Here's a breakdown of some of the more popular brands of N Scale track on the market:
|From left to Right: Kato Unitrack, Atlas Code 80, Peco Code 55 and Atlas Code 55|
Pictured above are some of the popular brands of N Scale track. Not shown are Bachmann EZ Track and Microengineering Code 55, Peco Code 80 and Lifelike Power-Loc Track. Before I dive head-long into the various kinds of track, let me explain what rail code means. The code is actually the high of the rail in fractions of an inch. So code 80 rail is .80" and code 55 is .55".
This track features Code 80 rail, comes permanently affixed to a plastic roadbed and employs plastic clips to hold the sections together. Rail joiners are only used to ferry current from one section to the next. While this provides a bullet-proof connection, it makes custom-fitting track next to impossible. Kato offers a very wide selection of switches, bridges and accessories. In terms of operation, Unitrack is super-reliable.
Other than flexibility, the major drawback of Unitrack is aesthetics. The ties are spaced very far apart, much further apart than they should be (possibly based on Japanese practice?). The rail profile is also unrealistic and too tall to be in scale. However, old equipment with over-deep wheel flanges will run on this track without any problems.
Atlas Code 80:
Atlas' venerable code 80 track has been around since the early days of N Scale. It features a rail profile identical to Unitrack and the two can be connected. Its ties are spaced too far apart for American practice but not as far apart as Unitrack.
The main thing this track has going for it is cost. It's one of the cheapest track systems on the market. However the selection of sectional track, curve radii and switches are limited. It's also available as flex track. The flex track does not hold its shape once bent and will spring back straight unless pinned down while the glue dries.
I've found this track to be very reliable for the most part. Occasionally, I've had a rail joiner lose conductivity. Other than that, the only major problem I've run into has been with the switches. Atlas doesn't offer switches with powered frogs and as such engines with small wheelbases and limited power pickup tend to stall on them.
As with Unitrack, old deep-flange equipment will run on this track without modification.
Peco Code 55:
Peco's Code 55 track, which I'm using currently, is something of a lion in sheep's clothing. It's Code 80 rail that's been sunk into the plastic ties The result is a very robust track that gives a fine scale appearance.
Peco offers a wide variety of switches with both powered and insulated frogs. In the US, I've found it available only as flex track. Unlike Atlas, it's tougher to bend and holds its shape once bent. This can however be a double-edged sword. It makes if very difficult to fix a mistake.
The ties are spaced too far apart for American practice but are correct for European. They are spaced the same as Atlas Code 80.
I've found this track to be very reliable and easy to work with so far. Unlike other brands of Code 55 track, deep-flange equipment will run on it without modification.
Atlas Code 55:
Atlas Code 55 track is easily some of the nicest-looking in N Scale. It's offered in a wide variety of Radii, lengths and boasts a large selection of switches with powered frogs. It's also available in flex.
I've found this track to be quite delicate, especially the flex. It's quite easy to separate the rail from the ties inadvertently. I've even seen it happen just from ruberbanding a few sections together at the point of sale. Also, unlike Peco, this is true .55" rail, so Deep-flange equipment will not run unless modified.
Also, the switches have very fine tolerances and as such all wheels must be perfectly in gauge to run through them.
Other Track Systems:
Similar in concept to Kato Unitrack, EZ-Track features Code 80 rail mounted to plastic roadbed. The rail profile is correct. It's available in a large amount of Radii and lengths. It features a few different switches. It's available with both steel (black roadbed) and nickle silver rails (grey roadbed). Like Unitrack, it allows solid connections but limits flexibility. In use, I've found this track to be reliable.
Peco Code 80:
Like their code 55, Peco's code 80 track is available only as flex track in the US. It's compatible with Atlas code 80 but features a more-realistic rail profile. It's also available with wood or concrete ties. A wide variety of turnouts are available with powered or insulated frogs.
Micro Engineering Code 55:
Micro Engineering Code 55 Flex track is available with both wood and concrete ties. The track is quite realistic looking but only one turnout, a #6 is offered.
Atlas Code 65 Tru-Track:
This is another track system with pre-attached roadbed. It's rail is smaller than Code 80 but not so small that is precludes operation of equipment with deep wheel flanges. The ties are spaced correctly for US track. Four curve radii are offered but only one type of turnout.
Life Like Power-Loc Track:
Quite possibly, the Lionel Super-O track of the N Scale world, this track features rail mounted to plastic roadbed. It's novel in that it does not use rail joiners, instead relying on a pair of copper contacts to ferry power from one section to the next. The ties are spaced too far apart and are an ugly gray color. Also the track only has one curve radius and requires adapters to join to other brands of track. I've not used it in N Scale but have found the HO version to be very reliable.