Detailing a Model Railroad Crossing

We see railroad crossings all the time but often don’t stop to notice all of the little details that make each one unique. Besides the obvious differences like the type of warning signals used, there are many subtle details you can customize to better replicate a specific prototype.

  • 01 of 07

    Railroad Crossing - Overview

    Even a simple railroad crossing holds a myriad of details upon closer inspection. ®2010 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    This simple crossing installation on the old Baltimore and Ohio mainline at Fairhope, Pennsylvania is typical of thousands of similar crossings across North America.

    The rural road is lightly traveled. The tracks see an average of about two dozen trains a day. Mountains and curves on both the road and the rails make visibility a concern, justifying the automatic warning lights.

  • 02 of 07

    Cross Bucks

    The crossbuck and warning lights serve a practical and important role but have also become timeless symbols of railroading. ®2010 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    In North America, most public road crossings are protected by a warning sign similar to this. The familiar “X”-shaped signs have become a trademark of railroading. Less standard are the warning lights, bells, and gates that often accompany the crossbucks.

    Note that the lights can be positioned to multiple angles depending on the direction of the road. This particular sample seems also to have been involved in some sort of mishap...the lights don’t normally point down!

    From simple signs to working lights and gates, a great variety of crossbucks and warning signs are available in every scale. When choosing the right one for your installation, you should consider traffic levels on both the rails and the road.

  • 03 of 07

    Advance Warning Signs

    Like the crossbuck at the crossing itself, the advance warning sign for railroad crossings is as much a symbol of railroads as it is a warning to motorists. ®2010 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    Placed several hundred feet from the actual crossing, advanced warning signs forewarn motorists of the pending crossing. There are many variations on the American standard sign seen here. Many times these signs aren’t even visible from the actual crossing. Modelers often compress these distances on their layouts.

    Road markings can be recreated using a decal, dry transfer stripes and letters, or by making a stencil and painting.

  • 04 of 07

    Relay Cabinets

    Cabinets like these house the electronics necessary to detect a train and automaically activate the warning devices. ®2010 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    All of the electrical hardware to activate the crossing devices must be housed somewhere. Equipment cabinets like this come in many shapes and sizes, depending on the complexity of the installation. The cabinets are often marked with a crossing name, milepost, or other identifying marks.

    Commercial castings are available in many scales for cabinets like these. In addition to road crossings, similar structures can be found at signals, equipment defect detectors, and other railroad installations.

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07

    Detection Circuits

    Wires attached to the rails enable the crossing to detect an oncoming train. ®2010 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    Warning lights and gates rely on electrical circuits that can detect the train to activate and deactivate automatically. Some modern circuits can not only detect an approaching train but consider its speed when activating the protection. Impatient motorists waiting for a slow train are an invitation to disaster.

    The visible details of a detection system are nothing more than a few wires attached to the rails at appropriate distances. These could be easily modeled using small wires, but the effect may not be worth the effort in smaller scales. More noticeable will be actually modeling a detection system in line with the crossing signals. Several are available to handle lights, bells, and gates on single and multiple tracks.​

  • 06 of 07

    Road Crossing - Rubber

    The flangeways on this asphalt road crossing are protected by rubber guards. ®2010 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    Even in the crossing itself, there is a great variety in the types of materials used to protect the rails and the flangeways for the wheels. Two different types can be found on this sample crossing. Track 1 features a small rubber gasket.

    The rubber gaskets are small enough to be recreated by painting plaster asphalt roads. Some crossings feature larger rubber panels covering the entire distance between the rails and along the outside of the rails. Commercial parts are available for these in several scales.

  • 07 of 07

    Road Crossing - Wood

    Wood ties protect the rails and flangeways on this track through an asphalt road crossing. ®2010 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    Track 2 of this crossing uses wood ties to protect the flangeway. Wood strips could be used to recreate this crossing. Like rubber parts, solid wood crossings are also commonly seen.

    The prototype doesn't worry about mixing technologies, why should you! The numbers applied to the road help work crews identify the proper track when putting on hi-rail vehicles.