What type of track to use? Aluminum, Brass, Stainless Steel, Which?

Overview and comments

The first decision is whether you need powered rail or not.

This is the subject of endless debate. I did a lot of reading and research, and determined that I would be using track power (actually DCC).

As an aside, from the type of operation and features I wanted, battery power was not a good option at all. It was more expensive, more maintenance, limited the locos I could use, limited the features I could use like lights, smoke and even sound systems.

Also you will hear that track power is too much trouble or too much maintenance, etc.

The hobby is littered with people who switched to battery from track power, because they could not make it work, but I maintain the vast majority made BAD decisions on their track in the first place.

If you pick the wrong type of track and joiners, you will have issues. Also, remember that different environments have different affects on metals that oxidize.

10 years later, my track is low maintenance, and works great, so it can be done.

 

Appearance

Another choice will be how the track looks. the most obvious will be the "ties" and the rail height.

The ties can be different sizes and spacing. In the US, narrow gauge track represents a "larger" scale in 45mm track, so the ties should be somewhat larger and spaced further apart. Also, it seems that European railroads spaced their ties further apart.

From the "father" of G scale, LGB, the track had "Euro" spacing, and that is the first track copied by other manufacturers, notably Aristo Craft and USA Trains. (In fact Aristo was sued by LGB and almost went out of business).

Aristo Craft later made a "US spacing" of ties. You can see a comparison in the picture below.

 

Once the track is ballasted, the difference in tie size and spacing is much less noticeable, and some people mix the types on their layouts. I use all the US spaced Aristo stainless steel track myself.

Another choice is the height of the rail, or the "code". The original standard is code 332, i.e. the rail is 0.332" tall. This is way over the size of the prototype. "Tall" rail bothers some people, some not. You can get code 250 rail which looks a lot better, but consider that since most of us are outdoors, the taller rail does afford a bit more resistance to derailing from junk on the track.

Materials

Another choice is the materials your track is made from. The first I will address is the ties. For most people, plastic is the best choice. You can buy track with wood ties, but it takes more maintenance, and they can rot.

Another thing to be aware of is how the ties will last in the sunlight, mostly the effects of UV radiation. Most brands are good, but some had issues, for example, there were several batches of Aristo ties that just decomposed in a few years. While in business, Aristo had a lifetime warranty on the ties, but that's no good now they are out of business.

I personally give the entire layout a spritz of "Armorall" every 6 months, it has UV protectant, and also keeps the plastic more flexible. Works for me.

On the rail material it is basically, the more money you spend, the better the material is at withstanding the elements. Cheap brass rail has cracked in locations with extreme temperature swings, usually in freezing weather.

 

Aluminum Rail:

My conclusion is that aluminum rail is great for battery powered layouts, where you never (electrically) clean the track, or where cost is a major factor, or you are in a really dry environment where corrosion is minimal. It is not good where you have large critters visiting your railroad and standing on the track, like deer.

Characteristic Pros Cons
mallability / softness easy to bend flextrack not really rugged if in high traffic area
electrical conductivity highly conductive, low voltage drop can't solder to easily (or at all), hard to make good power feeds, need rail clamps or other way to ensure conductivity
maintenance low if not used for track power, and not in corrosive atmosphere high if used for power, easily oxidizes, oxide is not conductive
durability in outdoor environments durable in dry environments corrodes easily, don't use in moist/salty environments, not real compatible with other metals, brass, etc, can promote oxidation, corrosion
cost inexpensive  
appearance fairly prototypical appearance (silver), weathers to non-shiny look, can be weathered with paint and chemicals  
availability of different sizes/codes pretty widely available in different codes from several manufacturers  
other availability good availability of switches of different radii, crossings, etc. no longer available in sectional track (to my knowledge)

 

Brass Rail:

My conclusion is that brass is a good choice for many people, having a good balance of cost and performance, and works well with track powered systems. There are many ways to keep the track electrically clean, and MOST people will spend significant time cleaning track.

Characteristic Pros Cons
mallability / softness relatively easy to bend flextrack, hard enough to be durable  
electrical conductivity good conductivity, reasonable voltage drop, easy to solder to Sometimes anti-corrosion grease in rail joiners enough, other times you need rail clamps, or soldered jumpers, most installations need these "helpers"
maintenance

low if not used for track power

if used for track power, regular cleaning a must
durability in outdoor environments durable most times oxidizes easily, needs cleaning, especially in wet or polluted environments
cost moderate, helped by many different brands available, most common material in sectional track  
appearance looks reasonably prototypical, most brass ages to a brown that is not too bad. Brass can take paint and stains relatively easily.  
availability of different sizes/codes most availability of any type, many interchangeable brands available  
other availability widest variety of switches, crossings, etc. available  

 

Nickel Silver Rail:

My conclusion is that Nickel Silver is not "better enough" to justify the cost over brass if what you want is less cleaning of rails or better conductivity. It just has not proven itself superior outdoors to brass.

If the more prototypical color of weathered rail plus the slightly lower maintenance is worth it, than NS might be for you.

 

Characteristic Pros Cons
mallability / softness harder than brass and aluminum, durable might be too tough for people bending flex track, personal choice.
electrical conductivity good to better conductivity, reasonable voltage drop, easy to solder to Sometimes anti-corrosion grease in rail joiners enough, other times you need rail clamps, or soldered jumpers, most installations need these "helpers"
maintenance

low if not used for track power

if used for track power, regular cleaning a must
durability in outdoor environments durable most times still oxidizes, needs some cleaning, especially in wet or polluted environments
cost   higher than brass or aluminum
appearance looks reasonably prototypical, most NS ages to a grey that looks pretty good. Weathered rail is available Does not hold paint or stain very well
availability of different sizes/codes not very many manufacturers  
other availability I need to research the availability of switches, etc.  

 

Steel Rail:

(I'm only including this because newcomers always ask about it.)

Note: The Bachmann hollow steel rail can rust through in one season, don't do it!

I can't really see a reason to use steel rail outdoors. Maybe if you used long sections of solid rail in flex track, used welded steel electrical jumpers, dumped oil on the rails on a regular basis, and cleaned it every day it would be ok outside.

 

Characteristic Pros Cons
mallability / softness very hard, indestructable probably as hard to bend as stainless
electrical conductivity reasonable, about the same as stainless rust and corrosion at joints needs special attention
maintenance low if battery powered, spread oil on the rails on a regular basis probably impossible to use outdoors for track power without constant maintenance. Let it go for a while and you will have a pile of rust.
durability in outdoor environments as above other than dousing it with oil on a regular basis, will not survive. The Bachmann tubular steel track has a lifetime in weeks outdoors
cost cheap I have only found Bachmann tubular track so far
appearance prototypical appearance, right down to the rust! it will always be rusted
availability of different sizes/codes   I have only found Bachmann tubular track so far

 

Stainless Steel Rail:

More costly than brass, shiny rail. Lack of many different codes (sizes). Excellent in wet, corrosive, dirty environments. No maintenance to speak of, very tough and durable.

My personal pick, but my my highest (personal) priority is to have fun, and have reliable operation. No problem with corrosion, and I don't mind the shiny rail. Very good choice for track power if you use slightly more feeders, overkill for battery power.

 

Characteristic Pros Cons
mallability / softness Super rugged you absolutely need a rail bender for flex track, and it will take multiple passes.
electrical conductivity because of low corrosion, rail joiners alone are sufficient, saves the money of rail clamps can't solder to, and needs more power feeds, due to lower conductivity
maintenance virtually zero  
durability in outdoor environments durable in dry environments, really durable, sturdy, basically indestructible  
cost H&R is expensive! Aristocraft is much more affordable.  
appearance can be painted to weather it, there may be some dyes that will darken it. shiny steel color, does not weather, will not take paint well
availability of different sizes/codes   not many suppliers, but both Aristocraft and H&R have a wide selection of radii
other availability   Aristo has 3 different switches and 2 crossovers available

 

Manufacturers by material and code (size)

  Code 205 Code 215 Code 250 Code 332
Aluminium  

 Llagas Creek

 

 Llagas Creek
Sunset Valley Railroad

Microengineering

AML
Aristo-Craft
Microengineering
Sunset Valley

Brass     AML
Sunset Valley Railroad

AML (330?)
Aristo-Craft
LGB
Peco
Sunset Valley
Train-Li
USAT

Brass,
Nickel-Plated
     

Train-Li

LGB

Nickel Silver Microengineering  Llagas Creek

Llagas Creek
Sunset Valley Railroad

Microengineering

 

Old Pullman

 
Stainless Steel     Sunset Valley Railroad

Aristo-Craft
H&R Trains

AML

 

 

General comments on some track and switch manufacturers:

 

 

AML

Newcomer to the track race, very good prices on flex track, no sectional. Accucraft/AMS/AML has their own factory, and their own distribution, so this allows lower price. Many people happy with this product.

Aristo-Craft Track in General:

Made in China. The supplied rail joiners have screws on only one side to affix to the rail. The screws are very small 2mm diameter hex head cap screws. The joiners themselves do not conform closely to the rail (especially the stainless ones) and since the screws are on only one side, do not do a perfect job of aligning the rails. If you use their joiners (and I do not recommend them for track power), you would do well to change the joiners to clamps. Aristo-Craft makes very inexpensive clamps that are ok.

The reason I say only "ok" is that since the joiner usually does not fit snugly, often power is transmitted from the rail to the screw head which then contacts the joiner, then through the joiner to the other screw head and back to the rail. The contact area under the head is small and it makes poor contact, and the screws loosen. To make matters worse, one of the holes in the joiner is a horizontal slot, which makes even less contact. Another small irritation is that a small percentage of the rail sections have the screw holes drilled too far up or down in the rail web, which makes it almost impossible to use a joiner, or you enlarge the screw hole in the joiner so much that electrical contact goes out the window. In these cases, get a rail clamp and save yourself some grief. Virtually no one has been successful drilling and tapping new holes in the stainless rails, and it's touch in the brass, even though you can buy a drill and tap kit from Aristo.

The ties are black, and the "tabs" that hold the rails to the ties are small, fragile, and have a fair amount of slop. It is easy to pull a tie off the rail with normal handling. The tie material is UV protected (there was a batch long ago that was not), but it does weather faster than most other brands, though about on par with USA Trains track. The ties are very uniform, so not a real prototype appearance.

The switches likewise have some problems. The number 6 switch suffers from electrical reliability and sloppy flanges and rail alignment and a too deep flangeway at the frog. See the Train-Li insert for the frog. The microswitch often jams, and causes short circuits. See the specific sections on Aristo-Crafttrack.

The wide radius switch (10' diameter) needs about 1/2 hour of tweaks to make it reliable, although in 2009, Aristo-Craft finally improved the frog to eliminate half of the problems, see the specific sections on Aristo-Craft track for tips.

Also, as of July 2007, there is no UV stabilizer in the throwbar and either switch, and many people have them disintegrate. You can get replacements from Aristo. Be sure to request the brass bushings also, since they typically seize in the throwbar.

Aristo-Craft has a wide offering of sizes, from tight to very broad curves, 3 different turnouts, 3 different crossings, just a great selection.

(The following pricing is as of July 2007, after the 100% price increase)

Straights come in 12", 24", 36", 54", 60", the 12" straights retail for $10.33 each (from a box of 12), and 60" are $52 or $10.40 a foot (from a box of 12).

Curves come in (diameters by the foot) 5,6.5,8,9,10,11.5,12.5,14,15,16.5,20 a great selection. A 10' diameter circle would cost 12 * $25.33 or $304

The Wide Radius (10' curve) switch is $140, and the #6 is $364 !!!, there is also a #6 Wye at $250 (this does not make sense!)

Flex track is available, the best price is if you buy a bundle of rails (24 x 8') for $820 (96 lineal feet of track) and 2 packs of 48 one foot tie strips (96 lineal feet) for $122, so 96 feet costs $942 or $9.81 a foot. I did not check if joiners are included, but getting split jaws would add about $2 per every rail, so 24 rails = 48 dollars, or 50 cents per foot, so if you want to compare with H&R's offering, the flex track is about $10.31 a foot all told.

Please note that Aristo-Craft track is often discounted, so if you are comparing prices, get the "street" price from your favorite supplier.

Big note: the sizes advertised are NOT the actual lengths, the 5' track is one inch shorter, and likewise all straight sections are not as advertised. Also, the curve diameters are not as advertised. I will look for the "real" dimensions, but the track is made to metric sizes. Many people have designed layouts based on the advertised dimensions. Aristo-Craft is unique in this area, all other manufacturers give real dimensions.

From Jerry McCoolgan on the MLS forum:

For what it is worth my 1995 Aristo-Craft catalog lists:
ART 11000 12IN./ 309 mm. STRAIGHT TRACK
ART 11060 24IN./ 610mm. STRAIGHT TRACK
ART 11070 36IN./ 914mm. STRAIGHT TRACK
ART 11090 60IN./ 1524mm. STRAIGHT TRACK
 
plus a 12 IN. CURVE TRACK and one each left and right switches.
 
By comparison there were 29 FA-1s and 25 FB-1s to choose from.
 
In 1996 the track had more than doubled and the above were shown as:
ART 11000 1 FT.30CM
ART 11060 2 FT.60CM
ART 11070 3 FT.90CM
ART 11090 5 FT.150CM
 
Obviously it could not have been both 1 foot and 30 centimeters so the dealer could have explained that it was 300 mm which would be close to 1 foot.
 
Also in 1996 more curves were added and listed as MED 5'; LG 8'; X-WIDE 10' and XX-WIDE 20'
 
By 1998 the metric numbers were dropped and eventually the MED; X-WIDE; and XX-WIDE were dropped.
 
 
 

Aristo-Craft stainless track:

Aristo-Craft stainless track is 304 or 18-8 ( from 18% Chromium, 8% Nickel). Type 304 (18-8) is austenitic steel, possessing a minimum of 18% chromium and 8% nickel, combined with a maximum of 0.08% carbon. It is nonmagnetic steel, which cannot be hardened by heat treatment, but instead must be cold worked to obtain higher tensile strengths.  The 18% minimum chromium content provides corrosion and oxidation resistance. The alloy's metallurgical characteristics are established primarily by the nickel content (8% mm.), which also extends resistance to corrosion caused by reducing chemicals. Carbon, a necessity of mixed benefit, is held at a level (0.08% max.) that is satisfactory for most service applications. This alloy resists most oxidizing acids and can withstand all ordinary rusting.

Overall, it is of the poorest quality of all the competition, but the price used to be half of the competition, so I bought it.

Often, Aristo-Craft seems to "forget" the UV stabilizer in the plastic ties, and they rot away. The good news is that you have a lifetime guarantee on the ties. The BAD news is that the guarantee is only on the ties, so you get replacement ties and have to take all the track apart, clean it and reassemble it.

 

AristoCraft brass track:

In 2008 there were a lot of changes. After trumpeting how high the copper content of their brass rail is, and how other manufacturers have less copper, Aristo-Craft brought out a low cost brass line with less copper in it. Hmmm.

Again, it suffers from spotty quality control, and batches of ties with no UV stabilization.

 

Aristo-Craft aluminum

is supposedly going to manufacture this, announced in 2008, not available yet in early 2009

Bachmann

In general, a low cost product, although you would never know that from the list prices of the locos.

Bachmann steel track:

Supplied with the inexpensive starter sets, both battery and track powered, Bachmann track was for years only hollow steel rail (in the shape of a square C). It rusts very quickly outside. It has poor conductivity. It damages easily. It only comes in very tight curves. I don't recommend it for anything.

Bachmann brass track

In late 2011, Bachmann announced solid brass 332 rail that has the same rail joiners as USAT and Aristo-Craft. Not surprising since Kader owns Bachmann, and Kader owns the companies that produce track for Aristo-Craft and USAT. Also not surprising is that the price is way lower than the others.

H&R Stainless track:

The H&R stuff is wonderful quality, the tie plates look a little European. The SS grade is 430 > 434.Grade 430 is a ferritic, straight chromium, non-hardenable grade, combining good corrosion resistance and formability characteristics with useful mechanical properties. Its ability to resist nitric acid attack permits its use in specific chemical applications but automotive trim and appliance components represents its largest fields of application.

code 332 Stainless Steel track, with either US or European sleepers

It has slightly lower corrosion resistance than 304, and stiffer / less ductile. This alloy is typically cheaper than grade 304.

Grade 430F is the free-machining version of this grade, available in bar form for use in automatic screw machines. Grade 434 is the molybdenum bearing version of Grade 430 and has the same useful combination of properties. Its molybdenum addition improves corrosion resistance.

The joiners are a slip fit and have great conductivity, there is a patented wedge on the bottom that makes great electrical contact. The plastic of the ties is on par with LGB for durability, they are brown. They have only one switch though, an 8' diameter, that is a severe limitation.

Originally, it was made by TdV, Trefileries des Vosges, Le Blanc Murger. TdV started manufacturing this stainless steel track in 1990 as a special product line to supply the needs of a new large French amusement park with a model railroad.
Revalda in Switzerland took over the marketing and sales of that track system in 1991 and on January 1, 2000, Revalda started their own manufacturing of the track system. TdV at that time reverted back to their core product line.
http://www.revalda.ch/sortiment.aspx

(The following prices are from the web site, July 2007)

They have the following curved track (diameter in feet) 4,5,8,9,10,11.5,12.5,14,15,16.5 - A 10 foot diameter circle would cost 16 times $18.76 (a section) or $300.16.

They have 12", 24" straight, and flex track.

One wild thing: you can have either their joiners or Split Jaw clamps when you order flex, no price difference!

The 8' diameter switch is $158

The stuff is sold only from H&R, and at list as far as I can tell.

12" straight $9.20

24" straight $16.97 ($8.49 a foot)

Flex comes in various lengths, best price is 120"/10' package, $74.48 ( $7.45 a foot)

 

 

LGB

Long the "gold standard" in quality, expensive, but will probably outlast the owner. Definitely one of the highest quality in terms of the materials. Switches can be toy-like and are meant to replace curved pieces of track. The 3 way switch is an example of "Why"?

All you can get is code 332 brass, but they made aluminum at one time and also nickel plated. The nickel plating failed on many people.

Llagas creek

Long time favorite, recently changed hands in 2015, the new management seems very interested continuing and extending the product line.

Available in code 215 and 250, really good looking and more realistic rail height.

 

 

 

Piko 

http://www.piko-america.com/99350_G-Track_Brochure_2013.pdf

Quick note: the Piko nomenclature of R1, R3, etc, is NOT the same as LGB R1, R3, etc. BE CAREFUL when comparing.

Sunset Valley:

Sunset Valley RR stainless track:

A newcomer to SS code 250 rail, they started with flex track. The ties are brown with a web (hidden by ballast) down the center. Nice detail on the spikes and tie plates. This is the same tie strip used for their other track, so expect no problems.

At the 2008 BTS they sold 30 foot (unassembled) for $170 or is $30.95 or about $5.66 a foot. about 50 cents a foot higher than July 2007. They have a #6 at $118. So far, preliminary reports are good. With the increase in Aristo-CraftSS track, SVRR is suddenly competitive. They say the stainless is 18-10.

I have no idea what the ss grade is.

They make SS switches now, and have #6, #8 and #10 as well as wyes. This stuff looks really good.

 code 250 weathered brass, aluminum, weathered nickel silver, stainless steel, switches (brass and NS), rail clamps

 

Train-LI

This is sort of a "generic" brand for what is mostly Train Line 45 products from Belgium, marketed and distributed by the great people at Train-Li USA.

Again the R1, R3, etc. scheme is NOT the same as LGB

 

USA Trains track & switches

The USAT brass rail looks similar, but the ties are darker black, and the brass alloy seems to be a little different. Not super popular, maybe due to the lack of a more complete line. My experience with 2 local friends has been that the ties last better in the sunlight. Their #6 switch looks nice, an all-brass cast frog, the electrics to switch power are crap, and you need to look for other ways to power the frog.

 

Rail clamps / joiners:

How you connect your rails depends a lot on whether you run track power or not.

If you are totally battery and will NEVER try track power, do anything that works. Be careful about expansion and contraction.

If you need track power, you need a good way to ensure power flows and you are not chasing loose rail joiners. 

See the section on "Track Power / Wiring" for more details.

Weather Underground PWS KCACARLS78