What Will (Would) I do Differently Next Time?

Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains

In early 2002, frequent Garden Railways contributor Kevin Strong moved about 1800 miles, right after getting a garden railroad tantalizingly near some sort of completion. In May of 2002, I asked him what he would do differently the next time. Kevin's response was thoughtful and interesting, and it reflected some of my own "lessons learned." So I thought I'd ask all the the Big Trains listers the same question and compile the results for the sake of those who haven't made the same mistakes the first time.

Note from 2006: Since I edited the responses below, Family Garden Trains has produced several new planning guides that will help you with most of the details of design and redesign described below. Please refer to the "Planning" section of the Primer page, especially to the article on planning your garden railroads for Watchability and for Operations.

Breakdown of Responses

I didn't exactly get enough responses to tabulate, but some concerns were shared among respondents. A brief discussion of topics discussed is below, followed by some longer quotes. If you can think of something you'd do differently next time, especially if no one else has mentioned it, please e-mail me and I'll try to get it in the next revision.

The following are areas people mentioned in their "things they'd do differently list," along with relevant comments from a few offline followups.

Ponds -- Three people mentioned ponds.

Elevation -- Two people mentioned elevation. Curves -- Paul mentioned that he would use larger curves and more easements, since his full-length standard-gauge (80') coaches looked stupid on 5'-radius curves. But Kevin, who had used 10'-radius curves (20'-diameter) experienced a different problem. He had attempted to use curves this wide with a traditional "raised" garden railroad construction, only to find that he had a 20'-wide "wilderness" he needed to backfill, landscape and maintain when he would have preferred to be working on his right of way. This was a problem that Paul (with his 5'-radius curves) hadn't really encountered, but it was a good "heads' up."

Starting Small and Building -- Kevin mentioned starting small and building up from there. Because he had miscalculated the burden that "finishing" and maintaining all that enclosed "wilderness" would entail, Kevin didn't have the time he needed to get the most basic parts of the railroad itself the way he wanted them before he had to move. (Paul started small and built out, so he didn't have exactly that problem, but he could see why Kevin would feel so overwhelmed faced with the task of landscaping several hundred square feet when he really wanted to be testing track and running trains.) Kevin says, "Build a railway that will "look" complete after one or two summers of working on it, and expand from there."

Storage -- Dave Smith says "A storage area that allows one just to run trains out of it and on to the layout is a 'must.'" Otherwise the schlep factor makes it too much of a hassle to run trains on days he's tired or has only a few minutes to operate. (Paul concurrs.)

Knowing What You Hope to Get Out Of Your Railroad -- Rick Golding wins the "prize" for the most visionary response: having "a philosophy of your railroad." Rick wanted to be able to run the barbeque and simultaneously visit with friends running trains, something that he couldn't do with his basement railroad. I suppose I expected my garden railroad to be my "private empire" like my indoor railroad was a few decades ago, but I had overlooked the entertainment value, etc. of the thing. Now I realize if I had really thought about the "entertainment" potential of the railroad, I'd have built it differently--certainly I'd have given it more than a couple optimal viewing and operating positions. What do you really expect to get out of your next (or first) garden railroad, and how can your plans and designs contribute to realizing those goals?

Bigger is better except. . . .

Reading back and forth through these responses, and comparing input of other writers at other times, could I design an optimal "next" garden railroad that would meet many of our needs? Or at least come up with some "rules of thumb" that should help. So how do you reconcile these various requirements? Don't wider curves and more elevation directly translate into needing more rocks and dirt? Not necessarily. Rather all of these above "wouldas" and "shouldas" could be resolved by taking a "perimeter" approach to your garden railroad. Kevin describes it thus: "My next railway will likely be more of a perimeter style railroad, with "islands" for each individual town or industry I want to model." Rick Blanchard, another author, has often recommended perimeter railroads as a way to maximize curves without the problems that result from trying to use piles of dirt to emulate tabletops.

If another disaster took out my railway completely and I had to start from scratch, I'm still not certain I could do what I'm about to recommend, but I'd think about it:

In short, with a little foresight, many second-timers can build a railroad that is easier to maintain, more realistic, quicker to become useful, and more enjoyable for visitors. I suppose first-timers could do the same things, but what's the fun in that?

Quotes From Respondents

Kevin Strong

The biggest change I would make would be to elevate the railroad up from the ground. My old railroad was built at or near ground level (6 - 18" up from grade.) This gives one the definite advantage of not having to bring in huge quantities of dirt for the average railroad, although in the end I brought in over 80 yards. (We'll address that later...)

Elevating the railroad achieves quite a few goals. First, it gets the landscaping out of harm's way in the form of lawnmowers, soccer balls, and "other things" that go bump. Secondly, it allows the garden railroad to become more of a feature in itself, and sets it apart from the rest of the yard. The closest part of the railroad to the house was 18" up from the ground. It really looked great from the deck. Other parts of the railroad never had that feeling of separation. Lastly, it lessens the amount of bending over one has to do for routine maintenance. Things are just a bit higher, and you can sit at ground level and not kill your back.

The next thing I would do differently would be in the design of the railroad. I've said it many, many, times, and it's out of pure experience - START SMALL!. You remember the 80+ yards of dirt? When you spread that over what amounts to nearly 3000 square feet, it doesn't amount to much elevation. Whoever coined the phrase "dirt cheap" has never bought top soil. Much of the dirt was used to fill in the space inside my 10' radius curves. That's a lot of real estate, 20' of basically unused space. Space that I still had to landscape, water, weed, and maintain.

I'd rather spend my time weeding the ground near the track. Unfortunately, in the 5 years the railroad was there, the plants never grew in to the extent that I had envisioned. (They wouldn't have under the best of circumstances, let alone partial shade.)

Simply put, I bit off way more than I could chew. My "vision" for the mature landscaping would probably take 10-15 years to fill in. I was only planning on being there 5-10 years at the absolute most. Build a railway that will "look" complete after one or two summers of working on it, and expand from there.

My next railway will likely be more of a perimeter style railroad, with "islands" for each individual town or industry I want to model. This accomplishes a few goals. First, I can elevate the railroad as high as I need to, without the need to bring in vast quantities of dirt in the process. I can build the entire loop of the railroad, elevating it on piers or something like that just to get trains running in a complete circuit. Then, I can go in and build each scene as I have time, and can devote energy to just these little scenes. Ultimately, the entire railway may be landscaped, but I don't have to worry about maintaining a modicum of landscaping around the parts that aren't yet.

Lastly, any pond I dig will have its lowest point WELL ABOVE the water table. I don't want to deal with floating pond liners ever again! Hint: If your back yard is forever wet, regardless of how many months it hasn't rained, don't dig a pond. You can dig a hole and let the water fill in naturally, but don't try to install a liner.

I'm sure there's a whole host of mistakes awaiting my next railroad as well, and I look forward to being able to make them. The first step in the plan is to find a house that's large enough where we can stay there for 10 - 15 years without bulging at the seams. Then, we can start thinking about a track plan.

Paul Race

I'd use 8' radius curves as a minimum instead of 5' radius curves. Now I know how stupid 80' coaches look on those curves. If I had to do it all over again, I'd go with 8' minimum radius.

I'd use wider radius curves as "easements" where I had room. On the newer part of my RR, I've substituted some 10'-radius curves where I had room for them, and the whole section looks so much smoother and more realistic. Now the straight-to-curve-to-straight track plan of my old section looks very silly and toylike to me.

I'd put in a bigger pond. I have about 130 gallons worth of pond and waterfall, and I'm convinced that it's almost as much work as a 500-gallon pond would be. For one thing, keeping 100 gallons stabilized is harder. For another, I wouldn't have to be so worried about the fish, etc., in winter. And a pond that's 5-6 feet across isn't nearly as impressive in the back yard as the pond liner was in the back of the van. (I'd also use flexible rubber as the liner, rather than a preformed pond. I thought I was doing it the "easy way," but there have been drawbacks.)

I'd elevate the whole thing more. My yard sloped, so I designed my railroad to be elevated 24" in back and 12" in front, averaging 18". But that means that most of my time putting cars on the track, etc., I'm working on the 12" part. Oh, the knees and back!

I'd probably attempt to have more difference between the highest and lowest part of the railroad, too.

I'd buy more track and less trains. I overbought early on, because certain companies "spooked" me by coming in, getting out, coming in, getting out, etc. I was afraid if I didn't buy certain pieces when they were available, I'd never have a chance at them. Now I have stuff I only run once in a blue moon. If I'd put the money into landscaping and track instead, I'd have a much more interesting place to run my trains.

I'd also probably attempt to plan for more multi-train operations, too. Operating my single mainline was fun for me, but it bored visitors to death after a few minutes. What's wrong with having a few other trains moving around, as long as you have things spread out enough that it doesn't look like a Lionel tabletop display layout? I have added a second, smaller loop, but if I had to do it over again, the ability to operate multiple trains at once without interference wouldn't be an afterthought.

I'd attempt to have a more interactive garden. Right now I have sort of a virtual tabletop outside that people can look at, mostly from one or two viewing angles. The better garden railroads have paths, islands, peninsulas, etc., you can wander among, so you can feel like you're "part of" the garden, and not just an onlooker in an outdoor museum. Yes, I know this can be hard to do if you're trying to use very wide curves in a limited space, but I had enough room I could have worked something out.

Rick Golding

I don't know if you mentioned "a philosophy of your railroad" before you started. I wanted an operational trackplan for myself and friends and a background layout for a Bar-B-Q or get together. To me, this mattered and it is what didn't work in past HO indoor layouts. I built, but was never satisfied. It seems that a person needs to be able to show their work and the Garden Railroad does it so well. You've got to be able to express your reasoning for doing this, to both the fellow hobbiest and the uneducated.

Dave "Sunnyfield" Smith

My layout is also raised and goes from about 18: to 30". Because of the amount of "fill" that's needed to raise a layout, I was thinking of making the new loop only 12" high. Based on what you wrote I may have to reconsider.

The only other thing (besides allowing easy access to ALL areas of the layout) I would add that a storage area that allows one just to run trains out of it and on to the layout is a "must". I don't have this and when I come home from work and want to run a train, the thought of unpacking trains, bringing them up from the cellar, hooking up a power supply and then having to put the whole thing away keeps me from doing ANYTHING. I'm hoping my conversion to r/c battery power will help alleviate some of this but I'm definitely including a storage shed in my next upgrade.

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