1.18.2009

Unitrack Obersten! (Unitrack Supreme!)


Kato's N Scale Unitrack system was, and continues to be, a very happy experience. I had a few bumps along the way (some of which were unique, but I share them in the interest of passing along my learning or mistakes) but this is one of the few investments I've made that I would do all over again. Is it right for you? That depends....

First, I doubt that I would have much interest in this hobby if not for the simplicity, functionality, and capabilities that Kato Unitrack provides. Yes, there is an obvious sacrifice in terms of prototypical realism, but there are ways around this (one of which I may attempt is to apply some 'rust' paint to the rails, and use diluted India ink on the plastic ballast which, according to other sources on the Internet, not only makes it more realistic but takes down some of the 'shine' of the ballast). For me, the ability to remove, add, and then continue to use the same piece of track after multiple revisions is a capability that makes up for the somewhat more pricey nature of this track and its subjective questionable prototypical appearance.

Second, while there are only two switches offered, a #4 and a #6, the fact that the switch motor is installed under the switch, thus removing either the unsightly switch machine sitting beside the turnout, and the excellent frog power capability and the great performance of these switches (i.e. no derailments) is another significant benefit of this track.

Third, the ability to connect, add power, and run trains and manipulate switches could not be easier. The fact that you can wire together a layout without touching a screw driver or stripping a single wire, is a feature that I love, although you still have the freedom to modify this as you wish.

And finally (at least for this post), since its more or less code 80, it is very compatible with Atlas, Minitrix, and other code 80 track (I've actually connected both Atlas and Minitrix track to Kato Unitrack without the need of their special adapter track and it works well...particularly for yard settings where the ballasted roadbed does not look correct).

Okay, so what are the cons? To be fair, these may not be 'cons' depending on your layout, pre-planning research, and rolling stock, and so on, but this is more a list of some of the 'issues' that I did find with Unitrack on my layout so far:

No Flex Track!!! Fleischmann has a similar ballasted roadbed track with a sort of 'flex track' piece, its really frustrating that there is no similar option for Unitrack. I did attempt (as mentioned above) to use transitions between Atlas flex track and the Unitrack, but while it worked satisfactorily, the appearance and commitment to matching the ballasting was more ambitious than I was ready for.


Curve Options. While Unitrack has many, many diameters to choose from, and the track system is extremely flexible in terms of combining curves, if you need to make minor realignments with your line, you are stuck. This is where flex track comes in very handy. I have an area of the layout where I need the tangent to move about 5mm or 1/4 inch, and there is just no suitable way to do this with Unitrack (that I know of).


Crossing (the 90 degree crossing).
My original track plan required a 90 degree crossover. However, I found that the crossover was not very reliable when it came to Rapido style couples and the flange on the couple would catch on the opposing rails, leading to derailments. I tried to determine if there was any way to file or modify the crossover to avoid this (or modify the couplers as a worse case) but ultimately revised the track plan to remove the crossover altogether.


Beware of 2" Height Descriptions.
One of the biggest challenges I had to face was thinking that the 2" piers and so forth for the elevated track sections, are actually considerably higher once you add in the plastic supports. Beware if you are building your adjoining sections of the layout to viaducts and other elevated sections using the piers that your actual adjoining elevation will have to be higher. If you use the Piers (which are two inches in height) and the plastic attachments, the top of your rail to your base is between 2 9/16 and 2 5/8 in elevation. I can't fault Kato as they are not wrong, but it would have been helpful if their dimensions measured the top of rail to base distance!


Single Track Viaduct clearance problems.
The inside wall of the single track viaducts are too high to allow your longer passenger cars and rolling stock to go through. The problem is specifically with cars that are longer that 160mm, as I have a set with passenger cars that are 164mm which have problems on both the 282 and 315mm curves, however, my 161mm cars do not appear to touch the inside walls at any point. A very crude (and temporary) solution I had to apply was to sand down the inside walls with my belt sander. Still working on a better plan, possibly with a completely different approach to the elevated track in this area.
Overhead Station Clearance problems. Keep those pantographs down going through the Kato Overhead station! This may be a manufacturer specific only issue, but the pantographs on my Fleischmann electric will not clear the bottom of the Kato station. Since elevating the station is not a good option (the stairways that come with it would not fit right), you either need to install catenary that would push the pantograph down as it goes under the station, keep the pantographs down, or device a system to restrict the full extension of the pantographs on those models where this is an issue. I have noticed this is only a problem on those electric engines that have the capability to draw power from catenary. My Kato Thalys cannot do this, as the pantographs do not go high enough to encounter any obstruction from the station. The actual vertical distance from the bottom of the station to the base is just a hair under 2". However, once you add Kato Unitrack, the vertical clearance between the top of the rails and the bottom of the station is about 1 5/8.


All things considered, the issues I ran into are relatively minor compared to some of the problems I've had with 'traditional' track. I also have to say that I tried to use both Atlas and Minitrix switches on the layout originally, but due to persistent derailments or frog conductivity issues, they were all replaced (except for a couple of Minitrix switches in my mill yard).

Its a great system! It will be interesting to see what Atlas does with its new competitive version of this system. If the two systems are compatible, this could be good news for us N Scale modelers!

For more in depth help, tips, and deeper commentary on the Unitrack system, I recommend the Yahoo Unitrack group and Karayan's Unitrack page, which both contain multiple links to various resources as well. I also go into some more detail on some successful features of this system in this post, which I think articulates some of the unique advantages and capabilities of this system.

UPDATED:  I take a look at Kato's new "super-elevated" curve tracks at this post.

14 comments:

Artificial Science said...

Your issues with the viaduct tracks are interesting. What radius curves are those? I use the Tomix FineTrack system, which is very similar (although, in my humble opinion, far superior) to UniTrack. I have some viaduct track with a 280mm radius, but the only problem I have is that some longer cars require a straight section between the 280mm curve and the Tomix truss bridge. Of course, my longer cars (an E4-series shinkansen) are likely not quite as long as yours. Most, indeed, are prototypically 20m (which, at 1/150 is <140mm).

Jerry said...

The single viaduct curves are a combination of 315 and 282mm curves. I really only had the problem with 164mm cars, my 161mm passenger cars did not touch, but came close to touching! Clearly, my solution here is temporary and crude.... (I am going to update the post because I think this is important).

bialbero said...

Hi. I'm an Italian N-scaler and I'm doing an evaluation&comparison between the tracks Kato Unitrack, Fleischmann Profi-Gleis and Peco Streamline, in order to begin a "revamping" of my layout. As You think, who's the winner of these three ones? I'm interested in to know what do U think about. Thanks, Alfredo
PS: anyway, it's a pity that Unitrack doesn't provide concrete-sleeper tracks!

Jerry said...

Hi bailbero! That's a hard question as I don't have any experience with Peco, but I do really like Fleischmann's track. Fleischmann has just enough ballast that it looks pretty good with no work, but with a little effort you can make it look how you want. With Kato, the ballast is so large, you are very limited.

However, I only have experience with Kato switches/turnouts, and they have been excellent!

If I had to start over, and money was not a problem, I would seriously consider Profitrack. One challenge is getting Fleischmann track in the US is more difficult than Kato!

Anonymous said...

Jerry,
Your site is great! I have been a long time lurker as I am attempting to design my own layout using Unitrack. I am planning to run european stock locos. There have been tons of articles/posts on the issues with Kato#4 turnouts. What is your experience with #4s? (I believe you are using them in your layout). My attempt at a freight yard (directly off a mainline) looks odd with #6s due to wide spacing and it wastes too much precious space.
Any advice would be appreciated. Thank your Roman

Jerry said...

@ Roman

That is a really good question. Obviously, I see a lot of the concerns and fears raised by folks all over the internet about these 'notorious' #4 switches.

My experience (and I have about 14 of them) is that they are no problem with DCC! I have only done one thing on my turnouts, and that was to ensure that the 'power routing' is turned off (e.g. so power would go to both directions). This is tricky issue as some of the switches (not sure which ones) are incorrectly labelled on the back side where you make these settings. Before I installed the switches I tested each one to determine if the screw was in the correct place to ensure the power routing was off.

Other than that, I don't really understand the problems that so many people have had with them. It may be that their was an older version or something, but I can't say!

Good luck and don't worry!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your insight Jerry! Now your statement on #4 has now me thinking about #6s since they are power routing (only) and they do not have an option of "turning off" power routing. Anything that must/can be done? Thank you.
Roman

Jerry said...

That's no problem...I just add power connections on both 'legs' of the turnout (that is, of course, if you don't want the power routing feature!).

TMT said...

A couple (or so) thoughts on your clearance issues.

1. Kato tracks and structures are designed to meet clearances that Kato adheres to, so Kato rolling stock will likely not have a problem. That's guided by the "profile" tool (aka UniJoiner puller.) See http://thomas.tuerke.net/on/mrr/?thread=1623374033 for more on this. Unfortunately, N "scale" standards are more loosely defined than, for example, HO, so industry-wide conformance is limited.

2. Given that Fleishmann may not be built to the same specifications, their pantographs may rise up higher. A prototypical-looking solution to this is to model an insulator under the overhead station. In the real world, it just keeps the overhead cable from being pushed up into a piece of structural metal (can you say 20Kv sparks? ;) but for the model, it would serve to push a stray pantograph down as it passed underneath, where it would either stay or pop up again on the other side. (You can just make out some of these in the first pic on the link above, though a bit blurry.) A chunk of strip styrene, bent up skateboard-like on the ends, mounted to the underside of the overhead structure, just over each track centerline, should do the trick. If it works for you, paint it charcoal gray.

3. I know that Kato has said that longer rolling stock (such as Shinkansen coaches) shouldn't be run on their tighter curves (I think they quote 381mm as a limit.) I'm guessing that's true in general for any long coach. Putting a long coach on a tight radius has other problems, too (typically around the couplers...) It's likely that Kato takes that for granted, and made their viaducts prototypically tight on that assumption.

Anonymous said...

When I started with N gauge I used a "conventional" track from a set, it didn't look right, my local dealer suggested kato, it was so much easier to use and was totally reliable, my only problem is keeping the point switches attatched to the controller, but such a minor problem for all the benefits of the system

Tim Hall said...

What make were the 164mm coaches you were having trouble with? Were they European or Japanese stock?

Jerry said...

Hi Tim! They were Fleischmann SBB double level coaches...so to answer your question: European.

night1204 said...

I noticed the clearance issue on the viaduct curves - i run Bombardiers and superiner length cars ... so kato viaducts are not good choice ..
gonna try and get some tommix finetrack and make my own viaducts
btw the flexibility with the track to make odd and more interesting
track routes ( i made a double LH
turnout for my yard from 2 X #6 turnouts and X over ) it works great but need to make another module to gain good way for entrance LOL
here is a link
http://www.nscale.net/forums/showthread.php?27097-Modular-yard-in-progress

btw do you know which has the biggest curve radii - tomix or kato?

MJJ

night1204 said...

I noticed the clearance issue on the viaduct curves - i run Bombardiers and superiner length cars ... so kato viaducts are not good choice ..
gonna try and get some tommix finetrack and make my own viaducts
btw the flexibility with the track to make odd and more interesting
track routes ( i made a double LH
turnout for my yard from 2 X #6 turnouts and X over ) it works great but need to make another module to gain good way for entrance LOL
here is a link
http://www.nscale.net/forums/showthread.php?27097-Modular-yard-in-progress

btw do you know which has the biggest curve radii - tomix or kato?

MJJ