Is cork underlay needed for track?

model railway track wiring

This is question that comes up frequently, here are my thoughts.

A commonly asked question on the Model Railway Engineer community is whether cork should be used for laying track and if it’s not needed, what benefits does it have?

Laying track on top of cork on a layout is a traditional technique that has been done for longer than I’ve been building layouts (too many years LOL).

And a quick, unscientific poll of the nearly 9,000 or so members of the MRE community found the majority do you use it, with over 60 percent of those answering my question about it saying they still use Cork track beds.

There are two common of arguments as to why it’s used.

It reduces noise

Noise is one of the most commonly sited reasons. Putting spongy cork under your track cushions the track and reduces the vibration that would otherwise travel to the baseboard and be echoed around the layout.

But as I’ve covered here before, tests on noise levels from different track underlays and glues prove that this isn’t the case. The choice of glue is more important if you’re worried about noise.

It makes ballasting look better

The next argument of cork is that that it provides a raised bed for the track and creates a shoulder that helps the ballast look better.

But this isn’t dependent on cork and can be achieved through a number of other materials, Peco foam underlay for example.

It’s also worth noting that depending on the era and location of railway you’re modelling the ballast may not even have a raised shoulder. Many industrial era narrow gauge railways for example don’t have this for example.

Conclusion

In conclusion, then, it’s not necessary to use cork underlay on a layout and the few benefits it is claimed to have are arguable.

Personally, I no longer use it and don’t miss it. What’s your experience?


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One comment
  1. I’m a newcomer to model Railroading. I use cork under the track because I thought everyone else did and that it was the way to go. However if I had my time over again I wouldn’t use it. My reason is this, if you go with DCC as we have done you need a lot of the plastic fish plates on the turnouts to alleviate the possibility of shorting. The plastic fish plates are not rigid enough like the metal ones when used in conjunction of cork. In this instance you could have a fraction of a millimetre difference in height. As we’re working on a scale of 1:76 for OO gauge, that discrepancy is multiplied 76 times. If however you don’t use cork the track will lay flat on the board with no difference in height and in addition will be held in position on the bends more securely when using Flexy Track. Remember if you don’t get the track right you will always have problems with derailments. I might even remove my cork.

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