps in the running rails so the trains create the distinctive clickety-click, clickety-click. I never got on with this but it’s popular and something to consider when laying track and I’d love to hear from you if you do this!
#5 Smooth and easy
My fifth tip is from model railway guru C. J. Freezer in his book, The Model Railway Manual. If you’re using a flat baseboard or table etc — make sure that the surface is flat and level before laying any track.
A small bump in the baseboard wood, or sag (as he puts it), rogue scatter material or a spot of glue may not look much to you but with the size of our track, even small variations in height will result in an uneven track that will turn your rails into a rollercoaster ride for the tiny wheels of your trains.
Brush the path of your track clear before fixing it in place and if you really can’t get a smooth surface use a track underlay to mask the uneven top. Cork is great for this.
It’s easy to overlook this simple advice but doing so will cause all manner of problems, it certainly did on some of my pre-blog layouts.
Speaking of my layouts, I’ve been remiss of late and have not spent as much time on them as I should. So without further delay, I’ll say bye for now and climb the stairs to my loft and layout. Until next time.
* I try to get to as many exhibitions as possible, such as the Alton Model Railway Group show where I took the photo above. It’s Ballyconnel Road built by Steve Moor and Mick Rawlings and is a stunningly beautiful layout and sure enough, has some wonderful track work.
> A final, personal, note: I spend a huge amount of time testing, photographing, writing and researching techniques for these articles and pay for all the running costs of MRE out of my own pocket. If you found this article useful you can support me by making a donation on my fund-raising page. Thanks and happy modelling, Andy.
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Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of modelrailwayengineer.com. He has been building model railways, dioramas, and miniatures for over 20 years. His passion for model making and railways began when he was a child, building his first layout at the age of seven.
Andy’s particular passion is making scenery and structures in 4mm scale, which he sells commercially. He is particularly interested in modelling the railways of South West England during the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, although he also enjoys making sci-fi and fantasy figures and dioramas. His website has won several awards, and he is a member of MERG (Model Railway Electronics Group) and the 009 Society.
When not making models, Andy lives in Surrey with his wife and teenage son. Other interests include history, science fiction, photography, and programming. Read more about Andy.