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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Garden Railroad According to the Novice

Perfect Harmony

The railroad is an amazing thing. Their basic purpose is to move material and man across great distances safely, and yet they seem to represent even more than that.  The railroad seems to represent the hopes and dreams of populations by the cargo that these giants haul.  They show man's ability to conquer the steep mountain faces of the highlands, and also humble us when nature overcomes the track, showing that what we build on this earth is temporary and will eventually met back into the natural world.

The garden is also an amazing thing. It represents man's achievements toward making food and beauty directly from nature.  It represents the artistic influence of cultures, as well as the softening effect that the wind and rains have on all of the stone and wood structures man has created to stabilize the land.  The garden can also represent nature in a whole.  Trees, shrubs, yucca, cactus  native wildflowers and countless plants can represent certain areas of the world, or even what you'd find outside one's own town.

So what happens when these two passions and visions are combined?  The railroad runs through nature, but the garden harnesses nature's power.  In almost perfect harmony, the two elements of gardens and railroads combine to form the hobby of garden railroading.  This article is supposed to explain garden railroading, the main points within the hobby, and what I have learned from my experiences.

Trains in the garden, or garden among trains.

There are two big sects of the garden railroading hobby; those that prefer to have their trains run through a miniature landscape of trees, rocks, and water.  There are also those who prefer to have their trains take center stage and use the garden merely as an accompaniment to the miniature railroad.  The first will be explained in detail, followed by the second.

Gardeners, and many modelers tend to approach garden railroading as a garden with a miniature railroad running through the garden. The garden is a thing of beauty and can rarely be a complete failure as long as the best practices and techniques are used to keep the plants alive.  Yet the railroad can be a fragile entity that has taken residence among the plants and rocks.  It is the railway that most often needs the maintenance and time, as plants tend to do well on their own with the exception of certain fragile, and non-native species. Both the garden railroader and the modeler in the backyard share common ground on the subject of track and maintenance, although techniques vary in keeping the track in good condition.

The modeler in the backyard tends to focus on the railway and not the plants.  For these folks, it is all about the trains and the structures associated with the railway. Although the modeler still often has plants, the plants are thrown in as accent and not as a miniature environment.  Track is often raised up for maintenance purposes, sometimes on an artificial roadbed of lumber or concrete.  This provides a definite boarder between what would be a backyard and the railway. that takes up space.  This is in contrast to the garden railroader who uses the landscape as an environment for the trains, with track melting with the landscape to form a natural looking railway.

I tend to lean towards the garden railroader who tries to make the landscape and trains mesh to form a miniature world.  I find that the railroad looks better and more relaxing when not bound by steel glass and stone, but rather by grass, flowers, shrubs, and rocky outcroppings.  Not to say that a railroad that is raised up to provide a suitable base for operating can't look good, it simply isn't what I see as my style.

The hobby as a whole

Many attribute the boom of garden railroading to the manufacturer of large scale trains, LGB.  I nthe 70's and 80's, LGB made many models for European and even American lines.  A:though the trains were expensive, they were very well made and lasted decades.  My LGB Stainz locomotive is still running strong after a decade of childhood playing followed by five years of outdoor railroading.  In Britain, garden railroading goes back to before LGB with the use of windup and live steam.  Live steam, models that actually run on steam like their full size counterparts, did not require quality track, but a simple rusty old line that was still in gauge.  In modern times, three big manufacturers of model trains have also made big splashes in the garden railway sector of the hobby.  Aristo Craft makes quality track as well as decent models for the beginning modeler.  Aristo Craft has also made great strides towards wireless control with their Revolution control system.

USA trains is the largest supplier of US standard gauge equipment, followed by MTH.  Their trains are very sturdy, are of relatively moderate cost compared to other manufacturers in the industry, and run very well from what I've seen.

Bachmann Spectrum has made huge steps towards making a very good line or 3ft gauge equipment.  Although they can be expensive, all of the details show the worth of these models.  Bachmann has become famous with their great Climax, Shay, and 2-6-6-2T locomotives. Most modern Bachmann equipment from their Spectrum line is now equipped with DCC, allowing very realistic running.

Bachmann Big Haulers and Hart land Locomotive works also offer cheaper, less detailed equipment that is great for the Christmas tree and for children.  The lack of small detail parts that can be fragile, and dangerous to small children is what makes these trains great for children that are old enough to run trains, but young enough not to care about the details.

Unlike the smaller scales, G Scale trains lack any sort of standards besides the gauge of the track. Couplers, some operating systems, and even track couplers are different of most manufacturers.  However, some standards are slowly being adopted and eventually a true standard for the scale might surface.  What sets large scale apart from the smaller scales is that although the gauge is the same, the scales can differ to offer a standard, narrow, or minimum gauge track.  The term 'G scale' is just a relative term.

My experiences in the hobby

I have a total number of about five years in garden railroading, compared to my near decade of small scale modeling and operating O gauge.  However, I have seen, read, heard, and talked a lot about G scale Trains and their uniqueness. I have built three garden railroads, five if you count the one's that I set up on the deck of my house.  All that time I have been getting better at building garden railways and maybe one day I can build a decent, but large, operation in the backyard.  However, compared to many I am but a novice.  But knowledge is knowledge, and I try to learn what I can.  Therefore, I submit below my top 10 tips of people interested in garden railways.

  • Budget and plan.  A good plan makes good financial sense.  Never buy what strikes your fancy, but rather buy what you think will help operations of the railroad.  Budget money for track, trains, and landscape materials.  Budget time for completing this project.
  • Do not go overboard with work.  Create a simple raised garden railroad first to get the hang of the building process and to get a firm feel for what you want.  A 10'x20' space is a perfect starter railroad that can be incorporated into a larger system later, or be used as a test track.
  • Buy a starter set, perhaps couple extra cars, and then only after running the train for a while should any more money be spent.  If you for some reason do not like the train, or feel like this railroad is too much work, the set can be resold, or be used for the holidays.  If satisfied with the starter set, then continue to by a loop of track with wider diameter than the 4' wide circle in the set.  Two or three switches and then maybe a building or two. Be sure that the track is either brass, stainless steel, aluminum, or nickel silver.  Regular steel will rust.  Total investment should be in the area of $300 for the starter set, $100 for any extra train cars, $300 in extra track, and $100 in buildings and structures. This gives a total of $800 dollars.
  • When building the railroad outside, either construct a roadbed from lumber that is raised off the ground, or use small crushed rock to provide a roadbed for the track on the grass.
  • Keep trains and the power supply dry, clean, and in working condition.  Aside from the extra dust and moisture from outside, this isn't any different from indoor modeling.
  • Get the family involved.  There is a job for everyone in a garden railway. Track maintenance, planting, structure building, operating, even sitting and relaxing make the garden railroad look better, and run smoother.
  • Buy cheaper trains for children.  Let's face it, we all love our kids, but they are not always careful.  would you let your child handle an expensive piece of glass? If not, then it is wise to buy a cheaper, more rugged train like Hartland Locomotive Works or Bachmann Big Haulers.
  • Keep the track clean.  Just like brushing your teeth, or walking the dog, a garden railway needs clean track when receiving power from the rails. Aristo Craft makes a good maintenance caboose that is also a track cleaning car which makes track cleaning easier.  the car sells for around $60 and the pads last a while.
  • Say with one or two compatible manufacturers. Compatibility is of utmost importance. All trains should have the same couplers, relative scale, and system capabilities.  Although it is not vital to stay with one manufacturer, it is important to set your own standards and only buy equipment that can be modified to meet your needs.  I love narrow gauge, so Bachmann and some LGB are in my roster.  A standard gauge person may go with all USA trains, or stick with the new MTH models.  All operate on different systems, and therefore must have a railway adapted to their needs.
  • Always try to have a good time.  If this hobby isn't fun for you, then perhaps something else may suit you better.  Not to say you should abandon ship because of a problem, or a slowdown in momentum, but if you truly are not enjoying yourself, and feel that there is nothing to do to make it better for yourself, don't waste a fortune because I gave a hopeful dream to you.


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  2. I am flattered that you like this page and post, however please do not post comments that try to sell anything on this blog. I do not endorse Amtrak, and therefore the link will be removed if possible. However, I am still glad you commented just to know that people out there are watching.