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Milepost 24
CPR Galt Subdivision

Planning, Laying, Wiring and Ballasting Flextrack

Real railways do it and so should you. Whether you are building a real railway or a scale model version of the prototype, planning your track work is the most important step in having a system that operates smoothly. Please read through this article entirely before beginning to install your track.

Planning and Constructing your Model Railway:
1. Try to incorporate the largest minimum radius possible for your main line.

2. Unless you are using CAD software, plan your layout full-size on large sheets of blank newsprint or Kraft paper. Then lay these pieces taped together on the floor or directly on top of your bench work. You can then use cutouts of the trackwork as templates when cutting the sub-roadbed out of plywood, Homasote, foam, etc. (See below.)

3. If you are using a CAD system to create your layout drawings, you will need to transfer them to full size plans directly onto the tabletop or newsprint. This step is a relatively straightforward job. First transfer the grid lines from the CAD scale plan to the tabletop or newsprint. Then draw the centerline of your trackwork on the large grid, replicating its locations on the scale drawing. Use a pencil first, and then go over the lines later with a marker when you’re satisfied that your drawing is accurate.

4. When your full-size layout drawing is complete, cut out your sub-roadbed templates directly from the newsprint; transfer the templates to whatever sub-roadbed materials you are using (plywood, blue foam insulation, Homasote, spline, etc.). Cut the roadbed templates—and the sub-roadbed itself—about 3” wide for single track, 6” for double track and passing sidings, and be sure to leave extra space where turnouts and crossovers are to be located. You should also leave some extra-wide sub-roadbed where stations, spur tracks, industries and other trackside features are to be located at the same level alongside the right of way. It is easier to cut back on the roadbed than it is to add bits and pieces later. (Measure twice, cut once!)

5. When your sub-roadbed is in place, make sure that it is supported strongly and has no sharp dips or sudden changes in grade; grades should have smooth transitions to the level sections of roadbed that they are connected to around the layout. Otherwise you’ll end up with vertical kinks in your rails. You can bet that any minor flaws now will become major headaches later.

6. If you are building a branchline railway with low profile track, you may plan to use Homasote as your roadbed. In that case, use the same templates that you used for the sub-roadbed. An alternative is to lay each piece of sub-roadbed on top of the Homasote, and trace the lines directly onto it. Then cut the Homasote with a jig saw and laminate it to the plywood using carpenter’s glue, clamps and wood screws. The wood screws can be removed after the glue has dried thoroughly, about 24 hours to be sure. NOTE: Cut the Homasote and sand off the edges outside to minimize dust. Before laying cork roadbed and track, apply a layer or two of household latex paint to the Homasote in order to seal it. Use a tan or green paint to give your railway some colour at the track-laying stage.

7. If you are building a main line railway with typically high profile track, you will probably wish to use cork as your roadbed. Draw the centre line of your railway first, and then glue one half of the cork down along that centre line. You can use long sewing pins to hold the cork in place while the glue dries. Later, it is easy to glue the other side of the cork right next to the cork that is already glued in place.

NOTE: See the photos of branch line and main line railways at the end of this article.

Track Installation:

Before installing flex-track, use your Dremel rotary tool to drill holes in the ties outside the rails, about every tenth tie. These holes are used for inserting rail spikes when laying your track. Use a # 66 drill bit (or smaller, depending on the size of your rail spikes). It is important not to spike between the rails in order to keep the tracks in gauge and to maintain good appearance. After installing rail joiners, be sure to give them a little squeeze with mini pliers to secure them in place. Do not solder the rail joiners, especially to turnouts. Use rail joiners primarily to align the rails. Track feeders will be used later to supply current to the rails.

When laying the track onto the roadbed, you can use a drop of white glue or carpenters glue to help hold the track in place while you spike it. Place a drop on every tenth tie, or run a light bead down the middle of the underside of the ties. Here again you can use sewing pins to hold the track in place, especially on curves, while the glue sets and you are installing the spikes. Peco Track fixing pins work nicely if installing track on Homasote or foam sub-roadbed.

NOTE: If you are modelling a mainline track, you may wish to super-elevate the curves. If so, first install the spikes on the inside of a curve. Then slip some styrene strips under the ties on outside of the curve. Use 0.020” styrene strips at the beginning of the curve, then 0.040” in the middle of the curve so that the super-elevation is gradual. You can also glue the styrene strips in place on the outside of the curve before installing the track. Watching your train turn into that banked curve for the first time will be a thrill!

When your track is spiked, try to test each section as you go to make sure that rolling stock and locomotives run smoothly. Use alligator clips to provide temporary power to the track and run your most finicky locomotive and a string of cars to test turnouts, curves, grades and straight sections. After a section of track passes your rigorous testing, you can continue installing more trackwork, or perhaps begin adding some hard shell scenery. (To make sure their track is bulletproof, many modelers run trains on their completed trackwork for a long period of time before beginning the scenery, especially if the temperature and humidity fluctuate greatly. It’s your choice.)

During (or after) trackwork installation, solder track feeders to all of your track pieces. The track feeders are used to connect the rails to the track power bus wires that will run under the layout. Drill small holes just outside the rails on both sides of the track and in between the ties. After stripping back about ¼” of the insulation, drop a track feeder wire (22-gauge wire for HO scale track) down through the hole. Make a small bend in the wire and solder it to the outside of the rail. Do the same on the opposite rail using a different colour of wire. If using stranded wire, be sure to “tin” it first before bending and soldering it in position. Stranded wire is less likely to snap inside its insulation where you can’t see it. Before continuing with more trackwork, it’s a good idea to test each feeder wire using an electrical circuit tester or multimeter.

Use identical colours for the feeder and bus wires to help keep them organized and to avoid electrical shorts. If you use black and white household electrical wire for your bus wires, then use black and white 22-gauge wire for your track feeders. Solder your track feeder wires to practically every piece of track on the layout. Remember, we aren’t relying on soldered rail joiners to carry the current to the rails, so we need those feeders everywhere.

A word about turnouts:
Before installing any of your turnouts, consider taking the time to install jumper wires from the stock rails to the closure rails. On each turnout, the two closure rails run from the point hinges to the frog. Installing these small jumper wires will ensure electrical power reaches the closure rails without relying on the hinges to carry the current from the contact point where the points meet the stock rails. Be sure to solder these jumpers from the outside of the stock rail to the outside of the closure rail so that they do not interfere with wheel flanges of locomotives and rolling stock. In order to run these jumpers under the rails, you may have to cut off some of the hidden plastic tie webbing to make room for the wire and to allow the turnout to sit flat on the roadbed. If you have several turnouts to install, it is easier to set up a small assembly line and install jumper wires to several at a time in one sitting. Henry Ford did something similar for automobiles!

Painting Track:
To improve the appearance of your track, spray the sides of the rails with an airbrush using water-based acrylic paint, such as Poly Scale “Roof Brown” or “Grimy Black”. First run a patina of vegetable oil along the top of the rails using your finger. Paint small sections at a time, and then clean your airbrush. Acrylic paints dry very quickly and will clog the airbrush if it is not cleaned frequently. Let the airbrush parts soak while you are cleaning the tops of the rails with some paper towel. Clean the tops of the rails as soon as possible after applying the paint. This step should be easy if you applied the oil. Blue window cleaner and paper towels are excellent for this purpose. Alternatively, you can use the Tidy Track “Track Painters” from Woodland Scenics to colour the sides of the rails. No fuss, no mess, and a choice of three colours to make your scale rails look like the real thing.

When painting turnouts, place small pieces of styrene strips or masking tape in between the switch points and the outside rails. This practice keeps the paint off the contact points. Even so, it’s usually necessary to run some emery cloth along the switch points to ensure clean contact surfaces.

Scenery and Ballast:
When your trackwork is complete, and you are satisfied that no problem areas exist, you can begin installing some scenery to give your railway its context and enjoy running your trains. After the first layer of your scenery is complete in any given section of your layout, the last step in trackwork installation is applying the ballast.

Some modelers prefer to ballast their track before finishing the scenery. However, if you add ground foam and other scenic materials after the ballast is in place, the foam tends to float onto the track and onto the ballast along the edges. On the other hand, if the colored ground texture is fixed in place right up to trackside before the ballast has been installed, the ballasted roadbed will look good and give the appearance that the railway was constructed after Mother Nature built her terrain. Afterwards, you can add some weeds and debris between the rails on spur tracks and lightly used branch lines.

Ballasting track is a straightforward job, but it does take some patience. In the beginning, try ballasting a few feet of track at a time. Using a container, pour ballast between the rails, using less ballast than you think you need. Use your finger or a small, stiff brush to smooth the ballast so that it is just about level with the ties. Then pour a little ballast along the outside of the rails and use your brush to smooth it out and tidy up along the edge of the roadbed.

For spur tracks and worn down branchlines, you may wish to have the ballast cover some of the ties with a thin layer of ballast. If you pour the ballast too deep, your trains may have a bumpy ride as wheel flanges strike the ballast.

Take care to avoid using excess ballast around turnouts. Be sure to clean grains of ballast out of flangeways, frogs and other potential trouble spots before applying the wetting agent and glue mixture. A miniature vacuum attachment is handy for this task. You can also apply a small strip of masking tape over the turnout points to keep the ballast out of the mechanism. Before applying ballast cement to turnouts, pour a small amount of light oil to the throw bar and point hinges. The oil will repel the glue mixture.

After your ballast is in place, apply either wet water or 70% Isopropyl alcohol until the ballast is thoroughly soaked. An eyedropper is a neat way to apply the wetting agent. Although it’s not as fast as a spray bottle, it doesn’t blow the ballast out of place, you have more control and stand a better chance of doing a neat job. Avoid drenching everything in order to prevent puddles from forming. (NOTE: Wet water can be made by adding a drop of liquid dish detergent, like Sunlight or Ivory, as a wetting agent, to a quart or liter of water. Eyedroppers are available at Credit Valley Railway.)

After applying the wetting agent, glue the ballast in place using a 50-50 mixture of wet water and white glue. For this purpose, you have two choices: A squeezable glue bottle with a pointed nozzle (like a small LePages glue bottle) can be dedicated for this purpose. Having a bottle of this mixture on hand is useful for gluing other scenic materials in place as well. As an alternative, another eyedropper can be used to do a very neat application of this adhesive, again giving you more control especially around turnouts. Be sure to clean the eyedropper frequently to avoid clogging. Apply the glue down the middle of the track and along the sides. If you think you’ve used too much glue, you’ve probably used just enough to ensure that all of the ballast has been glued properly.

Draw off excess liquid around the turnouts and dry the switch points using a small piece of paper towel while the glue is still wet. You can also dry the tops of the rails using a small pad of paper towel, being careful to avoid disturbing the ballast. Periodically test the turnouts as the ballast is drying to ensure that they are working properly.

After 24 hours, the glue mixture will be thoroughly dry. At that time, vacuum the track to remove any loose ballast and to determine if any areas need to be redone. In areas that were not glued properly, you’ll see the ballast sucked right out from between the rails, leaving an unsightly gap. Simply add a little ballast and glue again as above.

If after a period of time you need to remove, repair or replace some ballasted track or a turnout, the process is straightforward. Mist the ballast liberally with wet water. Wait ten minutes. Gently pry the track up using a flat 2” scraper. Use the scraper to remove all of the remaining ballast from the roadbed. Vacuum the area after it has dried to remove any leftover bits. Then sand the roadbed so that it is ready for the installation of new track.

Careful planning and construction of your trackwork will ensure satisfactory operation of your trains in the years ahead. Weathering and ballasting your trackwork will bring your railroad one step closer to looking like the prototype.
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Typical Branch Line Tracks
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Typical Main Line Tracks
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Typical Branch Line Tracks
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Typical Main Line Tracks
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Which one is main line and which are secondary tracks?


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