How NTRAK Started, By Ben Davis.



NTRAK has been part of the model railroading scene since our debut in 1974
and I want to tell you a bit about its beginning. First, since many of you
probably don't know who I am, let me introduce myself as the guy who came up
with the NTRAK idea and got it started. The first prototype module was built
in my garage and was shown at the 1973 MRIA Show in Costa Mesa, California.
From there we signed up for our first big showing at the 1974 NMRA National
in San Diego and from the moment we started operating, we knew we had a
hit...a real big hit. So much is obvious now but it wasn't always so. Let me
review some of the things that influenced its design and concept.

My own hopes for NTRAK were that it would get N Scalers out of their garages
into NMRA meets; would help promote N Scale and would bring dynamic operat
ing layouts to big public shows. The specifications were designed so that
any builder, anywhere in the world, could build a module, bring it to a show
year after year, and know it would "plug" into the others and operate. In
particular, I wanted to show N off in its finest light and I wanted to keep
everything else simple.

As an HO'er who modeled alone in a corner of my garage, I was always
frustrated because no matter how much room I could get, the layout always
looked cramped and toy-like. Then one day I saw some N and overnight sold
all my HO - lock, stock and layout and started building the same layout in N
in 1/4 the space. After a lot of work, and a little running, I began to
realize this was a mistake. The N Layout also looked toy-like. What I should
have done was use the same space for N as I had for HO. You see, I wanted my
layout to be a prototype looking scene.

I helped form the Belmont Shore RR Club, probably the first N club in the
country. We ended up with as much space as most HO clubs and in N this
really enabled us to go for the prototype scene. We had wide-sweeping,
double track, mainline curves and grades of 1 to 1 1/2%. Our mainline was
over 10 scale miles long and passed through a freight yard that would hold
over 500 cars. It passed four substantial railroad towns, a huge passenger
station that would hold eight double-headed full-length passenger trains,
and several large industrial complexes. Our long freights wound around
mountain ranges that were high enough to be room dividers. The trains really
appeared to be going somewhere - not just back and forth and up and down
like a bowl of spaghetti.

Those long freights, running at scale speed, looked magnificent and when two
met and passed on our parallel mainline tracks, things got real quiet as
everyone watched. Best of all was watching a triple headed passenger with
ten 85' cars slowly catch and overtake a long freight.

To help promote N. the Belmont Shore Club held annual N Scale meets. We
didn't want N to fail to meet its full potential. We wanted our N suppliers
to grow so they would be able to furnish us with more and better products.
We wanted other N Scalers to get the same thrill we were getting. We thought
that somehow we had to get the best of a club-type layout in a portable
layout that we could take to large public shows and designed so that others
could build parts of it. It had to be big enough so long trains could be run
without derailments and balky operation. It had to have first class scenery.
But how?

Over the next several months, I played around with ideas and finally settled
on the concept we have today. Standardized modules, all with the same
electrical and mainline interfaces but, each inviting the builder to do his
own thing on the diorama part. The modules had to be totally interchangeable
and the mainline had to be long, straight and very well laid. We decided on
three tracks to enable us to have plenty of operation plus both train meets
and overtaking passes. We set the table height high for best viewing but not
so high little guys couldn't see. The skyboard was armpit high and the
distance to the mainline track was within easy reach of the average arm. To
keep electrical interfaces simple, we specified two pin Cinch connectors.
But the electrical also has to be flexible enough to allow different
arrangements, throttles and operating conditions from one year to the next.
Each complete loop could be divided into as many blocks as there were
throttles.

Our layout for the '74 NMRA National was 12' X 72'. We ran 50 to 100 car
trains all during the meet. People just couldn't believe what they were
seeing and stood around three deep in absolute awe. It truly was an
impressive opening. The first person to volunteer his help was Jim
FitzGerald and, in short order, he was putting out a newsletter. l stayed
with NTRAK through its early formative years and got it past a few difficult
times, but I had also been pretty well burned and so I backed off and turned
things over to Jim.

NTRAK Today

During the first twenty years well over 2,000 modules were built to NTRAK
specifications across the United States and Canada. There are also active
groups using NTRAK modules in England, The Netherlands, Australia, and New
Zealand. The idea of the modular portable displays has since spread to the
other scales as well.

NTRAK is a very informal organization. The local clubs set their own by-laws
and structure. Some have permanent quarters, regular meetings, and a dues
schedule. Others just get together several times a year and assemble a
layout for a shopping center or train meet. At "the top", as NTRAK
Publishing, l coordinate the publishing and distribution of the NTRAK
specifications, data sheets, and the Newsletter. Promotional material is
available for club and individual use. Throttles, power supply, and train
detector signals are available for large layouts. All of the module builders
are able to keep in touch with one another through the NTRAK Newsletter.
Since 1977 the Newsletter has been published every other month. It is a
place for N scalers to share their ideas. It features photo coverage of home
and club modular layouts. There are articles covering new modular ideas and
solutions for problems. Schedules for displays and N conventions are
included.