Lionel tubular track vs Fastrack

Lionel Fastrack is certainly popular, but tubular track retains a cult following even as others love to hate it. Let’s take a look at Lionel tubular track vs Fastrack.

Lionel tubular track was the standard on Lionel layouts for nearly a century until Lionel introduced Fastrack, a track system with integrated plastic roadbed and a wider radius. Both track systems have their uses, though Fastrack has proven immensely popular.

Tradition

Lionel Fastrack vs tubular track
Lionel Fastrack goes together easily and holds together fine on its own on carpet. This gives Fastrack a big advantage over tubular track on temporary or seasonal layouts. Plus, the integrated roadbed with ties give a much more finished look over traditional tubular.  Image credit: Roy Luck/Flickr

Tubular track certainly has tradition on its side. Lionel tubular track is iconic. It’s not realistic, but it’s instantly recognizable.

Even still, numerous hobbyists use Fastrack with vintage trains as well. Lionel even licensed Fastrack to MTH so it could make a Standard Gauge version. I don’t think Fastrack looks out of place with postwar trains. After all, they’re made of plastic too, and my dad’s generation built plastic villages for their trains to run around and through. And Lionel’s competitors had plastic or rubber roadbed track in the postwar era.

I’m not a big fan of Fastrack with tinplate trains though. Those trains predated plastic, so to me, they go together with plastic roadbed like Frank Sinatra and a disco ball.

Ease of use

Fastrack certainly beats tubular track when it comes to ease of use. Fastrack snaps together without much difficulty, and it generally stays together. A decade of repeated assembly and disassembly can make tabs snap on the underside, but that’s not a problem on a permanent layout.

Tubular track typically doesn’t go together as easily. The fit tends to be overly tight at first, so it can take some force to put it together the first time. It’s not insurmountable of course. We dealt with it for about a century. But Fastrack definitely makes things easier.

Here are some tips for fastening either type of track to a table.

Use on seasonal layouts

For seasonal or temporary layouts, Fastrack is hard to beat. The integrated roadbed keeps carpet fibers out of your trains and train grime out of your carpet. You can mount it on a board if you want, but you don’t have to. With tubular track, you have little choice but to mount it on a board to get the same benefit.

Cost

Fastrack is definitely more expensive. Now, if you add ties and ballast your tubular track to make it look less unrealistic, the cost of the ties and ballast cuts into that savings. But tubular track is cheaper, especially if you buy used track. Used tubular track is extremely inexpensive, partly from people dumping theirs to buy more modern track systems.

Availability

Lionel discontinued tubular track in 2015, though plenty of it remains in sales channels, both new and used.  The regional home improvement chain Menard’s produces and sells tubular track that looks and acts much like Lionel O31-profile track. The quality control isn’t perfect, but it’s much cheaper than Lionel had been charging.

Fastrack, of course, is available anywhere Lionel trains are sold. It’s a higher-priced, higher-margin item so of course Lionel prefers it. But if the supply of tubular track ever dwindles and Lionel sees a demand, nothing stops them from putting tubular track back into production. In theory, Fastrack is easier to find today. But depending on where you live, especially if you live in the midwest where Menard’s has a presence, you can buy either pretty easily, at least during the holidays.

Operation

Lionel trains run better on wider track, and Fastrack comes in a greater variety of wider diameters, and the default size is wider than tubular.

The disadvantage is this width makes it take more space. A loop of O27 track is less than two and a half feet across. In a small space, tubular track lets you do more with less.

Flexibility

One place where tubular track has a big advantage is in flexibility. The pin connections give you a lot more wiggle room when the pieces don’t fit quite right. But not only that, cutting custom sections is dead simple with tubular track. Just cut it with a hacksaw, or your favorite powered saw with a metal cutting blade, and you’re done.

Cutting custom Fastrack lengths is possible, but usually more trouble than it’s worth. You have to take the rails off the track, cut a section out of the center, then cut the rails individually, ensuring that enough of the tabs line up afterward to hold the track together when you put the rails back on the roadbed. It can be done, but requires a lot of planning. What most people do is just buy a mix of odd-length Fastrack sections and keep them on hand to make up whatever length they need, because it’s much easier. Of course it’s expensive too, since the odd lengths tend to be priced the same, or above, that of the more common 10-inch straights.

Realism

Fastrack’s plastic molded roadbed definitely looks more realistic than bare tubular track. It still looks like plastic, but it provides a bit more suspension of disbelief when you look at it. Applying a wash of black or dark gray acrylic paint thinned with water helps to bring out the texture and tone down the fake plastic shine. Some hobbyists apply extra ballast around it, to make it look a little less uniform. The rails are still the wrong shape, but squared off is closer than tubes to the real thing. They may also weather the sides of the rails to tone down the shine.

The integrated roadbed is a liability on elevated sections and bridges, because real trains don’t use ballast in those places. But you can mix a different type of track in for those sections, whether tubular or another type.

Tubular track looks surprisingly good with extra ties and ballast, but it’s not going to win any realism contests.

Lionel Fastrack vs tubular track: In conclusion

If you’re a purist for tradition or period correctness, or have limited space or budget, tubular track wins.

For everyone else, Fastrack’s advantages are difficult to overcome. It’s much more convenient in pretty much every way. But Lionel trains are largely about tradition, so that’s one reason why the old-fashioned track holds out.

And if for some reason you need both, such as having a bridge or other accessory with one type of track integrated, or you need to use a particular type of switch, you can mix the two under some circumstances. So it doesn’t necessarily have to be a case of either/or.

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