HO Track questions (getting started)

Okay, I read the FAQ (http://www.ndrr.com/rmr_faq ), surfer the web, etc. but have lots of questions...
Background: A long time ago, I was given a Lionel set (x-mas) which I
was wise enough to return for a decent HO steam loco and a collection of Atlas code 100 track (this was 1997). It sat in my basement in a box with the loco on top. When my 3 year old discovered Thomas and wanted to see "daddy's choo-choo" I pulled out the kit and set it up.
My son and I are more interested in "making layouts" than scenary or realistic operation. This means we are tearing down the the layout I had set up on the floor, then I'm sketching out a new design then we both put the track together, and I spend a night or two (wife says 5) wiring it up. (typical layout lasts 3-5 weeks)
I'm convinced I need a few things and am looking for input/guidance...
1) I want a "quick build" table. I think I'm settled on building a 4x8 frame and use peg board (3 or 4 layers bolted together) Peg board to feed wires under the table rather than running them above the table on plywood (makes new layouts "quicker" as I can pre-wire switches and feed them where/when I need them a) I don't care about "running loud" or adding corkboard, or nice looking ballast systems. I'll only end up cursing lots once a month.
Q: Does this seem reasonable? I'd like to build bigger (I'm convinced 5x8 or 6x9 are infinitely more flexible sizes) Eventually, I can see adding an "L" section (another table almost identical to the first) Thoughts about this? My son and I are more interested in "lots of switches, lots of cross-overs and long runs.
2) I've had it with Atlas switches. I bought a Peco just to "take a look" and I'm sold. I don't care at all about being "prototypical" I'm just looking for smooth running (Current derail rate is about 20% for the loco, 10% for the tender, and 40% for the coach we just bought - we don't run the coach anymore) I don't like the under table mounting for the Peco switch machine (becuase I'll be rebuilding it monthly) and the chance the points will line up nicely over a pegboard hole is 0%
Q: I've only seen the Tortise systems online (they also seem to mount below the table, but have mounting brackets I can "bolt onto the table" distanced from the turnout (Same questions for Switchmaster, or any other machine... I'm looking for recommendations here :-)
Q: I give up, I think I want to buy all "Insulfrog" switches and "do the wiring myself" (most flexible) but I'm convinced I have no idea here... For right now, we are running one loco. Eventually, we'll add another (we have two, one just sits in an insulated siding while the other runs). I'm torn betwen blocks (my preference) and DCC (quick and easy). I don't have the hang of all the wiring intricacies (Yeah, I bought the "Track Planning for Realistic Operation" book and it isn't all sinking in...) Can I just buy Insulfrogs and be content with doing the wiring myself? Is it ever necessary to go with Electrifrogs? My general track preference is to buy enough stuff to do "any layout" (Example: I have 4 wye switches, 6 each L and R #4 turnouts, and 2 each #6... and I'd like more #6, but I ain't buying Atlas...)
3) Transformers - I have a pretty basic model that seems under powered (example, I throw a switch, and the LEDs in the signals dim :-( which I'm assuming is because the Atlas switch machines just dump current down a solenoid to generate the linear throw...and this essentially shorts the supply (yet another reason to dump Atlas). I like the look of the MRC Large Scale Power Pack with Large Throttle handle, but I'm not running G gauge... will it work with HO? Is there anything "nicer" than the knob units for HO?
4) DCC - should I just give in and buy a DCC setup now? (Seems like an awful headache mostly because I'd have to see if my current loco can accept a decoder... plus there seem to be like 5 different components needed for the system. I'd really like to have 2 locos running (so my son and I can "play together" but I'm happy enough moving one into a siding, then cutting power to the siding, then energizing the other siding with the other loco and moving it out onto the track.
5) Connectors (knuckles) - is it _really_ true that there just isn't any kind of standard whatsoever? (wow) The connector used by the coach we have lost it's spring (oops...) and is now useless. We stil have "the other one" (we only have one coach for the train), and I bought just about every Backman EZMate and Kadee connector just to understand what "Center Shank Medium" was or "#4 connector kit"
Q: I take it I just can't "buy one" and standardize on that... it depends on the rolling stock?
Q: also... the "under hooks" (the metal quarter circle under the connector that requires .015" of track clearance...) what the heck is that for? Can I err on the side of "bending it up" so the clearance is sufficient that it wont decouple going over the 30deg crossover? (I can't imagine using a decoupler, tho... I bought one "just in case" :-)
whew... sorry this is so long. If it isn't clear, I don't mind spending the $$ but want to make sure the investment will hold up. (a $22 Peco switch is a bargain compared against an Atlas switch, IMHO) Also, I'd like to be somewhat scalable for when my son moves on and maybe wants a more fixed layout and might actually want to put a building near the track :-)
Any advise would be greatly appreciated. (are there other hobbiests who are just track/layout geeks, and don't care much for the buildings and scenary?)
Thanks so much -al
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Some ideas inside your question.
al wrote:

With enough cross-bracing one layer would be enough.

If you get too large on your table you wont be able to reach the center to re-rail or work on the track.

You can top mount Tortise with their remote system.

Medium Pecos work better than #6 Atlas. If you are not running very short engines there is no need for Electuifrogs.

Get a separate power supply for your turnout moter.

With the layout you have discussed I would recommend the Diditrax Zephir. Hook two wires to the track and run. You can get a Dt400 throttle for yourself and the large knob on the Zephir should work for your son.

The Kadee #5 will fit 90% of the rolling stock out there. Engines are different. Kadee lists different couplers for different engines.

With the right coupler height most "hooks" will be at the right height. If not bend them up no problem unless you plan on using uncoupling.

Where are you located? There should be someone close by that could help.
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Chuck, Thanks for the response!
The Digitrax Zephir looks pretty intimidating. I'm not sure I'm ready to worry about consists for trains :-) That said, it does indeed look the the type of controller that would both grow with us over the years, and the "brake" level is a cool feature!
I'm located in SW PA... yeah, there are lots of shops around, but to be honest, this is a pretty intimidating hobby! Most people I've talked to are more worried about the "realism" factor (one guy asked my son "what type of engine do you have" to which he replied "535!" (which is the loco number - It's a 4-8-2 C&O Steam loco (couldn't tell the year/etc.)) The guy kinda look at me hoping I could jump in and answer... but honestly, I only knew it as an HO Steam locomotive that "looked pretty cool" when I bought it.
As for the table/setup... I think I'm settling on a 6x8 to start (basically two 3x4 tables connected together - so I can add more 3x4 "sections" as needed) It will be in the center of my basement so, we should be able to walk around it to reach everything.
What is a "short engine" as far as Electifrogs go? (we plan on running steam mostly, so I could conceive of being at risk...) The 2-8-0 my son is using seems to work fine... And I'd have to pull a multimeter out to tell you which of my turnouts have insulated vs. electrified frogs...
Thanks again for your responses!! -al
Chuck Kimbrough wrote:

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*snip*
Don't worry too much about the realism and detail guys. This is a wide hobby that has stuff for everyone. You're probably going to find someone who counts rivits (and thinks this is fun) and you'll find people who just "play" with their trains. I'm somewhere in between...

If you're thinking about 6x8, consider that the maximum reach-in distance is about 2'. That's probably why Ntrak decided on 2x4 modules. (That, and a 4x8 sheet of plywood provides enough wood for 4 modules with no waste.)

I would guess "short engine" probably means two axles. (Diesel Switch engines or a 0-4-0.) A four axle engine may also count if you've got multiple turnouts and "traction" tires on the engine.

Puckdropper
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'Consists' is a standard part of the DCC standard -- it just implements realisting MU (multiple-unit) operations, just like the real railroads. It allows you to run two or more locos on a single train as if they were a single loco. It sounds like it is not something you need to worry about, unless you buy a zillion coal cars and stick two or more *powered* SD45's in front of them.

The rule-of-thumb suggests that you need to make the table no more that twice your 'reach' -- can you really reach 3'??? Of course, without buildings and scenery, you can safely reach further...

Thomas is a short engine (0-6-0T) There are also 0-4-0Ts which are even shorter. 'Tank' engines are likely to give you more trouble, since they lack a tender -- most steam locos with tenders have extra pickups on the tender wheels and this helps with 'gaps' (frogs). Some of the smaller diesel switchers can be a problem as well, esp. the little industrial types.

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Sure. What you probably want to look at is the track+plastic 'ballast' that is the current incarnation of sectional / snap track. This is the regular sectional / snap track, with an added molded grey plastic base with some kind of interconnection snap hook. These will hold your track sections together very securely (much more so that just the rail joiners alone.

All of the 'under table' switch machines are designed with 'permanent' layouts (with scenery, ballast, etc.) in mind. The 'non-prototypical' switch machines are thus 'out of sight' under the layout.

You need 'hot' frogs if you have 'short' locos.

The 'twin coil' style of switch machines all have huge (relatively speaking) current draws if wired directly with a momentary contact control. This includes Atlas, Peco, etc. What you want is a 'capacitance discharge' unit to power these switch machines. This will save you from scale "brown-outs". The G scale power pack is for 24V locos (G scale uses 24 volts). H0 is 12 volts. No, you don't want the G scale power pack.

There are debates on both sides. For a *new* layout, DCC is probably the way to go. Most 'modern' H0 locos can take a decoder, many by just pluging it in. DCC is *operationally* simplier and the wiring can be much simplier -- toss ALL of those insulated rail joiners away (except for a few for use with power districts and some for turnouts to prevent shorts and for reverse loops).

The actual knuckle is standard, but shanks and center, over, and under set vary and are rolling stock dependent. Such is life... *Some* people standardize on Kadee #5 and hack the rolling stock to take the #5 -- includes surgery to remove molded coupler pockets, adding spacers, and so on.

The 'air hoses' aka decoupling pins are only needed for magnetic decouplers. There is a Kadee tool and guage to adjust them properly. Or if you plan to *never* use a magnetic decoupler, you can snip them off.

You might want to dump the code 100 track and get code 83 track now. And that includes Atlas code 83 'custom line' turnouts. Yes, the Atlas code 100 turnouts are cheap junk, but the Atlas code 83 'custom line' turnouts are very nice and work very will and have a powerable frog. I believe you can get the plastic 'ballast' for this track for your weekly / monthly empire 'rebuilding'. When your son settles on a longer term rebuild cycle (ALL modelers have some sort of 'rebuild cycle', but for mature modelers it is measured in years or decades, not weeks or months).
Turnouts (esp. Atlas) can be had cheaply at Model RR shows, such as the Amherst Railway show in Springfield this coming Jan (last weekend of Jan).

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Robert, Thanks for the response. I'm actually not interested in the ballast + track features "ready to go" sections - mostly because of the limitations in selection (e.g. it's tough to find a 12.5 deg crossing in the Atlas True-Track selection - which was actually the first major addition to our simple layout...)
Thanks for the tip on capacitance discharge switch machines... I found a great link here (for thos who might be in a similar situation as I am :-) http://home.cogeco.ca/~rpaisley4/CDPSU.html My personal preference would be to use the Darlington transistors to control the machines...
Related to that is the reason I don't want to go with DCC... i figure working with blocks, I could more easily control "crash scenarios" where at a crossing, once a train is over the crossing, I can dump power to the crossing block and prevent collisions... that said, I'm becoming more convinced DCC is the way to go...
as for Code 83... Since I'm not into realism, the code 83 only seems to offer the advantage of better quality parts by default. One of the problems I'm having is clearance under an engine (as well as the couplers) So dropping to 83 would seem only to increase my problems...
Thanks again! -al
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True, there is some limitations in selections. OTOH, the 'plastic ballast' has one really important feature you seem to need: bare snap / sectional track won't stay connected to together very well, esp. after you have taken it apart and put it together a few times -- the rail joiners don't have good enough 'grab' and loosen over time. The 'plastic ballast' section have solid and secure locking clips. This means that when snapped together they are solidly attached and won't move around or come apart. Since you probably don't plan on ballasting or even nailing down the track, you need *something* to hold things together or else you will be spending all of your time 'repairing' trackwork and not running trains at all much.

There should not be anything under the engine, at least below wheel tread level. This is the *same* for code 100 or code 83. The only downside of code 83 is with some 'cheaper' locos and rolling stock have excessively oversized flanges, mostly cheap junk anyway (except some UK 00 stock has 'deep' flanges, but you are not likely to see anything like that). If the couplers are adjusted properly OR if you just snip off the gladhands, you won't have trouble with code 83. Misadjusted coupler gladhands will hang up on code 100 just as easily as it will on code 83 -- *exactly* the same.
I understand you are not into realism -- that is not why I mentioned going to code 83. Code 83 does offer much better *quality* parts. One of the most important things about any railroad (model or prototype) is quality trackwork. If the trackwork is poor quality, all sorts of things won't work well. The code 100 track is mostly meant as 'toy' grade and is generally cheaply made and generally junk. The code 83 is (to quote GMC) "professional grade" -- well made out of quality parts. And there will be a wider selection of 'exotic' trackwork available (more crossing angles, greater selection of turnouts, etc.).

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Robert Heller wrote: (Snip)

I highly disagree with Robert that code 100 is 'generally junk'. There is code 100 junk out there, brass rail, steel rail, older Bachman, Lifelike, and Model Power. The older item are generally found in yard sales etc. The new junk is in cheep sets. Atlas, Peco, Bachman, Micro Engineering, etc all make good quality code 100 track & accs. (snip)
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al wrote:

Was I doing a 4*8 (traditional size) I'd make a frame to hold it out of 1*4 wood. I'd run 3 maybe 4 braces across the short way (the 4' way) to prevent sagging in the middle. I'd put the whole thing up on sawhorses to get it off the floor while wiring it. I'd look for a material called Homosote, usually available at lumberyards. It is a soft gray material that takes track nails easily and is easy to make holes in for wiring. A hand push drill goes thru it like it was butter, and you can even use an awl. If you are not nailing your snap track down you will experience derailments at the joints.

Running two (or more) locomotives at the same time is way cool. It may be worth the hassles of learning DCC, installing decoders in locomotives and programming the locomotives. If you can get it working, and your son can operate a train with it, it will be great.

It's more railroady to call 'em couplers. The Kadee with all bronze springs is usually more reliable than the clone couplers. Kadee invented and patented the working knuckle couple for HO way back in the '60s. The patent finally ran out and Bachmann, McHenry, Proto and others now make compatable clones. Many of the clones have molded plastic springs which tend to break off. The Kadee bronze spring never break, instead the tiny coil spring on the knuckle pops loose and zing, it's gone. Replacements are available from your friendly local hobby shop. If your small motor skills and eyesight are first rate, you can place a very tiny dab of Duco cement on one end of the knuckle spring to prevent it launching itself into orbit when it comes loose. Or you can obtain spares... Most freight cars with body mount couplers accept a #5 Kadee. Locomotives, truck mounted couplers and long rolling stock (passenger cars in particular) take a variety of other styles. You want to check coupler height after a coupler swap. Unless all the couplers in a train are at the same height you will get random uncoupling which can be annoying (to put it mildly). Many cars need a #6 flat washer under the trucks to bring the couplers up to height.

Again it is more railroady to call them gladhands. Many folk do just that. In fact some folk cut the gladhands clean off. Kadee sells a special pliers just for bending gladhands. However, before bending a gladhand, I always check coupler height. As a general rule, if the gladhand is low (catching on turnouts) the coupler is low as well.

Before you consign all you Atlas turnouts to the neither regions you might check the gaging of the wheels on your rolling stock. It is not uncommon for the wheels to be out of gage by just a little bit. A little bit out of gage will work fine on track but derail on turnouts.
Good luck
David Starr
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*snip*

I agree about checking the gauge of the wheels. First thing I thought was "Sounds like he needs a standards gauge." NMRA Standards gauges are available at the local hobby shop for about $10-$15. I'd recommend getting one and learn the track and wheel gauge functions.
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Yeah, I'm sad to say that this looks like a hobby where 1/64 of an inch can make a big difference :-)
Looks like I need a gauge. I was hoping that buying a loco and running it "right out of the box" would be pretty risk free :-(
Thanks! -al
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73g2000cwn.googlegroups.com:

1/64" in S scale (1:64) makes about an inch difference. In HO, it's probably about 1 3/4".
You can have a lot of fun and success getting a loco and running it right out of the box. Most set track can stand up to enough abuse to keep you going for quite some time. When assembling track, look directly at the joint and make sure your rail joiners have engauged properly. It's easy to slide a joiner under the mating rail.
You can just nail (I used 1/2" nails for years) track down on plywood and run trains. I had a 4x6 layout with a grass mat on top for years. It was easy to pull up with a pair of pliers when I wanted to change things around. (I also probably put about one nail per section in, something I wouldn't do now.)
You'll likely identify trouble cars and trouble spots and those are the places to use the standards gauge. If you're doing stuff with sectional track you probably won't have to worry about track gauge much, though.
Puckdropper
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It always depends on the box... And stuff happens along the way and any sort of machinery needs minor adjustment from time to time.

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Al Look for the book "A railroad that grows, by Linn Westcott, and a wiring book by Atlas Model Railroad co. My layout started with an 8x4 and now its 24x15 and 420feet of track, nickel silver. best of luck, when you get to the point of throwing a engine out the window, quit and have a coffee and come back at it next day, works wonders. Vic

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Thanks for the book reccomendations! I'll add them to the library!
I'm dreading the day I need to move more stuff out of the basement to handle 420 feet of track :-)
thanks for the encouragement! -al
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wrote:

i'm sorry, i don't have the time to check in the older posts for this, but... any pictures of your layout and the whole thing? 420 feet is *amazing* :)
perhaps it's time to quit photo dark room from the basement... ;)
regards,
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al skriver:

After reading my sugestion is that you run Trix C track (http://www.trix.de/produkte/cgleis.php ) it is very easy to assemble and to take apart again. The switch engine is located inside the trackbed and can be run by DCC (fed by the track itself) so no additional wiring is neddded.
http://www.trix.de / http://www.trixtrains.com /
Klaus
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al snipped-for-privacy@yahoo.com says...

3-5 weeks? Talk about a lack of patience. I had my first N scale one for 3 years (age 9-12) and the second for 7. I had HO when I was a real little kid and now am going back.

Well yeah, but it will be noisy as hell, and it tends to swell if it get wet, and then there's the brittleness of it. I really don't think it's a good idea. A hole can be drilled in 10 seconds in plywood. Besides, the noise WILL bug the crap out of you sooner or later. Plywood alone would make me want to test one of my guns on myself after a month or two. I have already started building up a load of foam roadbed to use when I start laying track..

A layout without ballast is kind of like a bald woman. To me, the weak point of model railroads is the unreal appearance of the track. I've only seen a few people who can make track look the way I want it to.. real. That includes ballast. It's totally up to you though. If you won't be keeping the same layout for long, obviously ballast is out.

You really really want to be able to reach anywhere on the layout, without using a crane to do it.

The Peco switches and Shinohara's ARE better looking, but you should have basically a ZERO derail rate with any switches currently sold for the last 30+ years. Either there's a gauge problem with the ones that derail, or the trucks are binding on them for some reason, or, you've "tweaked" them by handling them roughly, or pulling them up when they are tacked down on one end. Some of the cheaper steam models seem to derail on the most tiny imperfections. I've seen a few that have such a light front truck that just adding some weight cures the problem. If the switch moves around when a loco or big car goes through it, there's the problem. They have to be stable.

There are some cable operated ones that have a kind of real looking lever that are pretty good if you don't mind pulling them. I will go tortise eventually.

If you are running steamers, you do not want #4 switches. Every company makes #6 and Peco makes 8 and 12 I think.. They look a ton better, LESS derails. Atlas isn't your problem, a friend's dad has some that would be retired now if they were people. They work fine, and as long as you keep them clean (they're brass) there's no problem. The nickel silver ones are flawless. I used Atlas N scale switches without any problems 30+ years ago. My neighbor had an all Atlas basement filling layout 40 years ago, without any problems, except for the brass track power issues. Someone else said if you have short locos, you want Electrofrog. This is true. Some steam locos really have some badly designed power pick up, and need all the help they can get.

Since you are starting almost from scratch as far as Locos go, I would go DCC. You can add decoders to almost any loco, some are a 1 minute install. If you aren't handy, sell the old one on ebay, or if you really like it, there are places that will install decoders for you. BTW, I've never seen any transformer that won't react like that when you throw a switch. Solenoids pull a lot of momentary current. Doesn't mean much of anything.

Apparently you didn't watch The Addams Family when you were a kid. Pass on the explosives and detonator..Whoo woo! Honk Honk! BLAM!!

Most of the Kadee, Proto 2000, etc all work ok together. All those Kadee's types are mostly different lengths and heights to make everything line up with the other stuff. I put Proto 2000's on everything I can that is missing, has the old "horn hook", or a broken coupler.

That's it. I have some cheap passenger cars that will need some oddball lengths to work ok. Kadee seems to have some that will pop right in.

That's what the "under hooks" are for, to unhook when passing over magnets. if you don't want to use a decoupler, you can "trim" the underhook to clear your crossover.

You can get Peco for less than 22 a pop on the net, but in my opinion, you will have just as many problems with any other brand as with Atlas. They haven't been in business that long by selling stuff that doesn't work. Don't even think about code 83 track. If you have trouble with code 100 switches, 83 would be a horror story. I'm going code 100 for one reason, price. I have 120+ feet of Atlas flextrack sitting in a box, waiting to go. I got most of it for 2.00 a stick, some for a little less, some for a little more.

When I do actually start laying track, I will do a BIG yard first, with a double main track along side it, then I will add loops and stuff to it, and eventually a second yard. Once the operation is flawless, then it's ballast and signals, then a few buildings, nothing like some of the ones you see in the magazines. With a few blocks and the right DCC setup, you can have a lot of neat stuff happening with easy wiring and easy expansion. Not to mention the integration of signals and lighting.
BDK
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Wow! Sounds like I'm vastly underestimating the noise on bare wood... I figured as a worst case, I'd get a layer of very thin foam and glue it to the table top (something like 1/16 inch medium density foam) I'm mostly looking for ease in setup and teardown of track. So I really don't want to nail or glue track to the table top (yet, at least)
Most of my derails seem to happen because the switch points don't fully travel and "stick" in position, or the plastic bits on the outside portions of the turnout, near the frog are a bit higher than the rail... (which was solved with a file...) I have the same problem with two of my crossings, and I just don't want to keep filing away. The Peco's have a cleaner appearance with less "stuff" to snag between the rails. (just a beginner's perspective :-)
The Addams family collisions is exactly why I want to go with a block system (when we get a bit more permanent :-) Dropping power in front, behind and around crossings/turnouts when a train is present (as well as prevention of throwing a switch in an occupied block!) all seem to be pretty tough "plusses" to give up for DCC...
The "big yard" starting point is interesting... I like the idea of building a stable yard configuration, then adding to it or modifying the "mainline" track it services...
Thanks! -al
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