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A guide to installing Catenary

Catenary is a feature of most countries real size railways to one degree or another. In Europe it covers the two most of the European mainlines.

We offer modelers in many scales a suitable Catenary system - and in most scales the option to electrify the wires to allow real operation from the overhead. In scales N, HO and OO we suggest Viessmann for its extensive range and excellent realism, while in Z scale the Marklin range provides a good representation of the real thing.

Getting started

We recommend reading this guide as a primer on the options available to make the installation as life like as you wish. For instance some modelers choose to avoid installing the wires, and simply create an impression of the Catenary by placing masts alongside the track.

In the two most popular scales (N and HO) there are a number of starter packs designed to give you a number of Catenary masts and Catenary wires to get you started. These provide good value for money irrespective of your requirements.

Finally once you have completed reading this guide simply click the links below to purchase items in your scale.

Mast Options

In many locations a simple single mast is placed beside each running line. The mast holds the catenary wire over the track allowing the electric locomotive to run underneath and collect power to drive it's engine via the Pantograph on the locomotive roof. The picture opposite shows a typical Electric locomotive.

Occasionally a mast will be placed centrally between two tracks, and it will support catenary wires over both tracks, this is called a Middle Mast.

Where two (or more)  lines run parallel to each other a mast may be placed opposite a second mast on the outer sides of the two tracks. From these two masts a wire, girder or pole is suspended, with the catenary wires being hung from this frame. The frame hanging between the two masts is called a Headspan - in the Viessmann system the Headspan is sold both separately and as part of a unit with two masts. 

Placing masts around the track

The system allows you to vary the length between masts dependant on your layout. On straight sections this is simply a case of choosing the right length of catenary wire - Viessmann produce lengths ranging from 140mm to 400 mm. Plus a range of wires for specific track components from various European track systems.

On curves it become slightly more difficult as you must place the masts frequently enough to ensure the catenary wire is held in place around the curve. Viessmann recommend a mast every 22.5 degrees.

If you look carefully at the diagram opposite you will notice that the wire actually moves away from the centre line of the track. This helps the wire navigate the curve - we will cover this later on.

The Mast Positioner

Most masts come complete with a foot which includes small grooves across it. For perfect fault free spacing of the mast at the correct distance away from the track, simply cut the foot along the relevant groove, and place the foot tight up against the track sleepers. For Hornby and Peco OO track use the 'Fleischmann Gleis' groove.

Once the mast is ready for installation, simply follow these points:

  1. Use a pencil to mast through the hole in the foot of the mast.
  2. Drill a hole into the baseboard
  3. Screw the foot securely onto the baseboard.
  4. Slot the mast into it's foot.

Suitable screws, plus a long screwdriver are available from the Viessmann range, extra feet are also available.

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The Wire Positioners

As we have already mentioned, it is important to place the wire in the correct position.

Height: Too high and the pantograph does not touch it, too low and the pantograph is exerting a powerful upward force and may break the wire.

Width. Too far from the centre line and the pantograph will slip off the wire. But it is helpful to move the wire away from the centre line to assist in negotiating curves.

Which is where the 4196 Height positioner and 4197 Wire positioner come into play. Using these two tools means you can set up the catenary wire without worry.

  4196 Height Positioner
4197 Height Positioner

Universal Catenary wire

Items of wire marked Universal, will also feature a range of lengths. This does not mean the wire is elastic, but rather the ends of the wires are not pre bent for clipping over the catenary mast. The 4198 Catenary pliers allow you to shorten the Universal catenary wires and form the required loop.

Grip the wire in the pliers, turn 180 degrees, release - simple! The loops should be formed on the inner sides of the catenary wires.


Hanging Wire onto the Mast

The process to begin fixing the wires onto your Masts is equally simple. once the masts have been fixed onto the baseboard.

1. Gently squeeze the masts prongs so the catenary wire can pass outside of each prong.

2. Once the loop of the top wire is in position, curve the bottom wire into position also.

3. Hook the wires onto the prongs and pull tight, letting go of the prongs at the same time.


Electrifying your Catenary

If you plan to pass power through your catenary you will need some extra components. All the items we have discussed so far can pass electrical current , but not introduce it to the catenary. To electrify your system you need a 4111 Power Mast, plus a 4188 Fuse. As a guide you should install a 4111 Power Mast at least every 3M along your catenary to avoid a power drop.

Passing of isolating the power

If you intend to electrify your Catenary, you need to ensure power passes from one catenary wire to another.

This can be done in two ways:

  1. By ensuring all catenary wires hang from the catenary masts via the live section of the prong.
  2. By using 'Y' pieces at each catenary mast to pass power onto the following wire.

Depending on which method you use, also changes how you create breaks in the electrical continuity of the catenary.

With option one you can simply place adjoining wires onto the isolated section of a catenary mast.

With option two you need to use a 4175 Isolated section between two wires - just like the real operating railway.

1. Wires hung from live section

2. Y piece bridges any gap at Mast

Wires tensioners & end points

In real life each catenary wire has a certain length and as it reaches the end, it needs to be exchanged for a fresh length. This is achieved by running two wires in parallel for a short distance and then running the old cable off to the side of the track and a separate mast. Use the 4164 or 4165 masts to recreate this

To install a wire tensioner , you will need to do the following:

  1. Trim the catenary wire to 2.5 cm beyond an dropper
  2. Take the end of the catenary wire and slip on two 4187 Isolators.
  3. 3. Hook onto Tensioning mast
  4. Twist wire to hold firm
  5. Shows mast with normal and wire tensioner in position.
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