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This review appeared in Classic Toy Trains, March, 1998. Reprinted with permission of Kalmbach Publishing Company.

First Look: Atlas O Sectional Track

Never before have so many diverse products been available for the operator and collector, and the growing trend is toward more detail, more scale-like appearance in engines and rolling stock, and more realism in scenery or layout decoration.

Until recent years, many three-railers seemed embarrassed by their track when compared to the "more realistic" two rail operation of N, HO, and scale O. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, Lionel operators were often held in disdain by scale operators. After all, they might explain, "Only two-railers re-create the prototype in miniature; everyone else just plays with their trains." Yeah right, heard it before.

Lionel tried to address this issue with Super O track, which wasn’t terribly successful. Similarly, GarGraves track was developed, and its "Phantom" track, with a darkened center rail, remains arguably the standard track system for operators looking beyond tubular O gauge track.

Today, it’s fair to say that most three-railers don’t care what the two-rail scale community thinks, and that they are proud to "play with trains." That third rail is a badge of honor of sorts. What some hobbyists do want, however, is a track system that looks good, is prototypical, and allows for smooth, problem-free operation.

Enter Atlas O and its 21st Century Track System. This company surprised the industry last year by announcing not just a new line of locomotives and rolling stock, but a new track system as well. Long noted for track, switches, and track components in the two-rail gauges, Atlas O decided the time was right to bring new, exceptionally realistic track to the three-rail hobby.

The company promptly announced production of a full line of track products including track in O-54 and O-72 curves, and O-54 and O-72 right- and left-hand switches. Atlas O held out the possibility of making wider or narrower curved sections depending on market demand. Atlas O will also offer crossover sections in 22.5, 45, and 90 degrees.

According to Atlas O, the system was designed to allow intricate layout construction (based upon Atlas HO scale layout plans) with little or no cutting of fitter sections. At present, Atlas O is offering 10-inch straight sections, O-54 curved sections, and an assortment of nickel silver and blackened nickel silver rail joiners, terminal joiners, and screws.

The first switches (complete with switch machines and a spring-operated non-derailing feature) should be available shortly. CTT examined a prototype at the National Hobby Show in Chicago, and we were impressed.

Eager to get our hands on some Atlas O track, we weren’t disappointed when the boxes finally arrived. Our track samples were exceptionally well made and have incomparable detailing. The track resembles the heavy rail used on a high-density, high-tonnage main line. Previously, Atlas O’s Jim Weaver stated that the company selected National Model Railroad Association code 208 rail, and then proportionally enlarged the rail in order to accommodate older, prewar tinplate trains.

Using my 1:48 scale ruler, I measured the track, from bottom of the tie to top of the rail, at 2 scale feet. The rail is about 9 scale inches tall and the head is 4 scale inches wide, which provide far greater wheel contact at the surface than tubular track.

The ties have simulated wood grain and the tie-plates have simulated spikes. The rail joiners even have six simulated scale bolt heads. Each section comes with two screw holes drilled through the ties and six more holes ready to be drilled, if needed.

The track also has an interesting feature designed to hold sections together. Each end of each section has male prongs and female receptacles that match adjacent pieces. You simply slide the sections together, and everything pops into place. To disconnect the sections, you just reverse the process.

For electrical continuity, each rail needs a slip-on rail joiner. Conversely, to isolate a section, simply use a plastic rail joiner. You feed power to the track by using two rail joiners with attached wires. Connect them to your power system, and you are in business.

We discovered that when on a firm foundation, such as benchwork or even a tile floor, the track will stay together just fine. On a spongy surface, like carpet, it didn’t fare quite as well. Setting up a loop on carpet was frustrating. In what seemed like a flashback to my N and HO days, there was too much vertical movement of the track, and it was continually coming apart. Rail joiners were everywhere. So, keep in mind that the track isn’t designed for temporary Christmas tree operation. If you are serious about Atlas O track in this application, place it on a flat, hard surface for best results.

Forthcoming are transition pieces that will allow you to merge your existing track system with other brands. Atlas O is the same height as GarGraves, Ross, Curtis, Lionel O-27, and Super-O track. Simply using a shim will allow you to match the height of regular Lionel-style O tubular track.

As noted in the article "CTT Visits Atlas O" in the September 1997 issue, the company wasn’t concerned with the loss of Magne-Traction on the new nickel silver rails, since most modern non-Lionel locomotives on the market sport traction tires. One of the first questions to come to mind, however, is "How will Magne-Traction locomotives fare on track made of nickel silver?"

Many operators question whether or not they should consider nickel silver track if it will degrade the performance of a significant portion of their locomotive fleet, while others would contend that since a majority of the engines produced today sport traction tires, this is a non-issue. Pulling power wins over nostalgia in their book.

CTT performed a comparison test with the Magne-Traction equipped engines we had within arms reach: a postwar no. 681 Turbine, an MPC GP9, and a Lionel LLC GE Dash 9.

The no. 681 turbine was warmed up and tested on both tubular O track and Atlas O. Using an average of tests measured with our electronic Amerteck force gauge, the 681 produced 1.03 lbs. of drawbar pull on tubular track, but only .85 on Atlas O track.

The single-motored no. 8477 Geep averaged .35 lbs. of drawbar pull on tubular track and only .14 on Atlas O. The modern two-motored no. 18365 Dash 9 had a less dramatic falloff in drawbar pull, averaging 1.8 lbs. on tubular track and 1.4 lbs. on Atlas O track. So be forewarned, you may see some loss of pulling power with your Magne-Traction equipped engines on Atlas O track. The choice you’ll need to make will be one of esthetics and performance versus nostalgia.

The appearance and functional reliability of Atlas O track impressed the CTT staff. If you are considering a new layout, or an extension of your present, you may want to visit your dealer and examine this exceptionally realistic system for yourself. – Bob


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