Total newb questions...

Discussion in 'HO Scale Model Trains' started by Dorkmaster Flek, Jan 6, 2007.

  1. WHOOP! WHOOP! NEWB ALERT! THIS IS NOT A DRILL! :p So I'm basically a big newb when it comes to model trains, which is funny considering our family history. Some brief background might be in order, which has very little to do with my questions, but it seems you all like stories about how people get started. You can skip past the back story below if you want.


    Model trains have basically been a family tradition on my dad's side. Him and my uncles, as well as several of my cousins, are all into them in varying degrees. My cousins (as well as my dad) mainly like to put them up at Christmas time, whereas one of my uncles (we call him the "crazy" one) maintains one or more semi-permanent layouts on a regular basis. I always enjoyed them, but I was never really into doing them myself. That is, until we visited my "crazy" uncle this year and he had two very nice N scale layouts going (he gets into the whole modelling aspect like building mountains out of Styrofoam, etc). For some reason, I got "the itch" this time. I mentioned to my mom that this was something I could see myself doing when I was retired as a fun hobby, but she said if I wanted to get into it, I should learn all about it and start doing it now while I still have the family "experts" around to learn from.

    I started looking up some things about it, and I stumbled across the invention of DCC. Up until this point, I had no idea something like this existed. Now I'm a computer guy. In fact, I went to school for computer science. While I was there, I did a microprogramming course where we used a computer to control a block-wired traditional DC layout with 2 engines to make the engines run overlapping routes while tracking them without crashing into each other. Needless to say, I had a lot of fun with that project! So here I am learning that they've basically come up with a way of doing the same thing now, but easier and better. This pretty much sold me on getting into this now. Plus, it opens up a whole new world of potential Christmas/birthday presents for future years. My mother is always complaining she doesn't know what to get me... :)

    Now my "crazy" uncle runs basically everything under the sun (from N up to G scale), but the rest of my family is pretty much set on O scale in general, and O27 specifically. I think this comes from the Christmas tradition, since O scale is usually the "around the Christmas Tree" scale of choice, even though they do several loops with a few turnouts and side routes. When I started thinking about beginning my own collection, I had to choose a scale (three guesses what I chose, since I'm in this forum). I've never really liked N scale, as it's too small and difficult to work with for me, as well as operationally finicky. O is nice for good detail on the trains themselves, but my main attraction to the trains was always the layout itself. I loved those intricate layouts running half a dozen trains with several main loops and turnouts, along with yards and sidings for shunting. O is a problem for doing this kind of work because it takes a lot of space for something like that. Couple that with the fact that HO is the most popular scale, and thus the easiest to find a huge variety of solid stuff, and I basically made my choice right there.


    Now for the relevant stuff! I understand the technical details of what's going on with DCC and I definitely want to go that route, but where I'm in basically uncharted territory is when it comes to physical track and the trains, which I thought was the easy part. :p One of the things I really liked about the O27 scale stuff my family did was that laying the track was really fast and easy. Just slap it down on plywood and screw it in place. But for HO, now I'm looking at having to lay roadbed down first. I've read about things like EZ-Track and it comes not recommended from what I can tell. Plain old-fashioned cork seems to be the bed of choice around here. Now, I'm not that concerned with prototypical realism here. I don't really care if the roadbed looks realistic or not, I'm more interested in the layout itself and controlling it. This leads to my first question. Is the cork roadbed necessary? What's to stop you from just putting the track on plywood, for example? If having the track placed on cork is beneficial for a particular reason, what about if I just had a sheet of cork on top of a sheet of plywood for simplicity and ease of installation? At least that way I wouldn't have to worry about trying to make cork cutouts for funny shapes. Also, it seems you usually use tacks to pin the track to the cork? I'm wondering if there is a specific brand/size that is good to use for this as well. I've heard good things about Atlas track, as people seem to like their "flex track". I'm a little confused as to what exactly this is (as in materials, I understand that it's bendable), and what the best brands of track are for HO scale.

    The second question is with regards to engines. I've seen plenty about Atlas in particular, seems they make good beginner engines to use? Like I said, insanely detailed and realistic models are not a big priority for me, at least not right now. I want to get started quickly and easily. The only thing I absolutely need is that the engine be DCC-ready/equipped. From my DCC research, it sounds like I'm definitely going with a Digitrax setup, since I really like their network-oriented system architecture (remember, I'm a computer guy :p) and the transponding capabilities are definitely what I want for layout control and automation eventually. The only thing about this is that I need a Digitrax decoder in the engine! Now, all their recent decoders are transponder-ready, so ideally I'd like an engine that has one of these in it already, or has one of those standard slots where I can easily drop one in. If anybody has personal experience with these decoders and decoder-ready engines, your advice would be greatly appreciated!

    So that's my current questions. My apologies for the lengthy post, I hope I didn't bore you to death and prevent you from giving me any insights! Big thanks in advance, I'm very much looking forward to spending some quality time with this hobby.
  2. CRed

    CRed Member

    Welcome!There's alot of nice,knowledgable people here so you came to the right place!

    I'm a noob myself so I can't say much about DCC yet,but if you want DCC&Sound you'll have to spend a fair bit of money for one.Atlas,Tower 55,Proto2000 and Broadway Limited are all great choices.

    If you want just DCC and not sound you can find them much cheaper,Bachmann makes a DCC starter set if you don't want to drop a ton of cash.It includes a DCC equipped engine and a starter DCC controller.If you want better detail and more DCC options get a Atlas Master/Gold series engine and a MRC/NCE DCC controller,their low end ones are in the $100 range.

    Anyways,you've come to the right place for help.I'm sure someone will be able to help you better then me.

  3. LongIslandTom

    LongIslandTom Member

    Cork is a good noise-deadener. If you just lay track on the bare plywood, the plywood acts like a taut drumhead and amplifies the rumbling noise from the train. It gets loud.

    Cork also anchors track nails pretty good, which means you can use nails to temporarily fix the track to the cork in their exact position while the glue and ballast dries.

    You don't want to cover the entire layout in cork either, because cork is difficult to shape to make scenery. That's why we prefer using foam as a base for the layout (easy to shape into terrain features), and lay cork roadbed only where the tracks need it.

    Atlas is pretty much the gold-standard in HO track, yes. Flex track are 3-feet-long lengths of track that you can bend into any curvature you desire.

    Yes, Atlas makes some of the best-running diesel locomotives in HO. And No, you do NOT need a Digitrax decoder to use with a Digitrax control system. The decoders that comes pre-installed in the DCC-equipped Atlas engines will work with the Digitrax system. Any brand decoder should work with any brand DCC control system as long as they conform to the NMRA standards/specifications for DCC.

    Atlas offers a wide selection of engines with or without DCC decoders already installed. You can't go wrong with those, yep. Other good brands of engines: Athearn and Kato off the top of my head.

    Good luck, hope this helps, and welcome! :thumb:
  4. Jim Krause

    Jim Krause Active Member

    The cork roadbed is primarily for realism. Look at a real railroad track. Secondarily it cuts down on the noise from running a train over plywood. You can find a product called Homosote that will reduce noise without using roadbed if thats a consideration for you.
    It really sounds like you are a Lionel candidate since you are not concerned about realistic operation and detail. Although there are some Lionel operators who do well with the realistic operation thing too. My standard comment for anyone who wants to get started quicky and easily and doesn't want to spend much money ( we hear this all the time on the gauge) Model Railroading is not an instant gratification hobby.
  5. green_elite_cab

    green_elite_cab Keep It Moving!

    COde 83 is the most realistic track size, being smaller than code 100, which is oversized for most railroads. Atlas track is the standard, and flex track is prefrered to sectional track. The main reason is that with section track, you need to have all these joints from section to section, and this can create issues over time. While its fine to use sectional track over short distances, many modelers use the flex track because it can be bent to fit the bill, is cheap, and doesn't require as many joints, where lots of derailments and electrical problems occur in sectional track. Peco turnouts are generally regarded as better than atlas's turnouts ( switches), but either will work, assuming they are the right code, or height.

    when it comes to cork cork, the pricinple reason we put cork (or other types road bed under our tracks is realism, reliability, and noise. You'd be surprised how how much louder your trains are without cork. This is actually loud in a bad way, because you'll here this constant noise that almost sounds like grease on a frying pan, or highway traffic. It is really annoying when you try to run a sound locomotive and the train rattling the rails is louder than the sound system on the locomotive. the cork roadbed great reduces this unwelcome noise. Finally, the smooth cork or roadbed is better for mounting tracks on then straight on to a rough and bumpy sheet of plywood. trust me, the most insignificant bump in the world can cause your tracks to bend out of gauge in time. You don't need cork for road bed either. AMI has a foam roadbed that maybe more realistic in size, and is easier to use. I would not reccomend buying a sheet of cork and just laying it down over the whole table. You don't need to cut out funny shapes, as there are special cork pads for most situations. its really easier than it looks.

    Use track nailes, not tacks. just buy a pack of atlas track nails. be sure to not bang the nails down all the way, as it will also bend the rails out of gauge over time. leave some lee-way.

    when it comes to being prototypical, its worth it to have some realism to what you do. I wouldn't throw away prototypicality just for a track plan and controling your trains. It probably will bother you down the line if its not their. the realism will satisfy you. Its totally worth the effort to be somewhat prototypical in appearance. It makes things better to have a plan anyway! because you mention wanting dcc ready and equipped locomotives, it would be better to know what you want as that stuff gets very very expensive.

    when it comes to locomotives, Atlas is pretty good. Atlas also has come out with its train man line, which is for beginners, but its almost the same as Athearn RTR. Silver and gold series are better atlas models. the silver is DCC ready, while most recent gold is DCC equipped with sound, although very pricy. Proto 200 is another option.

    Athearn kit locomotives and Proto 1000 ( and many others) aren't DCC ready, but you can wire a decoder into them. Digitrax makes a special harness for "blue box" athearn kit locomotives.

    as far as DCC systems go, the zephyr seems like a good set. NCE power cab is also pretty good. Also, you don't need to buy just Digitrax decoders. All decoders work with all systems under the NMRA standards. you can buy loksounds or TCS and nothing will go wrong. I reccomend Tony's Train Exchange because they sell DCC cheaper than anyone else.

    in general, DCC is easy. just make sure you read all the warnings (you have to read the manuals here to... ) I'm pretty sure that the orange cable on 8 pin DCC sockets matches up with a little arrow on the corner. that way you'll have it plugged in.

    Some locomotives have a 9 pin set up nothing like the 8 pin plug. the 9 pin plug that you find in alot of Athearn RTRs seem to connect straight to the end of a decoder with a matching plug. I'm not sure about cable orientation because i only have the 8 pin plug decoders installed on my trains, and haven't yet upgraded any of my Athearns.
  6. CRed

    CRed Member

    You definantly want some realism to your layout,but you don't have to be a rivet counter either.

    I have a Northern Pacific ES44DC "Classic Concept" engine from Tower55 even though the NP has been defunct now for around 35 years.Why?Because the NP is one of my favorite roads(It's first track was laid just 20 miles from where I live),but I still wanted a modern type engine so I thought it would be fun to have both.

    At the same time I may be selling my Precision Craft Santa Fe F3 A/B set because it's just a tad out of place with what I have decided to do and would look just a bit strange.

    I have also bought several cars the last few days,all different types and roads just because I want some variation and color and am not too worried about my consists being "prototypical".

    Bottom line is,it's your layout do what YOU want and have fun!

  7. Excellent replies so far, thanks guys! I'm well aware of the higher upfront cost of DCC equipment to get started, but thanks for the concern. :thumb: I definitely want to go that way because of the easier and more robust control capabilities offered, not to mention simpler wiring in general. Regarding the roadbed, I've seen the split cork packages they sell with the two halves. Is there a particular reason they come in two halves like that? I would think they would want to manufacture cork pieces that are precut to the sizes of the various standard track pieces, like curves of certain sizes and turnouts especially. Also, with regards to the flex track, is it the same size as regular HO track, and can it be cut to fit smaller segments? How easy is it to cut? Am I correct in assuming they have track connectors used to connect segments of track that are both conductive and insulated? Thanks a ton!
  8. LongIslandTom

    LongIslandTom Member


    - Cork roadbed are sold in halves because they are more flexible (easier to bend to a curvature) that way.

    - Yes, you will need to cut flex-track to get them to fit. Flex-track is very easy to cut-- Just use a pair of Xuron rail nippers. It will give you a flush cut which only requires a little filing to clean up.

    - Yes, rail joiner shoes are available. They got them in both metal (conductive) and plastic (insulated).

    Hope this helps!
  9. doctorwayne

    doctorwayne Active Member

    The cork is slit down the middle on an angle, so when you separate the two halves and butt the perpendicular faces together, the cut faces form the sloped outer edges. Slitting the cork also makes the strips flexible, so they can be bent to follow curves in the track. When you install the track, Atlas track nails work well, and can be pushed into either cork or plywood using pliers. While cork is a sound deadener, by the time the track is ballasted, I can't detect any difference in noise between track laid on cork and track laid directly on plywood.
    Here's a picture of track laid on cork:

    And track laid on plywood:

  10. dsfraser

    dsfraser Member

    You've had good responses so far. And your Mum is right, BTW. Tap into your family knowledge base while you can — build relationships, learn what you can, and create bonds. That's priceless. For everything else there is MasterCard.

    There's not I can add except to reinforce the noise-deadening properties of cork, that it's easy to use, and gives you a good basis for ballasting. You can build the adjoining terrain up to whatever level you want, but the cork helps preserve the grade.

    Regarding locomotives, there are three things you want to examine — detail, running qualities, and DCC compatibility. Atlas locomotives are top-of-the-line. The newer ones have exquisite detail, run very well, and are DCC ready if they are not DCC-equipped. Kato's also run very well, and have terrific detail and are not hard to convert to DCC. Proto2K, Stewart, Intermountain, Athearn Genesis and Bachmann Spectrum come next. The Stewarts have the best drives, the Genesis have the best details, and the others fall in the middle. It becomes a personal choice.

    As for DCC systems, Digitrax basically rules. All the clubs I know of use Digitrax, and the Zephyr is a good, scalable starting point. If you have computer skills you won't have a problem in configuring it. Most modellers thing Hex is something to do with witches, but as a warlock you'll be right at home.

    Hmmm . . . maybe we should start referring to ourselves as warlocks rather than geeks . . . LOL!

    As for the rest of it, you're biggest chalenge will be to define your focus. Which railroad(s), what era, which scale, what locale. HO is nice to work in — lots of models and accessories, but it takes lots of real estate. You'll know you've arrived when a train table is not enough — you need a train room!

    And always remember that it is your hobby. You set the rules, you define the focus, you decide what works and what doesn't. There will always be internet a_holes that try and rain on your parade, so you need to defend your turf, remember that it is your turf, and you are free to ignore them without guilt or second-guessing. It's about having fun, destressing after a day at the sweatshop, and you can't let others get between you and that goal. They're gonna try to, and you have to learn to ignore them.

    And welcome to the forum, welcome to the hobby. It is a hobby of a lifetime — which I've come to realize means it's gonna take me sixty years to get everything done that I want to do.

    Scott Fraser
    Calgary, Alberta
  11. Ralph

    Ralph's for fun!

    Welcome aboard DF. Seems like you're getting a lot of good advice here.
  12. Ha ha, warlocks! That's good, I have to remember that. :D What a ton of good advice here, thanks everybody. I'll need to ask around the DCC forum to answer some particular questions about that, but I think I'm in pretty good shape. I definitely have a focus, though not on any particular era so to speak. My focus has always been the track layout itself and control, hence why DCC is right up my alley. It doesn't really matter to me if I have diesel engines running alongside 1920s steam engines or something. :p I want to get a nice, simple layout (like 1 main loop with a single branch and a couple turnouts) that I can break into multiple blocks and learn to wire and control using DCC and, eventually, some computer automation. That was another reason for going with Digitrax, since they have the network architecture to do this more easily and, even better, they have transponding in their decoders and equipment. If I can do that, then I can expand it to larger, more complex layouts. But these are questions for the DCC forum.

    A couple more questions. Do most of you like to work pretty much solely with flex track, except for things like turnouts and crossovers, or do you mix and match? I'm guessing it works fairly well. Does it hold its shape well? It sounds really nice since you can get very precise curves and you can cut it to exactly the length you need. Also, another one of the things I liked about O scale was those handy track power connectors that simply clip on the bottom of the track and pinch the feeder wires on it, instead of soldering. Is there anything like that for HO track or do you just solder away? Not a big deal, I've done soldering before, but I should look at everything available. And one last question about the track, do you use a particular type of glue to secure the cork to your plywood? Preferably something that is fairly secure, yet allows you to easily remove it if you build a new layout? Thanks for all the great advice everybody!
  13. Play-Doh

    Play-Doh Member

    Mixing and matching is fine as long as it stays within code (im told) but I use all flextrack in my layout. As far as the glue question, I used elmers wood glue to glue down the roadbed and it worked fine. It has a faster drying time than white glue and its stronger. But you can still move it around if needed during the setting. Use either track nails or thumbtacks to hold it in place during the glue drying.

    Welcome to the gauge!
  14. LongIslandTom

    LongIslandTom Member

    Like Play-Doh, I also used various glues to fix roadbed to plywood or foam.. It's a tried-and-true method.

    But lately I have been experimenting with latex caulking after hearing lots of guys having good results with it here on the Gauge.. Last week I picked up a tube of Dap latex caulk, laid a bead down on plywood, and pushed the cork roadbed strip onto it. It sticks pretty well, dried even faster than wood glue, and bonded pretty darn strong whthout leaving a mess. Awesome. It's also easy to pull up the roadbed with a putty knife if you want to change the layout.

    I think I'll use latex caulking from now on. :thumb:
  15. COMBAT

    COMBAT Member

    I am going with there is Visa. :D
  16. Cool, flex track sounds great so far. Does it come in multiple codes? In terms of code 100 and 83 (those are the two main ones, yes?) is there any advantage to using one over the other? As I understand it, code 83 is more realistic in terms of size, but 100 is easier to work with. Is it just the height of the track that's different? I'm a little bit unclear about the codes.
  17. Play-Doh

    Play-Doh Member

    Code refers to the heigh of the rail. Yes, code 83 is more accurate to scale. I would not recommend mixing the two. Im not sure if code 100 is easier to work with, but my experince is that its more readily available...not that 83 is hard to find, that is just my experience. For me, the difference falls into that gray area of "how much do I care" , and I grabbed the code 100 because it was the only thing available. however if I were to do it again I would go code 83...simply because im slowly but surely becoming a rivet counter.
  18. green_elite_cab

    green_elite_cab Keep It Moving!

    Yeah, thats why i suggest trying to make more permanent things realistic. You can go back and detail or buy a better locomotive. if you put down track you don't like, you need to rip up your layout. even though initially you might not care, in the future you might, and it would save you work to do it now. you can get all this stuff off the internet anyway!

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