BUILDING A GARDEN RAILWAY - PART 7

Choosing the Track


It goes without saying that good quality track is absolutely essential for first-class running and these days there is a wide and somewhat bewildering variety of garden railway track available world-wide. Most garden railway layouts are laid using proprietary sectional track  - mainly because the quantities likely to be required are much greater than that which most people would contemplate constructing by hand. Having to depend on ready-made track is not a limiting factor in the majority of cases because the space available in a garden means it is usually possible to design a layout around the geometric limitations imposed without too much difficulty.

I will focus on the myriad choices available for G Gauge (45mm) but there is also an expanding selection of  track for smaller gauges, especially if you have the requisite skills, patience and time to build your own track from parts sold by specialised suppliers.

If you discount the tin-plate track which comes with the ubiquitous Bachmann Train Sets (which is unsuitable for outdoor use) rail is usually made from either Brass; Aluminium; Stainless Steel or Nickel Silver. All these metals have their advantages and disadvantages but overall brass seems to have the edge. All of these can be mixed on your layout apart from aluminium which can apparently react adversely to other metals.

Of course if you intend to use battery power you can always use all-plastic track but there seem to be fewer suppliers for this particular solution.

By far the most common sectional track (such as LGB, PIKO, Aristo-craft, etc.) is made from heavy solid brass rail mounted on injection moulded imitation wood-textured sleeper (tie) strips usually from UPVC plastic with UV protection against the effects of the sun's rays. Even longer lengths of flexible track trend to use multiple short sections of webbed sleepers.

Track designed to represent North American railroads incorporate small plastic spike-heads to retain the rail in pace whereas European style track has moulded chairs and bolts s on the prototype. There are also differences in the sleeper spacing between USA track (14 ties to the foot) and European track (11 sleepers to the foot) but this is not too noticeable when bedded in the ballast.

Brass rail joiners are the primary means of connecting adjacent track section and the strength of this connection can vary between makes. If these joints are too loose it is likely to result in poor electrical conductivity and voltage drop. The joiners in Piko track are particularly tight but other suppliers, notably Aristo-craft and USA Trains have overcome this potential problem by adopting a 'belt and braces' approach and achieve a more secure joint by the use of tiny hexagonal screws. If your eyesight is not too good these can be very fiddly to insert and tighten and it is all to easy to lose the screws -  usually find a sheet of white paper or card located beneath the joint avoids undue frustration.

Whatever the type of joiner make sure to pack them with a conductive grease (graphite based pastes are ideal) as this will reduce the risk of voltage drop other than on very large layouts. Another popular method, especially with longer track runs, is to solder wire jumper leads across each rail joint to supplement the rail joiners. As previously mentioned you can also use proprietary special metal clamps designed for the purpose which can be used in lieu of or in addition to the metal joiners depending on the type (although to my mind they tend to detract from the appearance of the layout). These clamps can also be useful if you wish to "lift" a piece of track or point at some future date.

It is also possible to buy sectional track mounted on hardwood sleepers e.g. GarGraves Track Corporation (USA) who have been supplying just such a range since 1940 and Cliff Barker Rail Track also offer a similar solution.

For those modellers who prefer to create more ambitious layouts with sweeping curves that are unconstrained by fixed radii there is flexible (or flex) track. With flexible track you are not restricted to any particular radius and many modellers prefer the freedom this allows. Unlike flexible track used for smaller gauges (which can be easily 'flexed') 45mm brass rails are more difficult to bend and require a specialised rail-bending tool for best results. These can be quite expensive but are a "must" in order to achieve the best results. For this reason flexible track sometimes comes unassembled as a bundle of components (i.e.  loose rails and tie strips which have to be slid on to rails after being bent to the required form. 

When constructing your own flexible track from components always use a proper adjustable rail-bender for good results. The best machines for this  task (particularly the Swiss precision type) can be quite expensive but is you rely on other hand-bending techniques the resultant 'kinks' and wasted rail can prove just as costly.

Whether you adopt fixed or flexible track (or a mixture of both) always use the widest possible radius curves that space permits for greater realism, reduced drag and optimum operational reliability. Many large locomotives perform best with a minimum radius of 4' (8'diameter) so avoid minimum radius curves (600mm) as much as possible except at points and in sidings.

LGB track is often perceived as the market leader and whilst certainly strong and durable this is achieved by compromising on realism (the rail is much too high) and can appear somewhat crude when compared to the more slender and delicate visual realism afforded by well laid scale track. However, LGB were intent on achieving maximum rigidity and robustness in a garden environment (they used to promote it by getting an  elephant to stand on it). Notwithstanding the over-scale appearance most manufacturers of large scale track systems have followed the standard introduced by LGB. 

Track descriptions often refer to a Code. This is rather an anachronistic reference these days to imperial units of measurement (not metric) and refers to the height of the running rail in hundredths of an inch so Code 250 for example is 0.250 inches high and Code 332 rail is 0.332 inches high (equivalent to between  6.7" high at 1:20.3 scale to 10.6" at 1:32 scale.) 

The heavier Code 332 rail is a more solid and resilient rail (and taller than the actual prototype) but is very durable as LGB used to demonstrate by having an elephant tread on it! It also has the largest cross section and therefore the lowest electrical resistance irrespective of what material it is made from. The added height of Code 332 also allows a bit more debris to fall between the rails compare with Code 250 thereby reducing the incidence of debris-related derailments compared to the smaller rail. 

However, some enthusiasts prefer a rail which is proportionate and closer to scale so if you really demand a more prototypical appearance the Code 250 and 215 appear the most correctly proportioned (albeit at the expense of strength). Bear in mind that these codes are less tolerant of mistreatment and foot traffic but if realism is important to you and it may be worth the risk.

 Unless you are fortunate enough to be given a large quantity of a different Code track to extend your line it is best to avoid mixing different codes e.g. 332, 250, 215, as it can be quite tricky to join rails of differing heights.


Rail comes in two principle types: Bullhead and Flat Bottom. Bullhead rail was widely used on Britain's standard gauge railways until being replaced by the cheaper Flat Bottom rail in the 1950‘s. It was claimed that Bullhead rail would last longer as when worn it could be "turned over" and used again but this did not work out in practice. Most European and American railways used the Flat Bottom type of rail from a much earlier date. 

In general 45mm track designed for Gauge 1 has sleeper spacings typical of  standard mainline operation whereas that intended for  G Scale Narrow Gauge operation comes with more irregular wood-grain sleepers to replicate the type of track usually found on such lines but there are no hard and fast rules.

Some types of track e.g. Aristo-craft, Piko and to a lesser extent these days, LGB, are more readily available in the UK than others such as USA Trains, Accucraft, Trainline45, Thiel, etc. although there is usually at least one stockist to be found.

The range of pre-formed sectional track sizes available can vary considerably according to the manufacturer. Bachmann for instance (reputably the largest model train manufacturer in the world) only produced , until very recently, an extremely limited selection of modules comprising 12" (300mm) straights, small radius 1 (2' or 600mm radius) curves, a pair of radius 1 manual points (or turnouts) and a 90° crossing in their range of proprietary Steel Alloy Track. This is made from thin strips of hollow tubular steel bent into the shape of a rail and then tin plated which is not even suitable for permanent outdoor use. Best avoided altogether except for constructing indoor test tracks or running your train around the Christmas tree.

They have now introduced a completely new range of brass track based on North American Narrow Gauge practice in order to compete more effectively. Hopefully they will eventually include this improved track as standard in their Big Hauler Train Sets.

Aristo-craft, on the other hand, market an impressive assortment of pre-formed track sections in no less than 3 materials (brass, stainless steel and nickel-silver); USA Standard Mainline and Narrow Gauge sleeper variants and no less than 15 radii up to a massive 20' diameter.

As mentioned previously it is quite possible to make your own track (or at least a way of creating flexible track to your precise requirements) if you are that way inclined and several suppliers (such as Tenmille,  Piko, Sunset Valley Railroad, etc)  offer "kits" of parts to make this approach a little easier although it is not one recommended for the average beginner.

For Garden Railway projects most modellers now opt for 45mm gauge which is generally more stable, durable and easy to lay but this is not the only choice. 32mm Gauge track is popular when modelling a 2' line (especially for Steam Powered locomotives) as it provides the most accurate representation of the prototype and there are devotees of other gauges but on balance, 45mm remains the gauge of choice for the majority. One of its major advantages is the degree of compatibility between track from different manufacturers. Most brass Code 332 track looks very similar and any difference between brands is usually quite subtle (probably to avoid patent and design infringement suits) enabling enthusiasts to extend their layouts with virtually any make (Bachmann propriety and Peco Code 250 are the notable exceptions having differing profiles) according to whatever brand is available and priced advantageously at the time of purchase. 

As well as the small hexagonal screws favoured by Aristo-craft and USA Trains for securing rail joiners between track sections you can also use various third-party proprietary clamps (such as those made my Hillman and  Splitjaw Inc.to ensure strong physical alignment and electrical continuity. These clamps work very well but I have yet to see one that doesn't look rather unsightly when used extensively.

 LIST OF TRACK MANUFACTURERS

The principle manufacturers of quality track purely in alphabetical order are;

  • ARISTO-CRAFT  (USA)*

  • AMS (USA)

  • BACHMANN INDUSTRIES

  • CLIFF BARKER RAIL TRACK (UK)

  • GARGRAVES TRACKAGE CORPORATION (USA)

  • H&R TRAINS (USA)

  • J&W NOBEL TRAINS

  • LLAGAS CREEK RAILWAYS (USA)

  • LGB (GERMANY)*

  • MICRO-ENGINEERING (USA)

  • PECO (UK)* - prounounced 'pee-ko'

  • PIKO (GERMANY)* - pronounced 'pie - ko'

  • SUNSET VALLEY RAILROAD (USA)

  • THEIL (GERMANY)

  • USA TRAINS (USA)

Despite the location of the supplier don't be surprised if the track has been manufactured in China like everything else!  Abridged particulars of each manufacturer's products can be found at the end of this chapter.

As I mentioned before whatever type of track you ultimately decide to use the best advice is always to use the largest radius curves that will fit into the available space. Minimum radius curves (e.g.2 foot or less) should be avoided, except for entries to sidings or passing loops. If you aim for a minimum radius of 4' this should ensure that the majority of G Scale locomotives on the market both now and in the future will be able to negotiate your layout so that you have no regrets at a later date.

Track also needs regular maintenance if it is to provide years of reliable service.  Clean the tops of the rail often with a suitable abrasive (such as the LGB Track Cleaning Block Cat.No. 50040) for optimum electrical contact and make sure that point blades are free to move with no debris.  Make sure that dead-leaves and plant detritus are removed and also anything metal that could cause a short-circuit. Nothing should be allowed to project above rail height.


It is possible to acquire adapted track-cleaning locomotives or wagons fitted with abrasive pads to automate this process and reach places e.g. in tunnels, which are hard to access.

 Aristo-craft market an impressive assortment of pre-formed track sections in no less than 3 materials (brass, stainless steel and nickel-silver); USA Standard Mainline and Narrow Gauge sleeper variants and no less than 15 radii up to a massive 20' diameter. It is probably the most comprehensive range offered by any manufacturer and a good choice for ambitious layouts where flexible track is not the preferred solution.

CONDUCTIVITY .....

Aristo-Craft's brass rail has a very high percentage of copper ensuring that conductivity of Aristo-Craft Track is superlative. Their brass rail also features a very low percentage of lead, greatly inhibiting oxidation. Oxidation is the main cause of "browning" in brass rail which lowers conductivity, requires constant cleaning, and detracts form the appearance of the ra

DURABILITY... 

Instead of being hollow, the rail in Aristo-Craft Track is solid for strength and performance. Aristo-Craft Track can endure the heaviest of locomotives plus trampling by your neighbors' kids with the greatest of ease and still perform like new! The plastic ties in Aristo-Craft Track are made from a high grade P.P. plastic for durability and quality. An ultra-violet protectant stabilizer is supplied by a major U.S. chemical company who also analyzed Aristo-craft's tie material to guarantee that the percentage of U.V. additive was correct.