Roadbed & Track Construction

Right of Way

Often we do not have all the space we need, and from experience I can tell you that many people, once track is down, do not want to pull it up to move it.

Make sure you have room for your trans where you are placing the track, clearance to the sides and above. If running double track, make sure your spacing betwen tracks is enough. When getting advice on how much clearance, be sure the advice you are getting is in your scale, i.e. a 1:20.3 loco needs a LOT more clearance.

Get some long cars, and when mocking up the track, roll these cars around and check the overhang, both outside and INSIDE of the curve.

Also pay attention to drainage, make sure water won't collect or try to wash things away.

Pay attention to where people (and animals) will walk, make sure you can give visitors ways to get around without stepping on the track.


I'm using Aristo-Craft stainless steel (SS) rail. I'm running DCC track power.

Since my track gets walked on and watered often, brass or nickle silver just did not make sense, they oxidized way too quickly, and I wanted the "stiffest" track I could get, because I would be using track "floating" in ballast.

SS rail never needs cleaning here in San Diego. (meaning removal of oxide like all other track types)

Initially I just laid track down where I wanted it in the planters. As the track plan came together, I mounded up the cedar wood chips to level out the rails. Bit by bit, I cleared out the wood chips under the rail and poured ballast down. This way, I could do it bit by bit, and never took up the rail. Therefore my layout could always be run. I've had experiences when the layout is torn up for a while and you can't run trains, you can lose interest because the "fun" part is too far off.

Doing it this way made it difficult to dig a trench under the track, so I decided to just pour the ballast on the ground. Since I use a "pea" gravel that just fits between the ties, it's coarse enough to build up without falling. (this pea gravel has fairly rough edges and stays in place well, in other parts of the country, you would use much sharper-edged crushed stone).

Even though the ballast is way over scale size, the look is pleasing, and a BIG plus is that I can have sprinklers water the roadbed daily with no washouts. If you used the common chicken grit, that would not be possible unless you glued or cemented it in place.

Other portions of the railroad are on concrete, so I have let the track float there. It's been fine for years.

Track on walls

At the back of the layout, there is a retaining wall at a 3.5% grade, which serves to bring the track at ground level to the planter height.

I wanted to be able to walk on the rail, so I had the wall poured with a wedge-shaped piece of synthetic wood embedded in it, the wedge is wider at the bottom, so it cannot work out of the concrete.

I have used small brass brads to secure the track as often as I need to make an arrow-straight run.

The brass corrodes a bit, and stays pretty well in the wood.




OK, first, not every method works for everybody!

Ballast as decoration:

If you are affixing your track to wood or concrete (and I mean securing to, not just an underlayment), then you can use any type of ballast you choose, and use something scale size. Note well that rain will wash away any ballast even CLOSE to scale. 

Ballast as roadbed:

This is for "free floating" track, where the ballast holds the track like prototype railroads. It must be coarse and with sharp edges.

In my experience, you need something almost the size of the spacing between the ties. Way over scale. If appearance bothers you, then you cuold sprinkle finer ballast on top, but scale ballast alone will NOT keep your track from moving.

Keeping ballast from washing away:

  • portland cement mixed with ballast - getting the right "mix" will take some experimentation, my observation is that if you use fine ballast, once you get enough cement in the mix, you don't have any drainage.
  • Similar to above, Dupont Acrylic Top Bond for concrete. Max 1:1 bonder to water. Spread with turkey baster. This is water based, so does not last forever. 
  • Stabilizer (psyllim seed that get's sticky with water)
  • MulchGard (polymer activated by water)
  • glue (contact cement, titebond, white glue) Jim Carter has used the non-water-based contact cement, many people do a 50-50 mix of glue and water. None of these seem to handle UV well, and will break down over time.
  • Polysand - this is a polymer based sand, often used to seal between patio pavers
  • true decomposed granite, normally only avalable in the southwest, it packs and compacts like concrete, but drains.
  • my solution: coarse ballast!


Just some misc ramblings...

People have found some sectional plastic drain units, usually used for leach lines. They are U shaped with the opening down. They are reinforced, i.e. strong enough, and are made so you can curve them a bit.

Others have used the concrete chimney liners. They are rectangular, and are very well sized for a tunnel.

Track Spacing

6-1/4" is fine and close to prototype on straight, parallel sections.
On curves you might use 7-1/2 inches, or more. I would suggest checking the overhang on the longest cars you will run and set accordingly. The longest cars with the most overhang right now seem to be the USAT streamliners.

These numbers are for 1:29, increase for 1:24 and 1:20.3., curve spacing like 9 inches would be better.

Weathering Rail

Who says stainless steel does not rust?

Ha ha, I sprinkled fertilizer on the grass, and the extra iron helped rust the sides of the rails. Boy, that looks good! 

Many people like to paint the rail for additional realism. You can mask off the ties so they do not get painted, spray and then wipe the railhead.

Painting rail and then trying to insert into ties is tough.

Weather Underground PWS KCACARLS78