Model Railroad Track Types

When shopping for model railroad track sometimes you'll see products listed as "N gauge code 55" or "HO code 83", but other products have names like "True-Track", "Unitrack", or "E-Z Track". What does all this mean?

All model railroad track has an NMRA code number which specifies the height of the rails. Track with an integrated roadbed is usually sold by brand name, as all track in these product lines will have the same code rails. The track pieces available to you will be determined by the brand and type of track you select.

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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, like the prototype, you'll need a special joint bar called a transition joint.

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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.

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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.