Kato Track and Trains
A quick reading of this site will reveal a strong bias in favor of Kato products, both track and trains. That’s partly coincidence: my first Japanese train was a Kato E231 (the first Yamanote Line one listed on my Roster), and my original loop of N-scale track was a double-track loop built from the Kato V12 set with some additional track. It’s also because Kato is widely regarded as building a quality product, and I’ve had past experience with sectional track that made me want to avoid potential problems. And finally, Kato’s Japanese-outline trains are somewhat easier to find in the U.S. than those of their competitors, as they sometimes make them available through Kato USA. And you can find old ones that didn’t sell at train shows. I picked up my first Suburban E231 at a considerable discount that way.
I have since learned of several ways to order trains from Japan, which broadened the possibilities considerably. My trains now include several that weren't made by Kato: a Tomix DE10 freight locomotive, some Modemo trams and Greenmax subway trains, and a number of trains by Micro Ace, which are good models if a bit pricy.
As to track, I have experience with HO-scale flex track, which is enough to convince me of its worth, while at the same time making me really like the ease of using Unitrack. My first two Japanese layouts, the Kitchen Table Layout and the first Sumida Crossing, were built entirely with Unitrack. I’ve also used Tomix FineTrack, a similar sectional track with molded ballast, on my two smaller layouts, the Urban Tram layout and the One Point Five Meter Line layout. But my thoughts are turning back to flex track for the next layout.
I used Unitrack (on the Kitchen Table Layout) for just over a year, and it was essentially flawless (I had one problem, due to a unijoiner that didn’t quite connect, which I fixed by unsnapping and re-connecting the track once I figured out the cause of my derailments). With only one feeder per loop, I had no electrical problems (even feeding through several power-routing turnouts into the yard), and the track went together (and came apart) quite easily, but remained securely fastened despite many bumps against the table. After a year it was also working as good as the day I bought it, with zero cleaning of the track.
One Sumida Crossing, I used Unitrack in a semi-permanent mode, with subroadbeds built into the scenery. In most cases this was the insulation foam I used for scenery, but in some places I used Woodland Scenics “risers” with plaster cloth over them. While I liked the foam and risers, the plaster cloth ended up being too rough in several places. In the future, I’d not put it where the track has to go. For roadbed immediately below the track I used a 1/8” layer of cork or Woodland Scenics foam roadbed, to provide some deadening of sound. Plastic track directly on foam or wood would tend to amplify noise from the wheels and mechanism of the train without this. Both kinds of roadbed were painted with artist’s acrylic paint (which remains flexible once dry) to provide a gray color, since I wasn’t adding any ballast.
My goal with this railroad was to have something that works reliably with a minimum of care, as I know from experience that I’ll find time to build things, but maintenance always seems to be a low priority for me. On the whole this worked, although I had some issues where I’d failed to make the subroadbed as level and smooth as it should have been. I also had problems where Unitrack just wouldn’t line up. And I has some electrical problems that didn’t seem to be due to bad unijoiners that I never tracked down, although they weren’t critical ones (trains would slow in places, for no obvious reason).
Many people modeling Japanese trains also use Tomix Finetrack, a system similar to Unitrack but with a larger variety of switches and specialty track, as well as more complex systems for operating signals on DC track and even automatic operation. My experience with Finetrack is limited, as I was already well-established with Unitrack before I learned of it (and there’s precious little written in English about it). Finetrack isn’t the same width or height as Unitrack, although you can use them together with the “snap-track adapter” Kato sells. This makes things like passenger platforms problematic. But it works fairly well (I think Unitrack is easier to use) and comes in a larger variety of curves, switches and specialty tracks.
If you want to use it, you’ll probably need to order from a Japanese supplier. More info can be found on the JNS Forum’s Finetrack thread.