Choosing Roadbed & Rail

Choosing Roadbed & Rail is the start to make your perfect layout on a good start. Then you need the best ballast from ARMballast.

Choosing Your Roadbed

Once you are satisfied with your model railroad track arrangement, you can start gluing down roadbed, working on one section at a time. The roadbed is commercially available as cork or foam and is manufactured in various scales in 36” strips. It can be separated down the middle into 2 long strips. When you are sure of the proper placement of a section of your model railroad track, you can make dots on the sub roadbed between the track ties with a felt-tipped pen.

Then lift the track off the layout, and glue down one of the ½ strips with the inner edge lined up along the dots. (The beveled edge of the strip is the outer edge.) Then glue the other half of the strip lining it up along the inner edge of the first ½ strip. After you’ve glued down 1 or 2 sections of roadbed, you can then set the track back down on top of the roadbed.

Choosing roadbed base

Modelers use plywood on home layouts, as well as foam for portable layouts, both work well. Under the track, some use laminate flooring underlay. This paper-based product is cheaper than homasote, cuts easily with a knife, and is about ballast thickness for HO. Lay it right across the track area and then cut it to the correct profile after the track has been laid. It is not affected by soaking with dilute PVA for gluing ballast. This has shown to have no effect when soaked in water. Seal the top surface with cheap acrylic varnish as I find it holds spikes better.

You also have many choices for your roadbed. Some tracks, like Bachmann EZ Track, comes with an attached roadbed which you can mount directly to your sub roadbed. Other manufacturers offer similar products. You can use Homasote. This a time-honored way to build a layout but there are misgivings about it. Homasote expands and contracts quite a bit as seasonal humidity levels change. That can make for major problems with your track because the metal rails and plastic ties move very little. Cork is much more dimensionally stable, inexpensive, and easy to use. I suggest that you give cork some serious consideration. There is a similar plastic product (expanded vinyl). Modelers who have used expanded vinyl wallpaper have found it to be exceedingly easy-to-use, attractive, and durable.

Roll-out Sticky Roadbed

There’s also a roll-out sticky roadbed. It’s relatively thin so it won’t look like high iron but it will hold itself and your track in place. You can get away without ballasting (the rock, cinders, etc. which holds the track in place on 12 inches to the foot railroads) some model railroad tracks, like cork or the ones which already have plastic ballast or something just for children who won’t care as long as the trains go at light speed. However, you MUST ballast the sticky stuff because anything else which touches it will stick to it and that will lead to a cruddy-looking railroad. The other ways of doing roadbed (plastic, cork, homasote) should be ballasted for appearance. Yes, that applies to the roadbed attached trackage, too.

Choosing Roadbed & Rail

Choosing Rail – Track

A question that always comes up first is – What type of model train track should I use? There are several different brands and sizes available. Mostly what you use is a personal preference. One thing to remember is that the size of the rails is reported as the code. For example, the code 83 model railroad track has larger rails than the code 55 track. The smaller rails are often used for branch lines and the larger codes are for mainlines. This is often the way they appear in the prototype (real life), so you can simulate that on your layout if you wish.

A caveat to this is that you have to make sure that when you make the transition between different codes on the same layout, you have to line up the rails properly so there won’t be any derailments. You may have to use small pieces of wood underneath the railroad ties on the adjoining end of the code 55 track so that the rails of the code 55 track will line up properly with those of the code 83 track. Also, another point to remember is that sometimes branch lines may not have much roadbed, if any, under the track while mainlines almost always do.

The model railroad track is sold as sectional track, i.e., small sections of either straight track or curved track that come in 2-3 different standard radii, or as flex track, a very flexible 3 ft piece of track that can be curved to whatever radius you want. Sectional track, but not flex-track, can also be purchased with roadbed attached. Some model tracks have more realistic appearing railroad ties than others

More info

Many brands have black ties that are far apart. These are probably less realistic than the ones that are brown or gray and are closer together. Of course, hand-laid track ties are probably the most realistic. Also, the ties can always be painted to look more realistic. Varying the shade of color of the ties is always more realistic than having them all be exactly the same color. This would be tedious and probably not really that noticeable in the smaller scales, but it would make more of a difference in the larger scales.

Modelers generally use the sectional track for the most part (without the attached roadbed) in places where the straight track is required, and when curves with the standard radii are needed. However, flex-track is better if you need curves with nonstandard radii, or if you are making s-shaped curves. Many model railroaders use flex-track for the whole layout except for the turnouts. One note of caution when making s-shaped curves is that you should always have at least one car-length of straight track between the 2 curves. Otherwise, you will likely have derailments.

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