Track: The Most Important Decision You Will Make for Your Railroad.

As with anything in life a good foundation means that you will be able to build a good home and keep it in working order. The same thing applies to Garden Trains. The right selection of track and how you support it will make or break your fun level in this hobby.
If you are spending all your time cleaning your track or putting your trains back on the track you will not be a happy camper.

What's it made of and can I leave it outside?
Let's answer the second question first. Yes, if the rails are made from brass, or stainless steel. (Aristo, LGB, USA). Metal track from Bachmann will rust outside. The plastic ties that support the rails have a UV additive that will resist the effects of the sun. Some people have had track outside for 15 years that still looks and works great.

So do I use brass or stainless steel rails? Brass is less expensive, but stainless steel rails resist the effects of the outdoors. They say stainless steel rails will not have to be cleaned as often. Why clean track? That is how the power gets to the engine. If the track gets dirty the engine may stutter when it loses electrical connection from the wheels to the rails. Good news is that there are several manufacturers that make track cleaning cars that you can just tow behind your train as it travels the track. We use a Trackman 2000 and have never had to clean rails by hand in years. Stainless steel is newer than brass track and we do not know of anyone that is disappointed using it on their railroad.

How do I support my track in the garden?
This is one of the major differences between an indoor railroad and an outdoor railroad. If you have any experience playing with model trains you remember that you just put the track on top of some cork, on top of a table and were ready to go. Creating a roadbed for your track outside is an all new adventure.

Most of us do not have a big flat area that is perfectly level to put track on, like an indoor table. You are going to deal with grades, gulleys, and the weather. Just wait until the first big rain on your railroad. You just might be dealing with washouts under the track just like the life size railroads do. Don't get scared off. This is a lot easier than it sounds.

So what is the best way to create a great roadbed for your railroad? Unfortunately the answer is not the same for each person. It will depend upon your budget, level of work you want to do, and how open you are to doing maintainance. Here are two of the more common ways to lay track.

  • Do it like the real guys do. Build a base of rock and level the path that the track will travel. For many people this works just fine. You will need to do maintanance to keep the track level and most likely reballast (add small rocks) the track to keep it in place each year. If your railroad starts to grow having to maintain 1,000 feet of track this way can take a long time. Not every foot of track will have to be updated each year.

  • You can support your track on posts and a wood base. By putting 2" x 4" vertically into the ground and adding a 1" x 4" top, (like a T) you can support your track in a very permanent way. It is important that you use some of the new plastic wood, or treated lumber as it will come in contact with the ground. Regular wood will rot over time. Using this method also allows you to easily create grades or cross gullies. The tools required are simple and large areas of track can be place on a Saturday.

    Preparing your roadbed and installing your track is the most important step in creating your Garden Railroad. It is not, however, rocket science. Common sense and the research you do before you get started will help you create a solid fountation to your raiload. The key things to keep in mind are.

    • Think about what the weather could do in your Garden Train area.
    • The more track you have the more track you have to maintain.
    • Try to keep the track as level as possible. Small grades are OK.
    • Try to avoid having cruves and grades on the same area of the railroad.
    • Leave enough space between parallel tracks for trains to pass. 7" is the minimum.
    • Make sure your tunnels have enough headroom. 9" is good 11" is better.