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Track troubleshooting tips and tricks, Part 1: How to check track gauge and rail alignment

How to solve common track problems, with photos and diagrams

Track troubleshooting Boston Maine

Along with gauges and other tools, a reliable test train, such as the one led by Boston & Maine No. 1561, is necessary for an effective layout tune-up. Paul Dolkos uses this and four following article shorts to correct common track and turnout problems.

Paul J. Dolkos
Track troubleshooting gauge close up
Paul J. Dolkos

So long as your rails are clean and your rolling stock is fine-tuned, it's time to inspect your right-of-way for problems. This is the first of five quick articles on how to check for and fix common mechanical and electrical track problems with model railroad track.

First, you’ll need to run a test train over each track section and turnout route to pinpoint locations where locomotive headlights flicker or rolling stock derails.

Your test train should consist of reliable rolling stock of varying lengths. The locomotive should be smooth running with all-wheel power pickup. The cars should have correctly gauged wheels and couplers mounted at the correct height with their trip pins (“air hoses”) properly adjusted. Once you’ve run the test train around your layout and located the problem areas, you can tackle them one by one. 

A layout tune-up involves three basic steps: cleaning track and rolling stock wheels, adjusting wheelsets and couplers to National Model Railroad Association standards, and then checking and correcting all the layout’s track and turnouts. Follow this systematic approach and you’ll have a consistently smooth-running layout.

Checking track gauge and rail alignment

Out-of-gauge rails and poor rail alignment between track sections are the most likely causes of derailments on straight or curved track.

The easiest way to check for proper rail spacing is to use an NMRA multi-purpose gauge, as shown in the photo. Even new track can be out of gauge. If a section has severely out-of-gauge or kinked rails, it should be replaced.

For out-of-gauge flextrack, I chisel off the cleats holding the rails to the plastic ties in the problem location. Then I push the rails in gauge and spike them in place. You can spike a rail by holding a track spike in a pair of needle nose pliers, then pushing it about halfway into the roadbed. Then use the closed tip of the pliers to push the spike all the way down so that the head of the spike holds the bottom edge of the rail.

Another common cause of derailments is poor alignment between two pieces of track. Rail ends and tops should be perfectly aligned, forming a smooth path through the joint. For out-of-alignment track sections, I carefully bend or file the rail as needed. Then I spike the rails in position.

Rail joiners can also act as shims between the rails and the ties, forming a bump at the joint. To fix this, I trim a notch in the ties or use ties made of thinner material underneath the joiners.
When initially laying your track, you can minimize alignment problems through curves by joining together two pieces of flextrack and soldering the joiners in place.

You’ll need to remove a few ties on each side of the joint, but you can replace them after laying the track. You can then bend this extra-long piece of flextrack to form a smooth-flowing curve.

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