Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Simple street track inserts for a simple track plan

Geoff was asking me if I could talk a little about the track inserts I've used to simulate the paving around the streetcar track on the Ocean Park Loop. That's fairly straightforward, but it opens up a few deeper questions into streetcar layout planning. I'll start with the how-to, and then discuss a bit why I chose the method I did.

Making track inserts

That's an untrimmed track insert over on the right. It's just a few glued up pieces of styrene.

The bottom piece is 0.010" styrene cut to a width of approximately 13 mm. It'll sit on top of the track's moulded on spike heads (I've used standard Atlas code 100 HO scale track).

The apron that's glued on top is 0.030" styrene. I've scored lines across its width to mimic the joints on the TTC streetcar apron you'll see in some parts of the city. 

Two additional parts that're missing in this view are pieces of 0.030" x 0.020" styrene stock that are glued to the sides of the apron to simulate the other side of the girder rail. They're painted a weathered steel colour along with the exposed portion of the 0.010" base.

Now, one thing about the insert's dimensions: the groove in the 'girder rail' for the streetcar's wheel is way too large and isn't prototypical. In fact the groove is close to the width of an automobile tire, so any motorist driving along the road would get quite a shock if they strayed over the rail :-) This was done deliberately so old, not so refined streetcar models could run on the track as well as finer scale modern pieces. 

Once the glue and paint are dry, the piece is inserted between the track rails and glued in place. 

Be sparing with the glue because too much will deform the 0.010" base - I learned this the hard way, and had to do some judicious painting to try to hid the deformations resulting from too much glue. You can see the pockmarks in the base from the spike heads on this section of track. 

For the apron sections external to the rails I simply pushed pieces of styrene up against the rail's outer edge. Be careful to make sure the top of the styrene is below the rail head or streetcars will ride off the rail and stop dead. You see all that nasty white coloured strip in the above photo? That's where I came back in with my Dremel to grind down some uncooperative styrene until the streetcars ran smoothly. The piece needs to be smoothed, painted, and weathered. 

Curved pieces are trickier. A lot of measuring is required to get things to fit properly.

And what about switches? There aren't any. This is just one big loop.

I'm not doing myself any favours by showing all this raw, unfinished work, but I thought it might be interesting to see a mid-project view before every little piece is sanitized. And there's a lot of sanitization, cleanup, and painting refinement to be done as I continue to work things out. The goal is to make the track more or less disappear into the road, and make the buildings and scenes the focus of interest. The digital camera exerts a stern, uncompromising inspection of elements that are going to be forced into the background.

One last thing, on the old Lost Ocean Line I used Walthers street track inserts. They were ok, and don't require the work the of the above inserts. For me though, they looked a little too railroady for streetcar operations. For street-running locos, they're probably fine. I don't know if these are made any more. That box is a partial set of leftovers and pieces salvaged from the old layout.

Thoughts on streetcar layouts

Why I chose this approach is driven by decisions made while thinking about what I want the Ocean Park Loop to be. A few of the points I touch on here I wrote about late last year in What's the Intent, but here I elaborate on a few regarding streetcar layouts.

Also, I'm going to make some sweeping statements here, some substantiated, others wild - apparently the internet is optimized for the wild ones, so I'm finally on trend about something :-) Look, these are raw thoughts, so dismiss as necessary.

Back in the '40s, '50s, and '60s, people like Bill Schopp, Paul Mallery, and many others were building far more sophisticated HO scale street car track work than I'm doing. If high fidelity, realistic track work is what you're after, I recommend reading the classic material in the old hobby magazines. Also, the Electric Avenue street track produced by proto87 looks like great stuff, and may revolutionize streetcar layout construction.

Over the decades the magazines seem to have had a common theme for why a model railroader might want to dabble a bit with streetcars, trams, or trolleys: the vehicles run in tight spaces, often on small radius track, and are electrically powered. These too are features of a typical model railroad, so it seems that model conditions match the prototype, meaning truly representative engineering systems can be built in miniature. So, projects in street track building, overhead wire installation, and trolley building are opened up and can be quite realistic. This is interesting, and although it sounds logical, I'm not inspired by it. 

For me, none of the usual is of much interest - but, don't get me wrong, I respect the craftsmanship that goes into that work, and the models are often stunning in their sophistication. But, each individual has to find what interests them, and not rely on suggestions about what should interest them. What holds my interest has to do with the places I've travelled to on the streetcar, the ride experience, and a little speculation into what could be. Places and ride are the main things. The intricacies of track, overhead, and operations aren't. For me, a long, snaking loop of track is just fine for watching streetcars roll through interesting places. And that's what the track on the OPL is, just a big loop because my interests are elsewhere.

I'm not into operating, and any 'layouts' I've made are more-or-less just big dioramas with trains and streetcars that move through scenes. To me, I use the layout / diorama as a setting for my buildings, and for staging scenes to photograph. Trains and streetcars usually are only run on special occasions, like Christmas when we have people over. I've found that with a streetcar layout, even people who are normally bored by trains and related things seem to perk up when they see buildings, cars, places and other miniatures of things they're familiar with. Me too.


  1. Looks great James, I think your solution for creating inlaid track looks simple but very effective. For your apron on top, do you just use an un patterned styrene or do you try and mimic cobblestone or brick work?

    1. I used unpatterned styrene that I scored with expansion joints. Styrene with a brick or cobblestone pattern could work, but I was after a little more modern setup.