Section Two: Trackwork

Track Selection

You have already read, we assume, that the track we selected is regular O-gauge (including O-72), which is currently produced by K-Line and Lionel. Other manufacturers also produce sectional track in O-gauge that varies in height and appearance from that mentioned above. All of this track is readily available from a number of sources at varying prices. Most people in our hobby usually have a good quantity on hand.

We would prefer, however, that you use new or very good track. It is more accurately gauged, hasn't been battered and bent, will look uniform, and what is most important, will conduct electricity better than old, beat up and rusted track. Spending a few dollars here is worthwhile and is fair to everyone. A few bad sections of track can spoil a day's fun for many people.

What About O-27, GarGraves and Others?

You might question why we don't say O-27 track or GarGraves track. They have their advantages, we'll admit. The O-27 size is cheaper, it is closer to scale size, and is now available in larger radius (K-Line produces it up to 72" diameter). The problem is that the track is not as durable, and modules are apt to be in for a lot of hard use between operating and transporting them about. Thus you are more prone to suffer from bent rails or out-of-gauge track sections that would have to be replaced frequently.

GarGraves is more realistic (Lionel Super-O too), especially with the "phantom" rail, and the long sections can be bent to any desired radius. If the bending is done well, it's nice to have a variety of radii for curves; but if not done well (and we know we'll be dealing with a wide range of skills here) it can cause a lot of problems. It's not as easily or commonly available either.

Although not recommended due to problems with durability and concerns mentioned above, GarGraves can be used on modules, but care should be taken to protect the track during transport and set up. Most equipment seems to operate well on it, but Magna-Traction-equipped locomotives may slip on GarGraves track (especially on the stainless steel variety).

Note: At the time this manual was first drafted, MTH and Atlas-O had not entered/re-entered the three-rail O Gauge market. However, similar considerations would apply if using MTH or Atlas-O track in place of the traditional Lionel standard-O such as roadbed-to-rail height and adapting it to mate with Lionel track. Both manufacurers have expressed a committment to producing adapter sections so any modules built with this new track would have to take the length of these adapter sections into account when designing modules.

Turnouts based on GarGraves, however, create problems with some older equipment, particularly equipment using slide shoes. Slide shoes tend to hang up on non-Lionel turnouts. (Editor's note. I actually had one sheared off my 1954 Lionel 2353 F3.) This is due to the placement of the additional power and guard rails in these custom turnouts. The hang-up problem is not insurmountable, being remedied by placing a rail joiner into the offending rail and bending it down to create a ramp. However, the shoe may pick up electricity and cause the car to uncouple or operate which is harder to remedy (I took the shoes off my F3's). Therefore, the best bet is to use the good old O-gauge track, which can be made more realistic looking by adding ties and/or ballast. We also figured that since these are toy trains, we might as well use toy track. You can also use K-Line Super-K track which has extra ties.

Please understand here that our standards apply to the two mainline tracks, which we consider to be community property. If you put in sidings, or build modules featuring yards, feel free to use O-27, Super-O, GarGraves, Ross, Curtis, Right-Of-Way, or even hand-laid if you wish.


For turnouts, O-gauge track calls for O-gauge switches, which again can be K-Line O-42 (may present a clearance problem on the switch machine for long locomotives/cars), Lionel O-72, or Lionel O22 if you have a supply of them or want to buy them on the current market. Again, we're referring only to mainline trackage; what you do on sidings and in yards is up to you. If you want to change the way O22 turnouts fit into your track work, they can be cut to bring tracks closer together. More about this later.

Track Spacing

This matter of spacing is one of the most critical aspects of a modular system, for if everyone doesn't adhere to a standard, modules won't work together. The first track dimension is the distance from the front of the module to the center rail of the first mainline track: 3 1/2". If you have a 24" wide module, this will let you install three lines of track on 8 1/2" centers with a remaining 3 1/2" from the center rail of the third track to the rear of the module; a very handy situation.

In some of our publications, distances of 3" and 3 3/4" have been discussed, but the current "official" distance is 3 1/2", a very workable amount. Modules with these variable distances will still work together, but their front fascias might not line up exactly, but this is usually not of great importance. Some modules have been made for special purposes that extend as much as 6" in front of the adjacent modules.

Distance Between Tracks

This dimension is the critical one, from which there can be no deviation. The distance between the center rail of the first main and the center rail of the second must be 8 1/2". The reason for this spacing is that a crossover between tracks can be made with two left-hand or right-hand standard Lionel turnouts. This spacing allows room for accessories between the tracks. It also permits a siding or passing track if access to it is via a cut-down O-72 turnout.

Keep in mind, however, that this applies only to where your module connects to other members' modules. Your mainline tracks need not be straight -- the distances between them can vary if you conform to the 8 1/2" mainline spacing standard at the ends of the modules. The 8 1/2" distance must be maintained at the 5" distances from each end of the module. So if you want to vary this 8 1/2" measurement or introduce some curves in the center of your module, that's all right. If you vary the distance, however, it means that your modules must be used in sets because where they meet, the standard spacing is not used. But please avoid introducing small-radius curves because some of the larger equipment of even the postwar variety may have problems.

Cutting Track

No matter how you arrange track on a 48" module, you're going to have to cut some of it. Howard Packer recommends that a single 38" piece of track be used for each straight mainline, leaving the required 5" at each end. This is easy to do by using a piece of Lionel or K-Line 40" from which you want to cut 2", preferably 21/16". One advantage if this is that it eliminates pins needed in several short sections of track, thus providing better electrical conductivity.

If you are including uncoupling sections, turnouts, or varying your track plan, this technique will not work. So you're welcome to use regular 10" sections or O-72 straights, which are 14 3/8" to 14 1/4" long depending on manufacturer. Keep the pins tight and the connections firm between pieces.

Lengths of Track

On a 48" long module, there should be 38" of track for each main line, which leaves 10" to be split so that the tracks end 5" from each end of the module. This gap between the tracks on two adjacent modules (5" on each) is filled with a section of track which we call a "bridge section," 10" long, a regular O-gauge section.

No the reason we suggested you make your 38" section 1/16" short is that this allows for slight inaccuracies in the placement or lengths of your track, or in the lengths of the modules. Remember, in cutting 48" module decks from a piece of plywood, allowance must be made for the thickness of the saw blade. Allowance must also be made for inaccuracies in sawing, cutting track, screwing it to the deck, etc.

This bridge section is also a sure-fire way to take care of any discrepancies in the position of the track on one module in relation to that of another. For example, if the distance between center lines is slightly more or less than the 8 1/2", or if the center rail of the first track is not exactly the proper distance from the front of the module, the bridge track makes an easy adjustment.

You must supply two 10" bridge sections for each of your modules; one for each mainline. We also strongly recommend that you also supply two 5" lengths to reach the ends of your module in case it has to mate with a module with a nonstandard distance. We want to call your attention that a Lionel "half-section" is not 5" long. It is 5 1/2" long to accommodate the second tie. You'll have to make a 5" piece by cutting down a longer piece. You will probably have to rearrange one of the ties to retain good support.

We're sure you know that tubular track can be cut easily with a razor saw (which makes more precise cuts), a fine-blade hacksaw (faster cut, but less precise), or a Dremel-Tool with a cut-off wheel (fastest, but least precise -- wear eye protection). Hold it securely in a vice, padded so as not to damage the rails, or in a miter box. Cut it squarely and keep in mind the width of the saw blade or you might end up with track too long or short. Curved track is a little harder to cut. Some people make a jig to hold track while it's being cut.

Fastening Track to Deck

Most track has holes in each tie so it can be permanently fastened, which is a must for your modules. Round-head screws, size #4, 1/2" to 3/4" long are a good bet, and you only need about two screws in each 10" of track (shorter sections still need two, but please don't use real short pieces). Alternate their placement from one of the tracks to the other. Where the tracks end 5" from the end of the module, you might want to place two screws in the end ties. Please don't use nails. Nailing track is apt to bend, dent, or otherwise damage the track or your module, and they can pull out.

Care in putting in the screws is important. If they go in crooked, or are slightly off center in the hole, they can pull your track out of alignment and prevent it from meeting the 8 1/2" spacing (we told you there could be no inaccuracies here). It's wise to punch a pilot hole, or drill one so your screws won't wobble as you start them. This is good practice whenever you're putting screws into wood.

Finishing Up

We've covered the important points of selecting and installing track. This has been rather plain Jane, but it's a quick way to get into operation. That's really not enough if you're expecting to participate in any club or mall shows. You need some embellishment.

We'll get into details about this in Section 4: Decoration and Scenery. Your imagination can take free reign there. In the meantime, before worrying about decoration, you have to get the trains running. That will take electricity, to be explored in Section 3: Electrical, coming up next.

  • Introduction
  • Simple Standards
  • What's in This Manual?
  • Section One: Module Construction
  • Section Three" Electrical
  • Section Four: Decoration and Scenery
  • Section Five: Special Modules
  • Back to Cover Page