The various types of N scale track can be confusing to a new hobbyist.
This guide gives an overview and information to help you choose as you plan your new layout.
Please refer to this Article for a comprehensive comparison of the different track systems available to the N-Scale modeler.
First, there are two general types of track.
One type has the track mounted on a plastic roadbed. (On real track, the roadbed is a raised gravel base that supports the track.) In N scale track that includes a plastic roadbed, the plastic roadbed has connecters and sockets on each end so that the pieces of roadbed lock together. This gives the track enough structure that it can be used without any additional support or mounting. Most brands of this type of track also have metal rail joiners on the rails. Their main function is to pass electric power from one rail to the next.
The other type of track is made of rails mounted on plastic ties. In this type of track, the rail joiners serve two purposes. One purpose is to hold the track together and aligned. The other purpose is to pass electric power from one rail to the next.
One important thing is that track that does not come mounted on a plastic roadbed must be mounted on something. The rail joiners are not strong enough to hold the track together by themselves. Also, you cannot take plain track apart and put it back together again like you can track that is on a plastic roadbed. The rail joiners spread apart a tiny bit when they are used the first time, so if you take them off and try to use them again, they will be loose and may not hold the track together or carry electrical power reliably. For more information on rail joiners, see my guide on Using N Scale Model Railroad Rail Joiners. For ideas on mounting track, see my guide on Mounting Track to Start a Model Railroad Layout.
In N scale, you don’t have to model a raised roadbed.
Many modelers do, but I think that most of the roadbed materials for N scale are way too high to look realistic. However in real life you will often find areas where the roadbed material is deliberately raised in order to assist in drainage.
Some people prefer that that the rail be at about the height of the surrounding ground, with only a shallow ditch on each side.
Compared to that, the plastic roadbed style of N scale track puts the track as much as 3 scale feet up above the surrounding ground. So, if you use track that does not include a roadbed, you can either mount it flat, or you can raise it up a little with a thin piece of foam. You can buy foam designed to be used for this in a hobby store.
There are several brands of track that are mounted on plastic roadbed. The most common these days is Bachmann EZ Track. Another common one is Atlas True-Track. Less common, but still around are Kato Unitrack and Lifelike Power-Loc track.
Of these four brands, the first three are designed so that you push the roadbed connectors into each other and at the same time push the rails into rail joiners. This can be a little difficult to get right. It is easy to miss on the rail joiner such that the rail slides over the top of the joiner rather than into it. This makes a bump in the track. Lifelike Power-Loc track is designed so that the sockets and connectors in the plastic roadbed are turned sideways so that one piece of track slides into another from the side. The electrical contact is made by flat pieces on the ends of the plastic roadbed, which press together when the track is fitted together. The sideways connectors on this type of track make it hold together more strongly than the other brands. But it also makes it hard to get the rails to line up exactly, so some joints are not completely smooth.
One important thing you should be aware of is that you cannot mix brands in this type of track. The plastic roadbed connectors and sockets are different styles and they do not fit together. It is possible to get adaptors to go from one style of track to another, but it is easier to just use a single brand.
In contrast, for track without a plastic roadbed most brands of track are compatible and can be mixed together. The rails are generally the same size and the ties are generally the same height, so the rail joiners tie one brand to another with no problem.
Atlas is by far the most common brand of track without roadbed. There are other brands, but they are much more rare. Bachmann makes some track of this type, Model Power makes some, and you may see Trix brand sometimes.
In N scale track without roadbed, there are two sizes of track. The most common is called code 80, and the other is called code 55. The code number refers to the size of the track. Code 55 track is smaller and lower than code 80. In the Atlas brand, one easy way to tell the difference is that code 55 track has brown ties and code 80 has black ties.
Code 80 is by far the most common, and is what you should use if you are starting out. The only reason people use code 55 is that its scale size is more like real track. A code 80 rail is almost a scale foot high, much higher than a real rail. So purists who want a very realistic appearance use the smaller rails. But one major problem they have is that the wheels on older train cars have flanges that are too tall for code 55 rail. The flanges hit the ties when the car rolls along the track. So, you either have to buy cars that have wheels with small flanges, or you have to change the old wheels to new ones. You will also find that code 55 is more expensive and harder to work with. This is the sort of thing you may choose to do after you have been in the hobby for many years, but if you are just starting, it is best to avoid the extra hassle and expense of code 55.
In N scale track without roadbed, there are two types of track. One is called flex track. It comes in long sections, typically 30″. It can be curved in any way you want. The other type of track comes in short sections and is firmly straight or curved. The most common track of this type is Atlas Snap-Track.
If you are just starting, you should begin with the short Snap-Track style of track, not flex track. For more information on the reasons why I recommend this, see my guide on Using N Scale Model Railroad Flex Track.
One other factor you should keep in mind in choosing track is whether you plan to expand your layout over time. If so, then I recommend you start with track that does not have a plastic roadbed. This will give you a lot more flexibility because this type of track is more widely available and is available in more varieties of curves, switches, and various short lengths of straight and curved track. Also, this type of track lets you mix in sections of flex track if you want. In contrast, track with plastic roadbed may offer only one curve radius. This will greatly limit your options for arrangements of your layout.