Track: You’ll need it if you want a layout. Over the course of writing a dedicated book about track along with the upcoming coverage in the next edition of The Missing Conversation, I’ve learned this for certain: When you look closely, track is anything but uniform in appearance.

Stamping It Out, Piece by Piece.
We’ve grown accustomed to the cookie cutter uniformity of commercial track products. Sectional track still comes in nice predictable lengths and curves, all designed to make an endless variety of closed loops and turnouts were designed to fit this rigid geometry with little regard for appearances. Conformity and uniformity are the main things and, hobbyists are happy, that is until they’re not.

Over the ensuing decades, our knowledge of full-size track has increased and a dissatisfaction with the gross compromises of the status quo eventually followed. It started with using different sizes of rail to represent the variety of rail weights and heights seen on full-size track. That No. 4 turnout you could plug into a eighteen-inch radius curve without a care, gave way to longer, somewhat better looking turnouts though these still left much to be desired. For determined modelers, good enough is never going to be. They pushed, poked and prodded until they created model track that looks and works like the real thing. This meant hand laying track, especially if you wanted turnouts that follow prototype standards and look the part.

Full-size Track Isn’t That Uniform
Railroad engineering departments established standards for how track, bridges, buildings and other infrastructure was to be built and maintained. However, when the great mergers began, it wasn’t always feasible or necessary for the parent company to upgrade the infrastructure of the newly acquired lines. Even if such lines were brought up to the parent company standards, with hundreds and thousands of miles of track, the process could take years to accomplish.

Typical steam era turnout. Photo by Mike Cougill, Copyright 2013

This turnout on the old GR&I is a prime example of how varied full-size track can be. The bulk of the rail here is 100 pound and notice how short a few of the rail sections are coming off both legs of the frog.

Different style guard rails

Cast steel guard rail.

Oddity No. 2
This turnout also has different styles of guard rails protecting the frog. The diverging route guard rail (above) dates from 1926 and has a cast design I’ve never seen before. The through route is a  typical A.R.E.A. casting. What’s going on here?

The use of different guard rails on secondary track isn’t uncommon. It’s often the result of track modifications or maintenance. I’ve seen this situation at Brookville where the railroad downgraded a crossover. I’ve been told by professional railroaders that older yards can be a cornucopia of different rail weights. Recycling serviceable components is common sense and, keeps the accountants happy.

Modelers don’t include these subtleties even in hand laid track. Conditioned by the uniform nature of commercial track, we default to detailing our turnouts to the same level, even when there is clear evidence to the contrary. High-speed mainline, or decrepit branchline, we treat them all the same. I’m just as guilty on all counts.

A Craftsman Has Optons
Part of the problem is the lack of variety in details like guard rails, rail braces and the like. While that is slowly changing as more products come to market, using they don’t make it is a flimsy excuse. Any serious craftsman has options in his toolbox to choose from. These details aren’t that hard to scratchbuild. If you use individual tieplates as I’ve done, then gauge plates, slide plates and hook tieplates are simple to make from stripe styrene. Light duty, rigid rail braces are available to fit a range of rail sizes and they can translate across scales. They could also be cast in resin from a styrene master if they aren’t available in your scale. Trust me, even in HO scale, such details make a difference. In 1/64 and 1/48 they’re mandatory. This is a craft where you make and do things and the satisfaction of knowing your track is custom instead of run-of-the-mill is the payoff at the end of a satisfying journey.

I’ve spent a lot of time on my track already. However, I have some work to do over the winter to add variety to a few of my turnouts. If your curiosity is peaked, the next edition of The Missing Conversation takes a long look at track details along with a great article by Trevor Marshall, outlining his thought process in modeling branchline track near the end of its service. This edition will pair up nicely with Detailing Track.  TMC 07, on sale January 1, 2014.



  1. bn3022


    Just a couple of years ago I started taking my own track photos similar to those above. At about the same time I discovered the products available at Proto87 Stores. Since then there’s no turning back.
    And now finding your wonderfull publication, has been a blast as well as very inspirational and rewarding..

    Looking forward to the next segment.


  2. mike

    Thanks for the kind words Ken. Glad you’re learning to study track more closely and glad you’re enjoying the process.