Beginners Guide - Starting a Garden Railway

Starting a Garden Railway?

To many, the appeal of large scale trains is their rugged construction and ability to run outdoors through the various natural features in a real environment. Surrounded by living plants, rocks, snow, leaves, and anything else nature chucks our way and it all combines to offer something unique that the other gauges cannot offer nor compete with. Garden railways tend to combine, landscaping, gardening and modeling into something truly different. The other scales focus heavily on the scale aspects of the trains and scenery where as in garden railways the natural environment replaces that. Of course if you wish to building stunning line side buildings structures these look wonderful too and only further enhance the experience.  Garden railways are something the other half can embrace because although you enjoy the trains you can both enjoy the gardening.

There are numerous clubs in just about every country and some even have their own facilities where as others take turns attending a fellow club members garden layout for a day of scale running. The social aspect offered through clubs and other enthusiasts is appealing to many and you will have a chance to learn from the mistakes of others, pick up some bargains and meet some great new friends. Not only is this great for the men but the wives have a great time meeting new people too.

The popularity of garden railways has surged in the last decade with most manufacturers increasing the number of locomotives and rolling stock they offer. There has never been a better time to get into garden railways with reasonable prices and an ever increasing range. There is of course the added health benefits associated with gardening and exercise.  So a starter set is just what the Dr ordered.

 Large Scale or G Scale trains run on a 45mm, Gauge 1 track (45mm width between the rails) and are designed for outdoor use although there is no reason why they could not be used indoors. There are several variations depending on manufacturer, ratio or proportion to a full size train are 1/20.3, 1/22.5, 1/24, 1/29, 1/32.
Different scales are used because although the models all share a common rail size at 45mm the full  size prototype may have been running on standard gauge,  narrow gauge  or even broad gauge.  Although this is not too important to us as we just want to play trains, right?

Plan Ahead.

Planning is a very important step because you need to decide what you’re hoping to achieve. What are your minimal expectations for your garden railroad? Stations, Sidings, bridges, number of trains, track length. Many people have far greater expectations with little understanding of the effort or cost involved. Some have less, but the point is, think about what kind of railroad you want to have, and what it will take you to get there.
How much do you intend to spend at first, and each subsequent year until complete.
How soon do you want to see something operating?
How much room do you have?
What era so you intend to model?
What gauge do you intend to model?
What models most interest you?
What kind of operation do you want to have?
You need to have a clear idea about all of the above your ideal or dream layout may not be achievable due to finances, location or circumstances. So what would you happily settle for now in order to achieve your ultimate goals later. Remember that you can always sell some of your models later on to fund new acquisitions. If you sit down right now and decide all of the things in the above list, you'll probably change two or three before you've made your next purchase. But at least, you will have some idea where you're going to start, what your ultimate goal is and you'll be less likely to make poor decisions that don't contribute to


your long term goals.

Later in this article we will talk about a yearly budget that covers a three year period.  Essentially this is designed to keep a new modeler on track for success. You can of course adapt the budget to meet your own needs. But I'll announce early that it's possible to have a functioning, established garden railroad for less than $1000 and many people might spend that sort of money on golf or other entertainment pursuits. Of course you can spend much more if you want, just don't spend it all before you take expenses like landscaping materials into account.

Think Carefully.

Once you have some idea of what kind of railroad you want to model, you will  probably want to look around at what the manufacturers have to offer. There is no need to stay with the same manufacturer as they will all work together. The important aspects are of course value for money at a price you can afford. Some manufacturers offer better support than others, but there are a wide range of alternatives will smaller Chinese players entering the market all the time.
You can get into Narrow Gauge modeling relatively cheaply with Bachmann starter set or you can get into Standard Gauge modeling for a little more with an AristoCraft starter set. Some start off with a set that's a little more expensive, but there's no reason you can't start with a $400 set and add as you go along. Remember, when you've run its wheels off you can always trade it for something else.

The best investment is to start off with good, well laid track with wide sweeping radius so that you can run larger trains and they look more realistic. Sharp radius curves should be avoided  but you have to play the cards you are delt and use the space you have. Aristocraft make good track with screw-on rail joiners, and the screws underneath the rails that make running jumpers easy. If you know you'll only use battery operated remote control solutions, you may save money using aluminum track although be aware that aluminum track gives poor conductivity and is a poor choice for use outdoors. If you lay a lot of aluminum track is not really a reversible decision. Unlike the oxide that forms on brass track the oxide on aluminum is not very conductive.  

Some manufacturers have different track styles for narrow gauge and for standard gauge. The rails on all these track styles are 45mm apart; only the tie spacing is different. Obviously, if you are tending toward one or the other kind of railroad, let that affect your choice of tie spacing’s. If you lay a bunch of track with "narrow gauge" tie spacing, then decide to run standard gauge after all, only a handful of people would ever notice.

Less is More.

One of the biggest financial mistakes beginners make is to buy first rather than investing in the track. Your investment in trains should actually be the smallest part of the equation. Let’s put it this way,  I'd rather start with a $100 train and $500 worth of good quality track than try to get by the other way around. A decent segment of good quality, properly laid, wide-radius track will last you the life of your garden railroad. You can always buy other trains and buildings later, but it's a lot harder to replace or live with poorly chosen or poorly laid track.

You’ll find that you’re going to spend a lot more on landscaping so this is why its really important that you do your homework. If you go into this with a plan and a budget you should be able to avoid the common pitfalls. Even harder for some people to get their heads around is that any landscaping you do may cost more than your trains and track put together. This is especially true at first, when you're installing ponds, retaining walls and the like. Even if you do the work yourself, rocks and dirt aren't as cheap as they sound.

Shop Around.

Buying modeling accessories can be expensive so be sure to look around at different prices. Sometimes you can find items like doll houses or plastic men that are scale looking. Lets face it, if your modeling in the garden you’re not too worried about scale details so often those places can have a few hidden gems.
Many store bought garden railway items look out of place.  For instance, why spend $100 on a station that looks like it belongs in 1940’s Europe. This is where many modelers decide they might kitbash a $30 doll house into something that suites the theme and time period you’re going for. The same can be done to locomotives and rolling stock, simple rework with a little paint and decals.  Model railroaders have long used the term "kitbashing" to refer to taking a model of one thing into a workshop and coming out with a model of something else. More recently, manufacturers have started to manufacture buildings and people suited to be major markets but there is nothing quite like making your own bridges and buildings.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that kitbashing is for guys on a budget. Far from it! some of the best kitbashers out there are people who could easily afford to buy anything commercially available to the masses. They thoroughly enjoy building this way and they are very good at it too. They start looking at waste or junk as something that can be repurposed and you should do the same.

Plants and Landscaping Materials 

Ask around as your Friends will have cuttings that you can drop into a starter pots and most large chain stores will sell off lots of end of season plants. This is a great place to find bargains. Even plants that look a little worse-for-wear can be had for a ridiculous price and they generally come good. Often you can find a pile of gravel on side roads that have been dumped for one reason of another. Perfect place to grab a few large buckets of gravel for track ballast.
Keep your eyes open for things to use. You’ll be surprised that when you were thinking about building a garden railway, bits and pieces were lying everywhere that could be collected at any time and used. Now that you have turned the first sod modeling freebies are as rare and hens teeth.  (Perhaps someone else thought it might look good on their railway). Keep an eye out for children’s farm sets, die-cast trucks, anything that might be usable. Never hesitate to  collect it thinking it will be there later on because it won’t be there long

Share and Swap.

If you have a garden railroading club in your vicinity, you will eventually make friends who will have more established gardens and different interests. Part of the enjoyment of the hobby has been sharing and swapping with them. Plant lovers may even trade off-cuts of all sorts of plants.  Modelers may trade models or bits of models. For example, I bought a bunch of small-diameter steel wheel ‘sets, then found out they would.

Plan, Plan & Plan Some More.

Jumping headfirst into something like Garden Railways can be a difficult task if you don’t plane ahead. You can avoid getting into difficult situations by doing your homework and learning from the mistakes of others. Many would-be garden railroaders make the same mistakes and after seeing one or two layouts and reading one or two catalogs, they get out the credit card and start moving soil. Fortunately, most folks recover from any early errors, but you do occasionally see folks liquidating a whole railroad because they have overextended themselves financially or bought too much of the wrong stuff on a whim. Planning would have saved these people a great deal of time, energy, money, and possibly some arguments.

In this case, it means that getting a test track on the ground early will help you plan your permanent railroad better, and maybe help you learn from some mistakes before they're literally cast in concrete. The following is a very basic sample two-to-three-year plan by which you could establish a functional beginning garden railway on a very reasonable budget. However, this is only a starting point that you must change to meet your needs and expectations before you will receive the full benefits of it.

First Year Purchase Guide: Small Outdoor Loop

Starter Set $100-400
Loop of track and possible 2 x 8ft straights. $500
Plastic sheeting to stop plant growth through track $200
Mulch, gravel, potted dwarf evergreens $200-500
Total +/- $1000
It’s a learning experience so the best thing you can do it lay out a test track. You will get a feeling for how much work is required to achieve the layout of your dreams.  Consider installing a small test loop outside. This is a temporary 1-2-year installation to give you the general feel for what it is like to have a garden railroad (and to give you something to show visitors when they ask you what the hole in the ground at the other end of the back yard is going to be). If possible, put it somewhere besides the place you plan to start the "permanent" layout, so you can still run on this loop while the "permanent" layout is under construction. Pouring a trail of gravel (over plastic sheeting) where you want the track to go will help you keep the track level and fairly reliable for a season or two. If you get winter weather, you can protect any evergreens you buy at this stage by planting them in the ground, pot and all, and mulching around them. Visit as many club open houses as you can. You'll get ideas for track plans, see what kind of railroads interest you, and so on. You may also meet folks who can give you starts of ground covers and answer "clueless newbie" questions for you.

Second Year Purchase Guide:

Track $300-500
Landscaping supplies $300
Mulch, gravel, potted dwarf evergreens $200
Few more trains new/used $500
Total +/- $1000

Over the first two years you’ll have a very good idea of where you’re headed and what you really need. You’ve likely made some great new friends and taken a keen interest in gardening if you had not already. Garden railways is a third playing trains, third gardening and a third enjoying it all with new friends. Hopefull you know what types of trains you would like to model with. Hopefully you've seen things that work and don't work on other people's railroads. Now is the time to refine your expectations for your permanent railroad. You have been able to see how difficult clearing track is and why accessibility is important.

Think carefully about your layout plan. Begin small and consider expanding over time so that you have something to play on now. Bridges, stone arches, buildings, stations and the like all take time to complete. The bonus is they those things can all be scrounged and built over time. Not only that, but they cost very little so this give you something to do whilst you are waiting for your bank account to build up. I would start with a dog-bone or simple oval but the choice is yours.

If you want a pond, waterfall, or any other water feature plan ahead. You should start here because you may have to excavate or engage earth works of some kind. Water features can be expensive to run with big pumps. Keep all of those things in mind as not only is there a running cost but if you are planning a large pond you need to remember it will take time to maintain and clean. A small well planned water feature can travel a few meters with a few little water falls over that distance draining into a  shallow basin and recirculate with a small solar powered pump

Third Year Purchase Guide:

Track $300-500
Landscaping supplies $500
Maintenance  $200
Few more trains new/used $500
Total +/- $1500

By this time your railway should be well and truly established and your track has had a chance to bed in. You’ll find that your track has stopped moving and things are level allowing you to get more fun out of your trains. Now is the time to consider more trains and of course track. Why not try making your own track

Its very common for garden railroaders to make track and turnouts. It’s a great way to make your dollar go even further and its something that can be done in the cooler months or rainy days. It is fairly common for HO modelers to fabricate their own points and track and that is much more fiddly. Building G scale points and track is far more forgiving. Consider adding a few sidings as this I a great way to practice building long straights of track and in addition somewhere to store your new rolling stock. You can easily create great distances of track cheaply if you use the right materials. Using a hardwood sleeper is a must and ideally you should seal it with an oil based product suitable for timber decks etc.


Learn from the experiences of others and don’t make rash purchases that you don’t need.
Plan, plan, plan. If you plan ahead your less likely to make mistakes
Stick to your plan and your budget
Think about things you can do that don’t cost money to keep you busy in the interim
Learn new skills and experiment with different material
Join a club and make new friends. Not only will you have a lot of fun you’ll pick up things that others are looking to off load at a great price.
Befriend experience hobbyists so that you can learn from them.
Happy Shunting

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