How much does building a helix cost?

I’m at a point where I need to build a helix and trying to decide the direction to take. Whether it would be Atlas/PECO flex track + whole shebang; or KATO Unitrack, or even Tomix Fine Track (very pricey). Over at forums, I made a post with some rough estimates of costs for my case and I thought to post it here on my build blog for everyone to see.

The helix I’m building will be an oval and has to cover 3 decks, climbing from 0 to 30″, with a tap half-way.

I would need 30 ft. (~350″, incl. both tracks) per level; 10 levels makes it 3500″ (100 pieces of PECO / 117 pieces of Atlas flex).

Common costs – either solutions require sub-roadbed, feeders, frame.

Baltic Birch 5×5′ sheet of 3/8″ plywood is $30, need 3 sheets for 10 levels (4×45° crescents + 2×24″ straight per level) that’s $90.
I can have it laser cut which would cost $? ($1/min + $10/setup fee, or $0.40/sq. inch but let’s assume $100), or I can cut it myself which would cost me a few hours of my time, setup, aggravation, inhaling wood dust, etc.

24 AWG solid copper wire, 8-12 inch pieces to the spine buss, 4 pieces of wire per feed point, assuming we use CAT 5e cable, 100 ft. bulk $25

Sub-total: $190 + $25 = $215

Would cost $60 per level (6×480/447 mm curves, 4×480/447 mm easements, 6×248 mm straights).
$600 for 10 levels but includes roadbed, joiners, etc. Assembly is easy and track needs to be tacked onto the sub-roadbed with adhesive/caulk.

Need to have crossovers at strategic locations so trains can switch tracks as well as exit and entry points.
$53 per double-crossover, let’s assume I install 3 of these, totalling $156.

Need to tap off at a half-way point for middle deck, so another 2 turnouts, plus a diamond if I want both tracks to tap off.
$22 per turnout, $9 for crossing, total $53

Sub-total: $809
Total: $809 + $215 (common) = $1,024 + $time

Flex Track
$400 for PECO C55 / $310 for C80; or $340 for Atlas C80.
Track needs to be glued (or nailed down), and has to dry 24 hrs.

Track Joiners
$25 for PECO / $10 for Atlas, for 200 joiners

PECO has double-crossover, $85 each, 3 of these for $255.
Atlas doesn’t have double-crossovers, so we need 2 pairs of turnouts each in a single-crossover arrangement, $18 per #6 remote turnout, 12 turnouts equalling $216

Need to tap off at a half-way point for middle deck, so another 2 turnouts, plus a diamond if I want both tracks to tap off.
PECO is $13.5 per turnout, $5 for crossing, total $32
Atlas is $18 per turnout, $8 for a crossing, total $44

Midwest cork 3’x25 in a box is $16; 4 boxes is $64
Each piece has to be glued down and weighted, then let to try 24 hrs.

I need to solder extensive lengths of flex, and leave strategic gaps (2? per level on opposite ends of the straights) for expansion/contraction. 10 pieces of track per level, 18 solder joints. I’m pretty skilled with the soldering iron, but time is money, so each level could cost some $? to do. Time-wise it would several days to complete.

Dap caulk, Dynaflex 230, $5 per tube, let’s assume 4 tubes, $20

Total time required to solder the flex; cork drying time; fiddling with curves; other unknowns, etc. $?

Sub-total: PECO C55 $796 + $time + $unknowns
Sub-total: PECO C80 $706 + $time + $unknowns
Sub-total: Atlas C80 $684 + $time + $unknowns

Total: PECO C55 $795 + $215 (common) = $1,010 + $time + $unknowns
Total: PECO C80 $706 + $215 (common) = $921 + $time + $unknowns
Total: Atlas C80 $684 + $215 (common) = $899 + $time + $unknowns

* Atlas prices from MB Kline, PECO prices from Hattons, Midwest from MB Kline, KATO prices from HobbySearch, others Google.

In general, I think if I went with KATO Unitrack the build time would probably be couple of days, while the flex track option would take a week or more to complete. Is the amount of waiting and amount of additional time spent worth saving $150?

I’m not drawing any conclusions on the bottom line yet, and I’m also eager to hear what others will say about this estimate. I don’t claim that my estimate is a gospel, and I could be totally wrong.

I do believe anyone planning a helix build should consider all the angles first, and not just go with what everyone else has been doing for the last 30 years.