Roco Line With Roadbed Is Back

Roco Line With Roadbed Is Back!

A look at why this product became an instant classic

By Ernest H. Robl

When it was introduced in stages in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Roco Line HO code 83 track system drew an enormous amount of attention for its many innovative features. Both the overall system and individual components won model of the year honors and other awards from a range of European model railroad publications and organizations over several years.

(Roco had previously offered an extensive code 100 track system — sold in North America under a variety of brand names, such as Model Power, in addition to its own — which continued to be produced, though with a limited range of components, long after Roco Line was introduced.)

This new code 83 track system from Roco included both track with and without roadbed, a wide range of curve radii and specialized components — for example three different radii of curved turnouts — but also had a geometrical design that allowed the building of a wide number of configurations with only a few compensation pieces, which were usually supplied with switches.

The track with roadbed looked good enough for installation on layouts (usually with a little bit of additional weathering) but was also solid enough to allow it to be stepped on by children when laid on the floor for a temporary setup. Of course, for those insisting on doing their own ballasting, there was always the track without roadbed, which had an identical geometry.

Perhaps the most innovative feature of the track with roadbed was that it was almost infinitely repairable. Yes, some track configurations required cutting the roadbed shoulders, but not only was this easy to do with the soft roadbed material, but those roadbed shoulders could later be replaced (if the track was to be later used in a different configuration) and the repair would be almost undetectable.

If the track itself was damaged but the roadbed still intact, the track was easy to replace by purchasing the matching component from the system without roadbed.

RL-cat1

A Roco catalog illustration from around 2001 shows some of the possibilities of the Roco Line track system with roadbed.

In fact, the system’s modular design allowed most track pieces (switches were an exception) to be easily removed from their roadbed, making it easy to paint the roadbed.

Switches with roadbed (with the exception of some simple versions supplied with starter sets) were supplied from the beginning with frog polarization, which worked even when the switch was used in manual mode — which required no additional manual switch operation mechanism.

Purpose designed switch motors fit invisibly under switches with roadbed, and, in later years, also included switch motors with built-in decoders.

The roadbed profile was to scale width, unlike some previously (and currently) available track with roadbed, where the roadbed is much too narrow, particularly for mainline tracks.

Among other things, the Roco Line with roadbed track also provided a great way to display models set up on bookshelves.

Gone, but not forgotten

Then, suddenly in 2005, Roco Line with roadbed ceased to be produced, for reasons which were complex, and to which I’ll get in a moment. (Roco Line without roadbed continued to be available.)

Dealers who still had Roco Line with roadbed items in stock considered them orphan items and put them on sale as remainders.

R42594-DKW

A Roco Line double slip switch with roadbed, showing the supplied compensation pieces which can be used to maintain correct track geometry. (Roco catalog illustration.)

 

But, those dealers failed to understand the popularity base for the roadbed track. Roco Line with roadbed gained a new life on the second-hand market, including on Internet sales sites such as eBay.

As some items became scarce, used versions would often fetch double the price of the same items when they were new.

And, from time to time, unused Roco Line with roadbed items would still show up — and be quickly gobbled up. (One large German hobby shop specializes, among other things, in buying up the inventory of hobby shops that are closing or otherwise going out of business. And those inventories often included a few odd pieces of Roco Line with roadbed that were still in their factory packaging.)

So, in a way, Roco Line with roadbed never totally went away, though it was no longer in production.

R42569-BWR9

A Roco Line with roadbed R9/10 curved turnout. (Roco catalog illustration.)

What happened?

Roco, like many other model railroad manufacturers, got into financial trouble in the first decade of this century. All of these manufacturers had huge investments in the development of new models and were trying to outdo each other in the number and range of items being offered, often in a wide range of scales.

Roco, for example, had even begun offering such fan items as jackets and umbrellas with the Roco label. It was only one example of Roco going “a bridge too far.” Roco had also decided to offer three different HO lines — Playtime, Professional, and Platinum. The first was an attempted to get more into the toy markets by offering items with so little detail that some “models” could at best be described as “crude.” There Roco was trying to enter an unfamiliar market segment. Because even the crude models had Roco drive trains, they were still on the expensive side for toys. And, if someone with Playtime “models” decided to get into serious model railroading, the Playtime items really didn’t fit in.

At the same time, two other factors had a major effect:

  • The global recession greatly reduced the amount of money available for such discretionary areas as hobbies
  • And, the Internet greatly changed the world market place.

Though Roco was probably not any more overextended financially than other model railroad manufacturers, the bank holding most of its loans decided to call in those loans and not to offer further financing, which might have carried Roco through some rough years. That forced Roco into bankruptcy.

The then owner of Roco was not happy with the circumstances under which the company was forced into bankruptcy. (Austrian news media reported that the bank made a tidy profit when it later sold the Roco assets it acquired through the bankruptcy. Some of those media have also indicated that there were, at the very least, two sides to the story and that though it had made some bad decisions, Roco might have survived, had the bank been willing to support it.)

Well, it turned out that the then owner of Roco himself, not the company, owned the patents for the Roco Line with roadbed. (The patents for the track without roadbed were among the general assets of the company.)

Well, as he was not happy with being forced out, that owner was not about to part with the patents for one of Roco’s signature products.

So, the new owners of Roco who had acquired the assets of the bankrupt company from the bank, were forced almost overnight to come up with a new track system. That system was Roco geoLine. This new track system had a few of the features of Roco Line, such as being able to manually operate switches without a switch motor or other accessory control being installed, but had a far smaller range of track radii and other components. New Roco HO start sets now included the geoLine tracks.

It’s baaaaack!

This year (2017) Roco suddenly announced that Roco Line with roadbed would again be available, with production runs scheduled for later this year. (Dealers can pre-order items; none of the items were available as of spring 2017.)

But, based on the Roco 2017 new items listings, the new selection of Roco Line roadbed products will apparently be essentially the entire range of products that was available in 2005.

So, with more than a decade having passed and with several changes of Roco management in the meantime, Roco was able to come to an agreement with the owner of the Roco Line patents which allowed new production.

Thoughts about the system

I plan to use Roco Line with roadbed for most of the visible portions of my layout. I have been acquiring pieces since the system was introduced, at first, primarily for display tracks. (I ended up with some geoLine tracks with a Roco start set that I purchased and plan to use those in a large industrial area; I also plan to use older Kleinbahn tracks in the station at the end of my branch line — simply because I have a lot of these Kleinbahn tracks, and by using them I’m saving several hundred dollars. Most of the hidden tracks, including the nine-track staging yard will be with older Roco code 100 track.)

Work on my previous layout convinced me that the next time around, I didn’t want to have to ballast every inch of track. So, track with roadbed — particularly a well-designed system like Roco Line — appeared to be the solution.

I acquired my first pieces of Roco Line while it was still in full production. Then I bought a number of items when dealers had remainder sales after production ceased. But, about half of the track that I currently own was acquired in the last five years, as I began finalizing my track plan. And of that, about half of that was used, the remainder unused items that showed up from time to time.

I’ve painted most of the roadbed and have been weathering track over the last few weeks, applying a light wash of rust. That’s something you can do with roadbed track, prior to installation.

Would I recommend Roco Line with roadbed for others? Certainly.

But I do have a few cautions:

  • To use the larger radii, you really need a lot of space. But these radii do look impressive.
  • The same is true for the 10 degree turnouts. Use these sparingly unless you have space to spare.
  • On the other hand, I would stay away from radius R2 (there isn’t any R1) except for industrial tracks that will only be used by small switchers and short freight cars. That includes the R2/3 curved turnouts. Yes, my 1:100 passenger cars, longer freight cars, and all my engines will operate on R2 tracks (including R2/3 turnouts) on my current test loop, but the equipment just doesn’t look right, and backup moves can be tricky. You could run into problems with full-length 303mm passenger cars on parallel R2 and R3 tracks, particularly if those tracks include curved turnouts.
  • Roco Line includes extra economical versions of both the 15 degree right and left standard turnouts and the left and right R2/3 curved turnouts without frog polarization. I would stay away from these, as they would be difficult to polarize later, should you need polarized frogs. And, the cheaper turnouts (primarily intended for start sets) do not come with the compensation pieces that are included with the polarized turnouts. Should you want to use a polarized turnout as a spring switch, which can be trailed through, it is a simple matter of disconnecting the polarization wire. That can later be reconnected, if needed. Saving a few dollars per turnout isn’t worth the loss of versatility. (Having said that, I need to note that I do have some of these turnouts, but plan to use them at easily accessible locations not on the main line.)

It will be interesting to see how Roco promotes this track to those not familiar with the system — and whether it plans to carry the roadbed line long-term. (In the early 2000s, Roco had entire brochures focusing just on Roco Line track and describing its innovative features.)

Quick hints-Roco Line with roadbed products have 425xxx catalog numbers. Matching Roco Line track without roadbed have identical 424xx numbers. Accessories, some of which are designed for only the roadbed line, while others fit both track systems, are in the 426xx catalog numbers.

What will be the hot items? Undoubtedly the roadbed switch motors. These have been hard to come by, and used ones have been going for more than twice their original price. I’ve pre-ordered some at prices that are quite reasonable — and much less than switch motors offered by most other manufacturers.

Another item that has been in short supply have been the R9 curved tracks. These are needed in conjunction with the R9/10 switches (of which there appear to be quite a few around, despite their space requirements) and for narrower spacing of parallel tracks. R10 is the counter curve for the 15 degree switches, but R9 can be used if you want a slightly narrower track spacing.

On the whole, the renewed availability of Roco Line with roadbed is good news — except for those who have been making good money off of it on the used market.

At the very least, these make great display tracks.

Postscript

While I am happy to answer questions about Roco Line with roadbed, as I own a wide range of components and have done quite a bit of research on it, I do not want to get into a debate here about whether Roco Line with roadbed is better (or worse) than some other track system. The track system that you choose, like many other aspects of model railroading, is a matter of taste. What satisfies one person may not do the same for another.

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As always, comments are welcome.

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One Response to Roco Line With Roadbed Is Back

  1. Gordon says:

    Very interesting write up, Ernest. Too bad its HO! Still I enjoyed your description.

    Cheers!
    Gordon

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