Setting up Model Railroad Track

How Many Rails Are in Your Model Train Set?

A two-rail track for an American toy train set
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You need to identify what kind of track your train set has. Some have three rails, and some have two. Different track​s have different instructions.

If you are using a Marklin System HO/AC powered set from Germany, the system is more like American three-rail systems than two-rail DC sets. The three-rail instructions will be more applicable, but pay close attention to the documentation that came with the set.

Unpack Your Train Set and Read the Instructions

A model train set, buildings, and power pack
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A basic model train set has four types of components: a locomotive, a set of railcars, track pieces, and a power pack or a DCC system.

Unpack your train set and visually inspect each piece for any obvious manufacturing flaws or shipping damage. It's much better to find defective items and return them to your dealer before you starting to assemble your layout.

After reading this article, before you do anything else, read the instructions that came with your train set. Then you'll have mentally been through the process twice. This should make the actual task much easier.

Find a Space and Lay Out Your Track

An excited child lays out his model train track on Christmas morning
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A basic train set usually comes with an oval of track. The dimensions of your oval should be in the instructions. Find a table or floor space large enough for your oval. On shag carpet, the track won't lay flat, and your locomotive's trucks may become snarled with carpet fibers.

Lay your track pieces out in the space you've selected without connecting them. This way you'll be certain that you have measured correctly and have enough room for your oval. You don't want to discover that you didn't use a big enough space when you have half of your oval track pieces connected.

If your train set includes piers to raise the track for a crossover, pay close attention to the placement of the piers as shown in your train set's instructions. Placing piers too close together can result in steep a grade for your train to climb.

Position Your Feeder and Rerailer

A green Hornby toy train rumbles down the tracks
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There will be a track with an attached cable or a connector for the wires that go to your power pack; this is your "feeder" track. Place the feeder nearby the electrical outlet that will connect to your power pack.

Some smaller-scale train sets include a piece of the track made to look like a road crossing. This is actually your rerailer. Place your rerailer toward one end of a straight area of your track. This will help you rail your locomotive and cars. And every time your trains pass over the rerailer, any wheels that have come off of the rails will be pushed back into proper placement by the rerailer.

Sometimes both the feeder and rerailer are one piece of track, a combination feeder-rerailer. Some sets, particularly larger scale sets, may not have a rerailer.

Connect Your Track Pieces

A fully connected model train track
David Crespo / Getty Images

Your set came with integrated roadbed track, so this is a relatively easy task. Your track's rails are an inverted "T"; the cross-member of the "T" faces down. The joiners are metal clips that slide under the rail with the vertical part of the rail coming up through a groove in the center of the joiner. You connect your track pieces by simply sliding the rails that don't have joiners into the joiners on the rails that do. The trick is getting the rails from both track pieces into their opposite joiners at the same time.

Manufacturers usually place joiners on each end of their track pieces on opposing rails. Although the joiners come pre-installed, they are removable. Sometimes when disassembling track the joiner's don't stay on the track piece they came on. This can be a nuisance when you go to put the track together again.

Kato's integrated roadbed Unitrack has what they call Unijoiners; the Unijoiners have the metal joiners embedded in a plastic body. Unijoiners are captive on Kato track pieces but can be removed using a tool which is included with Kato track and train sets. This is why Unitrack is my track of choice. The German manufacturer Tillig offers an integrated roadbed track which closely resembles Kato's.

It's very important to get​ both sides of the base of the rail into the joiner properly. It's a common mistake to get only one side of the rail into the joiner; this causes the rails to be misaligned. Misaligned rails can derail your train.

When building a basic oval, we usually assemble the curved pieces of my track first to make two 180 degree semi-circles. Then we add the straight tracks to complete the oval.

Hook up Your Power Pack

A three-rail model train track and power pack
Tom Kelley Archive / Getty Images

Connect your power pack to the feeder track using the cable provided. Different manufacturers use different connectors; your instruction sheet will show the proper way to make the connection for your set.

Before plugging the power pack into an electric outlet make sure that the throttle is set to zero or "stop" on the power pack, and that there is nothing laying across the rails.

Most power packs have a selector switch or knob to select "forward", "reverse" and "brake" operations. When the throttle is set to zero and the selector knob is in the "brake" position, there will be no power to the rails when the power pack is plugged into the wall.

Understand Your Short Circuit Protection

An old fashioned spring-loaded wind-up toy locamotive is fully self propelled, without needing a power source or short circuit protection
intraprese / Getty

Anything metal lying across the rails will cause an electrical short circuit. If your locomotive derails, its wheels can also cause a short circuit. Depending on the type of power pack you have this will either trip a circuit breaker or cause the power pack to emit some kind of short circuit signal. Before you can continue running, you have to clear the short circuit from the rails. You may also have to reset a circuit breaker on your power pack.

Before running your trains, you need to be familiar with your power pack's short circuit protection. You need to know how it indicates that a short circuit condition exists. If your power pack has a circuit breaker, you need to consult your train set's instructions on how to reset it. Power packs that emit sounds reset themselves as soon as the short circuit is cleared. The red button on a Kato power pack resets its circuit breaker.

Now You're Ready to Run

Father and son playing with model train set
Adam Smith

With your track pieces all connected and your power supply hooked up, you are now RTR (ready to run). Time to run your train.