Which Model Railroad Track is Best?
Which Model Railroad Track is Best? This is another one of those questions that we get frequently at Model Trains for Beginners. Someone new to the hobby wants to know which track they should buy for building their first layout – or building a new layout for the first time in years. The short answer is – it depends on your needs and the type of layout you want to build. It’s not the answer most folks want, though, so I’ll go in to some specifics and talk about different types of model railroad track that are available, giving you the chance to decide what suits your needs best. We’ll look at two or three different types of track for N, HO, and O scales.
For all three scales we are talking about, there are three primary options – pre-ballasted track (like Bachmann E-Z Track or Kato Unitrack), non-ballasted track (like Atlas Snap Track), and hand-laid track. For this article, I’m only focusing on the first two. Hand-laid track looks great and can be very reliable when done properly, but is often a little beyond the skills of a beginner.
To select the types of track I would write about, I perused various online retailers, specifically looking at their most popular and highest rated items, and I also perused several model railroad forums to see what people were talking about using themselves.
If you choose to go with non-ballasted track, you will need to lay the track on top of strips of cork roadbed and then ballast the track after it is attached to the cork. This will give your rail line the appearance of an actual railroad route. Using the pre-ballasted track means you can skip the cork roadbed stage, but if you use it as is it does have a bit of a “toy” look to it – and if that doesn’t bother you, there’s no need to worry. But if it does, you can paint and/or ballast it to get a more realistic appearance.
Finally, the non-ballasted track has a tendency to not stay completely connected over time, even when properly tacked or glued down. The track sections slip slightly, spreading the joints just enough that electrical connections are lost from one section to another. The answer to this is soldering the sections together, which will produce a more stable track but also requires you to be comfortable with a soldering gun. Pre-ballasted track holds together much better and almost never requires soldering to keep a good electrical connection.
N Scale Track
Atlas Code 55 seems to be one of the most popular choices for N scale track in North America. Atlas produces it in a variety of lengths and curve radii as well as several different types of switches, crossings, crossovers, and even girder bridge sections. As this is a non-ballasted sectional track, you’ll need cork roadbed and ballast to complete the authentic look.
Kato Unitrack has become more popular in recent years, primarily because it is easy to assemble and stays connected over time. Kato’s Unitrack is, in my opinion, one of the best looking examples of the pre-ballasted track. It has less of a “toy-like” look to it than many others do. The major drawback – and this applies to all pre-ballasted track from all manufacturers – is that Unitrack is often far more expensive than Atlas Code 55 or Peco Code 80.
Peco Code 80 is the popular choice among European N scale modelers, and it is growing in popularity in North America. The ties (sleepers) for Peco’s track are a bit oversized and too closely spaced for true prototypical look (at least for North American lines), but as a friend told me, “If you are consistent and use nothing but Peco, you really won’t notice this difference.”
HO Scale Track
Atlas Code 100 is just a fraction too large to be true HO scale, the fact that it accommodates older rolling stock easy continues to make it a popular choice with many model railroaders. The “code” number is representative of size, and Code 100 rails are .100” high (so Code 83 is .083” high). But similar to Peco’s N Scale Code 80, if you are consistent in your usage of Code 100 rail, it will not be nearly as noticeable.
Bachmann E-Z Track is the most popular choice of the pre-ballasted types of track for HO scale. It doesn’t quite look as good as Kato’s Unitrack, but it clicks together easy, holds together well, and can be painted and/or ballasted to make it look better. However, as with almost all pre-ballasted track, it is more expensive, often significantly so.
Walthers Code 83 is much closer to prototypical scale than code 100 track is, and it is very popular as a result. You can get it in traditional “wood” tie/sleeper format or with “concrete” ties/sleepers for more modern railroads. The Walthers Code 83 is one of the best looking examples of model railroad track I’ve seen.
O Scale Track
Atlas O, like HO scale Code 100 and N scale Code 55, is a traditional snap track and a popular choice for O scale modelers, especially those that go for a more prototypical look. The center rail is painted black at the factory, which allows it to disappear more easily into the background.
Lionel FasTrack is a pre-ballasted track that is growing in popularity. It looks far more prototypical than Lionel’s classic (and still available) tubular rail. The pre-ballasting looks really good, too, almost as good as the Kato Unitrack for N scale. The drawback for many is that the center rail is not painted and will need to be disguised in some way if you want a more prototypical look.
MTH RealTrax is very good looking pre-ballasted track, competing with Kato’s N-scale Unitrack for the best looking track of its type in any scale. Even with the center rail, which comes painted black at the factory, this is a good looking model train track. From all accounts, it holds up well and stays connected well, too.
In the end, it’s up to you to decide which model railroad track is best for YOU. All I or anyone else can do is give you some different types to look at and think about, but it comes down to what fits your wallet, your skill, and your end desires for your model railroad. No one else can make that decision for you. Hopefully, this look at nine different types of track in three different scales will get you pointed in the right direction.
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