Serious model railroaders have two choices when it comes to track laying: hand lay track, or use ready-to-lay, 36-inch flexible track sections, such as Peco and Atlas. The first option is laborious. The other option is easy for both novice and advanced model railroaders --- all you have to do is join the flex-track, tack it down and ballast it. There are some distinct differences between the Peco and Atlas brands, but they can be used together easily, and the track looks good once it's ballasted. Let's assume your roadbed's built, you've purchased some 36-inch lengths of both Atlas and Peco track and you're ready to lay them. You'll need a few hobby tools.
- Skill level:
Things you need
- Hobby knife and hobby saw, or rail nipper
- Flat or three-sided hobby file
- Rail joiners
- Resin-core solder
- Soldering iron
- Miniature long-nose pliers
- Aluminium straightedge or ruler
- Hobby drill and 1/32" drill bit
- Hobby tacking hammer
- Measuring tape
Slice under the plastic "sleepers" to which the rail is secured on the first two ties with your hobby saw or knife. This ensures there's enough length to slide on a rail joiner so that the rail end is at the midpoint of the joiner. The sleepers on the Peco track can easily be sliced away with your hobby knife. With the Atlas flex track, you'll need your hobby saw, as the sleepers are made of more rigid plastic.
Slide on a rail joiner, making sure that the rail end is at the midpoint of the joiner. If you're using Peco rail joiners, you may need to use your miniature long-nose pliers to slide the joiner on, as these joiners fit snugly on the rail. If you're using Atlas rail joiners, you may at this point need to use your long-nose pliers to crimp the joiner slightly to ensure a snug fit before sliding it on. Atlas joiners fit more loosely than Peco joiners. A loose rail joiner can lead to a poor electrical connection and impede smooth locomotive operation.
Solder the joints to ensure a solid electrical connection. Heat the rail first with your soldering iron; then, holding your coil of resin-core solder against the side of the rail joint, spread a fine bead of solder across the joint. If you get a bit of solder on the rail head or on the inside edge of the rail, file it off absolutely smooth. Even a small fleck of solder can impede the wheels of locomotives or rolling stock and lead to a derailment.
Tack the joined track sections down on the roadbed, making sure there are no bumps in the roadbed, especially at the joint. A heaved joint can cause a derailment. If your joint is heaved slightly, the likely cause is that you didn't shave the plastic sleepers away enough (Step 1) and the rail joiner is riding high. With your hobby knife, shave away any remnants of the plastic sleepers under the rail joiner until the rail is laying flat.
Drill starter holes in the plastic ties, about one foot apart along the length of each track section, using a hobby drill with a 1/32-inch bit attached. Then spike the track down with track tacks and a hobby tacking hammer.
Test the smoothness of your joint by rolling a boxcar over the sections of track.
Joining Two Full 36-inch Sections
Measure the length you need with your flexible aluminium ruler or measuring tape --- for short lengths, the ruler may be easier and more practical to use --- and make a pencil mark on the rail head. The ruler can double as your straightedge. Line it up across the rails on the pencil marks as your cutting guide to ensure you're cutting the rails evenly. You can cut the rails with either a hobby saw or a rail nipper, a specialised model railroad rail-cutting tool. Assuming you're using a hobby saw, cut the rail in smooth, even strokes, making sure the blade is true vertical. If your cut is misaligned, you'll end up with a slight gap in the rail joint. This can potentially cause electrical flow problems and hinder locomotive operation. Cut right through the plastic tie strip on which the rail rests.
Turn the track upside down and cut away the sleeper strips, back to the next tie. The sleeper strips on the Peco track can be sliced through with your hobby knife, but again, with the Atlas track you'll need to use your hobby saw because of the rigidity of the plastic.
File the cut rail ends smooth and straight with your hobby file. You'll need to file both the rail ends and the underside of the joint, as the hobby saw will have left a burr at the base of the rail. Now you're ready to slide on rail joiners and solder the joints. Again, when you tack the track down, make sure the joint isn't heaved. If it is, slice away high spots in the shaved sleepers under the joiner with your hobby knife.
Joining Cut Sections of Flex Track
Tips and warnings
- The process for joining Peco and Atlas track is the same whether you're joining two sections of flex track or joining a section of Peco track to an Atlas turnout. The joints at turnouts are particularly important, as model train derailments tend to happen most often at turnouts.
- While Peco and Atlas track can be joined easily at turnouts or in straight sections, avoid mixing the two brands of track when you're laying out and joining curved sections of track. Peco Code 55 flex track is more rigid than Atlas flex track, which tends to be springy. (Try in general to avoid having rail joints in the middle of a curve, as rails can easily become misaligned, causing derailments.)
- Now that you've started your track laying and made your first joint, forge on ahead until your golden spike is driven.
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