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Laying reliable and trouble free track does not need to be difficult. Listed below are a few tips to guide you through the process.
In order to cut your rail in a manner that leaves a square and usable end you'll need to pick up a pair of Xuron flush cutting rail cutters. These will produce a relatively clean and flush cut that, after a quick pass with a small file, will allow you to slip the rail joiners on easily. Note that the Xuron cutters produce a flush cut on one site and an unusable tapered cut on the other. Traditional wire cutters leave two tapered and unusable ends.
When deciding how to glue your track down, a few factors come into play such as: whether the track will eventually be ballasted, how long it will be before it does get ballasted, whether the track will be temporary, and finally whether the track will likely be moved/adjusted slightly in the future. Trains are relatively light and it generally takes very little adhesive to hold the track down. In cases where the track will be ballasted in the near future, it takes very little glue to hold things in place until the ballast is added. As a rough rule of thumb I approach track adhesive as follows:
The amount and type of adhesive is governed by whether the track is temporary and whether it will ultimately be ballasted or not. For track that will not be relocated and will eventually be ballasted a thin strip of white glue is adequate ( left photo). If the track will eventually be removed, a few drops of white glue six inches apart will hold while making later track removal much easier (right photo).
I generally use push pins to hold the rail in place while the glue is drying. If the pins aren't holding, I'll drill a few holes in the ties and add some track nails.
Moving or adjusting track that has been secured with white glue is relatively easy. Mist the track with a mix of water and rubbing alcohol and wait a few moments. The glue will quickly turn to a gummy consistency. Slide a thin metal rule under the rail and pop it loose. At this point you will quickly see why using LESS glue makes your job easier. Reposition the track and secure it temporarily in place with push pins. As the glue dries it will revert back to its hardened state and you can remove the pins. This flexibility is why I generally prefer white glue over adhesive caulk.
In locations where the rail will never be ballasted (such as staging yards) I use more adhesive than I would on areas of the layout that will eventually be sceniced. Without the anchoring affect of the ballast, something else needs to provide the hold. Solutions include using DAP adhesive caulk, slightly larger quantities of white glue, or drilling the ties and securing the track to the roadbed with track nails.
For staging yards I pre-drill the flex track so that track nails can be driven through the ties. Atlas flex track provides a dimple to make drilling easier (left photo). The next step is to lay a thin line of white glue at the track centerline, place the track in position, and then insert the track nails (aka tacks) in the previously drilled holes to securely anchor the track (right photo).
One of the most common causes of track failure is rail buckling. As winter approaches and the humidity drops, your bench work and sub-roadbed will tend to shrink. If there are not adequate gaps at your rail joints the track has no where to go and will buckle up or out. Curved turnouts are particularly prone to buckling. In addition, rail that becomes heated from sources like an overhead heating duct or hot sun shining through a window, will expand and also buckle. The solution is to provide adequate gaps at the rail joints. I generally eyeball in a 1/16" gap at track joints. If you miss a few its no big deal. When in doubt, err on the side of a larger gap. Do NOT solder your rail joints as this will prevent them from expanding and contracting freely.
Successive sections of track butted tightly together allow no room for expansion and are prone to buckling (left photo). Including a 1/16" rail gap at most of your rail joints will allow room for your track to compensate if the underlying bench work shrinks (or the rail expands due to heat). Right Photo.
As you begin to lay track around the layout there are a few trouble spots to be aware of. Some of the more common errors and sources of derailments are missing a rail joiner connection and sharp bumps at the rail joints caused by slipping overly thick ties under the rail joiners.
As you join your rails, you will quickly find that the ties at the end of your flex track are in the way. You can either remove enough ties to make room for the joiners or cut away the frets between the ties and slide them down or a combination of the above. After you've joined your two flex track sections you will now be faced with section of track with no ties. Some manufacturers such as Atlas and Peco make specialty end tie pieces that work perfectly for solving the problem. If you don't have that luxury, you will need to slip replacement ties in the gap. Be careful. With the rail joiner now in place, you no longer have a large enough space under the rail to slip standard ties back in. Forcing the issue will create a bump at the joint and a common source of derailments. To get around this, take some standard ties and, using a blade or Dremel router, make a small cup in the tie to clear the joiners. This is tedious but does solve the problem.
In order to make room for your rail joiners you'll need to remove a few ties and/or slide them down a little. This is easy enough to do by clipping away the plastic frets between the ties and then either removing the ties or sliding them down. If you've cut the rail with rail nippers a few passes across the bottom of the rail will remove any burrs and make sliding the joiners on easier (left photo). The right photos shows what a properly constructed joint looks like. A few ties have been removed to allow clearance for the rail joiners and the sections have a roughly 1/16" gap between them.
It's easy to get in a hurry and inadvertently miss catching both rail ends with the joiner. When this happens a step is created that will, without doubt, cause derailments. This is sort of a pain to fix if you catch it after the rail is down so its worth paying attention and avoiding this error.
Forcing standard depth ties under the rail joiners will create a pronounced bump at the joint.
There are two ways to install ties under the rail joiners without producing the bump. The first method is to use specialty "end ties" (left photo). The other method is to carve a cup in the tie deep enough to clear the rail joiners.
Grade Transitions (getting into and out of a slope)
It's easy to put your entire focus purely on horizontal alignment when laying track. A high percentage of track problems though come from kinks in the vertical plane. By that I mean abrupt transitions/kinks when entering a grade or perhaps stepping down from a main line to a slightly lower siding. The trick is to let the weight of the track and its natural sag naturally define the vertical curve. Don't force the track down at these transition points. Any gaps that occur below the track using the natural sag method can easily be filled with ballast or shims later.
The left photo shows the sharp kink that can occur at the point where the track transitions from being level to an uphill slope. Problems can be averted if you let the natural sag of the track define the vertical curve (right photo).
It's common to have small burrs at the rail ends. These can be caused from minor misalignment, miniscule height differences or rough edges from cutting the rail. These rough spots are easy enough to clean up. Make a few light passes with a fine file over the top of the rail heads at the gap (left photo). Make a few more passes on the inside flanges of the rail as well (right photo).
The most frequent location of derailments are likely to be at your turnouts. That being the case, your life will be made much easier if you pay particular attention to them. The most common sources of derailments are: transitions into and out of the turnout that are too abrupt/not smooth enough, curves that haven't finished their arc before entering the turnout, errant ballast (even microscopic pieces) in the turnout and finally, points that aren't thrown completely across.
A common problem area is where a turnout is located right at the exit of a curve. If the curve hasn't finished its arc, or there isn't enough of a transition, a kink will occur causing future derailments (left photo). To avoid this problem make sure the curve has completed its full arc and then add an inch or two of straight track before placing the turnout. (right photo).
Make sure you have smooth transitions out of the turnout at the frog end as well. The left photo illustrates a poor transition/kink as track exits a turnout . Errant particles of ballast wreak havoc on turnout reliability and are a common source of derailments. It only takes one small grain to create problems. Put on an Optivisor (magnifying glasses) and make sure the entire turnout is clean and free of ballast. The right photo points out common areas where ballast can reside. Stiff brushes and small screw drivers make effective cleaning tools. Make sure that there are no ballast particles preventing the points from moving tightly against the stock rail.
A lot has been written about making sure your track is properly gauged, meaning the rails aren't too close or too far apart. I'm not saying this isn't important but the reality is that it is fairly unlikely that a straight piece of commercially produced piece of straight flex track will be out of gauge. In all my years of checking I've only come across one out of gauge product and that was a commercially produced curved turnout. So, yes it's important but don't waste a lot of time with a track gauge until you've exhausted all other troubleshooting checks.
It's necessary that parallel tracks be far enough apart that cars don't sideswipe one another. A good rule of thumb is 2" track separation on parallel sections of STRAIGHT track. When you have parallel track going around a CURVE spread the spacing to 2 3/8" to allow for car overhang. (Assuming HO scale)
Laying Track Around Curves
As you begin laying your track around larger curves you will quickly find that your 3 foot flex track pieces aren't long enough to make it around a full curve. You will also quickly learn that bending individual pieces of track around a curve and joining them doesn't work because you get a sharp kink at the joint. There is too much outward stress in the track at the curved joint to make a smooth connection. Fortunately, the solution is fairly simple. In short, what you need to do is join two STRAIGHT pieces of flex track together on your work bench and solder the joint BEFORE placing it on the layout and making the curve. You will find that as you make the curve that some of the ties will ride up tightly against the joiners making it difficult to bend the track. Simply snip away enough of the offending ties until you can make a smooth curve.
Keeping Straight Track Straight
Laying long straight sections of track can be challenging. Fortunately this is more of an aesthetic issue than one of mechanical reliability. Minor wiggles in the track, while unsightly, generally do not cause derailments. To get the track as straight as possible place a long aluminum rule against the edge of the ties and gently push the edge of the ties against the rule. Place your eyes a few inches above the track and sight down the centerline adjusting the rail until you've gotten it as straight as possible.