Planning and Building A Garden Railroad

What is a garden railroad?

That question may seem to be self-explanatory, however, there are many possibilities. The two main elements are the garden and a railroad, but you are certainly not limited to that. It could include a waterfall or pond, or both. It could also include rocks, or boulders. It could be located inside, such as in an aviary, or part of a pool enclosure, or located outside in your yard. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination.

Why a garden railroad?

A garden railroad opens up the possibility of combining two hobbies into one, "model railroading "and "gardening". It can be done as a family project or as an escape from the daily stress that we may experience. More than anything, garden railroading is fun.

When should you build a garden railroad? Anytime is a good time. For those of us who are fortunate enough to live in Florida, the weather is not as big a factor as it may be in a colder climate. The heat may play a role in when you choose to get started, but even that is not a deterrent if you plan your fun for early morning, or late evening.

Where do you build a garden railroad? Inside, outside, front yard, back yard, side yard, pool enclosure, or anywhere you have space. Wherever you decide, you should take into consideration future expansion plans. Garden railroads tend to grow rapidly, and it would be much easier later on if it were planned for.

How to get started building your garden railroad?

The first step is planning.  We suggest you begin by doing research, looking at photographs, reading books on the subject or by viewing existing garden railroads.

We have produced a video "look what's growing in the garden" which is an excellent place to start. It will answer most of your questions about how to plan and build your railroad. The video is $24.95, but we have a special offer to help get you started. The video is free if you purchase $250.00 or more of any large scale trains, track, or accessories. That means that even a starter set will get you the video free just for the asking.

You may want to plan your railroad so that it fits in well with your existing garden, or plan to make the necessary modifications that will allow for minimum amount of change. This will allow you to have healthy and mature plants without having to start from scratch.

You will certainly have more flexibility if you start from scratch, but it will take some time for the new plants to establish themselves.

Track layout certainly is one of the first things you should consider when designing your layout. There are many ways to design a layout, but the four most common are as follows:

First: you could lay the track out on the ground to see how it will fit in the area you have chosen for your railroad. After you are satisfied that you have arrived at your final track configuration you will need to make a sketch of the layout indicating the location and part numbers of each piece the way you have laid it out.

Second: you can use a published track plan from a book such as the LGB Track Planning and Technical Guide. This simplifies the process because these plans have already done all the designing for you. They usually include electrical diagrams and other considerations that will normally save you a considerable amount of time.

Third: use a track template and draw your layout piece by piece. This is very time consuming, but it allows you to have a lot of flexibility in your design.

Fourth: the hi-tech method of using a computer and a design software such as pc-rail, rr track, or one of the other fine programs. This will allow you to explore many possibilities in a relatively short period of time.

The next most important thing in the design process is the ground elevation or grade. It is difficult for most model railroad locomotives to climb up hills. Even the real railroads have great difficulty. Wheels tend to slip and motors tend to overheat particularly on long trains. For this reason it would be rare to find a garden railroad with more than a 3% grade.

Although 3% grades are possible, it would be best to restrict the maximum grade to 2% for the most trouble free operation. A 2% grade would be equal to a two inch rise over one hundred inches of forward movement, or two feet of rise for every one hundred feet of forward travel.

It may be necessary to cut away soil in some areas and fill other areas much the same way the real railroads do to keep the grade to a minimum. There are several ways to check the grade, including a surveyors transit, a water level, or maybe even a piece of string and some kind of level.

Another consideration is track spacing. When two tracks run parallel to each other you will need a minimum spacing of 165mm or (6 1/2") on straight sections, and 185mm or (7 1/4") for curved sections.

You should also avoid reverse curves. When the track curves back and forth you need to include a piece of straight track between the curves at least as long as the longest locomotive or rolling stock that you plan to run on the railroad. This will help to prevent derailments and allow the trains to run much more smoothly.

Curved Track Geometry

Track is available from several manufacturers in three standard radiuses:

1) small radius 30 degree curve - 12 pieces make a circle - 24" radius, or 48" diameter circle from the centerline of the track.

2) medium radius 30 degree curve - 12 pieces make a circle - 2' 6" radius, or a 5 foot diameter circle from the centerline of the track.

3) large radius 22.5 degree curve - 16 pieces make a circle - 3' 10" radius, or 7' 8" diameter circle from the centerline of the track.

4) some manufacturers have even larger radius sectional track. Aristo-craft has both a 5ft. And a 10ft. Radius brass track, and TDV has 10 different radii available in stainless steel. Flex track is also an option. LGB has flex track in 5ft. Lengths, and TDV stainless is available in 4ft., 5ft., and 10ft. Lengths. It is generally best to use the largest radius that will fit in the space that you have. It will look better and it will run more smoothly and trouble-free.

Track also comes in a number of different materials such as stainless steel, brass, nickel silver, steel, and aluminum. Brass is probably the most popular, and the least expensive, however it requires a high degree of maintenance.

Although stainless steel track is more expensive, it really is the best choice for outdoors. Stainless track will allow you to spend more time enjoying your garden railroad. It requires very little maintenance and it looks great in the garden as well.

In Florida we do not have many of the constraints that our northern neighbors have to contend with. There is a minimal concern about the ground freezing in winter or the track being covered by snow. However, we do need to consider good drainage.

In the south where there is little chance of the ground freezing, the track can be laid directly on the ground or any number of other ways depending on your situation. You could for instance lay it on top of roofing shingles and ballast around the track. You may also want to consider laying your track on 2"x6" pressure treated lumber.

Colder climates may require you to use 2"x6" pressure treated lumber, a concrete roadbed, or dig a channel in the ground that you fill with ballast. If snow is a problem the track could be elevated on 2"x6" pressure treated lumber on 4x4 posts at an appropriate height for your area.

If you are using brass track it is very important that each rail joint be covered with LGB # 5101 electrically conductive grease. After the rails have been joined remove any excess grease. This grease helps to prevent water from oxidizing the rails inside the rail joiners, causing a loss in the electrical conductivity.

The electrical conductive grease is only a temporary solution. You may also want to consider soldering a jumper wire around each rail joint. This will help to minimize the effects of oxidation that tend to build up inside the rail joiners after a period of time. There are several ways of doing this so you will probably want to experiment a bit and use whatever method works best for you. You will need a fairly large soldering iron in order to get as much heat to the rail as you can quickly without melting the plastic ties.

One method that works fairly well is to drill a small hole through the side of the rail, starting on the outside, and drilling down towards the inside at a45 degree angle. Tin the rail around the holes and both ends of your jumper wire and then insert the wire in the holes on either side of the rail joint while applying heat to the rail as you insert the wire.

Another important consideration is to have wires that provide power to the rails in more than one location. A good rule to follow would be to have one set of wires for every twenty five to thirty feet of track. You may get by with less, but your railroad will run longer and more smoothly if you do this during your installation. A good way to accomplish this is to use a large set of bus wires running parallel to the track and use smaller jumper wires to the terminal track sections every 25 to 30 feet.

Once the track is down you will probably want to ballast the track with some sort of crushed rock. This works much better than river gravel because the irregular shape of the crushed rocks tend to interlock with each other and prevent it from washing away in a heavy rain.

Materials, tools and other equipment1) track template, computer design software, or pre existing track plans

2) level and string, or a transit

3) yard tools including a shovel, rake, pick ax, sledge hammer, wheel barrow, hose, and many more items too numerous to mention.

4) wooden stakes

5) black topsoil, or fill dirt

6) roofing shingles, pressure treated lumber or other roadbed materials.

7) track and turnouts

8) ballast - (crushed granite works best)

9) electrical wire, and the appropriate hand tools

10) terminal hook up wire

11) insulated rail joiners

12) LGB electrical conducting grease

13) LGB #5175 and # 5180 control boxes

14) transformer

15) LGB #5012 outdoor controller

16) "Don't forget the train"

Reference materials

1) Beginner's Guide to the Large Scale Model Railroading by Marc Horovitz and Russ Larson (Greenburg books)

2) Model Railroading with LGB by Robert Schleicher (A Greenburg publication)

3) The Large-scale Model Railroading Handbook by Robert Schleicher (A Chilton Book)

4) LGB Track Planning and Technical Guide by Robert Munzing (Ernst Paul Lehmann Patentwerk )

5) Garden Railroader magazine

6) Fine Scale Railroader magazine

7) The LGB Telegram (Buffington Publishing)

8) Look What's Growing in the Garden (video – HR Trains & Toys, Inc.


© 2000 HR Trains & Toys, Inc. – Don Morris