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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains

Letters to the Editor, 2004

The Letters to the Editor page has gotten so long that I have decided to break it up. This page contains only letters I answered before 2004, and the index to them. For the "master list" of questions, go to the Letters to the Editor main page.

If you have a question that isn't answered on this page or in the articles, send it in - chances are twelve other people are wondering the same thing. And your questions are what keep the site growing.

As always, we hope that you will please contact us with any corrections or other follow-ups to our answers.

Topic list for 2004 Letters to the Editor

Click to go to the Letters to the Editor home page.

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Beginning Questions about Everything - Dec., 04

John, in Larksville, Pennsylvania, writes:

Hi, Paul,

I am interested in starting a Garden Railroad. Right now there is an 18' round pool in the way. But that will go in the spring.

I need to know the answers to questions like: how to prepare the ground, how to lay track, and what to lay it on?

Can you name a good book that will take me from start finish? Just the basics on "how to."

Thank you for your time. . . . Retirement is just around the corner. I always loved trains. this is going to be great and relaxing.


Thanks for the nice note. One big step you can make now it to locate a club around you and figure out how people in your neck of the woods are doing things. The Large Scale Online club search page should help. Best Choices for Beginning Garden Railroaders

Everybody with a garden railroad has done SOMETHING different. That's why there are so many different articles about construction on my site.

The point is to figure out what kind of railroad you want to have, how high you want it off the ground (which is to say how much dirt you want to haul now versus how much time you want to spend on your knees later), and other details that you'll have to pick through the articles to figure out.

How I did it (not the best way, as weeds grow through the roadbed far too often, but it was brain-dead simple) is shown on the New Boston pond page and in the Little Railroad That Grew article.

A fairly simple way of building elaborate railroads that are elevated a couple feet off the ground (more if you provide stronger support) is described in the Flexible Roadbed article.

Miscellaneous approaches by several other folks are described in the How We Built Our Garden Railroads article.

[Note: Since this article was written two new construction articles have been added to the Primer page.]

If you subscribe to GR now, you'll probably see some other ideas that give you food for thought before you actually get the swimming pool down.

P.S. We just put one UP. I'd love to have a train run around the outside, but that's not going to happen until I get independently wealthy.

If you want ONE approach described in painstaking detail, check out Marc Horowitz's video on building a garden railroad.

If you wind up talking to Marc, tell him I sent you. :-)

Best of luck, please let me know how your plans proceed. Have a great new year (not to mention a long and interesting retirement).

Paul D. Race

[Note: Some of the books in the right margin would also answer John's questions. Click on any of the Amazon links for a review of the associated book.

O Gauge Battery Power? - Dec., 04

Fred (not his real name, see below) writes:

Dear Paul,

I've been browsing your Q&A section with great interest. I'm new to model railroading, but have learned a great deal on line. I've mulled over garden railroad options for quite a while now, and believe that to get "the best of all worlds" (in terms of maximum layout space, with a lot of scale detail, trouble-free running, and widely available models), I should be buying O-scale trains, modelling O-scale scenery (1:50 or anywhere roughly thereabout), and running this layout via wireless remote control...and powered by rechargeable batteries.

Hmmm. Battery powered O-scale engines? I can't find *any* examples of it. Battery power is commonplace for G-scale (1:20 or 1:29) 1-gauge garden layouts. Why can't I find a SINGLE example of battery conversions for 0-scale engines?

I understand that there wouldn't be enough room for a battery pack in O-scale engines, but couldn't the batteries (and R/C controller) be bundled into a trailing "battery car" just like many G-scale layouts do? If there's a technical problem, isn't there always some way around it?

Thanks in advance for your advice. You have my permission to post this letter in part or whole (but without my name or email address, please).

Fred, if you're going to run trains outside, you have to realize that nothing currently manufactured for O is explicitely UV resistant, not the track, not the trains. That doesn't mean you can't get around it (for instance, spraying the tie strips with a UV resistant paint or coating or spraying the whole track piece and wiping the paint off the railheads before it dries. It also means, keeping your sidings, etc. in the shade and keeping your trains somewhere shaded when they're not actually running. Maybe spraying your trains with the UV-resistant stuff you can buy at photography places, and so on. You'll also need to store them indoors, as they're not rust-resistant, and even moderate outdoor humidity will cause problems.

Relating to the battery power question, there is no reason at all you can't mount batteries in a trailing car and run that way. Just be sensitive to the amperage differences, etc., as Large Scale trains typically have power plants that are up to eight times as large as O scale trains. In fact, the AristoCraft TE that is designed for HO MIGHT help you with an RC option, though I don't know for sure that it would handle enough juice. It's also designed to work with track power, but that's usually not a difficult option to overcome.

Have a great day,


Train Shows in Michigan? - Dec., 04

David and Judy, from greater Ann Arbor, Michigan, write:


We live in southeast Michigan and are very interested in adding a garden train to our landscape around our pond next year. Do you know of any shows within reasonable driving distance that might be taking place this winter? Thank you for your assistance.

David and Judy,

I'll check around. P.S. I may be in Gross Ile the week after Christmas; where are you?

Also, if you think you may ever be headed toward the Dayton/Springfield area, I'm about 20 minutes off of I-75. Have a great rest of the week. :-)

Paul David and Judy write back:

Hello Mr. Race:

Thank you so much for answering our email request so fast. In response to your question re the Grosse Ile week after Christmas, we are located northeast of Ann Arbor-actually more north than east. Using freeways, Grosse Ile is about an hour away providing you're not in rush hour traffic. Let us know if we can meet. We'd really like to make good use of some of the dark winter hours by planning our train. We have a huge learning curve, but one we're really excited about. Thank you again.

Ouch. You're not so close as I'd hoped.

There appears to be a Garden Railroad modular club in Grand Rapids, and one in Grosse Pointe, but I have no idea how active they are.

Go to the following web page, click on the "Find a Club" link and click on the state that looks like a mitten.

The BIGGEST Garden Railway show in the Eastern US is the ECLSTS (East Coast Large Scale Train Show) in York PA every year. There should be details on the AristoCraft web page. I'm not aware of any shows in MI, but maybe Marc Gast (in Grand Rapids) can tell you. His e-mail is on the link above.

Re: Planning:

Have you done your homework by answering the questions in the first part of my article on Building a Garden Railroad on a Budget?

E-mail me your answers, and I may be able to steer you into a more focused direction.

Best of luck,


How do You Make Trestle Bents? - Nov., 04

Yvette writes:

Any information on how the trestle bents [on the Botannical Garden installation described in the Flexible Road Bed article] were constructed?

[Note: a "trestle bent" is one vertical component of a timber trestle, consisting of 3-6 long vertical members that spread out as they go from "top" to "bottom" and two or more horizontal crossbars. Most garden railroaders build the trestle bents in their workshop, then assemble them in their garden once the rest of the track and roadbed has been laid.]

Trestle bent construction has been described in Garden Railways a few times. I'm sorry but I don't have specifics. Basically, you get a bunch of weather-resistant lumber cut to the size you want, depending on the scale you're modeling. Usually something like 3/8" x 3/8" cedar or redwood will do. Then you create an outline for what the bents will look like, then you create a "jig" on a piece of plywood by tapping in finishing nails or the like. Basically, you'll align the vertical "legs" (usually 3 or more). Then you'll align between two and six horizontal "crossbars," depending on the length of the bent you're making across the vertical members. Once you've created your jig, you can align each bent to exactly the same angles, although the lengths may vary. You tack and glue the horizontal pieces and one set of diagonals across the legs of the bent, pop it out of the jig, turn it over, and tack glue another set of horizontal and diagonal piecs on the other side. Use waterproof glue, of course, in small amounts - if it gets on the wood, it will cause the wood to stain or fade uneavenly. Make every bent a tad longer than you need it so it can be cut to fit on site. When you get it under the track, add horizontals and diagonals between adjacent bents.

Some folks recommend using the trestle bents as strictly cosmetic additions to a section that is actually supported by something else (like a 4"x4" disguised as a rock outcropping). That way, if the part of the bents that come into contact with the soil get damp and start to get wobbly, your roadbed will stay stable.

I really have to describe this properly some time. On the other hand, almost every club has at least one person who's a whiz at this and could show you in a few minute how it's done.

Hope this helps,

Paul [Ed. Note: Since I wrote this response, I have added an article about making trestle bents. Click here for more information. - Paul]

'Nudder Question on Really Big Backyard Trains - Oct, 04

Keith writes:

Dear Sirs,

Could you tell me who makes the small passenger trains that carry 3-4 people, that you can place in a home garden.


Take a look at my article on Backyard Trains You Can Ride.

That should get you started in the right direction.

Let me know how things work out,


How Much Clearance Do I Need for a Crossover? - Oct, 04

Jeff, in Jacksonville, Illinois, writes:


I have been trying to introduce the loop idea into the layout. I think it will work in the southwest corner of the yard as I can easily get a truck load of dirt into that area to raise the elevation. I think it will work but I need to know a little more about grades. For example, if I start out at ground level how much track must I lay before I can clear another track at ground level. I don't know how much clearance I need for an overpass.


The tallest Large Scale locomotive you can buy today is under 10" tall. Most are under 8". If you're using MTH, they're almost all under 7." That said, you'd want to have clearances so that if a friend brought his locomotive over, or somebody surprised you with something like a Bachmann Shay (about 9"), it would run on your RR. Therefore, a good rule of thumb is to consider a 12" rail height to rail height a minimum for crossovers.

If you have 100' of track working up to that height, that's a 1% grade, which is considered very reasonable. If you have 50' of track working up to that height, that's a 2% grade, which will slow down really long trains but is still considered doable. Anything over 3% and you'll notice your trains straining to get up one side and careening off down the other side. Also you would tend to run shorter trains. People who run shorter trains in a display layout situation (meaning loops) aren't necessarily bothered by this. Also, you could have your mainline fairly level, and have your "mining" or "logging" RR using grades and crossovers.

The BEST solution if you want smooth operation and the effect of grades is to have little or no actual grade on your mainline, but have the ground "rise and fall" beneath it.

Best of luck,


HDPE Flexible Roadbed Followup Question - Feb, 04

Tim, of Jacksonville, Florida, writes:


Ran across your article describing Bill Logan's method of flexible roadbed. I was wondering if you have recieved many inquires about details of using the roadbed? Has Bill provided any more diagrams? Also have you considered publishing this as an article in Garden Railways?

Also have you heard much about EPS Plastic Lumber company and any isses with ordering and using their product?


I've copied Bill on your question and my reply in case he has something else to add.

The only major update to the method I expect is that Bill has promised to give me diagrams of how he handles turnouts. [Note, I'm still waiting, Bill. . . . ] The question also came up of how to handle two mainlines in concentric curves. Bill's recommendation was to build a separate roadbed for each line, then fasten them together with spacers. That creates a stable setup, and when the tracks separate (as they will in most railroads), the transition is no problem.

A few people have made their own modifications that they seem to feel are improvements; some have made changes because they wanted to use materials onhand (such as leftover Trex decking). Most people who have tried variations are happy with the results, but nobody has come up with anything that I would consider an unqualified improvement over Bill's original design, which many people have been using with success.

RE Garden Railways article: The GR editor knows about it, but Bill and I have never taken it to the next level. For one thing it would have to be a whole new article with new graphics, or the article we have posted would become Kalmbach property. We want to leave this information on the web so people will have access, not only now, but years from now.

About EPS Plastic Lumber: they have some idea about what garden railroading is, which I count as a plus. I haven't bought from them personally (we have a supplier in Ohio). But when we first published the article, a friend ordered cosmetically blemished "seconds" material from EPS Plastic Lumber, at a discount off the regular price, and he was very pleased with what he received.

Hope this helps.


Tight Curves on a Really Steep Hillside - Jan, 04

Jay, in Southern California writes: [Note: Part of Jay's message got garbled by my e-mail program, so these aren't his exact words; sorry, Jay]


Your article is one of the best I've read regarding the options available to me for setting up my first garden railroad with my two sons. But I confess that I'm a bit overwhelmed at the choices I have.

  • I live in Southern California, about 30 miles north of San Diego, 14 miles inland from the Pacific (No worries about snow, but heat, UV rays and some ocean-related humidity affecting the track is likely.
  • I have a fairly small back yard. Much of the area is in slope that is constructed with a series of rock retaining walls and terraces at various levels. I am aware of the constraints to keep the track relatively level.
  • My big constraint is that I only have 30" maximum diameter to construct the loops on either end of the system (that's how wide the terraces are). I want to construct as large a guage system as possible.
  • The era I want to set up the system would be the late 1800's. I like to look of the smaller locomotives and shorter train cars, which would probably appear more in scale with the tight turns I'm facing.
  • Cost is an issue. I'd like my tracks to accommodate a scale that is common enough to NOT require me to purchase only locomotives and accessories that are made by companies selling super-expensive stuff.

My questions are:

  • Would the North American 36" narrow guage track be the best alternative in my situation?
  • If so, can I construct the system with maximum 30" radius curves to form the loops on either end of the track? I really don't want to tear up the extensive rock retaining wall terraces that are a feature of my yard.
  • Can you recommend a manufacturer that can meet my concerns regarding the cost being not too expensive for the train while also providing a wide variety accessories (i.e. buildings, etc.).
Your help is greatly apprciated. I've bookmarked your website because it provides such valuable information!


Before I can answer the rest of your questions, I need to know whether you are talking about 30" radius curves or 30" diameter curves. You say both. If you're talking 30" DIAMETER curves, then you're going to have to look at On30, which is much less expensive and much less impressive outside. (It's 1:48 and runs on HO gauge track, scaled to look right with Dept 56 and other Christmas village accessories.)

Model Railroader Magazine30" RADIUS curves are quite possible with the pre-1900s narrow-gauge stuff you're thinking about running, especially if you choose a relatively small "compromise" scale like 1:22.5 or 1:24, or if you choose 1:20.3 "correct scale" industrial and short line equipment such as the Bachmann Shay and 4-wheel cars.

Most accessories are built to look right with 1:22.5, since that's still the largest market, so anything you pick between 1:20.3 and 1:24 will be fairly easy to accessorize.

Keep in mind that the TRACK is the important thing at first. One pointer is that even if you are restricted to 30"-radius curves on the outside loops, you should consider using larger diameter curves (such as 60"-radius curves) to transition into and out of the loops if possible, and also for any S-curves you may need to set up going into or out of the loop. The "easement" part of my article on designing for reliability will give you some ideas.

I'll get you more suggestions if you can let me know for sure how much room you have for the turnaround at each end of your railroad.

Also, to add interest and senic possibilities, is there any chance of having a RR on the next terrace up come out on a trestle or something overhanging the "base" railroad? You don't have to have a connecting track, pretend it's a mine or coal RR or something if you want. Those of us with pancake-flat back yards spend a lot of money on dirt and rocks trying to get the very vertical sort of arrangement that you seem to think is causing you problems.

Just a thought. Best of luck,


How Would I Spend a Million Dollars on a Garden Railroad? - Jan, 04

Jake writes:

My name is Jake [last name deleted], I am 11 years old, and my teacher has assigned us a math project I was wondering if you could help me with? My teacher has assigned us a million dollars to spend on anything

Thank You,

Jake :)


My article "Building a Garden Railroad on a Budget" is about how to SAVE money while building a garden railroad but, there are several lists of purchases, etc., that you can use as a starting point (just assume a 10-acre railroad instead of a backyard one and multiply everything by 10 times, if you want).

For specific information about the cost of trains, etc., try the list of vendors at the end of my "Which Scale Should I Model"? page. [Note: Since this message was written, we have added the Garden Train Store page, which lists many useful products with links to vendors.

Keep in mind that once you've chosen your trains, the cost of accessories, plants, and landscaping materials (even if you don't hire the work done) will be 4 times or more than the cost of the trains themselves. Paying someone else to install a large pond for you is a very good way to use up a lot of cash in a hurry, for instance.

If you want to run your "budget" past me to make certain it's possible, please do.


HDPE Roadbed Followup Question - Jan, 04

John, from the Tucson area, writes:

Your web article is quite informative. I am in the process of hunting HDPE in the Tucson, AZ area. My question is, If the track is screwed to the spacers, how or what is done to accommodate track expansion? As ambient air temperature and direct sunlight heats the rails, and the track is fixed to the spacers, isn't expansion buckling a problem?

Bill Logan, the Columbus, Ohio area architect who designed the HDPE Flexible roadbed method, has written you a reply:


The HDPE roadbed will expand and contract about one/fourth of an inch per eight foot length per 50 degree change in temperature. This is similar to brass rail. I recommend attaching via screws the roadbed to the tie strips at 24 inches on center no closer. This will permit some differential movement if it occurs. This method also lends itself to gentle curves which help absorb expansion and contraction. Keep in mind that the HDPE roadbed is normally concealed in gravel or dirt - this will also slow its expansion/contraction.


Overcoming A Very Hilly Back Yard - Jan, 04

Jeff writes:

I've got a fairly steep hill in my i was thinking a small "mountain" run with switchbacks.....I'm a beginner looking for any info....track beds....types of rock.ect.

First of all, where are you? One good thing you can do is to track down your local club or clubs and see how they do things--some materials are just easier to come by in different sections of the country.

Second, while your switchback plan sounds good, consider having your yard or a town or two on "terraces," so you have some level places to assemble trains and set out accessories. In addition, you might consider a loop that comes out OVER the viewer's position--some excellent railroads have been designed that way on steep hillsides. You start out below a train that is on a relatively level loop, and as you ascend or descend the hill, you first pass under the track, then over it. (Or if the hill is going down, you do it the other way around.)

Here in Ohio, people with flat back yards pay a ton of money to build up hills so that they can have the kind of opportunity your yard is giving you for "free." In my case, I keep the RR level and have the ground rise and fall around it, so the trains run smoothly and have some of the effect of a grade without the hassles.

Obviously if you have switchbacks and track at ground level you can get away with something more like the "trench" method of construction--if you have raised sections, consider Bill Logan's Flexible Road Bed method.

Of course you'll need to use real posts to raise the RR more than a couple feet off the ground, but this will get you a great start.

Best of luck, please let me know how you decide to build and what kind of results you get.


Watch this space: I am getting e-mailed questions constantly, and I try to post the ones that would be most helpful as soon as I can. Click to go to the Letters to the Editor home page.

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