Shiny Rails of Steel, Evolution Part I

By: Anne Corke

Jul 03 2011

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Category: Gardening

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And so, here we are, four years later. Let’s see what we have learned about the railroad aspect of garden railroads.

First, winter is hard on garden railroads. Although the track is quite sturdy, we have had some broken ties, even broken rails. The snow and subsequent thaw and run-off plays hell with the supporting ballast. Each spring Jeremy has to add more ballast to replace that which has either washed away or disappeared into the surrounding soil. This in spite of the fact that the ballast is contained in a trough lined with landscape fabric beneath the track. A contributing factor to this erosion is the actual “lay of the land”. Jeremy has had to install retaining walls on even gentle slopes to stabilize the track bed and contain the ballast. The ballast problems and resulting instability are probably the major reasons for track problems. The other is accessibility. Although we thought the track was relatively accessible for maintenance, it’s obvious that we do not in fact have enough easy access to the centre of the layout, partly because of the exuberant growth of the plants, partly because of our track plan which may have been overly ambitious for our relatively small garden. The few stepping stones, which we thought we had strategically placed to give access to this area, have disappeared into the jungle as the plants have grown. And due to this rampant growth, it has become a feat of contortion to try to manoevre around them to the far reaches of the track, only to find, once you have arrived, that there’s no room to bend over to do what needs to be done without getting goosed by the surrounding plants! And often, again due to the vigorous plant growth, one inadvertently steps on the track rather than beside it, leading to more track problems. It’s rather like a wicked game of garden Twister!

Second, garden railroads built at ground level are hard on your back and your legs. Although I still prefer the look of ground level railroads, I can now appreciate the physical advantage of a raised bed railroad! And the older I get, the more raised I think it should be!

Third, electrical wiring is not necessary. Live steam, battery powered, even wind-up locomotives are much better options than electrified track for outdoor railroads. Jeremy comments: “Just as in the smaller scales, problems exist with small electrical footprints. Some locomotives simply will not get through the turnouts because of the way they pick up power. And track cleaning takes up far too much time.” And then there’s the robin factor. Yes, the local robins have been seen pulling up the wire, no doubt thinking it’s a very tough dark worm.

Fourth, take the time during construction to level the right-of-way. While the electric locomotives don’t seem to have much of a problem with the grade, it saps the power of the steam locomotives.

Fifth, design your garden layout for sitting back with a cold one, watching the trains, rather than for operating! It’s summer, remember! It’s hot!

Sixth, don’t delude yourself into thinking you can run into the winter season. Once the snow hits, operations cease. Period.

Seventh, as a useful winter project, build yourself a weed-whacker car to help clear that plant growth off the tracks next summer!

Next installment: plant selection for garden railroads: the good, the bad and the ugly!

Copyright 2011 Anne Corke

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