Second hand track can be a bargain but also a right royal pain.
The great thing about model railways, especially OO gauge in the UK, is that there’s so much cheap second-hand stuff available.
A visit to any boot-fair or flea market will usually turn up some old track or rolling stock a fraction of the usual prices.
But Caveat emptor as they say.
While track, in particular, may appear a good deal, and at first glance look fine, there are plenty of problems waiting to catch the unwary later. Electrical problems, derailments and even broken locos can all result. Even your own old track can be problematic.
But with a few precautions, it’s still worth it and my layouts usually have a considerable amount of reused track on them. In fact, my £35 model railway build project, is built exclusively from the stuff.
Here then are my six golden rules for avoiding problems and using second-hand track successfully.
#1 Replace joiners
Worn and I’ll fitting joiners, fish plates, are probably the single biggest cause of problems on reused track.
The joiners hold the rails together and carry electricity from section to section – assuming you aren’t wiring every section.
But over time, the joiners wear, bend and distort so they don’t firmly grip the rails, leaving gaps between rails.
For this reason, the first thing I recommend and always do with second-hand track is to replace the joiners.
If you do nothing else, follow this one rule.
#2 Pass on points
Points are prone to problems over time. The springs come out, tie-bars break and blades wear.
While they can be fixed its rarely worth the effort.
I now rarely use second hand points, unless I’ve had a chance to test them fully before hand, and usually don’t buy them or throw them away if part of a job lot.
3. Check rail ends
This is especially important with flexitrack where the rails have likely to have been cut.
In one case, I found a section of Flexitrack where the rail had been cut with what must have been an axe. The rail end was not only deformed but left with a nasty splinter of rail sticking upwards. If the wheels on a swivel bogie had run into it I hate to think what damage could have been done
Examine the rail ends and were deformed with cleanly cut them with track tools such as Xuron track cutters or use a Dremel with sanding disc to square them and to expose the correct profile.
#4 Check for bends and buckles
Just like real rails, model railway track can band and buckle over time and this isn’t always obvious on first examination.
Before laying rails, look along them to check they haven’t buckled and that they are secured to the sleepers.
It’s also worth looking at the rails with a magnifying glass or your head magnifier to check for damage to the railheads and that their profile is intact and discard any sections that are bent.
Extra Tip: if you’ve already laid the track, use the camera of a mobile phone to get a track level view along the rails.
#5 Clean off the crap
All track needs regularly cleaning but second-hand track, which has likely to have been unused for a while and will be dirty, always gets a thorough clean before use.
Read my guide on cleaning track for more details and clean the track several times.
#6 Check the gauge
My last rule applies just as much to new track as second track and all gauges not just OO. Check the space between the rails, eg the gauge.
OO gauge rolling stock needs rails that are 16.5mm apart. N gauge requires 9mm of spacing rail to rail while EM gauge mandates 18.2mm, P4 18.5mm and O gauge 31.75 mm between the rails.
These are set standards. If the rails work lose of the sleepers the gap can increase, or reduce, and your rolling stock will derail as it encounters rails to wide or narrow for the wheels to fit.
Measuring track can be done with callipers (see The 5 Best Track Work Tools).
If you then find track that doesn’t match the gauge ditch it.
Following these rules ensures I can buy track second hand, saving a fortune, but still be sure my trains will run successfully on it.
What to do, summary
To successfully use second-hand track do the following before using it.
- Replace the rail joiners. New joiners are available from Amazon.
- Clean it, I use this technique.
- Inspect rails and clean up the rail ends with track cutting tool
- Check the width between the rails with callipers, see link in previous point.
> 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.
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.