Garden Railroad:

Track Types

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In G scale, you have a few different types of rail that you can choose from:  Stainless Steel, Brass, Aluminum, Nickel Silver, Steel and Plastic.  Each type has it's positives and negatives and what you ultimately decide to go with will be based on your individual goals and circumstances.

 

 

Stainless steel:

Stainless is a more recent rail type that been made available.  It was introduced as an option to combat the problems of needing to clean brass track oxidation in order to run trains reliably and it has in fact proven to completely eliminate the need to clean the rail due to oxidation.  Stainless however does have a higher electrical resistance, which means you will see the actual voltages levels decrease as you 1) get further away from a power feeder connection to the track and 2) as you increase the amperage draw (more engines, more lighted passenger cars) through the rail.  The issue of voltage drop can be mitigated by running addition power feeder connections every so often around the loop.  (I chose connections about every 24-40ft or so but it can be less frequent.  See Feeder/jumper wire information and configuration for more information) 

Stainless steel is a much harder metal than brass and is thus more difficult to bend.  This results in the track being a little harder to bend with a rail bender, but also provide additional strength and resistance to accidental bending if it's accidentally stepped on.  Also because it's a much harder rail, it also means the rail will not wear down under heavy use in permanent public displays. (compared to brass track)  It should be noted that the hardness of stainless steel rail does not result in increased wear on engine and rolling stock wheels.

Stainless rail does cost about $6.59/ft (on sale) or 28% more than brass (which has been traditionally used on layouts), but for those who want to run track power and eliminate the need to perform periodic maintenance such as cleaning the rail, it's worth it.   

Another typically unknown benefit of Stainless steel rail is there is no carbon dust that is created as a result of power pickups on engines and lighted passenger cars.  Carbon is a byproduct of the small sparks between the power pickup sources and brass rail.  Even after a short period of time the carbon dust can build up on wheels causing power pickup issues.

A large number of G scale layouts were built before Stainless Steel was available and were thus deployed with brass rail.  Most of these users over time have had to address the issue of brass rail oxidation (on the rail top and rail connections) and have thus resulted in varying opinions (some very negative) on the ability to use track powered layouts outside.  It is important to keep this fact in mind when reading online discussion forums on this issue.

Based on my experience, Stainless steel is the best choice in rail type if you plan to deploy a track powered layout.  It truly makes your layout maintenance free. (especially when direct to rail stainless steel clamps such as Split-Jaws are used on all rail connections)

Stainless rail manufacturers include:  AristocraftH&R Trains, AML

 

 

Brass:

This is the rail type most commonly used and has been in use the longest.  Brass costs about $4.50/ft on sale and compared to Stainless Steel (the other type of track commonly used for track powered layouts) is about 28% cheaper.  Because brass has a very low electrical resistance, you don't have issues with voltage drop as you do with stainless. (this assumes using all direct to rail clamps on all rail connections such as brass Split-Jaw clamps)  This allows for very large ovals with only requiring one power connection from the power supply to the track and no supplemental feeder wires.  An issue with brass track is it's tendency to oxidize over time and cause power pickup problems for engines and passenger cars requiring the top of the rail be physically cleaned with an abrasive cleaner.  The extent of the oxidation will vary based on climate and moisture/humidity levels.  (Moisture greatly accelerates brass oxidation.)

Brass is a relatively soft metal making it easy to work with and bend but also makes it more susceptible to accidental damage or bending if it's stepped on outside.  This softness also causes it to wear much faster when used on permanently deployed public displays.  (This lower durability however is not really an issue for the average home user.)  It should be noted that the softness of brass rail does not reduce the wear on engine and rolling stock wheels.

As noted above, a not so commonly known issue with brass track is the creation of carbon dust from the power pickup sources on engines and lighted passenger cars.  This carbon is a byproduct of the small sparks created between the power pickups and the brass rail.  This carbon can quickly collect on wheel surfaces, leading to power pickup problems. (i.e. flickering passenger car lights and engine stuttering) 

Carbon dust build-up on wheels combined with brass rail oxidation can create a lot of headaches and aggravation.  For this reason I typically recommend to others to use brass rail for temporary displays or maybe inside layouts. 

Brass rail manufacturers are numerous and include:  Aristocraft, USA Trains, H&R Trains, AML

 

 

Aluminum:

This is an alternate rail type used primarily for battery power only layouts due to its very poor ability to transfer electrical power.  Aluminum rail costs ~$3.00/ft so it can save money on the overall deployment of a layout.  Aluminum is even softer than brass which makes it more susceptible to damage and wear. 

Some have tried using Aluminum for track powered layouts and have had very poor results so it is only recommended for battery powered deployments.  (see Track_or_Battery_Power for more information)

Aluminum rail manufacturers include:  Aristocraft, AML among others

 

 

Nickel Silver:

This rail type is commonly used in HO scale as an alternative to brass track to reduce the need to clean the rail due to oxidation.  While I have no current personal experience with Nickel Silver track in G scale, my experience in HO showed that while it did reduce the rail oxidation problem quite a bit when compared to brass, it didn't eliminate it completely.  Nickel Silver should not have the same electrical resistance issue that Stainless steel has and thus should not have as significant an issue with voltage drop.

Because of my lack of hands on deployment experience I can't give a firm recommendation or opinion.

 

 

Steel:

This track type is only produced by one or two companies and is intended to be very inexpensive, temporary display track.  Steel is obviously not a good choice outdoors because it will rust and even if used indoors, can still rust if exposed to moisture.  The steel type track as sold by Bachmann is actually a hollow rail, so it lacks the strength of other rail types.

I would only recommend using this rail for temporary displays around the holidays if that.

Steel rail manufacturers include:  Bachmann

 

 

Plastic Rail:

This is a relatively new track type being produced by a new manufacturer in the US.  It was developed to reduce the cost of creating storage track lines for rolling stock and for display track.  Because of it's very low cost, some are considering using it for battery powered displays and layouts, but it's long term use outside and durability in these applications is still unknown.  Replacing a section of your battery powered layout with this plastic rail would be a good test to how it holds up.  It should be noted that trains running on this plastic rail run very quiet and rolling stock roll very easily and smoothly with very little rolling resistance.  This should extend the running time of battery operated engines to some degree.

 

 

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