This website is presented as a brief guide for starting a garden railroad. Follow some of the guidelines and make some reasonable decisions before you start and you too will be enjoying an operational railroad in no time. Check out the “Resources” section for some expert details in areas where you may need more specific guidance. Only track power and battery power designs will be covered. While steam-powered trains share many of the design and layout features, they do require some technical features beyond my current skills. Check here for more information on live steam locomotives.
Start with a Plan
Before you build anything have a preliminary plan and make a decision on the maximum size of locomotives and rolling stock you will be using. By knowing what “scale” of trains you will be running, you can then figure out what the radius of your track has to be. It makes a big difference if you have a small area to work with and have a large, 27-inch locomotive attempting to maneuver through your very small curves.
Initially some of us suffer from “analysis paralysis/over-analyzing our plans” and delaying the start of our layout.
It’s great to plan but let’s get started.
Theme and Scale
Set aside sufficient time to conduct appropriate research for your proposed setting, or theme. Themes that assimilate an era, layout, organics, rolling stock, structures, equipment, the way people dress, etc., are very important! A theme can be a coal-mining, industrial or farming operation, historic or modern-day settings, or anything that communicates anything other than haphazard placement of items on a layout.
Consider your theme and scale simultaneously. If you prefer a cross-country Amtrak passenger train operation as a theme, you need to consider the “scale” of your train. Scale is simply the proportion to the real thing. Garden railroading is most often referred to as a “large scale” operation with equipment that is 1:32, 1:29, 1:24, 1:22.5, and 1:20.3 scale. Select a scale and do your best to use rolling stock, buildings, structures, etc. that are the same scale and in line with your theme. Often you won’t be able to find buildings, figures, or structures of the exact scale as your train. Don’t be afraid to include some that are out of scale. They may still look appropriate if they are placed at a distance or in the right setting. At a distance, an over-sized figure or structure may appear just fine. However, consistency is very important. Trains that dwarf skyscrapers look odd on a layout; so plan carefully.
Depending on the size of your layout, you can have more than one theme. For example, when your train departs a modern-day city, it can transition through farmlands and mountain settings with their appropriate figures and structures. Unless you’re running an early American excursion railroad, you may not want to run a steam train in a modern-day city setting.
If you’re a stickler for detail, consider simulating a prototypical operation; designing and operating it as close to the real thing as possible. This will require considerable research. However, if you enter the “large scale” operations from a model railroading background you may already possess this skill set.
Gauge is the distance between the two rails of a track. The distance for large scale railroads is 1.775 inches or 45 millimeters. This gauge is historically called No. 1 gauge. For clarity, it’s best if you refer to your track gauge as No. 1 gauge and your railroad as “large scale”. There is no “G gauge” so don’t confuse yourself or others by making a reference to “G gauge”. If you have a background in model railroading with O, HO, N, and Z scale, you are well aware that each of these scales comes with a proportional size of track. In “large scale”, the track gauge came first and the manufacturers just resized the trains to function on the existing track.
You will encounter standard gauge and narrow gauge in your train selections. The prototypical railroad standard gauge is 56½ inches and is supported by the 1:29 and 1:32 scale models. 1:32 is the correct scale for standard-gauge trains and 1:29 is considered a “compromise” scale. The North American narrow gauge of 36 inches is supported by the 1:20.3, 1:22.5, and 1:24 scale models with 1:20.3 being the correct scale. So, keep this in mind as you buy your rolling stock. A small 1:32 scale steam train may look awkward pulling passenger cars of a much larger scale.
First, determine where you want to place your railroad and how much room you have to work with. Having a ground-level track usually makes the project less expensive to set up but may require more maintenance due to weather, erosion, plant/grass intrusion, animals, etc. An elevated layout also makes it a lot easier to place the trains on the track. You don’t have to lay flat on the ground to align the wheels, connect the cars, etc.
If you have a hilly area to work with, keep in mind that locomotives pull their trains rather easily on straight track, but it takes a lot of effort going uphill. Most hobbyists try to keep their grades at 3 percent or less. Your train length is cut in half for every percent of grade that you add.
One of the basic components of your railroad is “track”. Some of the cheaper pre-packaged train sets often come with a nice oval set of track which is great for indoors. However, your track will take a beating from the outdoor elements (rain, snow, hail, and possibly extreme temperature changes). Make sure that it’s suitable for outdoors.
You have a variety to choose from. Aluminum, solid brass, and stainless steel track comes in different “code” or height, measured in thousandths of an inch. Code 332 (about 1/3 inch high), and Code 250 (1/4″) are the more popular codes. A durable, multipurpose track such as Code 332 solid brass track is popular and looks good on a railroad. Aluminum rail may be less expensive, but is prone to all sorts of problems. The rail is very soft, prone to kinking, doesn’t conduct electricity as well, and the aluminum oxide is an abrasive which will affect your operations. A stainless steel track may never require the cleaning and corrosion prevention maintenance required of brass track, but it’s much more expensive.
For your straight track sections, get the longest length available to you. Longer sections means fewer connections, better connectivity, and possibly lower costs. Most track comes with slip-on joiners to connect your track and these will get you started. However, for better electrical connectivity, and a more secure fit, you may want to consider starting off with rail clamps.
Curves and Ballast
As you envision your layout you will realize that your layout will require track that isn’t straight. Your design plan will need curved track for your loops and curves to maneuver around any immovable objects or plants in your yard. You may also need a “switch” to take your trains in a different direction. Use the widest radius of curved track your space will allow. That makes the trains operate better and look more realistic, especially with larger equipment. Curved track is available in a variety of diameters. Flexible track may be of some help but a handy tool to purchase or borrow for use with it is a rail bender. With this tool, you can customize your layout to your heart’s content. To make sure that your track connects and aligns well, stick to only one track manufacturer.
Once your track is in place, you can bring it to life by adding ballast between the ties and along the sides of the track. You can purchase ready-made ballast, use chicken grit, or check out a quarry for some fines or dust. Whatever you do, don’t be tempted with pea gravel or any other rounded rock for ballast. It doesn’t lock together to provide firm support for the track.
You really don’t need to secure your ballast permanently with cement or some other glues. I found that by using a product found in Home Depot “RapidSet Cement-All” and mixing it with a generous portion of sand, your ballast will firmly bond your track to your roadbed. If you do it right, you should be able to remove it easily if you need to change your design.
Locomotives come ready to run on a track powered layout. Your power supply will enable you to run your train at variable speeds, stop it as you wish and have it go backwards. You can also use your power supply to power switches, lighting, etc. The size of your power unit will be dictated by the length of your railroad and how you plan to use it for other features.
Most hobbyists want quite a bit more out of their trains. Adding sounds and remote control features require additional skill sets. You can learn to add these features yourself or have a skilled vendor make the necessary adjustments.
If you can, customize your locomotives to run off of battery power, add a sound system, and enable them to operate remotely. Battery power eliminates the need to worry about electrical conductivity throughout the track. Most customized systems allow you to recharge your locomotive’s batteries without having to remove them from the unit.
Like most hobbyists, you will want to do more with your trains than just watch them go round and round on your layout. Your standard power source will enable you to have them go forward or backward at various speeds. However, with a few more gadgets you can operate multiple locomotives independently on your track. Track Power Digital Command Control (DCC) is a popular way to accomplish this. Signals from your throttle are transmitted via your track to receivers in each locomotive. You can get more details on DCC track power equipment options by selecting from the DCC Menu on Greg’s website. Battery Powered DCC Wireless Control is also popular for those locomotives that don’t rely on track power. One of many sources is available here.
Your imagination and your wallet will guide you through many of your phases in implementation of your railroad. Therefore, as I mentioned before, it’s important to plan but it’s also important to get started. Splitting up your railroad into phases (and tasks within each phase) gives you a sense of accomplishment each time you complete something.