Model Railroad Track Types

Track Codes, Metals, Switches, and Flex Track

Model of a water tower on a model railway desert landscape
Paul-Briden / Getty Images

There's a lot to know about different types of model railroad tracks, and the more you know the better prepared you'll be when you start buying and laying out your own railroad. From track codes to metals used to make the rails themselves, it's important to know what you're buying and how it can be used.

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    Track Codes

    A transition rail joiner allows trains to travel smoothly from Code 83 rail (left) and Code 100 rail (right.) Soldering the joint will further secure the rails and prevent shifting over time.

    Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    Model railroad track codes are defined by the NMRA. The code number is actually the height of the rails in thousandths of an inch, so Code 55 track is 0.055 inches high. Manufacturers may offer more than one code selection in any given scale, though one is always closer to prototypical. Here is a list of scales and the codes of track you will find for them:

    • O Scale: 125, 100
    • HO Scale: 100, 83, 70, 55
    • N Scale: 80, 55, 40
    • Z Scale: 55, 40

    You can use different codes of track on the same layout. Real railroads often use different sizes of rail on mainlines and spurs. When connecting rails of different codes, you'll need a special joint bar called a transition joint. It's a good idea to plan your railroad before making purchases, as you'll need to know where you'll need transition joints.

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    Rail Metals

    Metal rails

    Different metals are used in making model railroad track. The most popular track today is called "nickel silver" because it is an alloy of those two metals. Nickel silver is popular because it doesn't oxidize as fast as other metals used for rails, meaning that it won't have to be cleaned as often.

    Model railroad track is also available with rails of steel, brass, or aluminum. Steel and brass are less desirable because they will rust or corrode, especially in humid environments.

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    Integrated Roadbed vs. Standard Track

    Integrated roadbeds. Left: Kato Unitrack. Right: Bachmann EZ Track Author's photo.

    Standard track is simply metal rails held together in their gauge by plastic scale railroad ties. One brand of standard track should be compatible with another, but mixing different codes and metals in your layout may not be advisable.

    Model railroad track with an integrated roadbed has rails fastened to strips of molded plastic that's painted to look like a bed of ballast with ties embedded in it. Integrated roadbed track stays locked together better than standard track, making it ideal for children's train sets. This is why most train sets sold today come with an integrated roadbed track. Integrated roadbed tracks are also better for temporary layouts placed on the floor to elevate the track above carpet fibers.

    Unlike standard track, not all brands of integrated roadbed tracks are compatible. Although many share a common rail connection and size, the locking tabs on the roadbed are unique to each manufacturer. You can usually join integrated roadbed and standard tracks without much difficulty. Track with an integrated roadbed is usually sold by brand name, as all track in these product lines will have the same code rails.

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    Flex Track

    Flex track

    Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    In addition to standard straight and curved track sections, flex track offers increased options when building a layout. Sold in longer strips, flex track can be curved to match any desired radius or track shape.

    Laying flex track is a little more challenging than standard track, but can build many more layouts and allows even more reliable operation. Flex track does not have an integrated roadbed but can be put on its own sub-roadbed, like cork.

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
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    Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    Switches, aka turnouts or points, are also available in a variety of sizes and shapes and in both standard and integrated roadbed forms. There is a lot to learn about these special tracks, so its best to brush up on turnout basics before getting started.