O Gauge Model Railroad Track Styles
What makes O gauge model railroad track different?
So, you want to add track to the oval that came with your O gauge train set. You visit a local hobby store to buy more, and you see a dizzying array of track that looks vastly different, all of it labeled O gauge. What’s up with that?
There are a number of manufacturers of O gauge model railroad track, and some manufacture more than one style of track. All O gauge track features the same width between rails (the “gauge” in “O gauge” refers to the width between the outer rails) so your O gauge trains will run on any manufacturer’s track, but not all manufacturers’ track will work together well. Each manufacturer has a method of joining track pieces together, so to use track from different manufacturers often requires a special adapter piece.
The easiest thing to do is just buy the same brand and type of track as your train set. Modern O gauge train sets come with easy to use “all-in-one” track (a definition of that below in “styles of track”) that is great for beginners that don’t have a table on which to run their trains. It locks together positively, and can be used on carpeted floors.
However, if you are just getting started, and you only have enough track to make a simple loop, it’s a lot easier to switch track brands now, rather than later, after you have bought hundreds of dollars worth of additional track (see what expanding your layout can cost on our Comparing Prices of O Gauge Track Page). Ask you local hobby shop about their opinions of the various track brands and styles available. They all have pros and cons, so this is a good time to study them and see if you want to change.
“Wait, the guy at the hobby shop said something about ‘O-27 gauge track.’ What’s the difference between O gauge and O-27 gauge?”
As my friends from New York City would say, “Fughetaboutit.” Really. Don’t worry about it unless you are buying “old-school” tubular track (see more about tubular track below).
But, if you can’t let it go, we’ve devoted an entire page to this question. Go to our O Gauge vs. O-27 Gauge page, and when you’re done, there’s a link right back to this page. We’ll see you back here in a couple minutes.
You’re back? O.K., lets dive into what makes O gauge track different.
Styles of Track
There are two basic styles of O gauge model railroad track:
All-in-one O Gauge Track
The newest style can be termed “all-in-one” track. This track has an integrated plastic base that is designed to look like a ballasted railroad roadbed. Lionel FastTrack and MTH RealTrax are examples of this style of track. The table at the bottom of the page compares the variety of sizes of curved, straight and switch tracks offered by Lionel FastTrack and MTH RealTrax, as well as non-integrated track brands.
Non-integrated O Gauge Track
All other track, no matter what other differences it may have, do not have an integrated roadbed. These tracks range from old-school tin-plated tubular track offered by Lionel to more realistic looking tubular track that has realistic ties and black center rails such as Gargraves “Phantom Line,” to very realistic solid rail track, such at Atlas’ 21st Century Track.These non-integrated track brands have differences in what straight, curved, and switch tracks are offered. Compare them in the table at the bottom of the page.
Differences Between All-in-One and Non-integrated Track
- All-in-one track tends to be more expensive than non-integrated track, although at the high end, Atlas track is comparable in price to all-in-one track (see our Track Price Comparison page).
- All-in-one track is (somewhat) more realistic looking out of the box. However, Gargraves and Atlas track look more realistic when laid on a cork roadbed and ballasted, but that’s also a lot more laborious than just clicking Lionel FastTrack or MTH RealTrax together.
- All-in-one track tends to lock together better than non-integrated track, and the integrated plastic roadbed makes it a better choice for a floor railroad, especially one on a carpeted right-of-way.
- Non-integrated track is usually less expensive, although Lionel “standard” O gauge tubular track switches* can be pricier than either than all-in-one, or other non-integrated track switches by Gargraves or Atlas (see our Track Price Comparison page).
- All-in-one track can be noisy due to the hollow plastic roadbed, although non-integrated track can be noisy as well, if not mounted on a sound-deadening roadbed. A lack of a sound-deadening material between either style of track and the plywood surface of the train table results in the amplification of the rumble of all those metal wheels on metal rails into a deafening roar.
*Because there are few good reasons for a newcomer to choose Lionel “standard” O gauge tubular track over O-27 tubular track, we didn’t even include it in the table below. It’s only real advantage is 72″ curves and 72″ switches, both of which can be easily replaced with components compatible with O-27 tubular track.
Differences in non-integrated O gauge track
At the lower end of the range of non-integrated O gauge track, little has changed in the century it has been available. Lionel’s O gauge and O-27 gauge tubular track is made from tin-plated steel that is subject to rust if exposed to moisture.
Gargraves and Ross tubular track offer a step up in realism from Lionel tubular track. They both feature protoypical size closely-spaced wood or plastic ties that look much more realistic than the metal ties on Lionel tubular track. Also, the center rail on Gargraves’ “Phantom Line” and Ross track has been chemically blackened to make it more inconspicuous. Gargraves also offers track made from stainless steel that is not subject to rust if used outdoors.
The plastic or wood ties of Gargraves and Ross track offer an advantage in that the two outside rails are insulated from each other, where the metal ties of Lionel track provide an electrical connection between the outer rails. If you need to insulate an outer rail with Lionel tubular track (there are some reasons you might want to do so – we’ll talk about these later), you have to buy and insulated track section, or perform a little track surgery to alter a regular piece of track.
The high-end of non-integrated track would have to be Atlas 21st Century Track. It has very realistic ties, and features a solid nickel-silver rail with a very realistic-looking cross section. It also has a blackened center rail.
The joining system of Atlas track makes it more difficult to simply cut pieces to fit as you can with Lionel, Gargraves, or Ross non-integrated track, but to make up for that, they offer a wide array of short straight and curved pieces.
Ross and Gargraves tubular tracks connect to each other easily, and adapter pins make it easy to connect them to Lionel tubular track, so if you have a pile of tubular track, you can expand with Gargraves or Ross without having to junk your Lionel tubular track. You can also mate these tubular tracks to Atlas or the all-in-one style track with an adapter track.
When you look at the table at the bottom of the page, you can see that Ross has the greatest selection of switches and crossover tracks of any brand, whether tubular or all-in-one. Ross has a great reputation for quality, but that quality also comes with a price. Check our our Track Price Comparison page to look at all the brands side-to-side.
Gargraves and Atlas both offer a wide selection of switches, as do the all-in-one brands Lionel Fastrack and MTH RealTrax.
Gargraves beats out everybody for the variety of curves, just as Ross does with switches.
The two all-in-one brands are fairly equal, although Lionel Fastrack offers a wider variety of short pieces. MTH RealTrax, however, offers exotic curved switches that can save a lot of space.
It all boils down to personal choice. There is no single winner among the track types, however, as I said, for beginners, the all-in-one style tracks probably have more pros than cons.
Below is a table of the main brands of O gauge track available, and what pieces of track each manufacturer offers:
|Brand:||O-27 Gauge||Fastrack||RealTrax||21st Century||Phantom Line||Super Line|
|Track Type:||Tubular||All-in-One||All-in-One||Solid Rail||Tubular||Tubular|
|Minimum||27” (1)||36” (2)||31” (1)||27” (1)||32”||31”|
|42”||Yes||—||Yes (1)||45” (3)||Yes||Yes|
|54”||Yes||—||Yes (1)||Yes (1)||Yes||Yes|
|72”||Yes (4)||Yes (1)||Yes (1)||Yes (1)||Yes||Yes|
|1 3/8” Straight||—||Yes||—||—||—||—|
|1 3/4” Straight||—||Yes||—||Yes||—||—|
|4 1/2”||4 3/8”||Yes||4 1/4”||Yes||—||—|
|Extra-Long||35”||30”||30”||40”||24.8”, 37”||14.5”, 29”|
|Other||42”/31” Curve||100”||80”, 96”|
(1) ½ curve track available
(2) ½ and ¼ curve track available
(3) ¼ curve track available
(4) O-27 72” curves discontinued, may still be available
(5) 1/3 curve track available
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