Track Work in the Garden

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Track work
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See the Video.

Track selection

Without proper track work, you will not be able to run your trains with DC or DCC. This article gives general principles for model railroading and may differ amount the various scales.

The most important item is the track. Cheap track will be a constant source of irritation and will end up being replaced anyway, if it doesn't make you give up the hobby altogether. Stainless steel is great for outdoor applications, however, it's quite expensive. It can take abuse and it will last forever. Other types of track are available for less money, but don't buy it. Everything depends on the track. If you are running live steam, or by on-board battery, you will not need to worry about the conductivity or cleanliness. In this case, solid brass track is a great low-cost alternative.

For indoor layouts, nickel silver rail is the way to go. Brass is high maintenance, as the oxides that form are non-conductive. The oxides that form on nickel silver are conductive, meaning less cleaning is required compared to brass. Nickel silver also looks more realistic than brass. While the main advantage of nickel silver is reduced cleanings, that comes at a price. Nickel silver has a higher resistance to current flow than brass. This requires a lot more wiring to feed the track. Still, this is a minor problem compared to the maintenance issues surrounding brass.

Flex or Sectional Track

If given the choice, flex track should always be your first choice. Flex rack provides numerous benefits that far outweigh a little extra work needed to bend the rail. They are:

  • Offers the most realistic operations.
  • Can be laid by new comers quite easily and quickly, even faster than sectional track for complex or simple layouts.
  • Can gently transition into and out of curves in a prototypical manner, making smooth transitions which are easier on the wheel sets of our expensive locomotives and rolling stock. (Easements)
  • Unlimited possibilities for track layout and makes parallel curves easier.
  • Only need to purchase one section from the shop as you can make any curve needed.
    • No wasted curved track piling up in the corner ($$).

Prototype track is formed into curves with easements much like a highway, with a slowly decreasing radius which then broadens out into the straightaways, instead of the sudden change in alignment found in sectional track.

Computer Aided Design software for layout planning will often have this feature available.


It's been said that the trains look and perform better on large radius curves. However, if you have a small space, don't worry, you can still run a great layout. No, you won't be able to run an Aristo SD-45 around a 24-inch radius curve, but you can run smaller locomotives and have just as much fun, if not more.

Curvature also has an impact on appearance. A tight curve can meet the mechanical clearance requirements, yet have unacceptable car overhang depending on perspective. Car overhang will be acceptable when seen from the inside, while the appearance from the outside of a curve will be unacceptable.

There have been stories of people taking out their tight curves to make room for larger radius for locomotives with longer wheelbases. They build a long train and go think "WOW", that's really neat. However, you've now sidelined most of your other small locomotives so that only one train can run. After they've realized this, they put some small diameter curves and steeper grades in so that they can run their other engines. In the end, they ended up sidelining their larger engines.

The NMRA publishes specifications regarding track, such as spacing, clearances, and recommended curvatures for various scales and locomotives. Curves that are too tight will cause operational problems like derailing, uncoupling, and generally do not look realistic. Large steam locomotives with long wheelbases will also have problems.

An NMRA standards gauge is a useful tool to check track work and clearances.

Metal types

For large scale layouts, see the Getting Started In The Garden article as it contains specifics for large scale.

Track Types
Material Pros Cons Recommended scales
Stainless Steel
  • Extremely low maintenance
  • Expensive
  • G Scale and other outdoor layouts
  • Lower cost
  • Needs frequent cleaning
  • Ages to look prototypical
  • G scale layouts not using power on the rails
  • Lower cost
  • Track joints corrode easily making dead spots in the layout - not good for powered track.
  • Not sturdy - damaged if walked on - unless brass and stainless steel
  • High maintenance
  • ??


The use of clamps between sections of tracks is highly recommended. The clamps connect at the bottom flange, in between ties, so they are hardly noticeable. There are more reasons to use them, than not to use them. First, and perhaps foremost, they hold the to two mating rails perfectly together. This helps to prevent derailments or track separation. Secondly, it restores electrical conductivity at the rail joint; this doesn't mean you can space track feeders further apart though.

Clamps also allow you to easily remove a section of track. Simply remove the clamp, work on the section of track (switches, cross overs, etc.) and re-install the track with the same clamp as they can be used many times.

Clamps may be even more important in the garden than indoors. Because the track shrinks and expands depending the temperature, the track needs rooms to move. The clamps allow you to simply attach the clamps to the rails and allow you to float the track on/in the ballast, just like the real thing. This helps to prevent spaces or buckling in extreme temperatures.

Trucks and Wheel-sets

Rolling stock generally perform better when using metal wheel sets versus the plastic ones that come with your cars. Here's a summary of some of the benefits:

  • Keeps track cleaner - plastic rubs off, and soon you'll have a nice layer of insulating plastic on those hot summer days.
    • This is especially true for outdoor layouts that are exposed to the elements.
  • Lowers center of gravity
  • Help wheels track better around your layout


TRACK 101: How does track work? (Including many often-missed things!)

The next installment of the Railroad 101 series! In this video, we talk about the important parts of railroad track, how they work together, how they are measured, and how track itself is measured, classified, and it's types. This is an important fundamental level course as a primer for upcoming signals and interlockings videos :)

See Also