I was recently contacted by a newer member of the LEGO Train community asking for information on the various types of curve tracks used in PennLUG. My response was a lengthy email, which has been adapted to fit an article format, and will be the content of this article.
Before I begin, I should briefly touch on some of the standards for LEGO track configurations. More information can be found on Michael Gale’s L-Gauge.org. Standard spacing practices for most layouts (including my own PennLUG) use a 16-stud spacing between the centerlines of two parallel tracks. There are two main reasons for this standard. One, it was set by LEGO, when they produced the 9-volt switch tracks. Using a turnout, a return curve, and an extra length of straight track, you get two even and parallel tracks. Two, this yields a convenient way to build track: two lines evenly spaced on one baseplate.
Every LEGO train enthusiast has probably, at some point, owned a loop of standard LEGO track. Any number of straight sections closed off by the small curve tracks you’d find in any 9-volt of Power Functions set. These tracks are known as “R40”, as they have a radius of 40 studs.
R40 is great for starter sets and more simple layouts with generally smaller trains and locomotives, and I believe that should be recognized. R40 also provides a neat return curve when used with a LEGO turnout that fits within the standard 16-stud distance between centerlines, as mentioned earlier.
While R40 is a great starting point and does have some practical uses, it certainly does not check all boxes when it comes to designing a more realistic track plan. Luckily, this is not our only option.
The large, sweeping curves used by several clubs and individuals are known as “grand curves”. These curves rely on brick-built ballast and other components to function well. An article was written for the first issue of the former RAILBRICKS magazine, which can be downloaded here. You can get a feel for how these curves are built, and some of their applications, but there have been several iterations of grand curves over the years. PennLUG builds each section of straight track with ballast separately, without using the hinge plates as shown in the RAILBRICKS article, but they can be connected together quickly.
A grand curve generally has only a single radius, but PennLUG builds each consecutive larger curve with an extra 1.5 track lengths to give a consistent smooth curve. The inner-most curve uses like 22.5 tracks, the middle curve uses 24 tracks, and then the outer-most curve uses 25.5 tracks per quarter-circle. The grand curves work amazingly well and allow for continuous unmanned train running at respectable speeds.
ME Models also produces several additional options for curve tracks, which (thankfully) fall between R40 and grand curves.
These curves come in various sizes: R56, R72, R88, and R104. ME Models produce these track in both metal and plastic rail varieties, by means of injection molding. These curves were engineered in such a way that they align with the standard 16-stud centerline width, as each consecutive larger radius is 16 studs greater than the previous.
ME Model track is well designed and thought out. However, the clutch power is far less than normal LEGO bricks, meaning they have a tendency to break apart easily. Many individuals (myself included) have taken to gluing the ends of the rails to the section joiners, which greatly improves the track altogether. Using brick-built ballast also greatly lessens the chance of the track breaking apart. I can’t speak for the smaller radii (not having any to test), but as for R88 and R104, they definitely work for continuous running at speed.
Ballast instructions for all curve radii mentioned so far can be found on L-Gauge.org. All instructions are based on the PennLUG design.
There also exists options from TrixBrix – a European site offering 3D printed track. They offer turnouts, 90 degree and 45 degree crossovers, turnouts, double slips, R24 curve sections (gasp), and even some interesting narrow-gauge track options. They also offer R56 and R72 curves, like ME Models. I haven’t had the chance to test any of the TrixBrix track yet, so I can’t speak to their quality or usability.
That should cover everything on the market currently. But there are definitely possibilities of additional 3rd-party track coming down the pipeline.
BrickTracks is currently another player in the track market. Started by Eurobricks member Coaster last year on Kickstarter, they are looking to revamp their campaign for later this year. Their team has been busy using Shapeways as a prototyping method for working out all the bugs before they launch the new campaign. It should be stated that the final product is planned to be injection molded, NOT 3D-printed. 3D printing is being used for testing only, but, if you really want, you can purchase some of their test models from their Shapeways shop. They have R104 turnouts (as opposed to LEGO’s R40), similar curve selection as ME Models, but also R200 and R328 curves, which is roughly equivalent to grand curves.
Coaster has mentioned on Eurobricks recently that the new Kickstarter this year will include R104 and R120 curves, as well as R104 turnouts, and 1/2 and 1/4 length straight tracks.
PennLUG has received a test pair of their R104 right-hand turnouts, and are pretty impressed with the thought that went into them. The throw mechanism works well and is much smaller than standard LEGO turnouts.
Now you should have all the information you need to make a great track plan with much nicer curves than normal LEGO tracks, and here’s hoping there are more options which become available in the future.