What track should I choose?

This is another decision that can get you in trouble if you don't take some time to think it through first.

This is a pretty hotly debated topic. Tip: don't get all confused and frustrated, go about the decision logically and it will basically "fall out". (Almost everyone you talk to will be very "polarized" in their opinoin).

The first thing you need to figure out is how will your locomotives be powered. Your choices are battery power or track power.

The decision will be most influenced by what you want to run and how you want to run.

You can spend all day determining what is the lowest cost, but be sure the choice you make is good for your future. Trying to save a few bucks now, and painting yourself in a corner with equipment you don't need is foolish. (And it's happened many a time).

What track for battery power?

You can basically use anything that lets the trains run without derailing.

Wood ties:

Some people have used wood strips in ties for track. It works, but water always eventually warps thin pieces of wood. Now a shay with spool wheels on simulated tree trunks is a wild idea. Basically this is just something to see if it works. One good application of wooden rails is storage tracks inside your house or train shed: cheap, and you can route out grooves in plywood, and lay thin strips of wood in it.

Plastic ties:

In late 2009, Train-Li introduced plastic track that MIGHT be up to limited use outdoors. There is not enough data to understand it's UV and abrasion resistance. This could be a very cheap alternative.

Aluminum rail:

Popular mainly due to it being about the most inexpensive material. Aristo made aluminum sectional track for a while, hard to find new now. Flex track and switches are readily available. Advantages are cheap, easy to bend and machine. Disadvantages are so soft easy to damage if stepped on, corrodes easily, poor conductor of electricity if you power later. (Aluminum is a good conductor, but it oxidizes rapidly so joining rails is usually a poor electrical joint). It can be painted, but does not naturally oxidize to something realistic.

Brass rail:

My recommendation for battery power. It oxidizes to a dark brown, is tough, easy to work with, readily available in sectional, flex and switches. If you have to power the layout later, you can do fine. In sectional track, LGB weathers nicely, the Aristo and USAT rail takes longer to oxidize to a dark brown, but they are a harder/stiffer alloy, more resistant to stepping on. The LGB ties are sturdier, but the Aristo track has a lifetime guarantee. Available from many manufacturers. Flex track is widely available from many manufacturers.

Nickel Silver rail:

Usually a little softer than brass, only available in lower profiles, like 250 and 225. The silver color is more realistic, and it weathers more to a black color. (Most prototype rail weathers dark brown rust colored). I don't think the extra cost is justified, I have not seen consistent results in it being any lower in maintenance than brass. The silver color might be important to you, but I'd pick aluminum for battery power, and I would not pick nickel silver for track power. Some nickel silver rail gets attacked by junk in the air more readily than brass. If you go with this, be sure to talk to someone who has used the same track in approximately the same climate.

Nickel plated Brass rail:

Popular in Europe. Normally only available from Europe and in high quality plating. LGB made this once, and there was a bad batch where the plating came off. If the plating is good (and unless you buy old LGB it will be), then you have theoretically an ideal combination, the high conductivity of brass to minimize track feeders, and the corrosion and oxidation resistance of nickle.

The issue I see is that you cannot tell how good the plating is unless it fails. Also you need to be sure you don't run any abrasive track cleaners. You won't need an abrasive track cleaner for oxidation, but you may want to run one to get sap, dead bugs and gunk off the rails. The strongest cleaner I would recommend is mild "Scotchbrite".

Personally, I would rather have "indestructable" Stainless Steel, and never worry, but all the reports from this product are good.

The conductivity thing is a red herring, as you lose much more conductivity in rail joiners than the rail itself. That's usually the argument to go to this plated brass rail.

Stainless Steel rail:

Basically indestructible, and becoming a clear favorite for track power. The silver color is OK for prototype appearance, but it stays so shiny that it's not very prototype looking, and will never weather realistically, you have to paint it. The Aristo stainless steel product is about the price of expensive brass rail. One reason for using it on a battery layout would be if it gets stepped on a lot, or you have deer that walk around the layout. In 2008, code 250 has become available, and prices are reasonable.


What track for track power?

Stainless Steel is my recommendation, paint it if you hate the shiny look. More below.

Aluminum rail:

While an excellent conductor, it oxidizes rapidly, so you will need to sand or scrub it lightly before use. Another disadvantage is rail joiners, again oxidation. Using an anti-corrosive paste in rail clamps works all right, but many people have had problems with brass rail clamps on aluminum. It might be better to use stainless clamps, but most people go aluminum to save money, so this does not make sense. A few people have used pieces of aluminum foil in the brass clamp so the electrical connection stays in aluminum. You can't easily solder jumpers. Forget it unless you are trying to prove that it can work, or you like to fool with your track all the time.

Brass rail:

It works fine, excellent conductor, jumpers can be soldered if you don't want to rely on joiners or the extra cost of rail clamps. Maintenance is a crap shoot, some people only have to clean the rails once in a while, others every day before operation. If you live where there is a lot of contamination in the air, or water splashes on the rails often, be prepared to clean the track often. Weathers most prototypically in my opinion, the dark brown is pretty close to the color of rusted rail.

Nickle Silver rail:

Works well, but not that much better than brass if at all. It still oxidizes, and you have to clean rail just about the same as brass. The stuff about the oxide being conductive is just not true in practical experience. Easy to solder jumpers. Softer than brass, more like aluminum, so not so sturdy, especially if you go less than code 332. More expensive than brass. I don't see an advantage over brass unless you are in love with a line of products that come in NS, or you like the silvery color. The smaller manufacturers make NS track and switches in 250 and 225 that are beautiful, however.

Stainless Steel rail:

Never needs cleaning, i.e. removal of oxidation, because it does not oxidize. Clearing of dirt and dust can be done with a hose. Not as conductive as brass, so power feeders need to be more often. Aristo is pretty much the only game in town, H&R sells an expensive line of SS, but it's limited in sizes and more importantly, very expensive in comparison. I used it early on, it is great quality. The Aristo joiners should be discarded in favor of rail clamps. Why didn't I say this about Aristo brass? Yes, the same joiners. But if you are here, then you want low or zero maintenance of your track. So, with zero maintenance on the rails, the joiners become your larger problem. I am 100% rail clamps. If you cannot afford this at first, use them at every switch and cut section. Split Jaw and Hillman make clamps. I prefer the Split Jaw, they are all stainless. The Hillman are nickel-plated brass and I have had corrosion problems with the plating, you might not have the same experience. Make your layout with SS and you spend more time running than cleaning or repairing. Highly recommended.

In 2008, there is code 250 stainless steel track available.

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