Flex Track with Roadbed (Unitrack Solution?)

Fleischmann's Flex Track?

My Kato Unitrack has been fantastic and I have no complaints, however, there does seem to be some items that I (and others) would really like to see Kato produce for its track system. Curved turnouts would be very nice to have, but even more useful would be flex track!

Since I'm not holding my breath waiting for Kato to produce flextrack (considering that Unitrack appears to have been a track system primarily designed for temporary layouts, where flex track is neither necessary or practical), I've been trying to find some solution, particularly for one area where I need the two parallel lines coming off of a double track bridge to separate about a half inch. The photo shown at right illustrates the poor looking 'angle' that the straight pieces' take to make the 1/2 inch or so diversion (there are not radii that would permit this). It may not look that bad in the photo, but when you see it in person, it looks terrible.

Atlas' flex track is ubiquitous, but wasn't my favorite option. I had noticed that Fleischmann makes a track with roadbed in it, which they call 'profi-track', which features a 777mm section of flex track (with roadbed)! The photo at the top of this post shows (from left to right) a typical Unitrack section, a Fleischmann straight section, the Fleischmann flex track, and then the underside of the flex track.

I took a short trip up to Canada this weekend, stopped in at Euro Rail Hobbies, and got a couple of sections of this track. The one thing that stands out about the Fleischmann profi track (as opposed to Kato, Bachmann Easy Track, and I think the new Atlas system with roadbed and even the Tomix system?) is that the roadbed feels more like 'rubber' than plastic. Not sure if its the same material in the standard rigid sections as it is in the flex track, but the flex track definitely has a very 'rubbery' feel to it.

This has the unusual (at least it seems to me) attribute for flex track in that it actually can hold a curve without having to be affixed to anything. See photo at right where I bent the track, set it down, and - wallah! - it nearly holds the curve I created. Very cool.

In profile against the Unitrack (again, see photo at right), their are some substantial differences. However, they are both code 80, so the differences can be 'covered up' with some creative scenery work so that the differences in the roadbed base can be covered up.

The only thing I had to do with the track to get a standard rail joiner (I used some surplus Atlas rail joiners and removed the Uni-joinders) is carefully cut the first set of 'spikes' on each end holding the rail to the ties. After that, the rail joiners were able to slide on. Note that the Atlas rail joiners slide onto Kato's rails a bit too easy, and little pressure with the pliers helps them to get a stronger contact.

Replacement of the section of Unitrack with the flex track was surprisingly easy. I'll need to do a little scenery and ballast work to complete the job, but all in all, this was about the best solution I've found for the gap in Kato's Unitrack library. I have to say, I have not read or heard much about this track system either online or in print, and if 'track is track' pretty much anywhere you look, this Fleischmann track is very nice, high quality product, that is not priced too badly!

Not sure if its obvious, but compare the photo at right with the new Fleischmann flex track, and its smooth curves, versus the rather unsightly angle that the Kato track made in the photo at the top.

One other very interesting thing about this track....it is QUIET! The density of the rubber roadbed really absorbs sound. If that's a consideration for you, this track system may be an interesting alternative to more popular choices.

UPDATED: Photo comparing Unitrack to ProfiTrack:

CaptOblivious from Akihabara Station wanted a bit more on the tie spacing on the Fleischmann Profi track. The differences are obvious, but with some creative ballast work, I think I'll get the distinctions to look less obvious once I've fully scenic-ed this section.


N Scale Layout construction overview

Now that most of the scenery and all the major construction is complete, I thought I would create one post that sort of summarized, in an appropriate chronological order, the steps I took to build and create my N Scale layout.

1. The Plan. As everyone who has ever contemplated building a layout has confronted, there are many questions and decisions to be made about your layout plan, all of which are constrained by the physical space you have to build a layout and whether or not the layout will need to be somewhat portable, temporary, or permanent. The below posts share some of my experiences with my first layout, which was essentially two ovals with a couple of sidings. The third post talks about the new plan, of which most posts on this blog are focused on.
My current track plan and the software I used.
My original, single 'hollow core' door N Scale layout
Thoughts and perspective on my first layout, and what I wanted to improve. Maybe some similar things your are thinking about, and how my thinking evolved.
The expansion from a single hollow core door to a 'double door' layout.

2. Where to put the layout. This is really about the physical constraints or the location where your layout will be located. My layout is located in an extra stall in my garage, but the plan and solution for the table -which needed to be both semi-portable and adjustable to adapt to the sloping elevation of a garage floor- are as suitable for an indoor room or basement layout. Mostly, this is about the benchwork I created to support and keep level a hollow core door layout using two doors.

3. Putting the layout foundation together. Once you have a plan (and the track to create that plan), and a suitably level 'table area' to start your layout, its time to start adding all that track and scenery.
•My approach, based on some less than desirable past experiences, keeps the track away from all the messy glue and landscaping material and takes advantage of the Unitrack track system by Kato to ensure flawless track operations.
•I also provide some general thoughts on my Kato Unitrack experience here, which might be helpful in your planning process.
•Some thoughts on the connectors used in the Kato Unitrack track system here if you are thinking of finding similar connectors to make the other electrical connections on your layout similarly 'plug and play' as the Kato connectors.

4. Scenery. I found the scenery process for this layout one of the most enjoyable parts of it, which surprised me. The reason for this was I removed all the track (mostly) from the layout for this process (see this post if you missed my strategy on this) which allowed me to go to town using all sorts of techniques without worrying about gumming up pricey switches!
• Adding rocks. If your plan considers some sort of mountainsides, the time to add rocks is before any grass or foliage is applied. My approach was the standard 'Woodland Scenics' process.
• Adding grass. I 'discovered' a method of applying the standard grass flocking material that was much more satisfying than other methods. The quick explanation is combining white glue and acrylic paints, then sprinkle on your flocking material. You get a good base color and solidly adhered flocking material without having to spray a ton of dilated glue mixture everywhere.

• Adding foliage. "Foliage" is a type of meshed ground cover that is more commonly used in layout scenery in Europe, but using the above technique I found great results with this type of product.
• Miscellaneous. Do you have need for a bridge that does not have any sort of commercially available solution? Build your own!

5. Put the track down and run trains! Again, since I did all the scenery without the track on the layout, this was the fun part!


Benchwork Plan

Before there was any scenery....before there was any track...before there were any lights, there was....the BENCHWORK (or TABLE or FRAME, etc...)!!!! Clearly (to me), one of the least interesting (in my opinion) but necessary, critical, life-sustaining (I kid!) and ultimately, impactful aspects of the hobby is what you run your trains on! Hey, we're all grown ups now, and we deserve a place where we don't have to put our 'toys' away every time we're done playing!

The reality is that I expect most of us modelers are a long way from getting a 'dream room' where we can build exactly what we want to our hearts content. This was my challenge. So before the present layout got built, it was fairly obvious that this was going to be a 'garage layout'. These other human beings that live with me have selfishly procured the nicest parts of the home for their own needs. Ahhh well.....

In addition to being in the garage, I also wanted a layout that was fairly portable and would be relatively easy to transport if we were to move in the next couple of years. I have painful experiences with this, before I got into N Scale, I had an O scale layout that was a 'permanent' L-girder sort of construct in the garage. Of course, a potential move a couple of years ago required the demolition of several years of work. Never again! (and we never did end up moving! Arg!)

One of the first questions I had to resolve was how to make this (portable) layout level? Beyond the basic requirements of sturdiness, height, size, etc... a garage presents a particular challenge not found in the house in terms of making it level (well, most houses anyway, are somewhat level). Most garage floors have a slope to them so that water and dirt carried in from outside goes back out to the driveway. While the grade is not noticeable when humans (like us) are standing on it or walking on it; at N Scale those little ore cars will go racing down the layout like its the Indy 500. An 'off the shelf' workbench or shelving unit would require some rudimentary, and probably not very good, modifications, but would also limit what I could do in terms of dimensions and so forth.

Another factor influencing my plan, was my intention to use a hollow door as the table top. I knew that L-girder was out (too much work and not portable) and the inexpensive, lightweight attributes of the hallowed hollow door approach have some nice benefits (and some drawbacks, which I will save for another post).

With those challenges in mind, I set out on my 'plan' (less a plan than an evolution of various random and half-baked ideas).

For my original N scale layout, which was just a single 36" x 80" hollow-core door, a simple wooden saw horse picked up for $20 at the local hardware store sufficed for the support. The sawhorse was an adequate solution, though far from ideal as the layout was too low to the floor at about 26" (most modelers and magazines talk about layout height and that a layout is 'nicest' at 'eye level', which I think is generally true. Looking down from too high up makes you feel like you're flying over the layout. Which sounds cool, but isn't). A single door is also convenient as its VERY portable due to its low weight and rigidity.

However, after a few months I decided that I wanted more track, more scenery, more, more, MORE!!! (you get the idea!)... and the single door was just not going to cut it. I decided to move up to a 'double door' (end to end) arrangement with my 'v.2' layout.

This presented a portability challenge, and adding more saw horses would not provide the necessary stability and rigidity to hold two doors end to end at the right level.

So, I came up with a plan that was loosely based on some framing ideas for some cheap, do-it-yourself type of work benches I found online.

The plan is basically 3 identical frames built out of 2"x4" lumber. Both the vertical and horizontal lengths are 36". The two end frames are placed on opposite ends of the two doors, and the 3rd frame supports the 'connection' point where the two doors come to together (this center one has the 2x4 laid on its side to provide as much area as possible to support the weight of the board and secure the two doors to the frame).

A big influence in the design of the plan (I use the word 'design' here loosely!) was a solution I found to answer the challenge of my sloping garage floor, and the need to have both a stable and secure footing that would allow me to easily level each 'frame' to ensure the layout surface was level from one end to another. I found this article on using old hockey pucks as leveling devices, which had me move the bottom, horizontal, load bearing supports all the way to 'ground level'. These adjustable, 'hockey puck' feet have worked terrifically, and the ~2" slope in the garage from one end of the layout to the other is adequately compensated for with these adjustable, hockey puck feet. I also have to say they look great! The shiny bolt hardware and the big, black, rubber puck look kind of cool (and very 'industrial strength!).

The frame design also has two short 14" pieces which rest on the bottom board and are attached with 2 3/4" screws to the 'risers' or vertical supports. These provide a ledge for additional bracing or for shelving (you'll notice my pictures feature lots of miscellaneous garage storage 'things' stored under the layout on the far side). I added in another shelf about 10" below the layout where all my 'controllers' are able to rest (not shown in the Google Sketch Up plans, but visible in the photos. See all those messy wires? They lead to my 'control panel' shelf).

The biggest challenge was connecting the doors to the risers/supports. Hollow core doors are cheap for a reason...there's not a lot of material that can reliably be used for bolting or attaching to the supports. The strongest areas of the doors are the side edges where the hinges would normally go. This actually turned out to be a benefit. I simply attached 2x2 boards to the long lengths of the doors and used these to drill holes for the nut and bolts to attached to the vertical riser/2x4 supports. Why was this a 'benefit'? Well, I was able to add a full 3 inches to the width of my layout!

All in all, I've been very happy with the design. Its rigid, adjustable, portable, and very sturdy. The height is right (for both me, and those other people in the house that like to play with the cars on the layout and try to push the trains like they're Thomas the Tank...Noooo!!!) Given the strength and design of the frames, I also have an option of adding some width (which I plan on doing) to extend areas of the layout beyond the current 39" dimensions.

Oh yes, and I have the carpentry skills of a mollusk, so this was an easy and 'idiot-proof' project.


The Krusty Krab: Urban Sprawl!

I ordered the Tomix 4035 "Pension" structure with the idea of using it as a house in the 'residential' area of the layout. Once I had a chance to look at it, it really didn't look like a 'house'. I don't know what a 'Pension' house is either, so I had to envision how to re-purpose this structure into something that I could understand.

The color and the design seemed to indicate some sort of seafood restaurant. Thus, the Krusty Krab was born!

There is a lot of room under the roof to add LED's and resistors, where I added 2 yellow LED's (which provide a warm glow for the dining area), a white LED (for the entrance), and an Ultraviolet LED for the 'lounge area' near the back.

For the sign on the roof, I created a sign based on some crab clipart, added in the letters, used the trusty inkjet printer, and applied to a styrene backing and glued to the roof. 2 LED's embedded into the roof provide illumination so that hungry travellers can get their crabby patties.

The interior furnishings are from Faller, who produces just about the only suitable tables and chairs for N scale that would be appropriate for an interior.

Along with the beautiful Kato Denny's restaurant model, this will make an interesting addition to the 'by the road' row of restaurants that I am developing for the layout. Now I just need to figure out where to fit these buildings!


Brawa Plugs and Junction Blocks arrived

I was talking about some of my disappointment with the LED plug-in lights from Brawa. I now believe that the problem may have been the relatively unregulated voltage that I was using. I'm going to change my power to 12vDC 'fixed' voltage (former power supply to an external hard drive) which will solve the problem (I assume).

I also mentioned that I was going to order the Brawa pin sockets and junction boxes as recommended in the instructions. I doubt these will do anything to change the incorrect voltage, but they certainly will make the connections and wiring of non-track accessories on my layout much simpler. The idea is to use Red and Black wires for my 12v DC LED wired buildings (see this post) and a Yellow and Brown set of wires and connectors for another 12V system for the lights from Brawa (and other street lights). And finally, all buildings or connector blocks will be connected via Kato-like Tamiya connectors. The idea is that the entire layout will be completely 'plug and play'! No more twisting of wires, etc...! I have to commend Reynaulds for very fast delivery and for having the items in stock! That's always a challenge when ordering online for anything that's not a typical US prototype!

Not sure if you can tell from the photo, but my layout has an abundance of accessory lighting! I have an obsession (one might say OCD?) with every building at least having some light source, and with every street or corner having a street light or other appropriate light. Sigh, I am not even close. This Brawa system should, at least, clean up some of the tangles under the layout, and then I can have a very slick looking wire set up under the layout (today...its very embarrassing!).


Product Comments: Brawa pin socket LED lights

When I first came across these novel lighting products from German manufacturer Brawa, I was blown away with what a great idea these were! Brawa has produced N Scale lights that use a small metal pin which is inserted into a socket that you install in your layout, allowing for flexibility and stability that is hard to achieve with other alternatives. Additionally, they are LEDs which means that you get a light that will last much longer than a conventional incandescent bulb, plus low heat, and low power consumption. The 'plug and play' simplicity of the pins and sockets mean that you can change light fixtures as you wish, and if you need to replace a bad bulb (in theory with LED's, a rare occurrence?), changing the bulb/light fixture cannot be easier.

I love this idea and despite the relatively hefty per light price, it seems like a good investment. A Brawa 4000 (single, curved street light) goes for about USD $11-13. Brawa's similar non-Led and traditional wire version is about 30% less at USD $7-8. Of course, you can go with the very cheap Model Power versions, where you can get a pack of 3 for about $6-9. I don't care much for the Model Power versions despite the price (they just look cheap to me). Brawa has a similar 'traditional' model as well (the #4596) but this has the same challenges and limitations as the Model Power lights.

Brawa continues to come out with new light styles, with remarkable quality for N scale, allowing you to change lights or 'upgrade' if you find something that better creates the ambiance you are looking for. Take a look at the picture of the two lanterns near my cathedral.

The only 'down side' with these lights is that they are definitely the 'blue-ish' white type of LED's, and not the more 'warm white' versions that I think most of us prefer. This seems acceptable for street lights, which can often be 'blue or green-ish' (except for the Netherlands, where all the lights are quite orange! I've always wondered what the reason for that is, other than the obvious Orange symbollism...anyway, I digress).

The trick with installation is that you should ensure you have a 5.5mm drill bit (or the closest thing possible) and a power drill to bore the hole for the socket. Don't go too far, otherwise your drill will leave a bit of an impressions on your sidewalk, for example (ugh, also see my sidewalk around the 'socket' in my second-from-top photo)!

Unfortunately, I have to report that my experience has not been great. Of the 18 that I currently have or have had installed on the layout, 9 of them no longer work! The instructions imply that these lights should be used with the Brawa plugs, plate, and cables connected to a 12-16v power supply (the non-LED, non pin socket versions specify 14-16v AC for longest life, but no preference for AC or DC in the LED pin socket instructions is specified).

My connection is to an AC transformer with a max of 18VAC. Its likely that the max voltage was turned up one too many times and some of the LED's were fried (not not all of them, and the ones that went dark seem to do so individually). Additionally, the instructions state not to remove the lights with the power on. Yep, I've done that before. However, I've always noticed the the lights continued to work on those few times when I removed them from the socket with the power on. I've also noticed a curious decrease in the LED's brightness which I now recongize as an early sign that the light will soon fail altogether.

Its a mystery to me why I have a failure rate of 50%, which is clearly not acceptable! Something has to change! The Brawa fixtures look great, although I am adding in some Viessmann lights which look just as good with traditional bulbs. I am going to change my power supply, and because I like simple, clean, and easy to connect type of arrangements for wiring (just like with Unitrack), I will probably order the Brawa plates and plugs (I still have enough 4000, 4020, and others already installed and waiting to be installed to make this salvage effort worth it). If any reader with more electrical knowledge than me (which is near zero) has any suggestions that might help, I'd like to hear from you. Otherwise, at this point, I have to say this esteemed and high quality German manufacturer seems to have a great product concept, but it has been a disappointing experience for me (so far).


Thalys and Steam!

Hard to believe that its been almost two weeks since my last post! I've been preoccupied with my lighting installation and building construction work that I referred to several posts ago. In between painting and soldering, I've also been running the trains and attempting to capture some 'dramatic' shots of the layout. My goal is to replicate the 'magic' that I saw in the beautiful photos that first captivated me in the 2003 Minitrix catalog!

So whilst carefully avoiding photos of areas of the layout currently under 'renovation', and with a little bit of 'photoshop' magic, here's a couple of photos of the layout from a 'close in' perspective. The above photo obviously shows some harried commuters/passengers on the Kato suburban station platform. Perhaps they are excited to have excited from their Swiss Class 450 Zurich S-Bahn to find themselves at a Japanese suburban station with two German steam locomotives across the platform?!

Below is the Kato Thalys, going through an admittedly fantasy like 'rock cut' (there's not a whole lot of mountains between Amsterdam and Paris as I recall!) as it departs a siding and enters the main line.

Finally, another view of the 'steam meet' between the German Class 44 and Class 3 steam locomotives.