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Build a quiet and reliable toy train layout

I hear two complaints about Lionel/American Flyer/Marx electric train layouts (besides the common complaints from uptight scale modelers, that is). One is the amount of space they take up, and the other is the noise.

Let’s tackle the noise. While we’re at it, we’ll tackle reliability.

The main reason for the noise is track screwed or nailed directly to a piece of plywood. The plywood acts as an amplifier; the track itself vibrates like a guitar string. Metal screws or nails make matters worse by transmitting the sound deeper into the plywood.


Homasote is sometimes sold as a bulletin board material, but it works extremely well for deadening sound on train layouts

The usual approach to deadening sound is to put down Homasote between the track and the board. Either you put down enough large sheets to cover the whole layout, or you cut out roadbed from the Homasote and lay it under the track. It works well. The biggest problem with Homasote is finding the stuff, as it’s just not available in some parts of the country.

Some people put down cork roadbed in addition to, or instead of, the Homasote. The problem with that is that the cork roadbed just isn’t as effective at sound deadening.

Call me odd, or call me a traditionalist, but I like the look of traditional tinplate track right on the surface of my board. So for people like me who run traditional sectional tubular Standard, O, or S gauge track (not Gargraves or another variety), there’s yet another way:

Foam weatherstripping and zip ties.

It’s effective and cheap, just how I like my projects.

Simply cut a piece of foam weatherstripping to fit underneath each tie, then stick it under the tie and place the track section. To secure the track, drill a hole through the existing hole in the tie, through the weatherstripping and all the way through the plywood. Now run a nylon zip tie through the track and through the table. On the underside of the table, secure the end with a second tie. You want it to be tight enough to hold the track in place securely, but loose enough to leave just a little bit of “float” between the plywood and the track due to the thickness of the weatherstripping.

Try the weatherstripping on half an oval of track, leaving the other half right on the board, and you’ll be able to hear the difference. Wheel noise is almost eliminated, leaving only the motor noise. Depending on the make and vintage of your train that can still be significant, but the decrease in volume will be noticeable. You can reduce the noise a bit more by adding more ties to the track, reducing vibration a bit further. Some people cut extra ties from wood; since I have lots of rusty track laying around, I just pry ties off otherwise unusable track, put a piece of electrical tape on the fiber insulator, and crimp the salvaged tie onto the track.

While you’re ripping up track to put in ties is a good time to increase the reliability of the layout. A lot of people use the traditional track lockons to run wires from the transformer to the track. They work reasonably enough, when they’re clean, but attaching wires directly to the track gives a better electrical path. And the rule to avoid voltage drop is to run a pair of wires every three track joints, starting over every time you encounter a switch. (I cheat and start wiring on either side of one switch, then count three track sections from there to try to minimize connections.)

One way to attach the wires is to just solder them right to the track. Clean the spot you’re going to solder to with an abrasive scouring pad, then use rosin core solder and a little bit of flux to make it go easy. Some people use big 200-watt Weller guns; with some patience I’ve done it with as little as a 15-watt pencil. The tin plating on track takes solder well; older track that’s lost most of its plating is more likely to require a big gun.

If you don’t like soldering, use solderless quick disconnect terminals. They crimp right onto the wire with a pair of locking pliers. As long as the lug is a good match for the gauge of wire you’re using (18 gauge is about the safest minimum and 14-16 gauge is much better), the connection will be reasonably secure. Spread the opening in the bottom of the rail slightly with a slotted screwdriver, then push the lug in. Secure it with some pressure around the rail from a pair of needlenose pliers if necessary.

Even if I solder my connections, I usually put ring terminals on the ends of the wires that go to the transformer. It makes attaching the wires to the leads on postwar-era transformers much easier. Modern transformers such as a Lionel CW-80 don’t need lugs; the wires just push into terminals on the unit.

I like to set up the track, mark good locations for each pair of wires, move the track, drill the holes, and then attach my lugs or solder the wire to the track.

After running a few wires, you’ll be amazed at how much more consistently your trains run.

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