So you’re getting started in model railroading. You have a basic idea of what you want, and you might have even started buying some rolling stock. But what type of track should you choose, and how do you power it? Contrary to what you might think, there are actually multiple ways to go about this. Your scale, type of setup, and even the type of train you plan to run will factor into this. If you already have a train set, this will likely come with a feeder track, but this may not be right for you if you want to expand your set into a fully fledged layout.
Take a look at any O gauge layout these days and you’ll likely notice that it uses one of three main track types; Lionel FasTrack, MTH Realtrax, or some form of ballast-free track such as those available from Atlas or Gargraves. Older layouts might even still use tubular track. Each of these styles has their own proprietary system for feeding power, and in the case of Lionel or MTH, these cannot be used with other systems. So what are your options?
Lionel is without a doubt the most established household name in O gauge railroading. With this in mind, it would be reasonable to assume that a newcomer in this scale would almost certainly be starting with Lionel track. For their FasTrack system, you’ll need a Lionel FasTrack Terminal Track to receive power. Which version you buy however will be determined by which power system you are using. If you are running a traditional transformer powered layout, then the standard Terminal Track is the best choice. If you want to take advantage of Lionel’s Bluetooth LionChief system, then you would need to instead purchase the LionChief Terminal Track. Beyond these more important considerations, Lionel also offers a wide range of stylized track, most of which have their own version of the standard Terminal Track to allow your roadbed to appear consistent.
Rather than requiring you to source and plan for a terminal track, MTH takes a different approach with their system. All sections of MTH Realtrax feature a knock-out panel allowing you to connect one of their lock-on power distributors anywhere on your layout. This provides a little more flexibility for layout planning, and of course means less to worry about when purchasing your track.
Atlas track is generally the go-to choice for modelers looking for more realism. While MTH Realtrax and Lionel FasTrack are extremely versatile in their ability to be used on any surface, Atlas track is designed specifically for integration into a fixed layout with hand-laid ballast. There are two options for powering these types of track. The quickest way for getting your trains up and running would be to purchase an Atlas Terminal Track. This is a great option if you haven’t quite figured out your track plan and want to experiment by running trains over different configurations. It will additionally blend in fairly well if used in a permanent scene. Another option is to use Atlas Terminal Track Joiners. These are simply your standard rail joiners with terminal wires attached. If you’re building a complex layout with multiple isolated tracks and segments, this will provide both value for money and flexibility in use. It is also by far the least obtrusive option. However if you plan to rearrange your track on a frequent basis, this might prove to be a little too fragile.
Tubular track is one of the oldest legacy track types, and was at one time available in multiple scales. Most Lionel train sets still included tubular track as recently as the 1990s, and as a result, there are still a fair number of layouts in existence which feature this style. These are typically powered using a CTC Lock-On Connector, which can be manually clipped to the outer and middle rails. To eliminate the flimsy and somewhat unsightly appearance of these connectors, many more serious modelers have taken to soldering their terminal wires directly to the outer and middle rail.
When it comes to HO scale, there are just about as many options as there are in O gauge. However just as with O, there are several track types which are more typically used than others. Some of these require a proprietary terminal track, while others are more flexible. So which one would be right for you?
Bachmann E-Z Track
Much like with Lionel FasTrack in O gauge, Bachmann E-Z Track dominates the HO scale train set market. So much so that other manufacturers will sometimes include E-Z Track in their own sets to improve their marketability. If you have an E-Z Track setup, you have a couple of options for power. Whereas some terminal tracks are only available in one configuration, Bachmann has made a point to offer theirs in both straight and 18″ radius curve configurations. So whether you want a long straightaway or a simple loop around the Christmas tree, you can be sure that connecting power won’t be an issue. All E-Z Track terminal tracks double as a railroad crossing in appearance, and function as a re-railer for partially derailed trains in motion.
Atlas True-Track is another major option for HO scale track with an included ballast base. With a slightly lower profile than Bachmann’s E-Z Track, the two are sadly not interchangeable. However Atlas provides its own terminal track for this system, available as a 9″ straight section. True-Track and E-Z Track both allow for quick setup and teardown on any surface, however we recommend avoiding carpets.
Although more widely used in N scale, Kato’s Unitrack line is also available in HO. Again, much like the two systems listed above, Unitrack items are not compatible with other systems and come with their own roadbed and locking mechanism. They do however offer a wide range of straights, curves, and switches to choose from. Their roadbed design additionally comes pre-painted with a realistic mix of ballast tones. Unitrack requires a straight feeder track segment to distribute power to the layout.
Lionel Magnelock Track
Magnelock track is a relatively recent addition to the available lineup of HO scale track types. Developed alongside Lionel’s new range of HO scale locomotives, rolling stock, and train sets, the system has a few unique features. Like the other systems above, it comes with a pre-molded roadbed, however there are no complicated locking mechanisms! As the name suggests, magnets do all the work. Power is additionally transmitted via the roadbed between segments, negating the need for rail joiners. Space has however been left to attach rail joiners should you wish to connect their system to a segment of standard track. As with the options above, Magnelock Track requires a straight terminal track to receive power, which is fairly bulky and may not be suitable for detailed layouts.
Standard track in this case is essentially any track other than the proprietary systems mentioned above. Tracks of this variety are by far the most versatile, as you can mix and match pieces from just about any manufacturer. What you do need to look out for though is rail heights. Typical heights are Code 100, Code 83, and Code 70. While these can be used together, you generally want to avoid mixing rail heights, as the transition will make for a bumpy ride for your trains. In many cases serious modelers will simply solder feeder wires directly to the track where needed to power their layouts, however there are some easier options. You can purchase both straight and curved terminal tracks for a simple and robust solution, or (our personal favorite method) you can use terminal rail joiners which feature pre-soldered wires attached to them.
N scale has many of the same options as HO when it comes to track and terminal power choices. If you model in N scale, these are your options.
Bachmann E-Z Track
Bachmann offers their entire E-Z Track range in both HO and N scale. Just as with their HO counterparts, N scale terminal tracks have the appearance of a railroad crossing, can be purchased in both straight and curved configuration, and will act as re-railers for derailed trains. Curved terminal tracks are available with a 11 1/4″ radius.
Atlas also offers their ballasted track system in N scale, albeit with slightly different ballast colors than their HO counterparts. N scale terminal tracks are available in pairs, and feature a scale electrical cabinet to conceal the wiring. This is a great feature if being used in a fully detailed layout, as these can be found along most railroads in reality, and won’t look obviously out of place in a realistic scene.
Kato Unitrack is arguably the most popular track of choice for many N scalers, thanks to its ease of use, realistic appearance, and wide range of products. N scale feeder tracks can be purchased in single track and double track configurations or for their concrete slab track range.
Just like in HO scale, we use the term standard track to describe undecorated track simply featuring rails and ties. Standard track is available from a wide range of manufacturers and all types are natively interchangeable. Again, you do need to watch out for railhead sizes. The two most common in N scale are Code 80 and Code 55. The best option for wiring this type of N scale track to your control system is by using Atlas terminal joiners. These are railhead-specific, so make sure that you order the correct type for your track code!
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