What is hi-rail?
Why the third rail?
Why AC as opposed to DC?
What is the difference between O-scale and O-gauge?
What are the other popular model train scales?
Who are the manufacturers of O-scale model trains?
Who are the manufacturers of 3-rail model trains?
How do prices compare between the major manufacturers?
How can I reduce the noise of Fastrack and RealTrax?
What’s the best smoke fluid to use?
How do I maintain my track and my model trains?
How are steam locomotives classified?
Hi-Rail's most technical definition refers to "toy trains operated in a scale environment" but more generally refers to 3-rail locomotives and rolling stock with wheels that feature deeper flanges, blind center drive wheels and traction tires. Operationally, 3-rail trains run on three-rail track powered by low-voltage AC (6-18VAC) Many 3-rail locomotives (and even some 1950's rolling stock) are equipped with electronic couplers that allow uncoupling in different parts of the layout. Reversing direction is accomplished through an on-board reversing unit in the locomotive and is activated by interrupting the track voltage, which cycles the reverse unit into its next state. Most reverse units are set up for neutral-forward- neutral-reverse operation, though a few odd units lacked the neutral cycle.
In contrast, 2-rail scale locomotives and rolling stock have wheel flanges that are not as deep and run on 2-rail track powered by DC current (0- 12V) and are almost always scale sized in relation to the prototype (the real thing.) Reversing is accomplished by changing the polarity of the track from "positive" on the right-hand rail and "negative" on left to "negative" on the right and "positive on the left." Some MTH engines can quickly be converted for use on 2-rail Direct Current (DC) layouts. The deeper flanges on 3-rail locomotives and cars with hi-rail wheels, however, may contact the track ties on low-profile 2-rail track systems.
The advantage of 3-rail is that intricate crossovers and switches can be more easily wired than with 2-rail layouts. This is particularly true with reversing loops where the track loops back on itself. The third rail is always in the middle and you don't get polarity problems and short circuits. This is also true with "Wye" track arrangements.
The use of AC is now more based on tradition and compatibility with vintage equipment since most modern locomotives actually use DC can motors (the reverse units handle converting AC to DC.) AC was used in toy trains in the early years because variable DC transformers were difficult to produce, very expensive, and less reliable. DC was also subject to more severe voltage drops across the track and wires. Interestingly enough, this is also why homes are powered with AC instead of DC.
The use of AC also allowed for Lionel to add whistles and horns to its locomotives. When you hit the whistle button, the transformer would actually superimpose a positive DC pulse onto the track, triggering the whistle unit in a steam locomotive tender or the horn in a diesel. That technique is still used modernly on conventional locomotives and has been expanded to allow for ringing of the engine bell in conventional operation by using a negative DC pulse.
The equipment and scenery on our layout is O-scale sized which means trains, buildings, figures, and accessories are built to a ratio of 1:48 or 1/4 inch=1 foot. A 75-foot long locomotive is 18-3/4 inches long.
Gauge is the distance between the tracks. Real track gauge is 4-feet, 8- 1/2 inches between the rails. The rails of O-gauge track are 1-1/4 inches apart (actually 5 scale feet, but that's a long story.)
We run 4 types of O-gauge Operating Modes:
- Conventional: operate trains using transformer controls by varying the voltage to the track. This applies to all train manufacturers.
- TMCC: Trainmaster Command Control is a Lionel system that first appeared in 1995. It features wireless remote operation of one or more trains using a handheld remote control. This communicates at 27 mHz to a Command Base that transmits the command signals to the train using a radio signal via the outside rail at a frequency of 455KHz. Constant voltage (18 volts) is applied to the track with digital control signals sent to the train. Multiple trains can be run simultaneously. TMCC also provides remote control of switches, lights and other operating accessories using the SC1/SC2 accessory/turnout controller. TMCC does not support digital control of MTH engines.
- Legacy Command is a newer Lionel version of TMCC using a Cab- 2 controller remotely operating at 2.4 gHz.
- DCS: Digital Control System is a Mike's Train House (MTH) system that first appeared in 2002. It features wireless remote control (900 MHz signals) from a handheld controller to a Track Interface Unit (TIU) that sends digital packets to a train via the center rail. Trains respond to the commands and acknowledge receiving the command via the outside rail. This allows the operation of multiple trains from the handheld and multiple operators can run trains simultaneously. Constant 18 volts is applied to the track with digital command signals sent to the trains. MTH remote control can also operate switches, lights, operating accessories, and train routes via an Accessory Interface Unit (AIU). Current command control versions are Protosounds 2.0 and Protosounds 3.0 (Proto-2 and Proto-3, respectively.) Protosound 3.0 engines can also be controlled remotely using DCC (very popular in Europe and used widely in smaller scale in North America.)
In addition to O-gauge, there are five other popular scale:
- Z-scale trains are built to a ratio of 1:220. A 75-foot-long locomotive measures just 4 inches long. The rails of the track are 6.5mm apart.
- N-scale trains are built to a ratio of 1:160. A 75-foot-long locomotive measures 5-1-1/2 inches long. The rails of the track are spaced 9 mm apart.
- HO scale trains are built to a ratio of 1:87. A 75 foot-long locomotive measures 10-1/2 inches long. The rails of the track are 16.5 mm apart.
- S scale trains are built to a ratio of 1:64. A 75 foot-long locomotive measures 14 inches long. The rails of S-gauge track are 7/8 inches apart.
- G scale trains are built to a ratio of 1.22.5. A 75 foot-long locomotive measures 40 inches long. G and other large scale trains run on Gauge 1 track with rails 45mm apart and are often used as garden railroads.
In addition to Lionel and MTH there are many other O-gauge train manufacturers, including Atlas O, Bachman/Williams, Weaver, K-Line by Lionel and 3rd Rail Models.
General: 3-rail track is referred to as 'O' followed by a 2-digit number. In 3-rail, track is referred to by its diameter so O-72 is 72 inches in diameter or a 6-foot circle. O-27 (27 inches in diameter) was the smallest size offered and would allow you to put a circle on a card table. 2-rail track is referred to by its radius so a 6-foot circle would have a 36" or 3-foot radius.
Lionel (www.lionel.com/GettingStarted):Tubular: This is the traditional track that Lionel trains have run on for over 100 years. The track is tinplated steel, features three ties per section (typical) and is toy-like in appearance. It runs trains well, but is subject to rust if exposed to a damp environment. It is available in O-27 and O-42 low profile (sized used in early starter sets), O-31, O-42, O-54, and O-72 curve sizes with various straight sizes available.
FasTrack: This is a newer track product Lionel has recently released which has a more realistic look and plastic roadbed. It is offered in more sizes than tubular and adapters are available for those wanting to connect it to traditional track. It is available in O- 36, O-48, O-60, O-72, and O-84 curve sizes with various straight section sizes available.
MTH (www.mthtrains.com):RealTrax (also sometimes referred to as RiteTrax):Similar to Lionel FasTrack, although it actually preceded FasTrack by a few years. This was MTH's first track offering, and features a blackened center rail and nickel-silver track which doesn't rust. However, the plastic roadbed is not UV protected so the track is not suitable for extended outdoor use. It is available in O-31, O-42, O-54, O-72, and O-80 curve sizes with various straight sizes available.
ScaleTrax: This is MTH's higher-end track designed for permanent layouts. It features a lower rail profile, blackened center rail, scale-sized ties, and nickel-silver rail. It comes in O-31, O54, O-72, O-80 curve sizes, and in flexible sections for other curves as needed. It is easily cut using a razor saw of rotary tool with a cut-off wheel. Various straight sizes are also available.
Gargraves (www.gargraves.com):Phantom (black center rail) regular: This track has actually been available for more than 60 years and is used for permanent layouts. It is formed tinplated steel tubular rail that has a realistic shape. The track features a blackened center rail and wood ties. Recently, fixed-diameter curve sizes have been offered in O-32, O- 42, O-54, O-63, O-72, O-80, O-89, O-96, O-106, O-113, O-120, O- 128, and O-138.
Stainless Steel: Gargraves also makes stainless steel track with plastic ties for outdoor use. It is available in flex and some fixed curve sizes.
Atlas (www.atlaso.com/03railtrack.htm):21st Century (black center rail):In the late 1990's, Atlas returned to O scale, first in 3-rail, than with 2-rail offerings. Atlas developed their track around a system (Lionel followed suit with FasTrack) of consistent curve spacing. Atlas uses nickel-silver rail and UV- protected plastic ties making the track suitable for outdoor use in all but the harshest weather conditions. The curves are offered in O- 36, O-45, O-54, O-63, O-72, O-81, O-90, O-99, and O-108 sizes, plus flex. Atlas flexible track can be bent to sharp curves, but it's difficult, so use of the fixed curves is recommended. However, if you need curves larger than 9-feet across, the flex is easy to use for those sizes.
Industrial Rail: st This is Atlas' entry-level size and features a variant on their 21 Century track. The track is available in O-27 and O-36 curve sizes with built-in road bed.
Ross (www.rossswitches.com)Steel rail: Ross Custom Switches started out as a company making turnouts (switches) in sizes not offered by the other manufacturers. The turnouts feature Gargraves-compatible rail (which can be joined to others with some creativity) and are offered in sizes to match most of the main curves offered by the other manufacturers. Ross also was the first O gauge 3-rail manufacturer to offer curved turnouts, wyes, double-slips, crossings other than 90 and 45-degrees, and "numbered" turnouts (advanced discussion.) They are well made and are the preferred manufacturer of turnouts on many O gauge permanent layouts, including AGHR.
- Lionel Vision $$$$ -- This is Lionel's top of the line. All locomotives in this line feature Legacy command control, are scale-sized and advanced features. Larger curves are required for most of this equipment (O-54 and up.)
- Lionel Standard O (1/48 scale) $$$ -- This is the mid-range of Lionel's offerings. Most of the locomotives are scale-sized and available with Legacy command control or conventional. Most of this line requires larger curves (O-48 and larger)
- Lionel Traditional O $$ -- This is Lionel's entry-level line. Most of the offerings are "semi-scale" sized and will operate on smaller curves (O-27, O-31 and O-36.)
- MTH Premier (1/48 scale) $$$ -- This is MTH high-end line. All items are scale sized and all locomotives are equipped with DCS command control operation. MTH also offers locomotives in this line with scale wheels and fixed pilots, which can be configured to run on 2-rail or 3-rail track. The scale-wheeled offerings require careful consideration of curve sizes, however. Curve requirements for the locomotives are typically O-42 or larger, but steam locomotives often require O-72 or larger. Scale-wheeled steam typically requires much larger curve sizes. MTH notes this in their catalogs.
- MTH Railking $$ -- This is MTH's mid-level line. This is an odd mix of semi-scale items and scale-sized items (smaller prototypes.) Some decorations are not prototypical and the details aren't as fine, but all locomotives in this line feature DCS command control.
- MTH Starter Sets $$ -- While these sets initially appear more expensive, they all feature DCS command control.
- Atlas-O Masterline $$$ 1⁄2 -- Atlas' high-end product line. All locomotives feature TMCC command control (3-rail) or DCC command control (2-rail), superb detailing and fidelity to prototype (no "fantasy" paint schemes.)
- Atlas-O Trainman $$-$$$ -- Atlas mid-range product line. All items are scale-sized in prototypical paint schemes. Locomotives are available in ;conventional or command configurations.
- Atlas-O Industrial Rail $$ -- Atlas' entry-level line. Semi-scale products, all operating in conventional mode.
- Williams by Bachmann $$ -- The Williams Trains company was recently purchased by Bachmann (makers of H.O., N, and G Gauge products) after the retirement of founder/owner Jerry Williams. Williams trains are reliable, simple, three-rail trains that operate conventionally. Some of the products are scale-sized while others are semi-scale (O-27) sized reproductions of classic trains produced by Lionel during the "PostWar" period.
- Weaver Models $$ -- Weaver models was founded by the late Bob Weaver in 1965 and produced inexpensive O scale trains. O scale trains prior to that time consisted mainly of very expensive hand-made brass models, were scratch-built, or made from [sometimes crude] kits. Weaver later entered the 3-rail market and was the first to offer scale-sized mass- produced equipment for three-rail. Weaver still makes reasonably-priced locomotives and rolling stock in both 2 and 3-rail. Command-controlled (TMCC) locomotives are also available in both 2 and 3-rail and the company also offers a TMCC upgrade service for conventional locomotives.
(Sold with Lionel and MTH Starter Sets, respectively)
Because of the plastic roadbed, the track makes noise when the trains run. It's just physics. Here are some tips to provide the least amount of noise:
- Don't run your trains fast. The faster you go, the louder they are.
- Don't lay your Fastrack/RealTrax directly on hardwood floors or plywood, which only amplifies the noise.
- Use sound deadening materials,such as cork,homosote,Celotex or carpeting. You can experiment with a stretch of track and a car on top of the deadening material by rolling the car back and forth at roughly the same speed and note the noise level.
- Don't screw the track directly to the plywood. Glue it down with silicon adhesive or rubber cement or hot glue if you want to be able to reclaim the track when it's time to make a change.
- Postwar locomotives and cars made more noise on Fastrack/RealTrax than modern equipment which gets amplified by the track if not properly sound deadened.
Most modern locomotives – both steam and diesel – now smoke (some too much.) They all use a mineral oil blend referred to as smoke fluid. There are many brands available on the market; some are even scented. DO NOT USE LAMP OIL as it is designed to burn as opposed to smoke and even though smoke units are lower temperature, you don't want to take the risk. Make sure that if you have the smoke unit(s) turned on that you refill them when they stop smoking or the heating element will be damaged. Most smoking locomotives are equipped with a smoke unit on- off switch, and many operators tend to run with the units turned off except for special occasions.
Clean all types of 3-rail track with a soft lint-free cloth and denatured or 91% Isopropyl alcohol. The alcohol can be purchased at Home Depot or Lowes in the paint department. It’s a solvent and is very flammable, so caution is advised. Do NOT use 70% Isopropyl rubbing alcohol as it contains water. Goo-Gone can also be used to clean the track. Do NOT use abrasive erasers or cloths or sandpaper as they can leave scratches in the track that accumulate dirt and residue. Periodically move a magnet about a half-inch over your track to remove metal filings that can adhere to your engine speaker and cause distortion or short it out.
Oil your train with multi-purpose oil such as those made by Labelle/ Labelle 108 oil is recommended as it is plastic compatible, meaning that it will not distort plastic it comes in contact with. Follow your engine manufacturer’s instructions on which parts to oil.
Some time after the introduction of steam locomotives, it became necessary to find a way of classifying them. The Whyte notation for classifying steam locomotives by wheel arrangement was devised by Frederick Methvan Wyete. It counts the number of leading wheels (pilot wheels), then the number of driving wheels, and finally the number of trailing wheels that support the firebox and cab. These groups are separated by dashes.
- 0-4-0 - Four-wheel switcher
- 0-6-0 - Six-wheel switcher
- 0-8-0 - Eight-wheel switcher
- 0-10-2 - Union
- 2-4-2 - Columbia
- 2-6-0 - Mogul
- 2-6-2 - Prairie
- 2-8-0 - Consolidation
- 2-8-2 - Mikado
- 2-8-4 - Berkshire
- 2-10-2 - Decapod
- 2-10-2 - Santa Fe
- 2-10-4 - Texas
- 2-6-6-6 - Allegheny
- 2-8-8-4 - Yellowstone
- 4-4-0 - American, Eight-wheeler
- 4-4-2 - Atlantic
- 4-4-4 - Jubilee
- 4-6-0 - Ten-wheeler
Some more modern steam engines include:
- 4-6-2 - Pacific
- 4-6-4 - Hudson
- 4-8-0 - Twelve-wheeler
- 4-8-2 - Mountain
- 4-8-4 - Northern
- 4-10-0 - Mastodon
- 4-10-2 - Southern Pacific, Overland
- 4-12-2 - Union Pacific
- 4-6-6-4 - Union Pacific Challenger
- 4-8-8-4 - Union Pacific Big Boy