Z SCALE TRACK

LESS ROCK AND SMOOTHER ROLL

USING ROKUHAN TRACK FOR THE BLACK DIAMOND MODULES

 
 
The two rails of steel attached to ties (or sleepers in UK terminology) have not only given the transportation system its name and made it known as railway or railroad, they also serve as its functional basis by providing a dependable surface for the wheels of locomotives and wagons to roll on and thus move trains.

Well laid and securely fixed track is a prerequisite for smooth and reliable running, both for real and model railroads, and this is especially true for Z Scale.

 
Z Scale offers the same basic types of track other modelling scales do: sectional track versus flex track, and standard track versus track with an integrated roadbed imitating ballast.

Compatibility between different brands and types of ready-to-run Z Scale track is, however, limited due to (slightly or pronouncedly) different rail profiles.

 
 
The different brands and types of track available also differ in terms of what they replicate. Leaving aside Märklin and Peco (which both date from the 1970s and are based on European track yet have an odd narrow gauge feel to their looks), Rokuhan track is modelled on Japanese permanent way.
 


Bluefield WV (left) Bern Switzerland (right)


Micro-Track (left) and Rokuhan (right)

  This is fairly close to the European average of 2,640 ties per mile of track, as compared to 3,000 ties on North American track which Micro-Track and Atlas seek to replicate.

In 1:220 scale this means 7 ties per inch on Rokuhan track and 10 on Micro-Track, and the difference is readily visible as US ties are also slimmer.

Atlas or Micro-Track therefore seem like the logical choice for a North American layout, and the latter does provide a convincingly authentic look once weathered and ballasted (as in this scene from a diorama module I previously built) - however, there are a few caveats.

In more established modelling scales, sectional track suffers from a widespread reputation of generally being associated with train sets and the modelling efforts of beginners and newcomers. This is mainly due to the fact that sectional track in HO and N is often "coarse" (e.g. using a sturdy rather than a finescale rail profile). This is not the case in Z Scale, and opting for Atlas flextrack (introduced in 2017/18) thus comes at the price of having only one pair of turnouts available along with the need to cut track to the required lengths.

 
Along with sectional track, many “serious modellers” also seem to scorn track with integrated roadbed as toy-like, probably assuming it will be used out of the box "as is". Quite obviously, no track in any scale will look very realistic if used that way, and considering its smallness, sectional track with molded-on ballast roadbed provides a very convenient solution for Z Scale.

Chosing a specific brand of Z Scale track will ultimately be a decision based on a specific layout’s requirements. Given the inspiration drawn from the N Scale T-TRAK modular system,a sectional track system with molded-on ballast roadbed was an obvious option, given its similarity to Kato's N Scale Unitrack.

 
Positive previous experience can be another deciding factor, and whilst I would not be needing Rokuhan's extensive track geometry options (standard track pieces even come with either wooden or concrete sleepers), having a maximum radius track curvature of 270mm was definitely a bonus in comparison to Micro-Tracks' very limited selection of track pieces.

Ultimately, it was a case of function over appearance in order to get the best operational results and the most planning flexibility possible for my US prototype modular layout without too much compromise on visual aspects - careful ballasting and weathering of Rokuhan track goes a long way in disguising the "wrong" tie size and spacing.

 
 
 

  On the real railroads, track gangs used to lay down track and then fasten it down to the ties - a back-breaking job which is mostly carried out today by specialised machinery (Norfolk Southern has a great short documentary on trackwork then and now).

No such machinery is available for model track, and even sectional track pieces need to be fixed in place by hand. Special attention is required when using Rokuhan track, as the individual track pieces are rather lightweight and therefore "springy".

This leads to a pronounced tendency for the trackbase to be lifted upwards at the edges - especially noticeable on curved track, as this has the inside track base lean upwards. The result, quite obviously, is rather the opposite of what you want for reliable running and good visual appearance.

One way of fixing track permanently is to glue it down, but Rokuhan provides a "hidden alternative".

 
All but the shortest track pieces come with pre-moulded guiding holes hidden in the ballast base, but unlike other track brands such as Märklin or Micro-Track, they are invisible until they are drilled out from below.

This actually is an easy job using a Dremel or similar tool with an ultra fine drill and a very low rpm setting.

 
 

  The resulting hole is very small and neat and just right to take Märklin's Z Scale tracknails (article no 08999).

Although many modellers view pinning down track this way as crude and obsolete, Märklin's nails are in fact so minute that they really only become visually detracting when seen in blown up pictures.

But more to the point, they provide a reliable and strong connection between the baseboard and the track - even though they can simply be pushed home with a set of pliers (using a reasonable amount of pressure) and therefore don't even require a hammer (which in fact should not be used at all in order to avoid potential damage to the track).

 
The result is even track fixed solidly to the baseboard - and if all you want is trouble-free running, you're ready to go. However, that clean appearance of model track doesn't really resemble what the real railroads run on at all.
 

  Rails on the prototype always display a variation of rust, dirt, grime and other residue from trains; colours depend on the location, season and weather conditions. In a larger modelling scale, time and effort spent in adding different shades and hues of colours pays off, but in Z Scale even just a basic coat of rust or dark colour (actually easier applied before the track is put in place and fixed permanently) makes for an incredible change in appearance.

The weathered rails shown here have all been brush-painted using Revell Aqua Color #83, which is aptly labelled "rust", although under certain light conditions it can appear to take on a slightly redish hue. Rails on the prototype actually come in a huge variety of colours, so if you're modelling a specific prototype it is always worth checking either on location if possible or by looking up pictures on the web or in relevant books. Then again, you can simply go for the colour effect you like best.

 
Another matter of taste is the method of how the paint is applied to the rails. Using an airbrush is less of an option in Z Scale unless a complete re-ballasting is planned (as masking the roadbed would seem an arduous task), but using a very fine paintbrush gives excellent results. Some "overspill" is unavoidable in this small modelling scale but usually even creates an additional weathering effect. Using this method does have a tedious side to it, however, which is why track painting pens can be a real alternative especially if a substantial amount of track needs to be weathered. Woodland Scenics, to name a widely available example, offers three colour options, two of which are "rusty rail" and "steel rail" (the third is "weathered tie"). The lighter of these two colours needs two applications if used on its own but the darker steel pen can also be used as a base colour to tone things down a bit. The result looks good and applying the colour is a lot quicker and tidier than by paintbrush. Either way, the top of the rails need to be wiped clean with e.g. a small piece of cloth while the colour is still wet in order to ensure that elctrical conductivity is not reduced by the weathering.
 
 
Woodland Scenics, to name a widely available example, offers three colour options, two of which are "rusty rail" and "steel rail" (the third is "weathered tie"). The lighter of these two colours needs two applications if used on its own but the darker steel pen can also be used as a base colour to tone things down a bit. The result looks good and applying the colour is a lot quicker and tidier than by paintbrush. Either way, the top of the rails need to be wiped clean with e.g. a small piece of cloth while the colour is still wet in order to ensure that elctrical conductivity is not reduced by the weathering.
 

All of this procedure is an attempt to artifically recreate what happens quite naturally to real track. If done properly, the rust and grime adds an amazing level of realism in comparison to "untreated" track straight from the blister pack.

There is, however, more to the prototype right of way, and possibly the most noticeable element is the ballast - loose rock and gravel which serves to stabilize the track both horizontally and vertically, acts as an impact reducing suspension as trains roll over the track, and supports water drainage.

With Rokuhan, the ballast shoulder is of course already there, molded to the sectional piece of track, but some additional ballasting goes a long way in making the Rokuhan track look more realistic (and also render the sleeper spacing less obtrusive). There are many different ways to achieve this, depending on the locale and the season modelled.

 

 
For regular modern mainline track I use Woodland Scenics gray ballast in "fine" grade (B74). It is just a bit lighter in colour than the Rokuhan trackbase, so for even more convincing visuals a very thin wash of e.g. india ink could be applied.
 

I use a small food storage box about half filled with the Woodland Scenics ballast to provide a portable "ballast hopper" from which small quantities are spread out along the edge of the moulded ballast base of the Rokuhan track, using a regular size teaspoon - the back of which can be used to tamp down the ballast in a nice even slope to the height of the sleepers.

The ballast is then fixed in place using the etablished method of applying a 1:1 mix of white glue and water.

 

 
  A few drops from a syringe of washing up liquid to help break surface tension and prevent the ballast from rolling up into clumps.

This can further be avoided by applying the glue, water and washing up liquid mix close to the edge of the ballast shoulder.

 
 
From there it will be drawn in by its capillary force, i.e. its ability (thanks to its lower surface tension) to seep into narrow spaces by itself. The effect is ultimately similar to blotting or household paper sucking up liquids, and it leaves the carefully prepared ballast undisturbed.
 
 
The ballast should be well saturated with the water and glue mix, which makes everything take on a "soggy" look. After 24 hours, all will be dry and set and hard.

This end result is also the reason why ballasting around switches should only be done in a very careful and restrained manner. Both the underside of the switch as well as the edge of the plastic roadbed should be sealed prior to applying any diluted glue in order to prevent the switch mechanism from clogging up permanently; this can be done e.g. by some tape (for the underside) and a line of paint (running alongside the edge of the roadbed).

In Z Scale it is even more important than in larger modelling scales to make sure that the ballast stays put where it is supposed to. One alternative way of ensuring this is to lightly mist some rubbing alcohol from a spray bottle over the dry ballast rather than use a syringe with "wet water".

 
Some modellers fully ballast Rokuhan (i.e. between the rails as well) even though it has a premoulded ballast base, while others put operational reliability above visual appearance. In any case, close-up pictures of Z scale track always look cruel, when in reality the track is always viewed from a distance which tends to blend the whole scenic setting for better.

For most modellers, ballasting is a tedious job - possibly even more so in Z than any of the larger modelling scales. The trick is to do it in steps over a certain period of time. Patience and diligence invested here will pay off big in the end when the ballasted track is blended in with the surrounding terrain.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Any commercial products mentioned here are purely bona fide indications of what I have been using myself.
I have no connection to any manufacturing companies nor do I profit from listing any products or brands.

 

 

 

page created 6 January 2016
last updated 4 July 2018