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laying the track

Early railways used chaired track. These included the Festiniog, Penrhyn and Padarn Railway. Flat bottom rail quickly became the norm for all subsequent lines.

the Penrhyn Railway

Generally, narrow gauge track was quite lightweight. The Lynton and Barnstaple Railway, for instance, was laid in 40 lb rail.

Lyn on the L&B

This meant that axle loads had to be relatively light to prevent damage. Modern railways such as the new Welsh Highland use rail almost double in weight. This can highlight the narrowness of the track.

a cold day on the new WHR - photo by David Firth

some railways have sections of dual gauge track

These days, it is possible to hand build accurate model track. Most of us still purchase ready made products.

hand built narrow gauge track by John Clutterbuck

hand built 009 track by Lynne Grant - photo Mick Thornton

The number one rule is to make absolutely sure that your trackwork is as near to perfect as you can make it. Once scenery has been added, it becomes very difficult indeed to put things right. The next rule is to have curves as easy as you can possibly make them and try to avoid double reverse curves.

Your locomotive may officially go round a 12" radius point but will they do so smoothly without buffer or coupling lock when pulling a train. If you ever intend to propel a train, the track has to be even better. Always select live frog points.

Wherever possible, use transitional curves. These are curves that gradually decrease in radius and you move towards the curve apex.

The drawing above shows a transitional curve (red) of track entering a spiral of fixed radius.

If you have used a track design software programme, you will have the facility to print out the result full scale and lay this down on your trackbed. This will make life a bit easier but in the end, a good eye for setting down track is as good as anything. Often, I will lay out track and lineside buildings on a wooden floor covered with inexpensive brown paper from a roll used for masking off cars in paint shops and jiggle about with them until I am happy with the result.

the start of laying out of County Gate station

Once you are happy with the layout, you can begin to transfer the information to the trackbed. I always suggest that you select good quality 3 or 4mm ply for this purpose. This can be cut to size and attached to the baseboard.

a complicated trackbed by PLS baseboards

Model trains can climb gradients better than the prototypes but I suggest that you keep the grades as gentle as possible. If you are unsure, set up a section of track to your required grade and try running a heavy train up it.

Some will require the track to be laid slightly higher to represent modern trackbed. If this is required, you will have to carefully cut an additional layer of thin ply which should be firmly attached.

You may have to cut into the trackbed where you have say, an inspection pit. It is best to complete and detail the pit at this time.


You may decide to purchase ready made track such as the products supplied by Peco or you may 'bite the bullet' and build your own. A first class complete system for building your own track is supplied by US company Fast Tracks. Their website is first class so it is really worth taking a look.

If using ready made track, choose the largest radius points that you can fit into your plan. For 009, a new range called Peco Mainline have points with an 18" radius. Their design is vastly improved compared with previous 'Crazy Track' incarnations which I cannot recommend being not very reliable and very rough running, apart from being only 12" radius.

Set track systems are also on sale. I suggest that they are left in the nursery room where they belong.

Other points are available from manufacturers such as Tillig.

Those who build their own track really do not need to bother with the following section.

I tend to place pointwork in their approximate position first and then lay track between. To cut track, use either a Dremel cutoff disc and ensure that the end is smoothed to allow the installation of a fishplate. I always start in areas where there are points and add the long lengths of track afterwards. Keep the connected track in smaller sections as it will have to be handled. Do not forget to ensure that parallel tracks afford sufficient clearance for trains. I have once forgotten about duckouts on brake coaches!

the start of track laying

Gradually, you will be able to connect the track together as you require. Once happy with the result, the next job is to solder the rail joints, an essential step to ensure good continuity. Do not forget to use insulating fishplates at point frogs. You may consider building in the break a little further away from the frog. This could very well prevent collisions if you are using DCC.

preferred remote insulated rail joints shown on the right image

Once you have connected and soldered your track section, it is time to add wiring. Carefully turn over your section of track. The point frog will have to change polarity when the point switches so it will require its own power supply which will be connected to a bipole switch. I always use thin white wire for this application. Use a short length, say 12" and solder one end to the underside of the frog. You will also have to lead power to the main running rails at regular intervals of about 24". Again, always make sure that you use two colours, say red and green, and do not mix up polarities. I always use red wire for the rail next to the backdrop and green towards the front of the layout. Again, solder lengths to the underside of the rails.

Once complete, turn the track over again and place it in the correct position and mark the plywood where the wire droppers are located. Push the track over to one side and drill the plywood trackbed with a small clearance hole to accommodate the wires. Feed the wires through the holes and check that the track is in the correct position. There have been times when I have had to redrill holes until I am satisfied with positioning. Hold the track section down in its correct position with Gaffer tape and using a propelling pencil, place it through the tiebar actuating hole and operate the point side to side.

This will leave a line which must now be opened with a small drill into a slot. Make the slot a tad longer at each end to avoid binding.

Once you have completed the section with points, you can now attach it to the baseboard. Mix up some 20 minute epoxy and place blobs at the end of sufficient sleepers to firmly attach the track. Make sure that the sleepers either side of the point tie bars are very firmly fixed indeed.

As the glue begins to thicken, this is the time for any last minute positioning adjustments. Eye the track at low level down the rail and you will easily see any wobbles which can easily be removed.

I always make sure that the track is completely flat onto the trackbed by placing a small sheet of MDF (as flat as you will get) onto the track and weighting it down until the glue has cured. Ensure that no glue has migrated onto the tiebar. This can be cleared off if necessary if the glue is still slightly soft.

tracklaying on the fiddle yard

You can now attach the flexitrack remembering to include track power droppers. If you require a block section for any reason, do not forget that they should have their own power feeds. Use different colours of wire. Most block sections only require one rail to be isolated. Where track is to pass from one baseboard to the next, terminate the track about three inches from the end.

Fill the gaps between insulated rail gaps with a little epoxy. This will prevent rail movement and shorting in hot weather.

Model rail will expand and contract just like the real thing. Once you have laid all of the track, it is really worth while heat soaking it. I just bang on a couple of fan heaters until the room is unbearable and leave for an hour. You may find you get local problems that will have to be rectified. Some exhibition halls can become unbearably hot and you really do not want to find such problems in these circumstances. When the layout, on the other hand has become extremely cold, some joints may also fracture. This is of course much harder to check for.

baseboard track joints

Where track goes from one baseboard to the next, fit the baseboards together and we lay track across the joint. Leave an expansion gap or 0.5mm when joining to the laid track and do not solder the fishplates here. You will therefore have to provide this short section with its own track power feeds for reliability's sake.

The final track section should be set in solid epoxy glue to prevent any movement at all. Some chose to solder the rail ends to pins or copper clad as well. Once the glue has cured, you can cut the track at the baseboard joint with a fine saw.

The most important issue is to ensure that the track is as near as possible at right angles to the baseboard joins. Oblique angles will cause nothing but problems. You may have to modify the baseboards so that the joint is actually at right angles.


It is now the time to install any working signals. These will have motor actuation from below. Although expensive, I use signals provided by Model Signal Engineering (Wizard Models) along with their 'bouncy' actuators.

after painting, this signal is ready for installation