A Lionel Fastrack review

How Lionel Fastrack compares to traditional tubular track and competing O gauge track is a common question. I own both, so I can probably make a comparison.

For the most part, it’s not bad. But it’s not perfect. For some people, the drawbacks are easy enough to overlook. For others, they could be showstoppers. You’ll have to decide for yourself.

What’s Good

The track goes together easily and stays together. You can literally put a loop of it together and hang it on a nail in the wall for months and it will stay together just fine. The roadbed makes it great for setting it up and running trains on the floor. The carpet fibers won’t find their way into the train, and dirt and oil from the train won’t get on the floor.

The electrical continuity isn’t perfect–we’re talking steel track after all, and there’s only so much you can do with that–but it’s good. I had one piece that had a loose pin, and that resulted in some poor conductivity, but it’s easy to fix using a screwdriver and a bit of aluminum foil. I don’t have firsthand experience with MTH’s competing Realtrax, but I see questions in the magazines and on forums questions about troubleshooting conductivity issues with Realtrax. Similar questions about Fastrack are comparatively very rare.

What’s not so good

There’s no getting around this. It’s loud track. Some people have succeeded at quieting it by putting carpet pad under the hollow roadbed. But the noise is the most frequent complaint with Fastrack.

Repeated disassembly can cause the tabs and mating connectors on the underside of the track to wear out. I’ve been using a loop of Fastrack around my Christmas tree for the last 6 years or so, and I can see where some of the connectors have fatigued and split. So far, it doesn’t seem to be causing me any problems, but there isn’t going to be a super quick and easy fix once both of the connectors break on a section of track. I’m sure I’ve assembled and disassembled my track a few dozen times before seeing the problem. But if you’re thinking about giving kids a Lionel starter set that includes Fastrack, the track will last a lot longer if they stash the loop of track intact under a bed or in the corner of a closet than it will if they disassemble it completely every time they put it away. If there isn’t enough room for the whole loop, split it in half, and try not to always split it at the same place, to even out the stress a bit.

Some people are put off by the roadbed. It looks more realistic than old tubular track did, but the roadbed still looks like molded plastic. On a permanent layout, you can apply a wash of India Ink and rubbing alcohol to the roadbed to make it look a little bit dirtier and bring out some depth. You can also add some ballast to the edges to eliminate the perfect edge. Real railroad ballast is a little ragged around the edge.

It’s supposedly possible to cut custom lengths of Fastrack, but very few people do it. It’s much more difficult to do with roadbed track than with traditional forms of track, which require nothing more than a hacksaw and a little patience.

The final problem with Fastrack is that it’s not exactly cheap. Yes, when you factor in the cost of additional ties and roadbed, other forms of track fall more in line with Fastrack’s price, but in the case of the other types of track, those are options. It’s also possible to buy used tubular track and save some money. I’ve paid as little as 25 cents per section for clean, used tubular track. There’s a lot less used Fastrack out there to buy. Special track pieces like crossings and switches are very expensive compared to most other track types.

So what does Dave use?

I use Fastrack around my Christmas tree, and in that application, there’s nothing better. On my layout, I use tubular O27 track. It was what I grew up with, and I have some old Marx trains that don’t run well on anything but old O27 Marx switches. Fastrack isn’t an option with those trains. And I don’t like the look of plastic roadbed with the pre-WWII trains, made mostly of tin, that I usually run. Something about that combination just doesn’t look quite right to me, though there are other people who do it all the time.

It’s a good product. Some years Lionel has trouble keeping up with demand for it, and that should tell you something. Depending on what you want to do with it, it might be the only track you ever need. But for some people, the caveats above could be a problem.

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