Don’t Get Derailed

Photo of model railway trackNew to track laying? Read these eight beginner-friendly tips to laying track like a pro.

Ready to build the model railway of your dreams?

Track laying is the foundation of any railway but can be intimidating for beginners. With 30-plus years of experience in building model railways (I’m not admitting to the true number 😊 )  I’ve developed a few tried and trusted techniques. Read on for the best of these tips that will help you lay flawless track you can be proud of, regardless of gauge for the railway

Tips for track laying

1. Plan your layout: Before laying tracks, it’s highly recommended you have a clear plan of what you want your railway to look like. This will help you decide on the track pieces required and avoid buying track you don’t need and to work out flaws before you come to lay it.

2. Pay attention to the radius of curves. The curved track is available with different radius and geometry, and longer wheelbase locomotives and wagons may not run on the tightest curves. If you have tight curves, it’s also worth having easements to provide a gradual transition from the straight to the curve.

3. Start with a solid foundation: The key, perhaps the most fundamental step of track laying, is to have a level solid baseboard. This can be achieved by using a foam board or a plywood base, which will provide a level surface for your tracks to sit on. There must be no ridges or uneven sections. See my guide to baseboard types for how to make them.

4. Take your time: Laying tracks can be a time-consuming process, so it’s important to take your time and make sure rails line up correctly. This will help to ensure that your train runs smoothly and that there are no derailments.

Even slightly misaligned tracks or uneven joints will cause frustration and disappointment later and will be hard to correct once the track is laid so get it right the first time.

5. Use track templates: It’s a good idea to use paper track templates to make sure your tracks are lined up correctly. These can be found online, or you can make your own using cardboard or paper.

6. Secure the rail joiners. These are the tiny slips of metal that slip over rail ends, hold the track together and carry power between track sections. These can work close over time so crimp the sides with pliers to ensure they hold in place. You might also want to solder them in place if you want really solid connections.

Drilling holes in sleepers for extra pins to hold the track in place.

7. Use track pins: To keep your tracks securely use track pins. You can either just use track pins or alternatively, use glue to hold the track in place, in which case, track pins will hold the track in place while the glue sets.

These are small pins that fit into holes in the sleepers and will help to keep everything in place (you may need to drill extra holes in some sleepers, as I’m doing in the photo above).

Use a pin hammer and punch for the pins, don’t use a normal hammer as this is too large and if you slip will damage the rails. Make sure the track pins are flat with the sleepers and don’t protrude – this will look ugly and may catch on the underside of trains.

8. Power to the track, whether it’s DC or DCC, can be connected above the board – using power connectors – or as is more often the case with permanent layouts, via wires soldered either to the rails or rail joiners. These then push through holes under the track to connect to the power cabling under the board. (see my guide on track soldering techniques).

9. Test and adjust: During and after your tracks are laid, test with a reliable train to make sure it runs smoothly. If you notice any problems, make adjustments as necessary to ensure that your train runs without problems on your layout. In particular, check how it carries over points and around curves, these are often problem areas.

10. Once the track is laid, clean it to remove any glue or other detritus on the rails for track laying.

11. Enjoy yourself: Remember, building a model railway is a hobby and should be enjoyable. Don’t get too hung up on small details and enjoy the process.

Tools & materials you’ll need

MRE also recommends

Although not absolutely necessary, the following tools will speed up and ease your track laying.

  • Dremel power tool: Useful for all manner of jobs around track laying and model making in general. I reviewed the Dremel 3000 here.
  • Soldeirng iron with fine tip. For soldering wires to track and rail joiners. Read my guide to soldering.

Where next

Get started now, and once you’ve got the track laid, read my article on how to ballast.

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