Lionel Tubular track info & tips
Updated: Mar 13
This month I'm posting in response to frequent inquiries about traditional tubular track.
"O" and "O27" height tubular tracks are both the same gauge ("Gauge" is the distance between the rails, approximately 1, 3/8 inches for "O" and "O27" track). "O27" track has a lower profile than "O" track.
"O27" height track can now be found with 27, 42, 54 and 75 inch diameter curves. "O" height track can now be found with 31, 42, 54, 72 and 96 inch diameter curves.
As an example, here is a picture showing the different "O27" height track curves:
I suggest that you test all track (new or used) before using to make sure that there is no shorting caused by damaged center rail insulators. It is way easier to find these problems now, before laying your track down, and it only takes a few seconds. All you would need are two wires attached to a 12-14 volt bulb, and two wires with alligator clips attached to a transformer. Clip the alligator clips to the center and one of the outer rails, then touch the wires attached to the bulb to the same rails - no light = a shorting insulator. The circuit breaker on your transformer may activate before testing with the bulb if the insulator is bad too, but circuit breakers on Post and Pre War transformers are usually slow to react.
When using O27 height wider radius track, small size differences can leave one scratching their head when things just don't seem to line up.
When using O54 curve track please note that the K-line version is 1/4 inch longer than Lionel's.
When using O42 curve track please note that the K-line version is 1/2 inch longer than Lionel's.
As a side note, K-line's O42 track has 4 ties, Lionel's have 3.
There are also similar differences with "O" height track.
Be aware that track sizes can also be inconsistent even within the same manufacturer's tracks. Lionel's "O" height O54 curve tracks have been known to vary in length by up to 1/2 inch.
Clean track = fewer running problems. Again, it is easier to clean used track before using them on the layout. Clean used track with a plastic scouring pad (the green ones you find at the 99 cent store are fine) - never use steel wool. Then give them a rub down with a little rubbing alcohol on a folded paper towel.
In this picture you will see everything one would need to clean tubular track. Note the "cutting" plier's position on the on the track pin - easy way to remove pins - leverage the plyer against the track's bottom web as shown - the pin will come out easily. The "rat tail" file shown may be needed to clean inside the rail where the pins go. The sandpaper shown is only used to clean pins - not track.
If pins are loose, tighten them by pinching the track in the webbed area, high near the tubular portion, using the "cutting" pliers.
If the track has rust, it is best to use these sections for display shelves, or to salvage insulators and pins (clean these pins before using too, sandpaper will be fine to use for this purpose). Rusty rails could be used on the layout as part of a scrap pile.
When screwing the tracks down, don’t overtighten and bend the ties, this could change the gauge slightly, or cause insulator shorts. Do not use nails! 1/2 or 5/8 inch long # 4 screws are perfect. When planning your layout use the widest radius curves that you can. Common O27 or O31 radius curves might be fine with the trains you have now, but in the future? All trains will run and look better rounding wider curves too.
Cutting tubular track is easy, there are several cutting tools one can use but I prefer a Dremel with a reinforced cutting disk - don't use the thin non-reinforced disks - they WILL shatter!
Measure the length of track needed and mark a cutting line across the rails with a soft pencil - I sometimes use a small square to make sure these markings are straight. Cut across the lines with your Dremel. Use a file to clean up any sharp edges. I like to insert pins into the newly cut track - it will be tight so I use a small hammer to tap them in. If you then need to remove the pins use a "cutting " plyer as shown above when I discussed cleaning track.
Here is everything you would need to cut tubular track:
When laying out your track mark where you will need fiber pins for blocks with a piece of masking tape to help you remember to insert them before the tracks are screwed down. Avoid track joints when possible – single length tracks that are equal to 3 straight tracks are available – use them when you can. Also, instead of using short filler pieces when needed, cut one of these longer pieces to the length of one or two tracks plus the needed filler piece.
Upgrade the appearance of tubular track by adding ties and ballast.
I use 3/16 thick, 1/2 inch wide, balsa cut to length and painted brown for ties and No Frills kitty litter for ballast.
While we are on the subject of traditional track, I thought a short discussion about the use of traditional Lionel Trestle sections would be in order.
I've found that some pieces of Lionel PostWar rolling stock do not clear when going under Lionel's tallest "A" section trestles - they are only 4 1/2 inches tall. I rectify that issue by adding a "concrete" base (a piece of furring strip painted grey) under these taller sections - this brings their height to 5 1/4 inches. Approaching trestle sections use thinner pieces of wood, also painted grey, to come up to grade.
I raised this Lionel Arch under bridge using the same "concrete" base method that I use with the Lionel trestle sections.
Make every effort to put one trestle under every track section joint, or at least no more than 12 inches apart.
Screw or glue every trestle to the track ties, and then also to the board.
The use of 3 foot track sections (less track joints to bend) is even more important on elevated areas. If these longer tracks are too long for an area on your pike, rather than use 1 or 2 shorter track sections and a small filler piece, cut a 3 foot section to fit.
For more information on the use of three rail track please go here: The Magic of Three Rail Track! (warrenvillerailroad.com)