Tips on Trackwork

How about trackwork? The trains we love can’t do much without track. In the next installment of our series, I’ll present some track and track laying options to think about when planning your model railroad layout.

Here’s a fun fact to get us started: The famous “Big 10” curve west of Denver on what used to be the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad is a big loop that is the railroad’s primary assent of the “Mainline Through the Rockies.” This curve is considered very sharp for a main line railroad. If we tried to build the Big 10 curve to scale on a layout it would be a 79” radius in HO, a 107” radius in S, and a whopping 143” radius in O scale. That’s 12 feet!

That’s where compression needs to come in.

Real trains could never negotiate the radii, grades, and switch frogs that most of us put our trains through. That’s something to think about.

model railroad trackwork 1

Model trains operate on pretty much the same gradients as real trains which is amazing considering the huge difference in mass and physical dynamics. A steep gradient can make an enormous difference in fuel costs to a real railroad over time. After a new line was up and running, and earning some money, the railroad might make plans to come back and rework the line to ease up the grades and curves if possible. In some cases they might create huge cuts or bore tunnels to eliminate sharp curves and grades over the top of a rail summit.

I’m very conscious of rail size. Many modelers use over size rail. Sidings and yards typically use much lighter rail than the “high iron.” Large or heavy equipment may be restricted from some trackage. As an example, I’m using code 70 rail for my Proto64 S scale switching layout. I think that the “hierarchy” of rail size adds to a layout’s believability. There should be a visible difference between the “high iron,” sidings, and industrial spurs as on the real railroads.

model railroad trackwork 2

Switch frogs are another consideration. A tight prototype diverging frog might be a #10. Narrow gauges might take a #7. A big steamer might be limited to a #12, and that’s only for slow speed operation! I’ve seen specs for a #24 main line crossover that limits the diverging train speed to 55 miles per hour. Transition curves and super-elevation are mostly for scenic effect on a model layout, but the look of our trains leaning into a curve can be really cool! I transition into a 4” rise when I super elevate and it seems to look just right. As far as laying out the curves, I use a homemade trammel to draw out my center line, and while I’m spiking the track, I follow that line with my commercial track radius templates to make sure I stick to my desired curve.

The choice of the brand and type of track is a personal one. My layout uses custom-built FastTrax switches hand laid on wood ties. For a big layout tit might save time to use flex track and purchased switches. There’s a lot of good commercial trackwork out there.

Some folks like to solder their rail joints for conductivity, but I prefer not to allow for rail and/or roadbed movement. Feeders can be added for conductivity and should be added every 6 or 8 feet anyhow for voltage stability.

model railroad trackwork 3

For switch control I use Tortise switch motors left over from my HO layout, but I operate them manually using a 1/4” dowel rod. That way I can use the Tortise contacts to power my switch frogs and get the “hands-on” feel of real switching without leaning over my layout to operate a ground throw switch stand. That’s obviously not the intended installation however. In the old days, we used “diode-matrix” circuitry for switch routing, now there is a unit named “The Hare” by DCC Specialties that can be plugged on to a Tortise for DCC control and routing.

Many layouts today are using DCC control for all kinds of applications. The technology has really improved since my wind-up train days!

model railroad trackwork 4

Roadbed is another personal matter. I like Homasote because it’s sound deadening and takes spikes and nails well. I’ve used it for decades. There are a couple of commercial retailers who sell precut beveled Homasote roadbed and flat sheets in multiple thicknesses so you can elevate your main lines above other trackage. Be warned though, Homasote can be messy to cut yourself and should be glued down well to prevent expansion and contraction.

Cork roadbed is a mainstay but it doesn’t hold spikes or nails well and can deteriorate over time if it isn’t sealed by ballasting.

Until next time, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

model railroad trackwork

Photo credit: Shorpy

More in this series:

So You Want to Build a Model Railroad Layout?
Choosing Model Railroad Track Configurations
Assigning a Theme for Your Model Railroad Layout
Ideas for Unique Layout Concepts
Tips on Trackwork
Helpful Tips for Model Railroad Wiring
Creative Ideas for Model Railroad Structures

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20 Responses to “Tips on Trackwork”

  1. Allison Dendy

    Question about Homasote. I’m using 1/2″ Homasote on 3/4″ Birch plywood. I contacted the Homasote company to ask how I should seal the product. They advised against sealing it, saying that it breathes very well (remains dimensionally stable) if it isn’t sealed. Also, he explained that sealing Homasote eliminates much of it’s sound absorbing attributes. Based on the company’s advice, I now I secure it with #8 wood screws every 6-9″. One benefit that I’ve taken advantage of several times already is that it’s easy to cut and remove a section when I reconfigure the layout or need to get better access to the plywood underneath. It’s a simple thing to restore or even replace a piece of Homasote when it’s only screwed to the plywood. That’s come up when my FUGATE GRADE LEVEL (Joe Fugate – Run Like A Dream) identifies risers that need adjustment. So my question is should I glue it (white glue/carpenter’s glue?) as you and so many others recommend? I have 4 64-square-foot sections still to build and I could glue it if I should.
    HO gauge walk-in room-sized helix, FastTrack turnouts, ME flextrack.

    • Customer Service


      Thank you for contacting us.

      I agree with your plan on screwing your Homasote done for easy removal. I’d double the amount of screws, maybe 4” spacing under trackage.

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    • Customer Service


      Great question! The ‘Ask an Expert’ section is currently for members of our online community. By becoming a member, you will have access to our expert’s knowledge. With your membership you will also receive discounts on products and hundreds of hours of Premium content.
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    • Customer Service

      Hello Gene,

      That would depend on the equipment that you’re running.
      I’d recommend making a sample set up and experiment with your largest rolling stock.

      Model Railroad Academy

  2. Robert Bartlett

    I have HO train set with many engines and cars and rail handed down to me from my father. I am not I young kid and am rebuilding the set .Now comes the wire. The engines go back 20-50 years. Can DCC be applied and or which is the most up to date that can be applied to my set . note Approx size is 15 ft by 17 ft

    Thank you

    • Customer Service

      Hello Robert,

      Thank you for contacting us. Great question! The ‘Ask an Expert’ section is currently for members of our online community. By becoming a member, you will have access to our expert’s knowledge in Model Railroading. With your membership you will also receive discounts on products and hours of Premium video content.

      If you are interested in becoming a member to Model Railroad Academy, please click on the special offer below:

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  3. Jack

    Heya Doug,
    I find your article to be contradictory in a small sense. Rail code must be spot on, but Fogs and curve radius are whatever we want or what can be done.
    Now I am not trying to be negative here, and I understand why some things have to be done to allow us to make our layouts work. In this vane, I would like to let you know what I am aiming at for mine.
    I am using entirely code 100 rail. Reasons being that using different codes of rails causes problems when they have to be joined together, Also, some people have had problems with derailments on switches and have to grind down the frogs to allow room for the flange. Using 100 rail will reduce if not eliminate this. Does this make me a bad person?
    I love this series. Keep up the good work.

  4. Robert

    Support The images are missing from this article. Can they be restored?

    • Customer Service

      Hello Robert,

      We are sorry that they images were not working. Please try again they should be working now.

      Becky MRA Video Membership

  5. Phil Knauf

    Trying to get a lot of trackage on a 4′ x 6′ O gauge layout. .Will be a rural setting with snow on the ground . What do you recommend for snow?

    • Customer Service

      Hi, Phil. I would recommend spray flocking that’s available around Christmas time. For small areas moulding plaster can be sifted over a slightly wetted surface area.

  6. Bert Mackay

    Hi Doug
    I am just in the stage of planning a small layout. Approx 4ft x 6 ft.
    At the Right side ( end) whare the corve will be ,I want the track to go through a mountain,as it exit it will go over a water way ,by a bridge. my questian is, can I raise the grade,3 or 4 ” to get over the water . this grade would be in the 3ft curved section mostly inside the mountain. is this possable,
    As a newbi on this site. where do I get your answer?.

    • Customer Service

      As far as grades go, a 3% grade is plenty steep. That works out to about 1” in three feet of trackage.