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15 track tips for better performance of your toy trains and electric trains

A list of tips and tricks for better track and wiring
Three wires: white, black, and green, held by a large black paper clamp.
Track Tip No. 4
Use heavy wire for your feeders (we recommend 18 gauge) and even heavier wire (14 gauge) for any bus wires. You’ll get the best connection if you solder the feeders right to the rail.
Classic Toy Trains file
A version of this article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of Classic Toy Trains.

A toy train layout is great fun until it doesn’t operate well. Then it becomes just a scenic place to display your trains. Drawing on decades of layout-building experience, our two authors put their heads together and came up with 15 simple tips for track and wiring that will help keep your O gauge railroad in peak running condition.

Most of these tips are one-evening projects, and some take even less time. Give them a try and your three-rail empire will operate better, whether it’s small or large.

1.) It’s essential to have good continuity on both sides of your track power circuit. Many opera-tors will attach multiple feeds to the center rail but not the outer rails, thinking that having two ground rails reduces the need for frequent feeder wires. That’s not the case, especially if you’ve isolated some sections of outer rail to use for signals or other accessories. It’s a good idea to attach feeders to both rails every 4 to 6 feet, so that no track section is ever more than 3 feet from a feeder.

2.) It’s a good idea to use insulated pins or joiners to divide your layout into several electrical sections, even if you plan to run only one train or are using digital control. Use a toggle switch (we like ratings at 10A at 110V) to control the power to each section. Doing this makes it much easier to find any electrical problems and allows for changes in the future. Rather than simply wrapping your wires around the binding posts on your transformer, we recommend crimping a spade lug onto the wire to prevent it from slipping out from under the nut.
We like to color-code our wiring: red for the center rail, black for the ground, and yellow for accessory power. If you need other accessory voltages, use another color; if you use two com-pletely separate circuits, use brown for your second ground.

3.) Adding an illuminated bumper or two to your layout can improve operation when using digi-tal control. An added advantage is that if your train stops, the bumper makes it easy to see whether you’ve lost power or have a problem with your locomotive. If the train won’t run and the bumper is dark, you’ve lost power; if the bumper is lit, the problem lies with your locomo-tive. We strongly recommend using insulated outside rails, not track contactors, to activate your accessories. The insulated rails are far more reliable and require no adjustment, only oc-casional cleaning.

4.) (See photo.)

5.) In today’s world, 12V AC solid-state relays are becoming more affordable and easier to find. According to Scott Behanna of Scott’s Odds-n-Ends, some AC relays have contacts capable of handling 15 amps, robust enough for most layout needs.

A sawed-off section of track angled upward with a red feeder wire until into the center tubular rail.
Track Tip No. 6

If you’re using tubular track, you can also put a spade lug on the end of the wire and then push it into the rail from below.

Classic Toy Trains file

6.) (See photo.)

7.) If you have grades on your layout, you have vertical curves (changes in grade) as well as regular (horizontal) curves. Don’t try to do both at once, and make sure any vertical curves are on straight track, not on curves, switches, or operating sections.

Real railroads spend enormous amounts of money to avoid grades, because grades require more locomotives and are as difficult to descend as to ascend. If you use grades, make them as gradual and straight as possible. There’s no better way to derail a train than to have a sharp curve at the bottom of a grade.

8.) Remember that the switch motor on nos. 022 and 042 switches will fit on either side of the switch. Remove the screws holding the switch motor cover in place before installing the switch on your layout so you can service the motor without removing the switch.

9.) When planning an overpass for your layout, remember to allow for the thickness of the roadbed and ties and thickness of the bridge deck. Together, they can add as much as an inch in height.

10.) Be sure that the points (moving parts) on your switches seat firmly against the stock (outer) rails. If not, adjust the mechanism or the points or file the points to reduce chances of a flange catching the point and riding over it. You may need to replace guardrails or switches worn down or damaged by derailment.

A pair of pliers squeezed over rails and rail pins.
Track Tip No. 11
Make sure all rails are held securely to the ties. Re-bend tabs if needed. Check to make sure the fiber insulation on the center rail is in place. Don’t bother trying to straighten bent track sections. You’ll quickly reach the point of diminishing returns. Atlas O track looks great, but make sure you have rail joiners that grip the rails snugly and be prepared to solder some extra feeders.
Classic Toy Trains file
A person rubbing a green Scotch Brite pad over tubular track, removing rust and leaving shining rail heads.
Track Tip No. 15
Clean recycled track with soap and water. We like Castrol Super Clean detergent, which is sold at most auto parts stores. Let the track soak for a minute, brush it briskly, rinse it with clean water, and set it aside to dry. Once the track has dried, rub the railheads with a Scotch Brite pad until they shine.
Classic Toy Trains file
11.) (See photo.)

12.) If you’re using recycled track, make certain the pins are tight and the ends of the rails are clean and shaped correctly so a pin fits snugly. A small circular file or pipe cleaner dipped in solvent is useful for cleaning the inside of the rail.

13.) S curves can cause derailments, especially when you’re running a train in reverse. If you can’t avoid S curves, as on crossovers, minimize them. Put switches at the beginning or end of curves. Even a half-section of straight track between curves helps.

14.) If possible, use sections of broader curved track to lead into curves. For example, use a sec-tion of O-54 or O-72 to lead into an O-31 curve.

15.) (See photo.)

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