Switches – Get the Point

28 03 2012

Switches are an important element in any track plan. Lionel’s switches are designed to fit in easily with other straight and curve track sections to make planning and building your layout easier. Understanding the terms and functions of a prototype switch can be helpful. Here’s a quick look at the anatomy of a switch so you’ll know what you’re looking at the next time you go “bend the iron.”

Switch Vocabulary

Stock Rails: These are the outside rails of the switch.


Several frogs can be seen in this view of a double-crossover switch.

Frog: The frog is the point at which the two inner rails cross. The name comes from the way the rails resemble a pair of frog’s legs. On prototype switches, frogs are numbered. The larger the number, the larger, and more gradual the switch. The number is based upon the distance in any given units it takes the tracks to move one unit apart. So, if it takes 22 feet for the two tracks to go 1 foot apart, then you have a number 22 frog. For modelers, frogs are normally figured based on inches and often the number is assigned to the whole switch. A number 6 frog (or switch) would require a 6 inch run to separate the tracks 1 inch.


Switch points direct the trains onto the diverging routes.

Points: The switch points are the moveable rails that direct the train onto the different routes. In some countries, the term can be applied to the entire switch structure as well. The flanges on the train wheels guide the train through the switch. So if the left rail is closed and the right point rail has a gap, the train will go to the right.

On most modern switches, the point rails are located between the stock rails. In earlier years, the stub switch was a more common option. On a stub switch the rails leading into the switch itself are moved. The design is much more simplified, but also maintenance intensive. It takes regular attention to make sure everything remains in gauge and aligned.

throwrod and switchstand

The switch stand is connected to the points by a throw rod.

Throwbar / Throwrod: This is the bar which connects the two point rails to the switch machine or switch stand. Like our models, switches can be thrown manually or by electric motors with the operators sometimes miles away. The switch stands are often adorned with colored plates or lanterns for night operations. These help train crews tell the orientation of the track from a greater distance.

Guard rails

Guard rails help prevent a derailment as wheels pass through the frog of the switch.

Guard rails: Guard rails are placed inside the stock rails opposite the frog. These simply help prevent the wheels from taking a wrong track through the frog.




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