After weeks of research, I learned that many people find Kato unitrack to be the best (albeit pricey) track for N scale.
So much for that research, because after going to the Great Midwest Train Show in Wheaton IL today, I decided I am going to go HO for my first set. So now the question is...does anybody have recommendations on the best track for HO?
I know there is Kato Unitrack for HO, but I don't seem to see the same degree of rave reviews for it as for N. Anyway, any recommendations would be greatly appreciated.
It all depends. Are you looking for sectional track? Do you want to use flex track? Or do you want to hand lay track? Personally, I use Atlas Code
83 Flex track and Wallthers Code 83 Turnouts. If you are just starting out, I would suggest Atlas sectional track, but you will have to lay your own roadbed. But as the layout grow, it will be more compatible to expandance.
Kato Unitrack for HO has a very limited selection of pieces compared to what's available for N scale. Kato explains on their web site this is because their primary market is Japan, where N is the most popular scale. This is the primary reason Kato HO isn't as popular in the U.S. as Kato N, along with the price if you're building even a medium size layout.
If you're planning to start with a sectional roadbed track, I would recommend Atlas's code-83 Tru-Track. It's the only roadbed track designed with track designed to be removable from the roadbed. You can't do this with Power-Loc or EZ-Track from Life-Like and Bachmann respectively.
This means if you decide to go with cork roadbed later, all you have to do is pop the track section out of the plastic roadbed and install it on the cork. It also means if a track section is damaged, you can pop it off the roadbed and replace it with an identical piece from the Atlas code-83 line of sectional track.
Len Head Rust Scraper KL&B Eastern Lines RR Museum
The main reason you don't see the rave reviews is that there are three other ballast-base track systems (see below). The following comments aren't a recommendation of one type over another, just some refelctions that you may want to consider when making your choice. After my reasons for preferring one type over another might not make any sense to you.
The advantage of ballast base track is that it's sturdy and reusable, and better protects the trains from carpet fuzz and other bad things if you set up a layout on the floor for the grandkids to play with. :-) I use it for temporary layouts, eg under the Christmas tree or on the den floor when the kids visit. I have no preferences for one type over another, except that I don't like the black-base Bachmann - looks awful.
The problem with ballast-base track is compatibility. There are four widely used versions for HO: Atlas, Bachmann, Kato, and Lifelike. They are incompatible with each other. Lifelike does offer a transition piece so you can connect their track to standard sectional track. All of them are rather fiddly to join compared to oprdinary sectional track.
Atlas uses code 83 rail, and the base and the track are molded separately, so that you can take them apart easily should you decide to go without the plastic track base (which, BTW, is very likely to happen as your interests and desires develop and change.)
The other three use code 100 rail, which is sturdy. But the rail is molded into the base. If you decide to change, you'll have track you can't use.
IMO the advantage of a molded in ballast base is exaggerated. It's one of those ingeniously practical ideas that turn out to be less than easy to use as intended. If you want this type of track to look realistic, you still have to paint it, which is as much of a hassle as ballasting plain sectional or flex track. OTOH, Atlas's separate base makes the painting job easier - I plan to experiment with it.
Ordinary HO sectional track consists of ties and rails only, comes in several rail sizes (code 100 and 83 the most common), and uses rail joiners to connect the track pieces. All brands of a given rail code are compatible with each other. However, for realism, a ballast strip underlay (usually cork) and ballasting are desirable - fairly simple to do, but time-consuming. You may not want to put that time into a first layout, whose purpose after all is to get trains running as soon as possible. :-)
Also, sectional track of any style limits track plan design. Most HO track comes in 18" radius. Some brands also offer other curve radii. Kato is well regarded because it offers the largest range of curves, and because the turnout motors are built into the base. People have built very nice first layouts with sectional track, but of those who decide to build a new layout, the majority go to flex track and/or hand built track.
I don't want to dissuade you from using ballast-base track, just to be aware of some of the surrounding considerations. IMO, any of the brands would be an excellent choice for a first layout, with perhaps Atlas getting my vote because of the more realistic rail size.