The first thing most people notice when they are exposed to garden railroading is how great Large Scale trains look out-of-doors. The second thing they notice is how much they cost.
No question, you can spend a lot of money on garden railroading. When you visit the stores or other people's railroads, you may begin to think that thousand-dollar locomotives and $6.00-a-foot track are the norm. If, like most families, you have to budget every other area of your lives, you may start to fear that your "empire" will never get beyond the starter set that got you interested in the hobby in the first place.
Never fear, many hundreds of garden railroading families have built enjoyable, charming, and even notable garden railroads without going bankrupt. The following information will help you build your garden railroad on a budget, too.
Update for 2008 - Note about Track - For thirty years, the standard track for garden railroading has been code 332 hiqh-quality brass track (the rail height is .332 inches, if that helps). Since the cost of copper has doubled in the last few years, the cost of brass track has doubled as well. Code 332 track hasn't been the only choice, though. Some folks use smaller track (such as code 250 - 1/4" high - which looks a little more realistic and costs a little less, but is less sturdy. Some folks use aluminum track, mostly code 250 or smaller, which is even less expensive, and costs even less. Code 250 track, whatever it's made out of, tends to be "flex-track," that is to say it doesn't come in pre-formed curves like the track in your starter set. Although it is less sturdy than code 332 track, most people who choose code 250 or smaller rails design for this with rugged "roadbed" made out of concrete or 2x6"s, so it's not usually a problem. Many very nice railroads have been built using this solution.
Code 332 Aluminum Track - A few years ago, when brass was cheap, AristoCraft introduced aluminum track that was otherwise the same as their brass track. It never caught on, and they discontinued it. Now that brass prices have gone up so quickly, AristoCraft is reintroducing a few different aluminum track pieces. Because Code 332 rails are pretty good size, it's still fairly sturdy, and it's about half the price that brass is now. In my experience, larger locomotives with lots of pickup wheel run about as well on aluminum as they do on brass. Aluminum does seem to get "greasy," and to collect plastic gunk from plastic wheels faster than brass, but aluminum oxide (unlike brass oxide) conducts electricity, so you shouldn't notice a huge difference in performance as long as you:
Folks running small locomotives (like the 0-4-0 that comes with AristoCraft starter sets) have complained that they don't run quite as smoothly. Others in damp climates complain that aluminum track attracts more moisture than brass, and their trains start slipping in the late afternoon. But for many others, especially folks in dry climates, the only difference is that you'll need to wipe your track more often. Our article Is Aluminum Track an Viable Option provides much more information on this topic.What is your minimal expectation for a garden railroad? To me, it's not a railroad unless I have at least one train (with a caboose), two stations, and enough track to get the train out of one station before it pulls into the next. Many people have far greater expectations, and some have less, but the point is, think about what kind of railroad you want to have, and what it will take you to get there. Then determine not to stray too far off the path just because some once-in-a-lifetime offer comes by.
Planning can involve deciding:
Later in this article, we have sample budgets for several phases of garden railroad construction, that you can adapt to your needs. But I'll announce early that it's possible to have a functioning, established garden railroad in about three summers for about the same amount of money (per month) that many people would put into, say, cable television, in the same amount of time. Of course you can spend much more if you want, just don't spend it all before you take expenses like landscaping materials into account. Otherwise you may be like the man in the story who started to build a tower and ran out of money before he could finish. Your neighbors are going to think you're crazy at first, anyway; don't prove them right.
The Family Garden Trains article, "Which Scale Should I Model?" contains more information than you ever wanted to know about which manufacturers support which scales (and why). But the short version is that you can get into Narrow Gauge modeling (like the old Rio Grande) relatively cheaply with Bachmann 1:22.5 starter sets. Or you can get into Standard Gauge modeling (like PRR and CSX) for a little more with an AristoCraft or USA 1:29 starter set. Some folks who prefer 1:20.3 or some other scale may "bite the bullet" and start off with stuff that's a little more expensive. But there's no reason you can't start with a $100 1:22.5 set, then buy something else later on, when you've run its wheels off.
The best investment is to start off with good, well-laid track in as wide a radius as you can fit in the space you have. I prefer Aristocraft, because of the tie spacing, the screw-on rail joiners, and the screws underneath the rails that make running jumpers a piece of cake. If you know you'll only use remote-control/battery solutions, you may save money using aluminum track (although some folks are running track power on Llagas Creek aluminum track just fine).
Some manufacturers have different track styles for narrow gauge and for standard gauge. The rails on all these track styles are 45mm apart; only the tie spacing is different. Obviously, if you're tending toward one or the other kind of railroad, let that affect your choice of tie spacings. But if you lay a bunch of track with "narrow gauge" tie spacings, then decide to run standard gauge after all, or vice versa, only one person in 500 would even notice. Just don't mix and match tie spacings every other piece or something.
Believe it or not, your investment in trains should actually be the small part of the equation the first few years. I'd rather start with a $200 train and $500 worth of track than try to get by the other way around. A decent segment of good quality, properly laid, wide-radius track will last you the life of your garden railroad. You can always buy other trains and buildings later, but it's a lot harder to replace or live with poorly chosen or poorly laid track.
Even harder for some people to get their heads around is that any landscaping you do may cost more than your trains and track put together. This is especially true at first, when you're installing ponds, retaining walls and the like. Even if you do the work yourself, rocks and dirt aren't as cheap as they sound.
Many years ago, the HMO we belonged to got into trouble and started delaying payments to smaller suppliers. My neighborhood pharmacist refused to accept my insurance card, then became angry at me because I went to a drugstore chain to get my children's prescriptions filled. I understand that he was in a bind, but so was I. Years later, a home-town hobby shop owner got mad at me because I bought a Bachmann set at Toys R Us for $99 that he was selling for $349. He had actually paid more "wholesale" for that set than I paid for it retail. But I did not personally "owe" him $250, just because he was also caught in a bind.
The truth is that pricing is a strange and volatile issue in the Large Scale marketplace, aggravated by unrealistically high "list prices" for many items and a confusing mess of distribution channels. Certain hobby shops assure you that they will go out of business if they don't clear $35 on the next boxcar you buy, while certain mail-order dealers offer great prices on equipment they know nothing about and won't service, even if it arrives at your home with broken or missing pieces. Other stores try to offer good service and good value but keep getting caught in the "bind" I described above, and give up. Worse yet, items on the "used" market, especially the online auctions, often sport the highest prices of all.
"Buyer Beware" risks stalk all aspects of the Large Scale marketplace; if you don't have very deep pockets, you owe it to yourself, your family, and your railroad, to shop carefully. For details on how to guard against predatory situations, while still supporting suppliers that are providing worthwhile service, refer to the Family Garden Trains article, "Where to Buy Large Scale and Garden Railroading Equipment"
In the meantime, remember that most would-be garden railroaders overpay and overpurchase when they:
In addition to shopping carefully for train stuff, be certain to shop carefully for the other things you will need, such as landscaping materials and pond supplies. For example the same "pond liner" rubber sheeting you can buy from pond suppliers for $1 a square foot is available in some parts of the country from farm suppliers (as silo covers) and from roofing supply places (as roofing material) for a fraction of that price. *
Nowadays, the manufacturers supply many US-style buildings and accessories. In addition, the dollar's position against the mark has improved, so that prices on German-manufactured products have stabilized, and even lowered in some cases. Nevertheless, garden railroaders in the "colonies" tend to be a rugged bunch, and many have turned "scrounging" into something like a sporting event.
Model railroaders have long used the term "kitbashing" to refer to taking a model of one thing into a workshop and coming out with a model of something else. I've personally invented the term "trashbashing" to refer to rebuilding something that didn't even start out as a model into something that works fine on a garden railroad. For example, I have a city block of old "garage-sale" Fisher-Price "Sesame Street" storefronts. With decent paint jobs and details, they serve very nicely, at a tiny fraction of what the "store-bought" equivalents would have cost. And unlike most trash-bashed models, they look fine next to several "store-bought" models.
You would think that this sort of thing would mostly appeal to people who have more time than money, but some of the best scroungers are people who could afford anything, but just want a challenge. Nothing is off limits: plants, would-be accessories and buildings, even landscaping materials. A soccer team that started out as birthday cake decorations, a passenger that resembles Moe of the three stooges, a phone booth that started out as a refrigerator magnet, and so on. You get extra "points" for finding stuff you can use at deep discounts (like after-after Christmas sales), or at unlikely places (like garage sales and flea markets). More than one garden railway club meeting "show and tell" session has started with the sentence, "Look what I dug out of the trash at . . . . "
"Caveats" of scrounging include:
Some sources that other garden railroaders have scrounged effectively include:
Plant lovers may trade starts. For example, "stubby fingers" and "blue spruce" sedum have grown so well on my railroad that it's silly not to give starts to anyone in the area that doesn't have any yet. (On the other hand, several of my low-profile thymes are always on life support, so I'm more cautious about doing anything to put them into shock.)
Modelers may trade models or bits of models. For example, I bought a bunch of small-diameter steel wheelsets, then found out they would hang on my (not-so-exquisite) switchwork. An internet acquaintance was planning to replace the standard-diameter steel wheelsets on his cars with the small-diameter sets. No problem--even trade. Somewhere, in another trade, I came up with a blue B&O Pacific I couldn't use on my PRR-oriented railroad. But another acquaintance needed a Pacific and didn't need an Atlantic he had gethering dust. Now we're both happy.
Gifts like plant starts aren't always reciprocated but they're usually appreciated, and what goes around often comes around from other sources. As far as trading items of value is concerned, be certain you either know the person well, have recourse in case of a misunderstanding, or both. I've found the vast majority of garden railroaders to be friendly, honest, helpful people, but don't be naive.
The point of the test was just to show that jumping into a difficult task without sufficient information can be risky. I cite that example here, because many would-be garden railroaders do the same thing. After seeing one or two layouts and reading one or two catalogs, they get out the charge card and the shovel. Fortunately, most folks recover from any early errors, but you do occasionally see folks liquidating a whole railroad because they have overextended themselves financially or bought too much of the wrong stuff on impulse. Planning would have saved these people a great deal of time, energy, money, and possibly some arguments.
I also believe in Frederick P. Brooks' law of engineering: "Build One to Throw Away; You Will Anyhow." In this case, it means that getting a test track on the ground early will help you plan your permanent railroad better, and maybe help you learn from some mistakes before they're literally cast in concrete.
The following is a very basic sample two-to-three-year plan by which you could establish a functional beginning garden railway on a very reasonable budget. However, this is only a starting point that you must change to meet your needs and expectations before you will receive the full benefits of it.
At the same time, make it a point to visit as many open houses as you can. You'll get ideas for track plans, see what kind of railroads interest you, and so on. You may also meet folks who can give you starts of ground covers and answer "clueless newbie" questions for you.
Possible Phase 1 purchases include:
|Purchase||Price if you shop carefully|
|An additional loop of track (preferably 8' minimum diameter, 10' is better)||$80-120 for aluminum|
$120-240 for brass
|Plastic sheeting to stop plant growth through track||$5-20|
|Mulch, gravel, potted dwarf evergreens, etc., as desired||$20-200|
|Total Range of Phase 1 Investment||$205-590|
This is a good time to make out your holiday "wish list." Try highlighting line-items in ads in Garden Railways and leaving the magazines laying open to the right page. This also helps your loved ones avoid paying list price for something you can't use.
|Purchase||Price if you shop carefully|
|Track||$0 if you use the track from your starter set, $40-$100 otherwise for aluminum, $80-160 for brass|
|Lumber||$30-$100 depending on how and where you need to set it up.|
|Indoor/Outdoor carpet, paint, or other finishing materials||$20-$50 depending on your choices|
|Total Range of Initial Investment||$50-250|
Over the decades, Model Railroading magazine and many other sources have published plans for railroads that start small and grow. Consider a plan that allows you to get at least one segment operational by the end of the first season of serious construction. You can always expand from there. (For example, I wanted to have a "dogbone" layout, but I started with a loop that I planned to extend into a dogbone eventually. It so happens that I have since added another loop elsewhere on the garden and still haven't completed the dogbone, but it got me started.)
If you want a pond, waterfall, and or any other water feature, you're usually better off starting with that first, then building the railroad around it. So your first "groundbreaking" may be a hole in the ground for a pond. Expenses at this stage will include pond equipment, rocks, dirt, mulch, and other landscaping materials, such as real railroad ties. How much you spend depends directly on how much landscaping you want to do.
Remember that any serious landscaping, if tastefully done, will increase the value of your home regardless of whether you take the track away when you move. So it might help to think of the cost of landscaping as "home improvement" rather than "subsidizing Daddy's hobby." Save your receipts for tax purposes in case you move later.
You will also need more track; get the biggest radius you can reasonably fit into the location you want your first permanent railroad to go. A bigger power supply is also a good idea. (Some folks would insist that you should spend the money on a battery/radio control system instead, but that's your call).
When things get too intense, you can work on any kits you got for the holidays, or try building your own structures to use out of doors next summer.
Right now, you're mostly planning; the real expenses occur in the next phase. Possible expenses of Phase 3 include:
|Purchase||Price if you shop carefully|
|Track Planning Books and/or Software||$20-$100|
|Building and other kits||$130-400|
|Total Range of Phase 3 Investment||$150-500*|
Possible purchases at this phase include:
|Purchase||Price if you shop carefully|
|Pond liner, equipment and supplies||$200-$600|
|RR ties and other landscaping materials||$100-500|
|Gravel for roadbed||$100-200|
|Track||$150-500 for aluminum |
$300-1000 for brass
|Upgraded Power Supply||$100-150|
|Total Range of Phase 4 Investment||$900-2950*|
*Or you could do what Martha Stewart does and hire gardeners to do all the hard work, but expect your bill to go up by about 400%.
If you follow this plan to the letter, by the third summer, you will have spent somewhere between $1205 and $4290 to get a nice, functional, established, and hopefully attractive start on your garden railway. If you do the math, you'll notice that the cost of trains, track, accessories, and landscape planners account for only half to a quarter of the overall expense. The costs of lumber, landscaping materials, dirt, etc., have tripped up more than one would-be garden railroader who spent his entire budget in the hobby shop, and never got anything running in the garden. But when you're starting out, the trains are only one component, and the smallest one at that.
By now your starter set will be almost worn out, or at least very lonely, and you should have some idea of the overall effect you want to achieve with your railroad. You also have some idea of how much work and time it will take you to achieve it. In addition, several new products may be on the market that weren't available when you laid your first test loop. The starter set was just that; once you've refined your long-range plans, your future purchases should be more focused. If you decide to change scales, gauges, periods, or geographic locations, now's the time to do it, while your investment in rolling stock and accessories is still minimal.
You may also redesign the rest of your layout or decide that the "first" segment is all you need for now. This is your hobby, and there's nothing wrong with holding off on any further improvements indefinitely.
In the meantime, be sure to take lots of time enjoying and showing off your railroad. And when some visitor asks you how could afford "all this" just smile nicely.
I also heard from a friend who said the anti-algae agents in a swimming pool liner did kill his fish for a couple of years until they got down to a nominal level. So don't use swimming pool liners (new ones anyway) if you plan to have fish in the first few years.
At the same time I was receiving the dire warnings, I also heard from several people who have used rubber roofing material as a pond lining successfully for years with no apparent harm to fish or plants. One solution might be to find someone in the area who used roofing material or silo covers successfully, and make sure you buy the exact same thing they bought. Reading up on the material in question would help, too. If it says "insect-resistant" or "moss and mold-resistant" you don't want it. If I come across a specific brand name and product number you can order, I'll post it.
On another note, in another forum, I have also heard (and tried) a wide range of mutually exclusive ways of dealing with algae, and still have not stumbled across anything reliable enough to recommend to others.
The point of adding this footnote is to warn you that when you start planning for a pond, you will encounter the same sort of disinformation and "urban legends" you may encounter when you first walk into a hobby shop to learn "everything there is to know about into garden railroading." All I can say for certain is:
For more information about ponds, see our article Water Features and Garden Railroads.
Hope this helps, best of luck with all your efforts,
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