Making Your Track "Work"

Strive for perfection:

What? No long diatribe on brands, layout, etc? No, keep one mandate in mind, strive for perfection. You won't accomplish it! But!!! The better your trackwork is, the better your trains run and more fun. It's that simple. Go the extra distance.

Remember every imperfection is magnified many times as compared to the real thing. Your track is indeed the foundation of your railroad.

Make your track smooth and level, gradual transitions up and down, and level across the rails. Many people blame derailments on the cars and locos, when it's the track.

 Many times I have heard: "its just this one loco". That's just the loco or car that is affected the most. Trust me, it's your track! Your track is the FOUNDATION of your railroad.

Believe it or not, you should check the gauge of your track every so often. Many people have reported out of gauge track, even on straights! This can happen from age, pressure from the surroundings, screws distorting the ties, etc. For example, Aristo track gauge can vary all over the place, I know from direct experience.

Check your switches!

I have a couple of sections on specific makes/models, but get a good gauge (like the Aristo), check the flangeways, wing rails, how the points fit, and the gauge. Aristo switches especially need reworking out of the box.

Use good track design!

Sharp curves:

First, strive for the broadest curves you can fit. Then, check again to see how you can make the curves even broader. Force yourself, you will thank me.

Prototype railroads tried to keep mainline curves - worst case - to less than 6 "degrees". They had a way of measuring this by using a 100' measurement, and then calculating the degrees of angle based on this. We normally have the radius of the track.

To see what a real curve would be like, you can use this calculator, put in 100 for the width of arc, and enter the degrees you want in the "angle subtended by arc the formula is Radius = 100 / (2 * sin ( å/2)) 

If you put in a real world minimum curvature, like 6 degrees (which is pretty darn sharp for a mainline), you get 955 feet! For 1:29, that is 955/29, or a radius of 33 feet, 66 foot diameter track.

The purpose of telling you this is to give you some idea of how far away our curves are from the prototype, and why good trackwork is so important.

Try for easements into curves and grades. If you have a tight curve, try putting a section of broader curved track at the beginning and end of the curve to ease the "transition" from straight to curved.

Try to eliminate "S" curves, where a curve in one direction is followed immediately by a curve in the other direction. Try to put a minimum of 1 length of straight between the two curves that is at least as long as your longest car. It's better to make it 2 car lengths, thus the couplers are never being twisted in opposite directions.


Keep grades to 1% to 2% unless you are running a logging railroad with geared locomotives.

Remember that for every increase in grade (1%) your pulling power will reduce by about HALF. 

Put a grade on a curve and it's effect is likewise "magnified"

The percentage of a grade is just  a ratio, like 1% is 1 in 100, you can measure 1 inch in 100 inches, or 1 foot in 100 feet, just use the SAME units to measure the "run" and the "rise'.

Make all your switches dead flat if possible. Switches are the most likely location for derailments, with the wheels being pushed from one side to another. Having an out-of-level switch is just more opportunity to have a derailment. Switches on grades are problematic.


Rough rule of thumb:
Load up a given loco with cars on the flat and level until its wheel slip.  
Count the cars.
Then, for running that combination on grades you might expect:
1% - 80% of that number
2% - 60% of that number
3% - 30% of that number
4% - 15% of that number
5% - Just the loco itself
If the grade is on a curve, take off another 10% from that number


Leave enough clearance for trains that have a lot of overhang. Don't make it too tight!

I use about 9 inches center to center on the main line, but I only run 1:29 and have 10 foot minimum curves.

I recently measured the overhang of my longest cars on a 9' diameter curve (actual measurements 8' 10")

Note that you have 2 issues, the overhang on the outside of the curve, and the "underhang" where the center of the loco or car cuts "across" the inside of a curve.

I tested an Aristo RDC, and Aristo heavyweight passenger cars (2 and 3 axle trucks) and the 80' streamlined passenger ars from USAT.

Overhang (outside the curve) was:

  • RDC 3-1/8"

  • heavyweight 3"

  • streamliner 3-1/2"

Underhang (inside the curve) was:

  • RDC 3-1/4

  • heavyweight 3-1/4"

  • streamliner 3-3/8"


Rick Blanchard has an excellent table on his site:

Check your rail joints:

Leave room for expansion between rail ends if you have a climate with temperature extremes. In San Diego, I just use the thickness of a credit card. Many people in Arizona need special expansion track that can move 1/2 inch or more.

Even the prototype railways have to take measures against expansion:

Not handling expansion and contraction can make kinks. Many people use 1/16" to 1/8". Since I free float my track, I can use tighter joints.

Make sure the rails are well aligned where they join. Track joiners, even rail clamps, don't always align the rails well, take a pair of pliers to the area to align things so your hand feels no bump as you sweep it across the joint.

Check your wiring for looseness or corrosion. Get a can of a spray corrosion inhibitor. Look in the marine supply stores, since they are always fighting corrosion.


GB Gardner Bender OX-100 OX-GARD Anti-Oxidant Compound 1 oz Tube Improves Wire Strand Conductivity Guards Against Oxidation of Aluminum Copper Wire Connections, Part # OX100

Special tips for track power:

Do it right the first time. If you save a few bucks or hours now, you can be sure it will cost you much more time and money later.

I prefer rail clamps. If you use joiners alone, they usually are headaches. If you use brass or nickle silver rail, you can solder jumpers between rail sections.

Just do what it takes to make good power conduction, a connection that cannot be compromised by dirt, weather, water, etc.

Be sure to look for corrosion or a situation where you have the susceptibility to corrosion. Inspect the rail joiners / clamps every so often. Your track wiring should be every 20 to 30 feet if you are running large engines or multiple locos per train.

Tip: I use insulated joiners between power districts/sections, then if a bad joint appears, it is immediately apparent. If you feed power on either side of a bad joint, it cannot be isolated easily. Bury wire alongside the track so you can find it again! (or use conduit as I did)

See the section on rail clamps/wiring



mpja 35908 te inclinometer

Weathering track:

To make your track look more realistic, you can paint or "weather" it. Some people will paint the rails and then insert them into the ties, when using "flex track".

Another way is to paint the rail after the track is in place. Terry Burr came up with a simple and effective way to make interlocking "masks" so that you wind up painting just the rail and the tie plates, not the ties or the ballast. Cut a piece of paper or plastic as below:


Now "weave" the mask between the ties:


Finally, "weave" another mask from the other side. Quick, inexpensive, efficient.

Weather Underground PWS KCACARLS78