In 1973 a group of enthusiastic model railroaders got together at an N scale meet in Signal Hill, California, and talked about what they could do to help interest people in N scale, and to share information about N scale. The NTRAK project resulted from this meeting and the idea has spread throughout the model railroad hobby. NTRAK, Inc. is a nonprofit organization run by volunteers, its purpose and objective is to encourage model railroading in N scale. There are now N Scale modular clubs in most areas of the United States and Canada, there are also NTRAK clubs in Australia, England, Holland, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Japan, and many other countries.
NTRAK modules are used to build large display layouts as well as home and club layouts. Modelers from all over the world can build modules, bring them to a show, connect their module with modules brought by other modelers and by doing so a giant N scale layout is soon constructed. NTRAK modules have been used for NMRA National Convention layouts since 1974.
NTRAK layouts combine beautifully detailed modules, with long trains running on the two main lines. A third track, the branch line is used for picking up and setting out cars at the many industries along the way.
What follows is the history of NTRAK as seen through the eyes of the founder, the late Ben Davis who created the original NTRAK standard. The late Jim FitzGerald who ran the NTRAK organization for 40 years updated the history. An appendix has been added by those who have followed as subsequent leaders of the organization.
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 operating 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 grade s 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 trai ns, 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 train s 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. T he 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 be st 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 electri cal 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.
(Ben passed away in the year 2000)
During the first thirty years well over 3,000 modules were built to NTRAK specifications across the United States and Canada. There are also active groups using NTRAK modules in England, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. The idea of the modular portable displays has since spread to the other scales as well.
In 1996 NTRAK became "NTRAK Modular Railroading Society, Inc." a non profit, 501 c3 type corporation. (That means that donations are tax deductible). NTRAK is still a very informal organization. All members receive the NTRAK Newsletter six times a year. 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. NTRAK, Inc. coordinates the publishing and distribution of the NTRAK specifications, data sheets, and the Newsletter. Promotional material is available for club and individual use. All of the module builders are able to keep in touch with one another through the NTRAK Newsletter. It is a place for N scalers to share their ideas. It features photo coverage of modular layouts. There are articles covering new modular ideas and solutions for problems. Schedules for displays and N conventions are included.
NTRAK Update II
In November 2013, Jim FitzGerald passed away, never having missed publication of one issue of the newsletter. Jim not only helped get NTRAK going, for many years, he was Mr. NTRAK. Jim still has not received the recognition from the model railroad community for initiating a renaissance in the hobby by taking model railroading to the public. NTRAK continues to publish a newsletter and other documents related to model railroading in N scale.