Most of us had a train set when we were kids. Some never lose the interest and model trains are still a very popular hobby around the world. When you get a house, there is a good chance that the space may be needed for things other than model trains. But if you have a garden, you have another option. Garden railways have been around for many years but up until 1968, if you wanted one, you had to do a lot of work yourself. What changed in 1968 was a company called Lehmann started to make trains specifically designed for using in the garden. These were LGB (Lehmann Gross Bahn) trains. This was called G scale. G can stand for Gross or Garden - or maybe both. You could now buy off the shelf weatherproof trains, brass track and accessories suitable for running outside. Since then several companies have developed outdoor train ranges. These include Accucraft at http://www.accucraft.com/ , Aristocraft at http://www.aristocraft.com/, Bachmann at http://www.bachmanntrains.com/ and USA Trains at http://www.usatrains.com/. My own website gives you an idea of what is being achieved in the UK at http://www.gardentrains.co.uk/ The hobby is growing.
Having said all that people do create garden railways with other model gauges and scales. Perhaps another article?
You might want to build a garden railway for several reasons. It could be a train enthusiasts dream network. The railway could be another garden feature like a gazebo or a pond. Your children could have an educational plaything. Or, of course, a combination of any of these.
With garden railways having a keen following and you get in touch with fellow enthusiasts the e hobby can be very sociable. Local groups often arrange visits to each other's railways where you can get ideas for what you can do (or not do) on your own setup. I would in fact recommend you seek out and join your local club and see as many railways as you can before you start.
This is an introduction to the subject and a round up of the basic steps involved in creating your own miniature world in your back yard.
Decide if it is for you. A garden railway can be a family project. Before you start, get the family on your side. Is your partner happy to be involved? If the garden is already mature and one of you has put in a lot of time and effort, will he or she be happy with trains cutting through it? If you have children, are they interested or do they need the grassed area to play ball games? Balls can damage trains. Other hazards to beware of involve animals. If you have a big dog that charges about the garden, you will have a problem. Don't forget the neighbours' dogs as well. Still with animals. Remember rabbits dig big holes and squirrels nibble almost anything. A friend has a badger set nearby and they have caused epic subsidence on his railway. Hedgehogs will hibernate in your tunnels. We don't have a snake, poisonous spider or scorpion problem in the UK, but I am sure there are parts of the world where these and other exotic beasts can be a problem. Or maybe not a problem at all. All of these are a challenge. When the railroad across the Rockies was being planned, I'm sure rabbits and badgers were the least of their problems and the railway was built.
Deciding a route and a theme. You have permission and there is a general enthusiasm for a railway in your garden. One last thing before you open the door. Garden railways are not cheap. Your track, trains and controllers are expensive but so will be road bed material, fencing, rocks, earth-moving and plants. So, assuming your bank balance has a plus beside it, get your boots on and step outside, take a walk and look at your garden in a new way.
You are a 19th century railway mogul. You have a new territory to cross. You have to transport goods from your main station beside the patio. You must go over a flower bed. The tree beside the fence means a detour between it and the neighbour's fence. Curving back, you reach a second station serving a community near the lake (pond). Leaving this new settlement, you need a bridge over the lake to enter the rocky area where a small quarry is planned. Beyond the rocks, the railway will run through an existing outhouse. This could be a storage area for trains. Out of the shed, you will return along the edge of the lawn, beside the path and back to Garden Central. You now have an outline idea for your railway. It will not end up like this but at least you have something to go on. Take lots of pictures and go back inside.
Draw up a detailed plan. Now you can sit at your kitchen table and draw up a plan. Always involve the family as you go. There is lots of scope for new planting associated with your new project. You will now have an idea of how many feet/metres of track you will need. Think about what bridges, tunnels and cutting you will have to build. Your track should ideally be as level as possible over its whole length. You might want to think about which trains you might need to run your service. Big trains will need wider (larger diameter) curves. If your plan is a small circuit round the rockery, small diameter curves might be what you want. If you like to be organised, you can break your plan into projects. This will give you achievable goals and spread the work and the cost. You might also want to run your ideas past some of your new garden railway friends to get another perspective.
It is worth considering at this point, before you move the earth, that you might want to sell your house at some time and a radically altered railway garden might not be a good selling point. So think about reinstatement.
Building your railway base. Let's say you have decided on a first phase and you have a plan. On our original example, you want to go from Patio Central to Lakesville. At this point, you might want to get a small locomotive or just a truck and a length of track to get a feel for how they will look as you progress.
I will outline some of the basics but it has to be said books have been written on this subject and as you are in effect building a real railway, look at any civil engineering knowledge you have or can draw on - involve your friends and family. They all will have skill you can steal (sorry, I mean borrow).
First, set a level for your complete railway. Base this on some fixed height that cannot be altered. Maybe your shed floor would be a good level.
Now mark out your proposed route. You can use sawdust to start with, then a line of sticks. The sticks can have cross pieces added for the levels. Small laser levels are now very cheap or you can use a plank with a spirit level. There is also a way of using a tube with coloured water.
Decide what the track bed should be. Could be different for different parts of the railroad. I prefer not to use wood, as something always seems to happen to any wood left outside, but if you do use it, make sure it is well seasoned. Decking planks seem to be lasting well with few problems on many railways. If you go for the full size railway approach, then on flat ground, you dig a trench, maybe 75 - 100mm. Lay some weed resistant membrane and fill it back up. You have to allow for drainage. First use some larger stones--any rubble you might have at hand. Next a layer of larger regular stone and finally some sharp stones - in railway terms, ballast. This should be something around 6mm in size.
Other alternative bases can be formed using cast stone blocks or poured cement.
You might want some kind of edging to prevent all your expensive ballast from washing away.
Laying track. Track laying can now take place on your newly laid and leveled trackbed. You are best to test lay track as you go in case of any measuring problems. For ballasted track bed, rail sections can just be shuffled sideways into the base and the stones packed down with a suitable piece of hardwood through the sleepers. If you are attaching the rails to wood or stone, you will have to find suitable rustproof screws or nails. You will need a conductive paste, maybe copper or graphite used sparingly in the rail joints.
Supplying power. The subject of power and controllers will need a separate article. To get started, you will need a basic control box connected to your new rails. Most garden railways run on 0-24volts DC. These use conventional controllers like your old train set or a more advanced version with wireless remote handsets. Theses are analogue controllers. As with all model railways, you can also go for digital control. This gives a fixed AC voltage on the track and requires each locomotive to be fitted wit its own electronic control board. Other options include battery control, like a radio-controlled car or plane. Finally, you can run gas or spirit-fired live steam. As I said, this is a whole subject on its own.
Test your track. As you lay each section, run your test locomotive and boxcar along it. This will let you see if you have level and secure track with good electrical connections. At this stage, check clearances where the trains will pass line-side features.
You are now well on the way to building your dream railway empire in your own back yard.
Be warned. Garden railways can take over your life.
I run a small business here in Scotland supplying Garden Railway trains and accessories. Many of my customers become friends and I have advised many people on staring out in the garden railway hobby