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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains

Accessible Garden Railroads

Most of us garden railroaders got started when we had health and energy; so we didn't even think about what it will be like to maintain our railroads many years from now. Worse, we don't think about the fact that we may currently be denying people with limited mobility the chance to enjoy our hobby.

Back in 1999, I planned for my railroad to be "viewable" by a wheelchair-bound child we knew, so the railroad is accessible to viewers (at least when the ground is dry, since I never finished the sidewalk). But there is no way a mobility-impaired person could really operate or work on my railroad (except for running the trains by remote control). In fact, I didn't even think about that until I realized that several Family Garden Trains readers were wheelchair-bound. They hadn't bothered to mention it to me because they knew they could figure out any "workarounds" themselves.

Those pioneers' resourcefullness aside, I realized that, as a hobby, we have been far less "accessible" than we could be. At the very least, people with mobility or sight impairments should be able to safely visit our railroads without feeling that they are in anyone's way or inconveniencing anyone. Beyond that consideration, there are lots of folks who might participate our hobby if we can just remove some of the physical barriers.

For most existing garden railroads, the most we can hope to do is improve access for viewing our empires. If you are in that category, please study the suggestions under "General Safety," "Passageways," and "Gateways," carefully. But if you're planning a new garden railroad or significant upgrades to an existing railroad, you should read the whole article carefully and figure out what parts you should implement now, rather than later. You may not have time, space, or finances to implement every suggestion now, but at least you won't be accidentally designing barriers into your railroad.

Improving Access for Visitors

The following topics will help you improve access for everybody, but they are the most important considerations if you are trying to improve access for visitors.

General Safety

  • Allow no extension cords or other wiring across paths.
  • Protect all "house current" lines by GFI circuits. Allow no "house current" lines in places that could be accidentally handled or struck by tools.
  • Provide a railing, high curb, or other barrier between the passageway and any ponds or "dropoffs."


  • Surfaces should be smooth enough for wheelchairs and walkers without being slippery.
  • Any gratings should be very fine, to prevent tripping or snagging of wheels or walker posts.
  • Avoid situations in which visitors have to cross tracks to reach the optimum viewing position. If you absolutely can't avoid such situation, please design the crossing in such a way that it won't impede a wheelchair or snag a walker leg unnecessarily. One possibility is to embed the trackage right into concrete like you would for a "real" grade crossing. The rail head should be the same height as the surface; however, you'll have to have a channel inside each each railhead to accommodate wheel flanges. One garden railroader I know just rolls a wheelset through the concrete before it hardens, but I'm not sure that gives enough guaranteed clearance for anything you might run. An option might be to use a strip of wood as a "form" inside each railhead, and pull it out after the concrete starts to harden. Again, your mileage will vary, but this is a consideration you can't ignore if you want your railroad to be truly accessible.
  • Consider 36" a minimum width for wheelchair negotiation; however 48" allows a pedestrian to pass a wheelchair, and 60" allows two wheelchairs to pass. If you have a narrow path to and from the garden, consider making the work and viewing area near the garden deeper to allow people to get around each other comfortably.
  • Paths should climb or fall no more than 1" for every foot.
  • Entrance to the path should be completely level.
  • Working areas and major viewing areas should also be as level as possible.
  • Useful materials include:
    • Pavers, if you can get the cracks between them very small, or use sand mix to fill the cracks.
    • Concrete (The "down sides" include that large concrete "sidewalks" increase your tax base in some municipalities and that it is a little harder to move around than pavers or decking.)
    • Black top (doesn't increase your tax base but requires the ability to get a big truck or two close to your work area).
    • Crushed stone, if you can find a kind in your area that packs down into a solid "roadbed."
    • If you must use decking, run the boards perpendicular to the path direction, space them as closely as possible, and coat them with a non-skid surface.


  • 36" wide minimum
  • Either no spring or an automatic, delayed-action closer

Improving Access for Owners and Operators

In addition to the improvements that improve access to visitors, there are many reasons to make accessible garden railroads.
  • An accessible garden and garden railroad can benefit people in several ways. For a start, the health and therapeutic benefits of working in the garden are well-documented. The physical exercise, the activity, the opportunity to work with one's hands, the opportunity for rest and solitude - all work together to improve the health and attitude of people who take part. And trains add still more levels of interest and reasons to stay active.
  • Maintaining a garden railroad that is built to minimize bending and reaching will help your knees, back, and shoulders, in the long run, too, even if you consider yourself very active and mobile today.
Very few of you will be able to incorporate all of the suggestions below. In fact, if you have great support (such as a crew of enthusiastic grandkids or a paid gardener), you may get by without most of them. But we've listed all of the "great ideas" we could find or that we could "transplant" from the garden clubs that try to make their gardens accessible.

Appropriate Railroad and Garden Design

Say goodbye forever to ground-level railroads. Your back will thank you, regardless of your age. In addition, guests get more "involved" with raised railroads and the communities they serve, because they can see the sides of the buildings and trains and people, and not just their tops.

Height - For accessibility, consider a railroad that stays between 24" and 40" off the ground, with most of the trackage between 30" and 36." For a seated person, a 30"-high work surface is easier than a 36" work surface, so any part of the railroad that needs hands-on attention, such as a switch-yard, or the part where you put rolling stock on or take it off, should probably be about 30" off the ground.

A Note about Raised Railroads - Most of my own raised railroad, the New Boston and Donnels Creek was built by raising the ground level with retaining walls and laying the track directly on tamped-down gravel. Now that the railroad is seven years old, I am wishing I'd used a method that kept the roadbed and track in line in spite of wildlife, weather, and invasive weeds. Two commonly used methods for creating low-maintenance roadbed depend on raising the railroad first, then building retaining walls and backfilling as desired. Although the end result may resemble a railroad that was laid on a built-up garden, the track "behaves itself" much better in the long run, so the railroad requires much less maintenance. For more information on those building methods, please check out:

  • Building a Simple Raised Railroad - Sometimes called the "post and stringer" method, this was the most commonly used method in commercial garden railroading for twenty years - a version of it is still used today. 2x6" pressure treated wood is laid horizontally over 4x4" pressure-treated posts. The part of my railroad that was built this way approaches zero maintenance.
  • HDPE Flexible Roadbed - This is the space-age version that allows very complex railroads to be installed with relative ease. In some parts of the country, it's harder to get the material you need, which can drive up your cost if you need to have it shipped, but amateurs can achieve spectacular results, as some of the photos in the article show.

Width - In addition, most gardening experts seem to feel that a person in a wheelchair shouldn't be required to reach more than 18" across (some say that 24" is the maximum). This means that if your railroad is freestanding so that the railroader/gardener can work on both sides, it should be no more than 48" deep (36" is better). Of course, the minimum loop of track that garden trains usually run on is 48", and you have to add another foot beyond that for clearance and support, so no simple oval can be made 100% accessible, even if it's at the correct height. Possible solutions might include:

  • A Loop with a Low Maintenance Center - You could consider Installing a loop, but keeping the tracks and anything else that needs maintenance or operation within 24" of the outside edge. In this case, whatever is at the center of the loop should require little or no maintenance. An example could be a garden sculpture, or perhaps some very low-maintenance landscaping materials.
  • A Dogbone with a Narrow Connecting Section - You could install a "dogbone" (two loops connected by a long connecting section of single or parallel tracks). Again, the center of the loops should contain something low maintenance, but the long connecting section could be 36" across, as long as the railroader/gardener can get around to the other "side." The long section can also be as long as you have room for. (By the way, I like dogbone railroads if you have room for them because you can get the sense that the train "goes away and comes back," as opposed to an oval, where you just feel like it's circling the runway or something.)
  • Perimeter Railroad - If there is some way to get the gardener/railroader into the middle of the loop, you can make a "perimeter" railroad, in which the railroad goes up to the fence on 2 or 3 sides, but is 18-24" deep everywhere but the corners. (The corners will have to contain something low maintenance, though). This works best of you have a lot of room, and a special circumstance such as a ramp off of a back porch or deck that goes over the track on one side of the circle. Assuming a 24" minimum height for the garden railroad, and assuming that you need about 12" of clearance above that (to allow room for the train and supports to pass under the ramp), you'll need a 36 foot-long ramp, plus another 5' of straightaway at the bottom for manuevering, to get the optimum arrangement. (The ramp may have turns in it, of course, so you don't need a 40' circle of track to accomplish this.) That said, perimeter railroads involve the viewer more than railroads that you observe from "outside," so you may decide that all of this extra effort and expense is "worth it" in the long run. If you have the ramp anyway, and you don't have to build another one to get the railroader/gardener to another part of the yard, this should be a strong consideration. Alternatives to this approach if you're really tight for room include:
    • A drawbridge that would allow access to the inside of the loop. This would have to be ordered (and possibly custom-made), but it is possible.
    • A ramp that is much shorter, but which crosses the railroad at "grade level" before it dips down below the average track height. See the suggestions for making a wheel-chair friendly "grade-level crossing under the "Passageways" section above.

Appropriate Work and Control Surfaces

Consider building work and control surfaces as low "tables" so a wheelchair can be slid underneath for easy reach. Incorporate a slope so there is good drainage, and seal any large flat surface (you might also consider installing lucite over painted plywood to protect it from activities and weather). Work surfaces, again, should probably be between 30" and 36" off the ground. Such "tabletop" surfaces could include:
  • Railroad yards or areas where rolling stock is put onto or taken off of the track
  • Potting and pruning surface
  • Shallow gardens - For the person who really wants to "work the soil," you can make a sort of extended "windowbox." Build a 6-8"-deep "box" lined with something waterproof (such as pond liner) but with a bottom drain installed for excess water. (Picture a shallow sink made out of pressure-treated wood, plywood, and rubber.) Fill it with topsoil, so gardeners can work with living plants while they are sitting up against it as they would a dining table. The box should probably not be much more than 24" from front to back (some people say 30" for this kind of project), but the side-to-side measurement could be as big as you want it to be. Obviously, not many trees will grow in this garden, but sedums. herbs, and many other plants will do fine as long as they're watered properly.
  • Control surfaces. Isolate high voltages from the control surface, so that only low DC voltages actually come close to the operator. Use knobs and switches with large controls. Rheostats or other knobs should have raised, easy to read numbers. If you can find knobs that have an audible click between settings, that would help some folks, too.

Other considerations:

  • Tables in or near the garden should have legs, instead of pedestal construction. This protects people who are used to leaning on something to stand up from accidentally knocking a pedestal table over or flipping to table top onto their feet. In addition, if plans include using the table for eating, make certain the legs on one edge are at least 36" apart.
  • Sight-impaired visitors will benefit from the wide smooth paths we've already discussed. However those with limited vision will benefit from effective signage as well. Your signs should have large letters, strong contrast, and a visual element besides the text. As an example, instead of a text-only "This Way to the Trains" sign, consider a sign that includes an arrow and an outline of a locomotive. In fact, I hope to offer a free downloadable sign that meets this criteria in the next few days.
  • Sight-impaired visitors will also benefit from the sounds of your railroad. Not everybody can afford expensive sound cards, but locomotive sounds will help as long as they are not deafening, as some folks like to set them. Metal wheels on your rolling stock will give your trains more of a "clickety-clack" sound than the "thunkety-thunk" sound you get with plastic wheels. (They're also help your trains run better and stay on the track better.)


Click to see some ways you can help build the hobby.The ideas in this article were collected from many sources; no one will be able to incorporate them all, but I hope they give you some ideas you can use to make your own garden railroad more accessible, both for visitors and for railroader/gardeners. You will find that wide, smooth paths, convenient viewing and working areas, raised right-of-ways, and important details being placed close to the viewer benefit everybody, at the same time that they permit you to entertain visitors who could never have seen or operated your railroad otherwise.

In addition, I've "rushed" this article into publication because I think it will be very helpful for some families this year. I hope to add photographs and more content in a few weeks. That said, if I've overlooked or misstated something, or if you can think of something I can add, or you have examples that would be helpful (especially photographs), please contact me and I'll gladly use what you have if it seems helpful.

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