The Test Track

I decided at the outset that I wanted to build a test track before we started on the main layout. The were many reasons for this decision. They included:

  • I am a complete klutz when it comes to modeling. I needed something to practice and make mistakes on prior to starting work on the main layout. Much easier to trash and redo the test track than the main layout. Each step will be tried on the test track before being applied to the main layout.
  • I (we) wanted the opportunity to experiment with different materials and techniques to see which we liked and which we didn't.
  • I had accumulated 17 different pieces of motive power over the past 10 years, most of which had never been out of the box and run. Some of these were aquired new and some at train shows or on e-Bay. Having the opportunity to run the motive power would let me decide which would be kept and used and which would be disposed of.
  • I thought it would be much easier for little grand kids to run trains on the test track than on the main layout.

The test track was designed to be portable. It could be brought out and set up on the diningroom table for opperation, and then stored away on its end when not in use.

The test track I designed and built was framed with scrap 2 X 4's I had in the pole barn. The table top was a 24 inch X 60 inch scrap piece of 1/4 inch subfloor sheeting garnered from the local lumber company. The track plan consisted of two passing tracks and two sidings. Block control was used, along with an old transformer from the early 80's.

One weekend my son decided that the test track was boring and that none of the grandkids would pay attention to it. He scrounged through the box of track and turnouts that I had collected over the years and used every concievable space he could for track. The end result is pictured above.

What we have learned so far from the test track

In the two months or so that the test track has been in existance, we have learned many different things, some of which just showed us what we preferred, and some of which saved us from a lot of potnential grief on the main layout. Listed below are some of the more important (to us) ones.

Quarter inch sub-flooring is NOT an appropriate material to use for a layout top. It is so hard that track nails can't be pushed or hammered into it. We found that we had to pre-drill all holes where track nails would go. On the other hand, it might work fine for someone who wanted to glue a layer of construction grade Styrofoam to it and then build on the foam.

The foam Road Bed from Woodlands is nice. It is very easy to fit around the curves and such. However, the sample I had could not easily be split in half and layed in strips in order to cut in the turnouts. After trying it and then trying the cork road bed, we opted for the cork. It is very possible that there are very simple techniques for working with the foam roadbed, we simply didn't discover them. We probably should have spent much more time experimenting with it.

Turnouts and Turnout Controls. For whatever reason, I like Atlas code 80 track. Therefore, the turnouts used on the layout will be either #4 or #6 custom-line turnouts. My original plan was to use all hand-throw turnout controls from Caboose Hobbies. The thought was that since I was going to be using walk around control, I would be with the train and could manage the turnouts by hand. On the test track, at least, I have found that I have been so concerned with other aspects of managing the train, that I would throw the handthrow to enter a passing track, but forget to throw the hand throw to exit, this causing derailments. Another consideration was that the handthrows did not stand up to grandkids.

When my son and I visited the Blissfield (Michigan) Model Railroad Club's HO layout during an openhouse weekend, we noted that they were using the Caboose Hobby's hand throws for most turnouts near the front of the layout. The hand throw mechanism was connected to the turnout with a hard, S-shaped wire spring. Movement of the hand-lever was 180 degrees from flat to flat. The N-scale hand-throws, however, connected to the turnout with a solid plastic bar. The hand-lever would move only 90 degrees from flat to straight up and down. When forced by a grandkid beyond the 90 degree point, the hand-throws would blow apart. The other consideration was that the majority of the turnouts were positioned towards the back of the layout in the staging and sorting yards, making them difficult to reach.

With this in mind, we decided to use electronic turnout control. On the test layout we used the remote Atlas switch machines designed to be used under the table. We also installed at Tortoise Slow-Motion machine. Even though it is more expensive, we liked the Tortoise machine the best. One of the most desireable features was the fact that because of the constant current draw, connecting it to LED's in the facia board would be very easy. The Atlas machines use momentary contact switches. Additional components or circuitry must be added to get to get a constant current feed for an LED display. Even though the initial cost of the Atlas switch machines was less than the Tortoise, when the cost of the additional circuit components was factored in, the cost was about the same.

A gentleman in the southwest sent us a sample of a slow-motion machine that he manufactures. The end result is similar to the Tortoise, but it costs a little less than half of the Tortoise. The machine comes in kit form with instructions for assembly. To be fair, we have not had an opportunity to assemble this product and we may find that it compares favoribly with the Tortoise. If that is the case, we may have to rethink which machine to use. Tortoise machines retail for about $16 each, while the kit machine retails for a little under $8. We need 36 switch machines for the layout. You do the math.

Uncoupling Magnets from Micro-Train are not nearly as quirkey as I remember them being. Random uncouples rarely occur on the test track. A recent article in Model Railroader talked about some very thin, strong magnets available from Radio Shack that could be positioned almost anywhere under the road bed and that worked well. They can also be completely hidden by the track balast. We intend to try them out. Sure wish someone made and affordable electro-magnet assembly for N-scale. That would give you complete control with no random uncouples at all.

Block control is as nice as I remember it being. DCC rocks! There is (will be) a much more detailed discussion of this issue in The Electronics section of this web site.

This is as far as we have gotten with the Test Track. More information will be added as new things are tried and decided upon.

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This page last updated 5/31/04