THE APPEARANCE OF PROTOTYPE RAILROAD TRACK FROM A MODEL RAILROAD VIEWPOINT
It has been long been traditionally supposed that so called "handlaid track", with its separate, stained, real wood ties, is a better model representation of real prototype track than any other crafted or commercial offering. The fact that "handlaid" track has no tieplate detail, and uses only a fraction of the number of spikes of the prototype has been regularly anecdotally claimed to be visually unnoticeable in the smaller scales of HO and below.
However, in comparing my memories from my youth in the UK, and the frequent occasions I walk and view the track near my new home in the US, I felt this supposition was in fact, quite incorrect. Originally, UK track had cast iron "Chairs" which held the UK "bullhead" rail upright. Now much UK track since their transistion era there has regular flatbottom rail, sitting on tieplates, held with spring clips rather than spikes, but the relative sizes of both chairs and plates are similar. But in the UK, the vast majority of modelers are very particular to incorporate "chair or tieplate detail" in their version of OO/HO trackwork, and consider it to be very unrealistic without.
This would seem to be a very strange merely cultural difference! So I started thinking about the differences in railfanning between the two countries and realized that in the UK, most people not only regularly see track more often, but generally the viewpoint is looking down, rather than beside/along, and from a much greater height. Whereas in the US, trackwork is mostly seen from grade crossings or trackside at ground level.
Firstly, when not "stereotyped" as watching Soccer or visiting "the Pub" ;) , many Brits are railroad commuters and spend long periods while waiting for their train to arrive, looking down at track from much higher passenger platforms than are common in the US. So they become very familiar with track details close up.
Secondly, because of the higher speeds and frequency of UK trains, walking across the tracks is both illegal and highly dangerous. So nearly all UK railroad stations have either (and many both) on-platform pedestrian over bridges or adjacent public road bridges, with sidewalks, rather than grade crossings, that carry the roadway and sidewalks safely over the tracks. The overbridge sidewalks are of course usually a far better way to see to railfan than looking through a trackside fence, so again the UK experience is to look down on track and in this case, gain an impression of what is noticeable about track from the middle and longer distance. Again though, the viewpoint is relatively high.
So does the viewpoint make any difference?
To test that theory, I found a rare US road overpass near my home, where Califonia Highway 1 crosses the Amtrack/old SP coast route at a small town called Oceano, half way between LA and SF. I was able to photograph the same track, at the same time, in the same light and in the same direction, from both the overpass and at track level.
Here are the results:
First a long shot South from the overbridge. Here, because the picture covers such a long distance, the tieplates appear very small and are only obvious for about half the way to the signals.
Using a telephoto lens for the same shot, makes the size of the track larger and now we can still see individual tieplates, almost up to the signals, even though the ties themselves have merged into a background texture by that point.
If we repeat the shots down at track level, it's a very different story! Now the tieplates vanish in 50-100 feet, and all that's left is the shiny rail heads on the tie texture background.
Even we do the telephoto close-up, it's still apparent that the tieplates are only visible in the closest section of the track.
Changing the viewing angle seriously downward, gives an even bigger change in appearance. Now every aspect of the tieplate, it's hole pattern, and even the nearer spike heads show up in dramatic detail. The color of the tieplates relative to the ties is also a distinct contrast.
In the photographs, the tieplates show up extraordinarily clearly and distinctly, once the viewing angle is greater than about 10 degrees below horizontal. The "scale" spikeheads, on the other hand, are very much less obvious, especially past more than a handful of ties. This means that while looking along at track level, second to the rail heads, the tieplates are the mostly prominent details, but appear to quickly vanish into the ties backround in less than about 60 ft. However, from just an overbridge height, they are quite noticable for as much as a quarter mile. So just slightly "upping the viewpoint" makes a huge difference!
Given the viewpoint effect, what does this mean for modeling? Well, this example overbridge height is effectively only 3-4 inches above the track for HO. But as shown by the many layout building plans and diagrams in the major magazines, the common baseboard height is rarely above 48" and even potentially eye-level layouts, such as shelves, double deckers, mushrooms, etc., seldom have operating viewing heights less that 12". (effectively three times higher than my overbridge).
So the inescapable conclusion is that HO track tieplates, as seen from a 12' - 24" modeler eye height viewpoint, should be clearly visible for almost a scale mile along the track. Spikes, if modeled correctly to scale, should be almost invisible by comparison. But an HO scale mile is a real-world 60 ft. - which is longer than most HO layouts! Which means that model tieplates are a track detail that definitely should be modeled and wil be clearly seen over the entireity of most normal sized HO layouts.
As to where "handlaid track" now fits in the new picture. Clearly we need to re-think what constitutes effective ways to model home-built trackwork realistically. While the real wood ties still look excellent, the new photographic information seems to indicate that tieplates should definitely be modeled everywhere that track is visible on the layout, rather than just at close viewing locations. While there are several compromise ways to make those up non commercially, (glue patches, paint, card, etc.,), actually going to the trouble of adding accurate models of tieplates, including scale spike heads, is one very good way to get the right appearance. Separate spikes, are the least apparent problem visually, and if modeled at all, should be of a sufficiently small size that they only show up in the close ups, but not in mid-range and distance views.
So the traditional idea of only spiking every sixth tie or so with very oversize spikes, that show up over distances, is not very realistic, and the track would actually look much better without any oversize spikes at all.
Not using big spikes, of course implies that something else is need to fix and gauge the rails. With the wide range of modern adhesives available nowdays, fixing is practically a non-issue, although soldering to occasional PCB ties is another solution that has been used, but does not of course give an any more realistic effect. Traditional track gauges for use when spiking, were not specifically designed to instead hold the rails in gauge and position, while waiting for glue to set.
However, the very recent innovative option of "our "Ultimate" Track design, is to use jig mounted, accurate tieplates, wcomplete ith molded on spike heads at EVERY TIE, to make the track self-gauging, and require only the addition of a little glue to make the track a virtually perfect model.
Compare the Prototype Picture with a model picture using added "Ultimate"tieplates on realistically cut wooden Ties
Finally getting round to modeling acurate looking track, is not a bad goal when you think of all the much finer level if incredible accurate detail that comes as standard with our latest RTR locomtives and box cars. Given the cost of one of todays great and extremely realistic models, can one really afford to place it on quite incorrect trackwork, that looks wrong in itself and worse, then destroys the illusion (and value) of the great model on it? :)