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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)

This is not a construction article, per se, as I don't have all the information I would usually provide in an article of this scope. However, I thought it would help fill the gap between the ground-level "1-Day Railroad," which can be put together in a few hours and the Simple Raised Railroad, which requires a bunch more planning and digging. Lots of folks who've started with a ground-level railroad have decided later that the only thing they don't like about their railroads is kneeling down all the time to fiddle with things. Many have gone back, taken all the track up, and rebuilt with some method that raised the railroad, which often caused their railroad to be out of commission for a season or two. So when I saw a method that could be used to raise a ground-level railroad without forcing folks to "start all over," I got excited.

In this railroad, the designers and builders planned from the beginning to raise at least part of their railroad. However, they lay the track on the ground first, then raised it. I can think of no good reason why anyone with a ground-level railroad could not adopt the technique described in this article to raise their railroad to a more convenient height.

Rick Padley, the owner, is a retiree who helped inspire and inform our article on Accessible Garden Railroads. Two members of the Long Island Garden Railway Society, an active and talented club, helped Rick design and begin to install his railroad. As you'll see, the process used by Tom Rizzo and his "assistant," who prefers to be known only as Steve, goes something like this:

  1. They cleared the ground and lay the track first, using pre-formed curves, much as you might do for the ground-level railroad described in the One Day Railroad article. Yes, some of the track in the illustration is lying on top of other track where they expect to have an overpass, but that doesn't affect the basic concept.
  2. Then they went back and cut roadbed to go underneath the track. The roadbed itself is very similar to what I described in the Simple Raised Railroad article.
  3. They slid the roadbed underneath the track.
  4. They drove narrow stakes into the ground on both sides of the roadbed. As long as the stakes have flat ends and protrude beneath the frost line, they will provide a relatively stable base. (That said, Tom and Steve are planning on putting a redwood trestle under most of the raised section shown.)
  5. They raised the roadbed and tacked it into place, occasionally supporting part of the track or roadbed with bricks and such as they worked their way around the railroad.
  6. They provided a crosspiece between the vertical posts so that a series of "U-shaped" brackets are supporting the roadbed.

As of April, 2006, we don't have any photos of the finished railroad because it hasn't been finished yet. But we hope this gives you some ideas you can use.

Garden Railways Magazine

The advantages of raised railroads are spelled out in detail in the Simple Raised Railroad article. Still, if you've operated a ground-level railroad for more than one season, you have figured out the most important advantage for yourself - saving your knees and back. The rest of the short list includes:

  • Raised railroads allow you to see the sides of things, not just the tops.
  • Raised railroads allow you to compensate easily for difficult terrain.
  • Railroads built with lumber minimize the effect of soil shifting underneath the roadbed.
  • Raised railroads that use solid timber stringers make it very difficult for weeds to disrupt your train service.

In addition, putting a solid 2"x6" (or 5/4"x6") roadbed underneath your track provides several immediate advantages, including a smoother, more reliable track pattern, and serious weed abatement even if you don't get around to raising the roadbed for a year or three.

Okay, so you know why I'm "gung-ho" about raised railroads. It's also worth mentioning that for anyone who already has a ground-level railroad, this method allows you to build and place the roadbed a little at a time so that you don't have to take your railroad out of operation while that part of the work is being done. Now lets talk about how to get your railroad off of the ground without having to start over.

What do I Need?

This won't be a complete list of tools or requirements, because a very complete list is already described in detail in the Simple Raised Railroad article. But you will need:
  • One ground-level railroad such the railroad described in the 1-Day-Railroad article. If you don't have that, jump right to the Simple Raised Railroad article and go from there.

  • Basic construction tools, including those listed in the What Tools Will I Need? section of the Simple Raised Railroad article. Exceptions:
    • You won't need a post hole digger for this project.
    • You will find a reciprocating saw helpful for trimming the brackets once they're installed.

  • 2x6s or 5/4"x6" deck boards for the stringers. A "stringer" is a piece of lumber that runs the same direction as the track to support it. Tom and Steve used deck boards for this project, which have the advantages of being slightly less expensive, better looking, and lighter weight than 2x6s so they're easier to work with. I prefer 2x6s for the most rugged, permanent installations, but your mileage will vary. Since Tom and Steve plan to brace most of the raised part with a redwood trestle anyway, they can get away with the thinner boards.

    If you know how many linear feet of track you have on the ground, you can get a good idea of how many feet of 2x6s or deck boards you need for the stringers, then add 1/4 to 1/3 more for "waste" at the end of the boards, etc. If you remember how many of which sized pieces of track you used, you can use the table in the Simple Raised Railroad article to calculate more carefully.

  • 1x6s for the plates. The plates are pieces of pressure-treated 1x6" lumber used to join the stringers pieces. (Of course you COULD use 5/4"x6" bits if you are buying decking anyway - check the price at the store before you decide which to get.) The easiest way to calculate how much you will need is to figure one plate for each piece of track you are using, then add a 1/4 or so of 1/3 "fudge factor."

    (If you look closely at the photographs, you'll notice that the builders used short plates, perhaps 6 inches. In "ordinary" roadbed construction, I would recommend longer plates because they will make your roadbed more stable in all directions. True, longer plates will stick out from under the roadbed more, especially on tight curves. So if you go with longer plates, you'll need to trim the excess before you raise your roadbed, but that's pretty simple.

  • 1x2" or so boards for the vertical posts or "stakes." From the photographs, it looks as though the guys raising Rick's railroad used even smaller boards, but I'm not sure I could recommend that without trying it myself. Your mileage will vary. Remember that a 1"x2" is really more like 3/4" by 1 5/8", anyway.
    • If the ground is very hard, or you want to raise the railroad more than 20", or you expect these posts to be the sole support of the roadbed for months or years, you might want to go a tad larger.
    • If you live where there is frost, the stakes should go below the frost line. So if you have an 18" frost line, and you want your railroad to be 24" off the ground, your final post/stake length will be 42", and you should really consider cutting them 48" to have some extra "give" when you're doing the work.
    • The ends of the stakes should be square, not slanted. Yes, it makes them harder to get into the ground. But in a deep frost, the lateral pressure of the frozen earth will pinch a square-tipped board and hold it in place. A slant-tipped board will convert the lateral pressure into vertical pressure and ease up out of the ground like a very slow watermelon seed.
    • Pressure treated lumber that is sliced into small strips warps quickly if exposed to humidity, much less rain. So if you rip the lumber yourself, don't rip any more than you can use in a couple of days and store what you haven't used each day in a dry place. Once it's in place, and other pieces are fastened to it, it should hold its shape well enough.
    • If you are using 10'- diameter curves, consider using at least one bracket (two stakes and one 6.5" crossbar) for every piece of curved track. You can "get away" with longer distances between brackets if:
      • You plan to backfill all or most of the way to the roadbed.
      • The part you are installing has low risk of visitors or workers leaning against it or bumping into it.
      • There is low risk of washouts, flooding, standing water around the posts, or extremely cold winters.
    • To calculate the linear inches of stake material you'll need for each bracket, multiply the length of each stake by 2 and add 6.5" To calculate the total linear feet of material you'll need, multiply that measurement by the number of pieces of track you'll have, then divide by 12. Add a "fudge factor" of 1/4 again as much, or 1/3 again as much if you plan to install crossbracing (see below).
  • 2 1/4" Deck Screws - Get the extra, extra galvanized kind that works with ACQ lumber. You will need from 6 to 10 per piece of track, depending on how long you make your plates.
  • 1 3/4" Galvanized Wood Screws - These are for the vertical stakes/brackets. The length will vary depending on the size of lumber you need for the stakes. You'll need a minimum of four screws per bracket - I'd be inclined to double that in case you need to crossbrace some brackets.
  • Concrete Blocks, Milk Cartons, or Cardboard Boxes - You'll need something bulky and temporary to raise the roadbed around each section you're raising so that you aren't straining the roadbed (and possibly deforming it) while you're raising the section.

Measure and Cut the Stringers

If you used pre-curved track segments, you can use the instructions below to determine the size and shape of each stringer. Start by downloading and printing the first template below (unless you may have installed some 8'-diameter curves, which require the second template). Note: If you used "flextrack" (not preformed curves) to build your railroad, you'll have to figure another way to measure your angles for each piece of roadbed, but the following tips will give you some idea of what is involved.

Most pre-formed garden railroad curves come twelve to a circle. This includes most curves that make a 4' circle, a 5' circle, and a 10' circle.
Download the template
for curves that come
12 to a circle
Most pre-formed garden railroad curves that make an 8' circle comes 16 to a circle. These require a different template.
Download the template
for curves that come
16 to a circle.
1. Take the 75degree template and a scrap bit of the material you plan to use for stringers (2x6 or 5/4"x6") to your railroad. Lay the template on the board as shown and slide the board under the edge of a curve.

2. Slide the board so that the piece of track you are testing is centered above it and see if it aligns with the template. If the end of the track doesn't align as shown, try the other template. Then, using the template you chose, mark the end of the board.

3. Flop the template over, slide it underneath the track, and use the template to measure and mark the other end of the board, making sure to keep the track centered.

4. Cut the board as you marked it; then check the fit. You may use the first board you have cut as your template for any other curves of that size. If you have several sizes of curves, you will have to do this process once for each size of curve.

5. To check your work, slide the first few pieces you cut under a curved area of your track. You'll see that you have some "give" in either direction, but you want the curves to be reasonably centered on all adjoining pieces and to line up fairly well with the ends. If your pieces seem a tad short or long, make the appropriate adjustments on the next few boards you cut.

Once you're certain you're "doing it right," cut the rest of the pieces you need in this size, and move on to the next size.

Determine the "bottom" of each stringer.

Look at one end of each piece of stringer you have cut. If the grain of the piece simply looks like a series of parallel lines, simply lable the least attractive side "B" or some similar indicator that means something to you. On the other hand, if the grain makes a "bowl" pattern on one or both ends of the board, you want to make certain that, in the final installation, the pattern resembles an upturned bowl instead of a right-side-up bowl. That way the grain of the wood will shed moisture instead of capturing it. Again, once you've decided which side needs to be on the bottom, mark it clearly. Why do we mark the bottom and not the top? Because in the final assembly, the top will be visible, but the bottom will not.

Cut 1x6" Plates

This shouldn't take long - crosscut your 1x6s into the length you've decided on for your plates, one for each stringer you've cut.

Install the Stringers Under the Track

Next you need to get the stringers underneath the track, with the plates underneath them fastened multiple times. This part will seem time-consuming, but you can do it a few feet at a time without disrupting your railroad too much. In fact, you will discover that a railroad properly installed on solid wood roadbed is easier to maintain than one laid in the gravel, even before you raise it. Shoot at least three screws into each end of the plate (for maximum sturdiness, shoot five screws into an X-pattern on each end of the plate if you have room). Note: Although I recommend shooting the screws from the bottom in the Simple Raised Railroad article, they're a lot easier to shoot in from the top in this installation. And my friend Wil Davis pointed out that screws shot in from the top nearly disappear anyway, and they're far easier to back out if you need to make adjustments.

Note: If you have purchased a copy of Marc Horovitz' and Pat Hayward's Gorgeous Garden Railways, turn to page 88 for before-and-after photographs of a railroad that started this way in Toronto some years back. (Click here for a review of that book.

Test Track Installation So Far

When you've fastened all of your stringers together, you might want to try running a train around the track (or pushing the longest car you have, if you don't have power hooked up at the moment) to make certain that there aren't any places where the track binds or is twisted out of gauge. You may need to slide some bricks or scrap lumber under sections to level the track (more or less) for this test.

Trim the Excess off the Plates and Stringers

Next, using your circular saw, whack off any ragged corners where either the stringers or the plates stick out excessively. Generally, I use from one to three straight cuts at each joint to get things looking pretty even without straining my circular saw too much.

Once you're certain you have a smooth railroad so far, it's time to take a breather and go look for the laser level.

Tap In the Stakes

When you're ready to start the next phase (whether it's a day later or a year later than the first phase), get a bunch of stakes pre-cut and go out to the garden with a heavy hammer and work gloves.

Tap two stakes into the ground everywhere you've determined you will need a bracket. Make certain you drive the stakes below the frost line. When you're done, walk around the right-of-way making certain that none of the stakes pushed the stringers out of line.

Note: Right after I posted this article, Steve (who prefers to be known only as "Steve") told me that they actually used scraps of 2/3" to raise the track to the height they wanted, then put in the stakes. Oops. I like my way better. Again, your mileage will vary.

Raise the Roadbed

I haven't tested the details on this section exactly. They're based on similar projects I've done, and on what I've been able to glean from the photographs and e-mails from Rick. But I haven't had a chance to do this exactly yet, so you may feel free to experiment. A second pair of hands is especially helpful on this part of the project.

  1. Raise one section of your railroad and prop it on the cardboard boxes, concrete blocks or whatever you're using. These should be a few inches lower than the final "height" of your railroad.
  2. Get the right tip installed into your electric screwdriver to drive the small wood screws. Also get your laser level and your small bubble level ready.
  3. Using a yardstick if you wish to be certain of your final height, raise the first piece of roadbed to its final height and fasten one stake to roadbed.
  4. Use one screw to fasten the crossbar to the stake you have attached to the roadbed at the right level to support the track.
  5. Using the bubble level, "lever" the crossbar up and down until the track is level left to right. Fasten the crossbar to the other stake. You will want to come back and add some extra screws for support, but it's better at first to leave these things more or less tacked into place in case you need to come back and make adjustments.
  6. Move on to the next pair of stakes, using the laser level to make certain you are keeping the roadbed level lengthwise (or at a very small grade, if you've decided to incorporate a grade).

Inspect the Track and Finish Fastening the Brackets

When you have worked your way around perform at least one careful inspection to make certain that the track is resting properly on the roadbed all the way around, and not pinched or bent, either horizontally or vertically. Also, (as my friend Wil Davis reminded me) make certain there are no vertical kinks, either upward or downward - both will cause uncoupling if not derailments. You can use a 4-foot level or a very straight piece of 2x6 for this.

Using your levels to make certain everything stays where it is supposed to, go back around with your power screwdriver and fasten the brackets more securely.

After every few feet, go back and press against the roadbed gently to make certain that the structure seems sound. Add extra screws or extra brackets anyplace that seems "soggy." In addition, if you have a long straightaway, you may want to add extra lateral protection by adding some cross-bracing here and there.

You may be tempted to screw the track down to the stringers. Don't. The rails will expand and contract faster than the wood stringers. If you fasten them together firmly, one or the other will suffer (usually the track). You may screw the roadbed down at one point, or, worst case, at two points opposite each other on an oval. This will give the track room to expand and contract, while keeping it from slipping completely off the roadbed. If you feel that you need more "assurance," consider getting some weatherproof wire, drilling small holes here and there next to the ties, and "wiring" ties losely down to the stringers, so that they can skootch around a little, but not enough to come off of the stringers.

When you're finally satisfied that the railroad is sturdy (or at least sturdy enough to hold until you install trestles or backfill, wipe the track clean, put on a locomotive (not your most expensive one), and let it go slowly around the track. Look for places where voltage seems to drop, or the locomotive seems to jerk or struggle. You may find yourself running jumper cables to get maximum voltage to the far end of the track. When you're satisfied with the electromechanical status of your new raised roadbed and track, you are ready to address the "cosmetic" issues.

Trim the Excesss off the Brackets

Using a reciprocating saw or whatever else you're comfortable with, trim the stakes to the level of the roadbed, then trim the crossbars and any crossbracing pieces to match up with the stakes.

Close the Gap

Now part or all of your railroad is a foot or more off the ground. You can backfill, build retaining walls, build rockgardens, or even put in a pond to fill in the blank between the ground and the railroad level. There's also no reason you can't add a trestle or bridge appearance to all or part of the raised section. The best part is that you can have your trains running the whole time you're working on the rest of this stuff. Options include:
  • Buying a few feet of pond liner and making an irregular shaped pond somewhere near or inside your loop.
  • Using real stones or some of those trapezoid-shaped landscaping blocks to build a retaining wall, then backfilling.
  • Using something cheap, but functional, like used concrete blocks, to hold your backfill, then using a mix of real rocks and "Bob Treat" rocks to dress it up.
One thing you can't do right away is paint or otherwise finish your pressure-treated lumber. Generally it takes weeks or months for any excess moisture to leach out and the rest to dry up. That said, I sprayed my posts with cheap gray primer after about three dry summer months of installation, and it held through most of the following year. Several visitors took them for concrete posts, so I guess it added value. Now the posts are "dry enough" to take something more permanent.


Once again, this is an entirely experimental approach for raising a pre-existing ground-level railroad, and you should feel free to adapt it in any way that makes sense to you. You will find much additional information in the "1-Day Railroad," and Simple Raised Railroad articles. Regardless of the exact methods you use, however, I do want your feedback, especially if you've already tried something like this or are planning to try it this summer.

Many thanks to Wil Davis for his helpful suggestions, and for Dick Friedman, Ric Golding, Bob McCown, and others for their input.

I'm keeping the pressure on Rick and his friends to keep the photos coming, by the way.

Best of luck, all,

Paul D. Race

Garden Railways Magazine

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