Track is something that can make or break a model railroad. The traditional code 80 track products that have been available for many years have ruined, for me at least, many a photograph. It was for this reason that I have been striving to have good looking, or at least inoffensive, track on my current and future layout projects.

For that reason, I have been using Atlas’s code 55 track products. These are great, providing not only an inoffensive (even if not prototypically 100% accurate) rail size along with good molded on details and decent ease of use. It has not been the most simple track available, that crown belonging to Kato’s Unitrack, however for what I was looking to do with it (provide a good running railroad along with a good photographing railroad), Unitrack would not do it. It’s simply too much work to make it look acceptable, and even then it still will not surpass the Atlas product.

This is a bit more run-down than I plan the track for the NCR, but about right for a lightly used branch line.
This is a bit more run-down than I plan the track for the NCR, but about right for a lightly used branch line.

For my current layout, I wanted the track to resemble some of the track I had seen on various secondary lines like the Delaware Valley Railroad and what’s left of the Northern Central. This track wasn’t build on high piled ballast, but Conrail had fairly high standards for it’s right of way, so I didn’t want it to be too dilapidated either.

My first step in working on track after getting it laid and tested is painting it. I have custom mixed a paint color that I have creatively labeled as “track”. I have experimented with a number of different colors for track, and I’ve found that above all else, there is a variety in prototype track coloration, from reddish brown rusty colors to light gray shades created by brake dust, sand and ballast dust.

This is Atlas's code 55 flex track painted with my "track" color.
This is Atlas’s code 55 flex track painted with my “track” color.

The color that I have selected for my current layout is a dark gray color with a hint of brown in it. It’s very similar to the Polly Scale “Grimy Black” color, however mine was mixed from cheap craft paints available at the local craft store. These bottles of paint average $1 a bottle as opposed to three times that for model paints. These paints also come in plastic squeeze bottles, making it easy to squirt onto the track and then spread with a 1/2″ stencil brush (although any brush will do). The trick with this is to get it evenly coated on the track, without any spot being too thick. This is tricky however, since the paint will not always want to stick to the sides of the rail, so it is important to check and make sure that you’ve got coverage. Any spot that has been missed will stick out like a sore thumb when you’re finished, and is very difficult to touch up after you’ve ballasted.

It is very helpful to clean the track immediately after painting it. I use a piece of foamcore to do the first cleaning and follow that up with a brightboy track cleaning pad. This keeps your brightboy relatively clean, while giving you clean railheads when you’re done.

I have always had trouble ballasting my track. I was good at getting a good profile, but then when it came time to glue I would make a real mess, I’d get little revines, spots where the glue had not soaked in and all kinds of other headaches. I have come up with a way around this after realizing that one of the biggest problems was that the ballast had nothing to “cling” to when first being glued.

I combat this by building my ballast up in layers.

This is the track in the midst of ballasting. It has received it's first layer of stone and has been glued.
This is the track in the midst of ballasting. It has received it’s first layer of stone and has been glued.

For this layout, I have opted to use a natural sand that I picked up in a Florida parking lot instead of a commercial product. I liked the color, have a decent supply, and am very happy with the texture. I’ve had less than satisfactory results in the past with both Woodland Scenics “fine” ballast (which is actually dyed and ground walnut shells) and Highball Ballast’s real rock products (which just looked TOO fine and too translucent). This sand is perfect. While I can’t offer any, I can tell you that I got it in a parking lot at the Econo Lodge in Cocoa Florida.

I start out by laying down a light coat of ballast along the center of the tracks. I come back and spread this out so that there’s no ballast left on the ties, but not enough to come up to the top of the ties. It’s important here not to get a finished profile, but really just to lay down a “base” to which a second and possibly third layer can adhere to. This base layer keeps the above layers from shifting while being glued.

Once you’ve got the first layer down, mist it down with a mixture of “wet” water made of water with a few drops of alcohol and or dish detergent (I use both) in it to cut down on its surface tension. Spray this ABOVE the tracks and let it gently rain down on the ballast. This keeps it from blowing the ballast around with the force of the spray. Get the ballast good and wet, then come back in and soak it with a mix of white glue and water, diluted to about the consistency of milk. Get the ballast good and wet with this too, as this is what will hold your ballast fast.

This is an extreme closeup of the painted and ballasted track.
This is an extreme closeup of the painted and ballasted track.
Let this dry overnight. The next day you are able to come back and apply another layer of ballast to build up the proper contour. You may or may not be able to get a finished profile with this layer, but don’t be in a hurry. There are a few spots where I probably should have gone a little thinner with this coat, and applied another. Take your time, be patient, and be rewarded in the end. Once you’ve got this layer down and sculpted to the proper profile, apply the wet water and then white glue again as above and let dry for another night or two.

Once you’ve gotten the track ballasted, the last step is to clean the railheads yet again to get the glue residue off. You’ll notice that the once-shiny railheads will probably have become dull, but a few strong passes with the brightboy will return them to their original shine.

On my current layout, I ballasted the section I have sceniced first, before applying any other ground cover. Since I begin the rest of my process with a layer of real dirt (sourced from the area being modeled), I had no problem blending the ballasting into the surrounding areas. In fact, I intentionally extended the ballast further than I wanted it to end up in the finished state and covered it with some of the dirt as I built up the following layers of ground cover.

This allowed the track to even better blend into its landscape instead of looking like it was resting on top of it, allowing a more realistic scene, the ultimate goal of the work so far.
The track was ballasted first so that it blends in nicely with the rest of the scene.
The track was ballasted first so that it blends in nicely with the rest of the scene.