Electrical Safety and Garden Railroading

Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains

Garden railroading mixes large scale model railroading with all the challenges and delights of gardening, water gardening, and landscaping. What doesn't always mix so well with a naturalistic setting is 110v AC "house current" power (or 240v "mains" outside the US) . Even low voltage wiring is more complex outdoors than it is indoors. Unlike indoor railroading:

That doesn't mean that garden railroads are inherently unsafe and difficult to wire. In fact, indoor railroaders with good wiring habits easily overcome all of these obstacles. But poor wiring habits, such as poor planning, poor splicing, and poor labeling and record-keeping can cause frustrating—and sometimes dangerous—problems outdoors.

You can take the power pack that came with your starter set outside, hook it up, plug it in, and run your trains. But that doesn't mean you should, at least as a long-term solution. Not only will you outgrow that device as your layout grows and you run larger trains, it also isn't designed to be exposed to the elements. If you leave it outside for long, dampness will age it quickly and endanger you or your family, especially if you're running an extension cord from an outlet that isn't ground-fault protected. As if physical danger weren't enough, you also have to face the fact that powering accessories from the same power pack that runs your train is more complicated outdoors than it is indoors.

Garden railroaders usually address the complexity and safety issues of running electric trains outside by one or more of the following approaches:

Avoiding Wiring Altogether—Some garden railroaders avoid the problems of routing electricity in the garden altogether. A few approaches they use include:

Avoiding 110v (or 240v) AC in the Garden—Other garden railroaders, who use track power and don't mind running wires, reduce the danger inherent of having 110v AC (or 240v outside the US) "live" in an outdoor setting by using only low voltage out-of-doors.

Using 110v (or 240v) AC More Safely—Let's face it, many of us have AC running to our pond pumps and patio lights anyway, so going to extremes to avoid running it to our railroad also may be overkill. If you do use AC in or near your garden railroad, here are some tips for improving safety:

Planning Ahead— No matter how you plan to power your locomotives and accessories, good planning will increase the longterm safety of your railroad.

Best of luck,


* Power supply from 110v (or 240v) AC to an electric train typically consists of three parts: Because the most dangerous electricity is the stuff flowing between the 110v outlet and the transformer, several garden railroad solutions leave the transformer (or the transformer and rectifier) separate from the rheostat. In theory, you could leave the transformer in the house and just run low-voltage wires to the garden. The only problem with that is that it takes bigger cables to get effective 18v power any distance than it does for 110v or 240v. So if your garden is far from the house, you might consider an alternative, such as putting the transformer in a weatherproof, properly grounded, GFI-protected location halfway to the railroad.

Some "controllers," such as the LGB 52120 include a rectifier as well as a rheostat, so they may actually use low-voltage AC as input. But don't take unnecessary chances with your equipment. If there is any chance at all of a rheostat-only controller being attached to the power supply, make certain there is a rectifier in the circuit, too.

Thanks to the following Big-Trains members who offered helpful tips and information to make this article more useful:

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Note: Family Garden TrainsTM, Garden Train StoreTM, Big Christmas TrainsTM, BIG Indoor TrainsTM, and BIG Train StoreTM are trademarks of Breakthrough Communications (www.btcomm.com). All information, data, text, and illustrations on this web site are Copyright (c) 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 by Paul D. Race. Reuse or republication without prior written permission is specifically forbidden.
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