Page updated:September 02, 2012


a cost comparison of GarGraves, Ross Custom Switches, Atlas O, and Lionel O

A common issue that arises in discussions of the choice of track manufacturer for layout construction is that of the cost of the track. At R & S Enterprises, we have fielded this question on many occasions in telephone conversations, e-mail exchanges, and face to face at York TCA meets. In order to provide some solid answers, we have taken a standard O-gauge layout configuration and designed it using track from GarGraves Trackage, Ross Custom Switches, and Atlas O.

The layout we chose to replicate is the Chicago Inner Belt, a point-to-point L-shaped layout with two back-to-back switch yards, a turntable, and a small set of industrial sidings. This layout could stand alone as a switching operation, or be incorporated into a much larger layout as a yard/industrial area. Although this layout is geared toward prototypical operations, and most of the discussion regarding Atlas O track is in comparison to other hi-rail trackage, such as GarGraves and Ross, we have also included a design of this layout using standard O track from Lionel as a cost comparison.

Ross Custom Switches Design

The first layout we designed using hi-rail, GarGraves style track from Ross Custom Switches(RCS). Track from RCS has been popular for some time with 3-rail O-gaugers seeking to build a more scale type of layout. You can click on the image at left to see a larger view of this layout.

This point-to-point layout has a total of 16 switches. 10 of these are in the two yards, while the other four provide switched access to the turntable and the industrial sidings on the left side of the layout. We used #4 Premier Line switches in the yards and sidings, with an O54 Super Line switch used for turntable access. GarGraves standard straight track is used in most places for both the yard spurs and the custom radius curves.

We chose as a cost basis for the cut straight track and the custom curves 1/2 of the cost of a standard GarGraves 37.25" straight track. The total length of track is 164.6ft with 126 ft in straight track, 17.5 ft in curved track, 20 ft in switches, and less than 1 ft in special track (the cross). At right is the track list for this layout:

Track Item


(29) RCS/GG straight, 37.25in
(11) RCS Premiere Line #4 left-hand switch
(12) RCS/GarGraves custom bent curve
(21) RCS/GG cut straight
( 4) RCS Premiere Line #4 right-hand switch
( 1) RCS 45 cross
( 1) RCS O-54 30 curve
( 3) RCS O-64 22.5 curve
( 1) RCS straight, 14.5in
( 1) RCS O-54 30 left-hand switch
( 1) RCS straight, 29.0in


Total of 85 pieces costing $1045.05 of Ross Custom Switches track

GarGraves Trackage Design

The second layout we designed using hi-rail, GarGraves style track from GarGraves Trackage. Track from GarGraves has been available as an alternative to 3-rail Lionel track for many years and has been used for both hi-rail and Lionel style layouts. With GarGraves track you can create your own custom radius curved track, or select from the wide variety of sectional curves. Unlike track from Ross Custom Switches, the choices in switches is limited to the standard R100 turnout and the newer O42 turnout (subsequent to this layout design, GarGraves brought out their newest O72 turnout)..

The 16 switches in the layout are all standard GarGraves R100 switches. Since these have an spur exit angle of 10, we have added a short section of cut O63 curve (5) to the end of each switch to create a total exit angle of 15, which is a better match in overall design to the #4 turnouts of the RCS layout. However, the left most yard uses the stock exit angle of 10 since no curve let us maintain a ladder track spacing of about 4 inches.

All of the straight and curved track were GarGraves, with the 45 cross from Ross Custom Switches. As far as possible, we used stock GarGraves sectional curves cut as needed to smaller angles. As for the RCS design, the cost basis for the cut straight track and the cut sectional curved track was taken as 1/2 of the cost of the parent track section. The total track length is just over 157 ft, with 115 ft in straight track, 20 ft in curves, and 21 ft in switches.

Track Item


( 1) RCS 45 cross

(12) GarGraves R-100 left-hand turnout
( 7) GarGraves O-63 cut curve
(25) GarGraves 37.25" straight
(28) GarGraves cut straight
( 5) GarGraves O-138 cut curve
( 4) GarGraves R-100 right-hand turnout
( 3) GarGraves 6.2 inch straight
( 1) GarGraves cut-to-radius curve
( 1) GarGraves O-89 30 curve
( 1) GarGraves O-106 cut curve
( 2) GarGraves O-54 cut curve
( 1) GarGraves O-72 cut curve
( 1) GarGraves O-63 45 curve
( 1) GarGraves 12.4 inch straight


no price

Total of 92 pieces costing $660.80 of GarGraves Trackage and Ross Custom Switches track

Atlas O Design

The last layout we designed using hi-rail track from Atlas O. Atlas O is a new player in the 3-rail O-gauge track market. In 1997 they began introducing solid nickel-silver rail track. Atlas O track has the potential to combine good looks and running properties with the ease of use of Lionel tubular track. The track system is not fully developed at this time; there are only two turnouts to choose from and four radii of curves.

The lengths chosen for the straight track are designed to minimize, if not elimate, cutting of track. In our layout design, we did not have to cut any of the Atlas track with the exception of four of the O54 switches: these were cut off to 10.75 inches in length to allow us to create a ladder yard with about 4.0 inch track spacing.

Of the 16 turnouts, 15 were O54 and one was O72, providing access to the turntable. We used the standard exit angle of 22.5 for the yards; this makes the crossover region between the yards somewhat shorter than in either the RCS or the GarGraves designs. of the 156.7 ft of track, 123.7 ft is in straight track, 14.3 in curved track, 18 ft in turnouts, and 0.7 ft in special track (the cross).

Track Item


(136) Atlas 6050 10.0 inch straight
( 7) Atlas 6060 O54 22.5 curve
(10) Atlas 6070 O54 left-hand turnout
(17) Atlas 6051 4.50 inch straight
(27) Atlas 6052 1.75 inch straight
( 3) Atlas 6071 O54 cut right-hand turnout
( 3) Atlas O72 11.25 curve
( 5) Atlas 6062 O72 22.5 curve
( 1) Atlas 6072 O72 left-hand turnout
( 1) Atlas 6082 45 cross
( 1) Atlas 6061 O54 11.25 curve
( 1) Atlas 6071 O54 right-hand turnout
( 1) Atlas 6070 O54 cut left-hand turnout

no price

Total of 213 pieces costing $1384.19 of Atlas O-gauge track

Lionel O Design

Finally, as a control, we designed this layout using standard O-gauge track from Lionel. Lionel tinplate track has been around for over 60 years and used to be the only track used for 3-rail O-gauge train layouts. You can click on the image at left to see a larger view of this layout.

This point-to-point layout has a total of 15 switches. 9 of these are in the two yards, and are the new Lionel #23010/11 switches with removable makeup sections for the thru and spur track, while the other three are standard O72 switches and provide access to the turntable and the industrial sidings on the left side of the layout. All of the curves in the two yards are O31, either stock or cut. Due to the fixed spacing derived from the Lionel switches, we had to omit one spur track in the yard nearest the turntable.

We did not include either remote uncoupling tracks or track bumpers to make the comparison between the Lionel layout and the others more consistent. We chose as a cost basis for the cut straight track and the cut curves 1/2 of the cost of an equivalent track section. The total length of track is 147.2ft with 121ft in straight track, 13.3 ft in curved track, 15 ft in switches, and less than 1 ft in special track (the cross). At right is the track list for this layout:

Track Item


( 9) Lionel® O22* lefthand turnout
( 5) Lionel® O-31 cut curve no price
(22) Lionel® O 40 in straight
(41) Lionel® O single straight
( 9) Lionel® O custom cut straight
(15) Lionel® O half straight
( 2) Lionel® O22* righthand turnout
( 7) Lionel® O22* makeup straight no price
( 1) Lionel® O 45 cross
( 5) Lionel® O O-72 curve 22.5
( 4) Lionel® O O-54 curve
( 3) Lionel® O O-72 lefthand turnout
( 1) Lionel® O O-72 righthand turnout
( 1) Lionel® O-54 cut curve no price



Total of 125 pieces costing $792.15 of Lionel O track

Analysis: at first glance it appears that GarGraves Trackage is easily the hands down winner in terms of cost. The GarGraves design, at $661 is less than half of that of the Atlas O design (48 %) and considerably cheaper than Ross Custom Switches (63 %). However, we must consider that the Atlas O switches have integrated automatic switch machines, which neither the GarGraves or the RCS switches have. NJI switch machines cost about $15 each; to motorize and automate all 16 switches costs $240. This raises the cost basis of the GarGraves design to $901 and the RCS design to $1285, while the Atlas O design stays at $1384. The total range, between the cheapest layout (GarGraves) and the most expensive (Atlas) is 35 %. Using the GarGraves design as a basis, the RCS design costs 143 % as much while the Atlas design costs 154 % as much. Bear in mind that the cost of the Atlas layout may come down; we are using list prices for all three designs and Atlas has a 40 inch straight section that will substitute for some of the 10 inch sections we are using and does not cost as much. Given this, the Atlas O and Ross Custom Switches designs have essentially the same cost, while the GarGraves design is less expensive. This is entirely due to the cost of the switches: the 16 switches (with switch machines) cost $622 in the GarGraves design, $1035 for the RCS design, and $799 for the Atlas design.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Lionel design is higher in cost than the GarGraves design, but not if you consider that the Lionel switches have integrated switch machines like Atlas. In this case the Lionel layout at $792 is cheaper than the GarGraves at $901 and much cheaper than either Ross Custom Switches or Atlas O. Had we been able to squeeze in the missing yard spur, the addition of the switch and the straight track for the spur would raise the cost about $40, making the Lionel design still lower cost than the GarGraves design. The cost of the switches in the Lionel design is $602.

The tradeoff between ease of assembly and cost makes the Atlas O track an attractive alternative to Ross Custom Switches track. Even for the GarGraves design, the difference is cost is only a bit more than one of MTH's RailKing steamers.

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