M&K Junction Railroad

M&K Junction Railroad
Another train of eastbound coal crosses the Cheat River

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Graveyard Curve Takes Shape

I’m working like gangbusters on laying track on Graveyard Curve. Graveyard Curve, on the prototype and on my model, is a 3-track mainline (uphill slow track, uphill fast track and a downhill track). The center track of the three has a 64” radius which, if you calculate the circumference around half of a circle, requires almost 17 feet of track. Sum up all three tracks, and the approach tracks from the west and this part of the layout is gobbling up flextrack like there’s no tomorrow. I’m sure that this situation is familiar to PRR modelers who recreate the PRR’s many 4-track mainlines.

In addition to material (track, roadbed, etc.) this construction is consuming another precious commodity – time. I’m racing to get at least one track of the mainline finished by my next open house, April 25, and time grows short.

To have any hope of making it, I have had to modify the procedures that I have been using since I started building (and it’s about time, too). When I started this layout I, like many, had been reading Model Railroader for many years.  One of the things that they drilled home was that if you wanted to run your railroad, then your track work had to be first rate or trains would be derailing every few minutes.  I took this to heart.  So in the beginning, I would lay half of a strip of roadbed on one side of the centerline; wait for that to dry, at least overnight and often longer; then lay the other half.  All of this so that there was absolutely no chance of anything moving during drying.  I was scrupulous to have everything EXACTLY on the centerlines as I had drawn them out.  

When I moved to two-layer roadbed, that was four half-strips that had to dry before track could be laid.  Needless to say, progress was glacially slow.

Also, I do not like to leave a job half-finished and return to it.  Therefore I tried to dedicate all-day Saturday to working on the railroad to make sure that I had enough time to finish jobs. Surprisingly, I was able to dedicate many, if not most, Saturdays for a period of almost 3 years and regular progress was made.  This has not been the case in the 3 years immediately past.

Finally, my new job (which is, very likely, my best ever) involves a commute that leaves me only 2 hours after dinner each night of free time - so weeknights had been out.

So with a self-imposed deadline approaching, something had to give.  The first concession was that I was going to use any free hour - even if it was just to make a few wire connections - rather than wait for a solid block of time to open up.  

Next, I wasn't going to wait for each half of a roadbed strip to dry before laying it's twin.  I've begun, with some trepidation, to lay great lengths of each layer of the roadbed.  I still have to wait for the lower layer to dry - although not overnight - before laying the top layer.  However, once both layers of my two-layer roadbed are down, I wait overnight for it to dry because the next step - sanding the cork layer - puts the stack-up under strain.

Now admittedly, some of this is possible due to my developing experience and confidence in my track-laying system.

So given all of the above, what does Graveyard Curve look like?  Here's a photo of the roadbed going down.  The first layer of topper (camper top) tape is going down on the track to the left.  Cork roadbed is being held down in place by push pins on the two outer tracks.

Roadbed on Graveyard Curve

This view is at the start of the curve proper and looks uphill (eastbound).  The topper tape has a very aggressive pressure-sensitive adhesive (PSA) on the back.  However, I still lay it in a bed of adhesive caulk.  The caulk allows me to slide the tape right up to the centerline, whereas the PSA would grab at first contact and pulling it off tears the tape.  The tape will keep it's position until dry with only the caulk holding it down (I used to hold it down with push pins too - not anymore).

The "cork" (actually there's little cork left in it, it's largely ground rubber) is also laid in adhesive caulk, then I hold it in place with pushpins until dry.  Working this fast, I'm not able to make the nearly invisible seams like I used to; but that's the price that I had to pay.

Next, the track goes down.  In this photo, the track has been laid in adhesive caulk and is being held with pushpins and weights until the caulk is dry.

The cans are empty quart paint cans that are filled with compressed wet sand, which is surprising heavy.  The other hold-downs are bars of lead (don't try this at home!).  The tracks below are associated with staging.

Here's how it looks today, and will likely look for the open house.

I'm only 2/3 of the way around the curve and I'll probably not complete the innermost track by the 25th; unless I finish everything else early.  I can run bi-directionally on the two uphill tracks (the prototype did this too and was signaled for operation in both directions on all three tracks).

Both tracks on the helix are just short of the summit.  They are holding there while I finish building some turnouts which are just beyond the summit.  

There's still the question of the hanging section between the summit and the end of Graveyard Curve.  I've bought a job-site (portable) table saw to help me make parts to suspend this section.  Now if the good weather will stick around to let me use it.  

Working with PECO and Micro Engineering Track

During the shortage of Atlas “O” flextrack from a year and more back, I bought some other brands while I was waiting for Atlas to reestablish their source of supply. Although I did not install them at the time, I am using these sections of flextrack now; this is my experience with them.


PECO is an English brand that is rarely seen in the USA. PECO makes two lines of O scale flextrack. One uses “bullhead” (i.e. English) rail and matching ties; the other has flat-bottomed rail, wooden ties and is supposedly US prototype. I bought some PECO track on sale at Walthers for less than $11 for a 3 foot section; quite a bargain as O scale flextrack goes. I bought the minimum six sections to see what it’s like.

PECO is nice stuff. Code 143 rail of a nicely formed cross-section (unlike Atlas); with larger, more widely spaced ties than Atlas/Micro Engineering/Old Pullman (that's not surprising since European O scale is 1/43.5). 

Tie Spacing: PECO (foreground); Atlas (background)

It’s sturdily built and flexible – a very little stiffer than Atlas – but still very flexible. It forms nicely along curves; and I would not hesitate to use it in “S” curves or other serpentine track work. It would be an option, except that the fasteners for the rail to the ties are not simulated tie plates and spikes but what looks like European and/or modern screw-type clamps, somewhat akin to the old Atlas/Roco track from the 1970s.

Peco Track Fasteners

Unfortunately, this track is not acceptable appearance-wise. Therefore, I installed the PECO track on the lower level, inside track of the helix where the unusual fasteners will be difficult to see. It installed smoothly and runs well.

Micro Engineering

I’ve successfully used Micro Engineering (ME) code 148 flextrack at some locations on the layout before. I was able to curve this very rigid “flex” track to large radius curves by working slowly and carefully. Now I’m installing it on the two outer tracks (64” R and 68”R) on the Graveyard Curve and I have worked out a procedure for bending it that someone else may find useful.

My standard procedure for installing any flextrack on a curve is to solder two straight sections of flextrack together on the bench. The resulting 72” (or 80” with Atlas flex) is just big enough to handle. By soldering the two sections together while they are straight you do not have to try to join these two sections on a curve and risk a kink at the joint; the soldered joint will curve smoothly without kinking.

My latest procedure for bending ME flextrack relies on the fact that the roadbed is in place on the layout and set to the curve’s radius. This procedure will work for constant radius (circular) curves. I use the roadbed as a guide for bending the flex. Now for ME flextrack, drill a hole centered in each tie on either side of the soldered joint. This hole should be a fit for a wire brad.

Holes drilled at joint in Micro Engineering track

Place the track on the roadbed approximately where it will be finally placed. Push brads through the holes into the roadbed on the roadbed’s center line. That fixes the ME track in place at its center point. 

ME flextrack temporarily affixed to the roadbed

 Now using both of your hands, begin bending the track – gently and gradually – simultaneously on each side of the center working from the center of the two sections outward. If you work on only one side of the center, the track on the other side will bend into weird shapes in response. Very slight pressure applied primarily to the outside rail, moving along the track from the center outward works well for me. Continue bending, using the roadbed as a guide to keep the track at the proper radius.

When you have worked about 1 ½ to 2 feet either side of the center, it will become difficult to work both sides simultaneously; unless you have arms as long as a gorilla’s. At that point, work one side only until it is nearly to final radius and sits centered upon your roadbed. This will cause the other side to partially undo; but that can’t be helped. Drill a hole into the last tie at the end of the section and push a brad through it into the centerline of the roadbed to temporarily fix this side of the track in place. Go back and work the opposite side to final radius. When you are satisfied, drill and pin that side of the section to the roadbed’s centerline.

Now put your head down to track level at either end of the newly formed section of track and sight along the rails (not the ties) and look for kinks or places where the radius is not constant or the curve is not smooth. If you cannot get your eye down to track level, due to where the track is placed on the layout, use a mirror to sight down the track to check for these discontinuities. 

Using a mirror to sight along the track

Straighten out any defects with repeated gentle hand pressure until they are worked out. Repeat this procedure, sighting from the other end of the newly curved section.
When you are happy, you can pull all of the brads and move your new curved section to butt against your already installed track. You’ll have to cut at least one rail of the new track as the inside rail will now be significantly longer than the outer rail. Cut and file the ends, attach rail joiners, do a final fit check and final check for radius before soldering the new section to the older track (that is if you solder all rail joints – I do).

Smoothly curved ME flextrack on the layout

This procedure takes more time than using a more supple flextrack like Atlas; but it allows you to use the finer-looking ME flex.