Garden railroading and Large Scale appeals to model railroaders as well as those who have never modeled anything. This article is written to prepare those who have experience building "indoor" railroads for the differences they will encounter when they move into "outdoor" railroading.
"Indoor" model railroaders move outdoors for all sorts of reasons.
And they were all right--it is big, it is fun, and it also provides new challenges.
This article is about some of those challenges you may not expect. Some of those challenges include:
(If you can think of anything I should add to this list, please contact me with details and I'll try to get it in. My thanks to fellow Miami Valley Garden Railroader Wil Davis, who reminded me to add the "physical labor" category.)
If I haven't scared you off already, take a deep breath and jump in.
Amount of Space Required
The average piece of Large Scale rolling stock is about three times as long as the average piece of HO rolling
stock. That means that if you are used to using 36"-radius curves in HO, you won't
likely be satisfied with anything tighter than 9-foot radius curves
in Large Scale (eighteen feet across). Needless to say, many Large Scalers have compromised on
that regard, because not everyone has an acre or more to "play with." The first generation of modern Large
Scalers included many folks running shorty gear on outrageously tight curves (24"-radius), but folks running
eight-wheeled cars have tried to be more realistic. Still, you'll see quite a few railroads that use 4' or 5'
radius track, with the same awkward results you used to see when HO-scalers would run full-length coaches on
18"-radius track. Some Large Scalers deliberately choose prototypes, such as old timey, industrial line, or
narrow gauge, that preclude any really long cars. Others just pretend not to notice, when their "80' coaches"
hang 4" away from the track on tight turns.
So, maybe you have room for 8' or 10' radius curves, and you think you're "safe." Be prepared for another shock. Large curves are not as impressive outside as they are inside. For example, I have a loop that's about 36' long on a raised "island" that's about fourteen feet deep. In HO or N, I could squeeze a lot of modeling into that space. But in Large Scale, when I put a train longer than a few cars on it, it looks like the locomotive is chasing the caboose. And when I've asked folks how big they think that "island" is, they say, "Oh, six or seven feet across." Your perceptions get "reset" outside. When everything is bigger, a 30"-long car is not nearly as impressive as you think it would be.
To put it another way, you may think a 15-car freight looks "puny" in HO or N, but a Large Scale 15-car freight can easily be between 24 and 30 feet long, depending on the prototypes. So, while a 60' straightaway may look really impressive on the drawing board, a train that would be considered "short" for HO can easily take up half that distance in your back yard. And though this "vignette" may require a great deal of work and financial investment, it won't hold visitor interest more than a couple of passes.
That doesn't mean outdoor railroading isn't fun, or that it isn't impressive in many other ways. It just means that your expectations and assumptions about relative size, length of trains, etc., can't be transferred directly from your basement to your back yard (unless you have several acres and infinite funds).
Within garden railroading circles we often preach, "Use the largest curves you have room for." Yet issues of
relative space have caused many garden railroaders to make compromises (steeper grades, tighter curves, shorter
trains, etc.) that allow them to fit a more "interesting" layout into the amount of space they have than they
really "ought to" by indoor modeling standards. In addition, many garden railroaders have used the advantage of
larger scaled accessories to add "human interest detail" to operational interest.
Kinds of Track Plans You Can Use
Telling people that Large Scale Standard Gauge (1:29 to 1:32) is about "three times HO" has led more than one
would-be garden railroader to get out his HO track plan book and a calculator. Three problems arise:
Not only do back yards come in all shapes and sizes, but they're all graded differently and have different
permanent obstacles (trees, buildings, etc.). In addition, a landscaping material or approach that is "perfect" in
one part of the world may be unavailable or inadvisable in another. In short, no plan that worked for someone
else is likely to meet your requirements exactly. You can use track plans to get ideas, but temper that with
visiting as many operating garden railroads as you can and spending time in your own yard trying to visualize
trains going in various directions in various places. Some folks have cut "track pieces" out of cardboard and
laid them all over the back yard as a last "sanity check" before ordering the dirt. Others have used athletic
field "chalk" to draw the future locations of rock walls or whatever on the grass. In other words, do whatever it
takes to help you arrive at a track plan that suits your property and meets your needs. Chances are, though, it
won't look much like anything you would use indoors.
Compatibility and Scale Issues
In the indoor scales, there are relatively few narrow gaugers. But half or more of all garden railroads use
narrow gauge equipment. What's worse is that the manufacturers of narrow and standard gauge equipment all choose
to run that gear on the same 45mm track.
The details of this situation are spelled out in my article "Which Scale Should I Model?". But suffice it to say, if you're used to going to the hobby shop and picking from anything on the HO or N shelves, you may have a rude awakening. In addition to scale differences, you will find incompatible couplers and other, less noticeable incompatibilities that could cause problems later (such as flange differences or Lionel's sound system that is incompatible with AristoCraft power supplies).
The "Which Scale Should I Model?" article will give you an idea of what manufacturers you should consider, depending on the kind of railroad you want to model. It also explains why most garden railroaders have made some compromises in scale to have a working railroad without having to scratchbuild almost everything. In the beginning, it may be wise to find one manufacturer that will meet most of your needs and stick with them for the basics until you have a sense of what works and doesn't work for you.
Note: Some small-scalers who have been active
in the NMRA wonder why the NMRA doesn't "step in" and sort out all
the compatibility and scale issues, or why Large Scalers don't look
to the NMRA for leadership in this area. Unfortunately, the NMRA did make
an attempt to define standards for Large Scale, but their proposal
was even more confusing than the "de facto" standards people were
already using, and its implementation would have created even more
incompatibilities. As of this writing, only a few diehards are following any of the NMRA
suggested standards. Many of us would like to see bridges rebuilt
eventually and usable standards agreed upon. But in the meantime, don't expect the
same level of NMRA support for your garden railroad as you had when you were running
trains on benches and tables.
Kinds of Materials Required
I once built an entire S-scale city out of cardboard boxes, wood scraps, and mailing tubes, glued together with
Elmer's Glue, and painted with tempera paints. I didn't have to worry about things getting too wet or too dry,
about the sun fading and aging my plastic accessories, about tree limbs landing on my buildings, about rodents and
insects invading them, or about rainstorms washing away my ballast.
Today I am mindful of all those things. Of course there are solutions to all those issues, including: using buildings and accessories designed for outdoor use, painting plastics or spraying them with a UV-resistant coating, using water-resistant adhesives, using PVC instead of mailing tubes, wood instead of cardboard, etc. But all of these solutions are more expensive or more time-consuming, or both, than assembling a $15 kit or gluing a sheet of brick paper over a Kleenex box. That doesn't mean you can't have great structures, towns, and bridges. Only that you aren't likely to have your entire layout populated with structures the first year or so you're operational.
Many garden railroaders have learned to make use of "open spaces." They have learned that a few well-executed industrial sites separated by thirty or so feet of "wilderness" can be more interesting than a bunch of kits "shoehorned" into a corner. In addition, they have learned that buildings are subject to the same kind of space considerations as the trains. A model of anything but a tiny prototype takes up a great deal of room and draws attention away from the trains. For that reason, many garden railroaders limit both the number and the size of the buildings they include.
This "less-is-more" approach is offset by the quality and diversity of the buildings many garden railroaders use. In the early years of Garden Railroading, few North American-style buildings were available. To keep their layouts from looking just like everyone else's (or looking like they should be in Bavaria instead of California), many garden railroaders scratchbuilt their own buildings (or heavily modified existing kits). That tradition has carried into this millenium; even though a wide variety of kits is available today, the most distinctive garden railroads are more likely to have a few well-crafted structures than many out-of-the box kits.
Most garden railroaders use winter to build, maintain, or modify buildings and accessories, so the hobby is not just a four-months-out-of-the-year activity as some people might think. A few garden railroaders pride themselves on construction techniques that allow their buildings to stay out all year long for years on end with few or no problems. Structures of cedar, plywood, PVC, resin, anchoring concrete, and other all-weather construction materials abound. For those who build this way, it's all part of the "fun" of their hobby. When you're sorting through issues of "scale" in Large Scale railroading, you may come across the issue of "economy of scale." That is to say that a smaller marketplace forces manufacturers to embed more of the original design cost into each model. So if a locomotive design costs a million dollars to machine and prepare, and the manufacturer can only expect to sell five thousand within some acceptable timeframe for return on investment, the manufacturer must embed $200 worth of development costs into the wholesale cost of the locomotive to break even (this turns into $300-500 retail, depending on the distribution channel and pricing structure). In addition, LGB set the expectation for high prices early in the "game." The ability to sell $100 boxcars, etc., got a number of players into the market who might not be there today, so this wasn't entirely a bad thing. But overall, you will discover that Large Scale stuff seems to be priced high by small scale standards.
That doesn't mean you can't have a very nice Large Scale railroad, but it may mean you may have to "scale back" your expectations a little, at least at first. After all, a fifteen-car freight can be 25-30' long--how many cars do you really need or have room for anyway? Or how much do you want to schlep back and forth?
One place not to scale back is in the quality or amount of track. Don't "save money" by using the track that came with your starter set. Save that for the Christmas tree. Again, use the widest curves that will fit your space and your needs, and use a reliable brand. (I use AristoCraft, which makes a better physical and electrical connection than LGB, and which has more realistic tie spacing than USA). The garden railroad clubs are full of people with four hundred linear feet of cars and two hundred feet of operational mainline. The truth is, for many people, it's easier to pick up a $100 car at a hobby shop or train show than to lay a couple more feet of track. Get a good track system installed, and then you may discover that you are quite satisfied with a fraction of the rolling stock you would have "needed" in an indoor scale.
Note: For some hints on saving money on all aspects of Large Scale railroading, refer to the article "Building a Garden
Railroad on a Budget."
Electricity and wiring
Compared to indoor railroading, powering and wiring an outdoor railroad is relatively complex, and potentially more dangerous. For example:
Garden railroaders usually address the complexity and safety issues of running electric trains outside by one or more of the following approaches:
I used a typical Ohio "rock garden" technique for most of my railroad, which means that I have moved a lot of rocks (and some railroad ties). And bigger rocks make for more solid and impressive construction. However, I gave up using rocks over a certain size when I realized that a friend of mine, who did some spectacular landscaping with rock walls in his thirties, has suffered from nearly debilitating back problems for the last twenty-five years. No matter how impressive my railroad could be, it's not worth chronic back pain.
Even if you follow the Martha Stewart route and have your gardeners do all the real work for you, there will still be mantenance requirements.
One mistake some garden railroaders make is to build a raised layout, then install a great deal of track they can't reach from the perimeter, so they have to clamber all over the layout anyway (the outdoor equivalent of climbing on your benchwork). Even if you don't have track you can't reach, consider hidden access steps or paths for those times when you need to replace a planting, rake 1:1 leaves out of your 1:32 forest, or whatever.
Others have used "quick-and-dirty" construction techniques, then had to rebuild a wall or other feature when it came apart after a week of heavy rains or some such.
Yes, if you design your garden railroad properly, you can build it so that you have relatively little heavy
work to do once things are up and running. But however you do things, a garden railroad is bound to
require more heavy lifting and more bending over than an indoor railroad.
Amount of Storage Space Required
In most parts of the world, people don't leave their trains out all year. Many people bring their buildings and
accessories inside as well for the months of worst weather. Think about where you're going to keep all this
stuff. You may be used to storing the rolling stock for an HO empire on a single bookshelf, but you find your
Large Scale trains take up half of the garage. Remember, a Large Scale car may have twenty-seven times the
physical bulk of the equivalent HO car (3x3x3). That doesn't mean that there aren't many excellent, creative
solutions to the problems this creates, only that you will encounter them sooner or later.
Amount of Maintenance Required
When I modeled indoors, I cleaned the track and blew the dust off the buildings and accessories once a year
whether they needed it or not. I never had to clean bird poop off the rails, replace ballast that the mourning
doves had pilfered, pick fallen tree branches off my cities, trim my spruces, pull 1:1 leaves out of my ponds and
streets, replant the pond plants the raccoons have dug up trying to catch my fish, or weed my roadbeds. The
amount of maintenance required is not enough to ruin most people's enjoyment of the hobby, but it can be
considerable, depending on the extent of your empire, and how picky you are. And most of it has to be done within
a 4-6-month window, when you may be busy with other activities (soccer, etc.). I don't think it's surprising that
most of the really nice, well kept-up garden railroads you see are owned by retirees whose children have moved out
of the house. This isn't to say that a person with children at home shouldn't attempt a garden railroad, only that
a garden railroad has a life of its own, and won't survive six months of neglect at a time (as your indoor
railroad probably has more than once).
Many garden railroaders who are committed to realistic operation have installed at least one loop they can use
for continuous running. That way, when they really have to do some weeding or whatever, they can at least see and
hear their trains going around the track.
Amount of "Schlepping" Required
The best solution for moving trains in and out would be a 20'-long shed attached to your railroad. Unfortunately,
most garden railroaders don't have space or funds for such a project. Others have come up with creative solutions
such as storage tracks under the deck, etc. But one way or the other, unless you leave your trains on the track
all summer long (not possible in all neighborhoods or all climates), you will have to schlep stuff in and out
every time you run.
There are also creative "schlepping" solutions, custom cases, little trailers, etc., people build. But it's still not the same as walking down the basement stairs and throwing the power switch.
Back to the folks with 400' of trains and 200' of track. You would be surprised how many folks, after the
first few years, run only a tithe of their rolling stock. Unlike our "superscale" days, when we could only be
satisfied with a particular prototype running a particular type of operation, we have discovered that garden
railroading offers all kinds of opportunities for enjoyment--opportunities that don't necessarily depend on a
particular paint scheme or driver arrangement operating at a particular time. That doesn't mean you can't still
be particular about such things, only that you may discover that, no matter how many pieces you could
run, most of your time is spent with a select few.
Availability of Prototypes
Model train manufacturers wait until they've recouped their investment in one locomotive before they start designing another. HO and N users are used to having many selections in motive power, but their markets are much larger and they've been around much longer. In Large Scale, each new steam locomotive that comes out is a major event. If you want to model a line that had truly distinctive steamers (like Reading's, PRR's, or NKP's), you will soon discover that few or no versions of your favorite locomotives are available at any price. (Diesel lovers, on the other hand, are fairly well supported.) Again, Large Scalers may compromise by "adopting" models from other railroads, kitbashing their own, selecting a railroad that used mostly "generic" gear (USRA locomotives, etc.) or creating their own railroad name.
Again, once you have a garden railroad in operation, you will realize that a few useful engines are all you'll
operate on most days anyway, and having a big collection of stuff in the right colors isn't as important as it may
seem when you're starting out.
Amount of Support Available
If you are coming into Large Scale from a relatively small, underserviced niche of an indoor scale (say, Sn3),
you'll feel right at home in Large Scale. Most areas of the country don't have one decent store supplying the
hobby. Many areas of the country don't have clubs (although the number of clubs is growing). And some
traditional model railroading clubs refuse to take garden railroading seriously. Worse yet, some geographic areas
that have functional garden railway clubs are dominated by one or two individuals who have a "my way or the
highway" approach to the hobby, so you can't fit in unless you convert completely to DCC or battery power or
You may be very used to a functional club or shop in your community, and you may discover that there is no such resource for Large Scalers where you live. That doesn't mean you're on your own. It just means you'll have to look across scale or geographic lines for friendship and support.
Garden railroaders support Large Scale train shows, interact on Large Scale web sites and e-mail lists, and subscribe to the same magazines (even though they may criticize the editorial policies or whatever). Overall, garden railroaders have become a fairly supportive extended community.
In the last year I have been appraised of two new "international" Garden Railroad clubs that are supposed to do for garden railroading and large scalers what the NMRA did for the indoor scales. Also, the NMRA keeps trying to figure out how to be more supportive of Large Scalers, and one day they may get it right. But a garden railroading newbie used to effective local club and retail support may have a "transition period," before he or she reaches satisfactory equilibrium in the new environment.
Garden railroaders get to play with really big trains, they have an "excuse" to play outside on pretty days, and they generally get to associate with some pretty decent people. Those who are new to model railroading may use features and combinations that more "serious" model railroaders wince at, but on the other hand, few "serious" indoor model railroaders will make the transition without some compromises.
Some of you have come to garden railroading because you wanted a new challenge. Others have come because it just looks like fun. Well, you will probably get more of both than you bargained for.
In the meantime, welcome aboard.
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