The prototype San Pete Valley Railway was a line that began in Nephi, Utah (my parents home town) to get coal from Wales, Utah just a few miles away. However, before the line was finished, the coal play ran out. None the less, the rail line grew to bring sheep, wool, lumber and passengers from San Pete County to the Central Utah rail connection in Nephi. My Garden Railroad bears no resemblance to the prototype.
I think I started building in mid 1990’s, with expansion loops added in 2008 and 2012. The track is code 250 nickel silver rail, hand spiked to hand sawn cedar ties. Road bed is a 7” path of concrete, so the track is walkable in most places. Turnouts are controlled by air. Power is usually DCC, but can be switched to analog if necessary.
Sandy really enjoys finding craft buildings that look like they might fit and then altering them to look like they belong in the old west. This includes bird houses and similar craft store buildings. Then she started making them from scratch. One is even built from paint stir sticks. Sandy also collected figures from any bargain bin available. Scales vary, but she keeps like sized figures together so that it isn’t too apparent how different the scales are. With a good supply of buildings and figures she began creating scenes. Each of our children are idolized in some special scene. Sandy also is responsible for most of the plantings and care and upkeep of same.
My son Greg enjoys the hobby as well, and is constantly coming up with ideas. He enjoys rummaging through bargain bins and making working train equipment from them. On a visit to the railroad, you may be treated to a special run by of a battery operated Bachmann engine with a smoke bomb stuffed inside.
My son Glen helps with anything electrical, computer or mechanical related. Usually I try to build some electrical circuit, and Glen will figure out why it doesn’t work.
My latest interest is in animation. Have a lot of ideas, just need time to try them out (and Glen’s help with the technical stuff).
Construction of the San Pete Valley Railway
It took me over a year to decide how to build my garden railway, mostly trying to determine which brand(s) of track to use. I had some experience with hand laying track (HO, N and Nn3), but was not sure how to accomplish this in the garden. There have been several articles in Garden Railroading on building roadbed, but none seemed right for me. Then I was introduced to Gorilla Glue for another project. On a whim I glued a couple of wood ties to a cinder block. The next day I tried to pry the ties from the block, and instead lifted the block off the ground. Now I knew what I wanted to do.
I had in my mind a few elements of track design that I wanted. Some grades, a trestle, tunnel, waterfall, you know the usual stuff. I also decided that I would only use short wheel based locomotives. If a Bachmann 4-6-0 could make the curve, then that was fine with me (not the first, nor last mistake I’ve made). I played with a few sketches of what it would look like. I then used rope laid out on the ground to represent where the track would run. I should have used something more rigid such as garden hose, so that my track plan wouldn’t have been so sharp curved. Bottom line, I should have spent more time on my sketches, with accurate measurements, ensuring the track I wanted would fit. Later, as more rigid based locomotives became available I altered the railroad to 5’ minimum radius curves.
The Build Starts
I can only plan and design so much, then I had to get to building. To get something running, my initial railroad was approximately 5’ by 35’. It consisted of a simple loop. One end looped over itself with a sharp curving trestle with a 4% grade (more on that later). I always had plans to extend the railroad to the east, so provisions were made to accomplish that in the future.
My roadbed is a concrete path, 7” wide and usually about 3 ½” deep. After forming the right of way for the concrete pour, I drove 1’ pieces of rebar into the ground, I then ran rebar laterally with the roadbed wire tied to the vertical rebar driven into the ground. Since the early days, I found that rebar and ground do not mix. The rebar rusts away. Also, I don’t really think the concrete roadbed needs the strength of the rebar. Another change I made is to eliminate joints in the concrete. I now just pour a continuous strip as far as I have formed for that day (I do use a short piece of rebar at the end of the days pour, for the next days’ pour to grab onto). I live in earthquake country and have not had any issue with this. Conversely, I have had a few issues with the joints shifting and requiring some realignment. Every few feet or so, I placed PVC pipe (of various sizes) in the forms running perpendicular to the track. This was so that wiring (described later) could be routed under the track.
I must now mention that I intended by garden railroad to be built to 1:20.3 scale. Some have called this F scale, or Fn3 scale. That is fine with me. To that end, my ties are of prototypical dimension for Colorado narrow gauge railroads. For Fn3, my ties are 7/16” square by 4 ½” length. I cut these ties from cedar fence slats on an 8” blade table saw. Two words about this; many local building stores may call these redwood slats, but they are actually cedar. Also, they will market a cheaper fencing that is soft pine (I think) and stained a reddish color. I suggest sticking with the cedar slats.
I stained the first batch of ties to make them look like they had been to a creosote yard. That was a mistake. Glue would no long adhere to them very well.
So after the concrete road bed has dried for a few days, I am ready for ‘laying the ties. I do this in a manner similar to smaller indoor scale railroads. I first use a garden hose to clean the concrete of any dirt or dust that has accumulated. It is okay that the concrete will be wet when the ties are clued down. Gorilla Glue is not affected by moisture (in fact it hastens drying a tad), but the glue will not adhere to dusty surfaces. I made a jig (pictured) to space the ties. I then use duct tape across all the ties to lift the ties from the jig (I’ve tried masking tape, but it didn’t stick well enough). Laying the tie strip down, with the bottoms up, I place a thin bead of Gorilla Glue on each tie. Then picking up the tie strip by the duct tape, place the ties into position on the concrete road bed. An important is to apply weights to the ties being glued, otherwise they will shift from position.
A word about Gorilla Glue. It is great stuff, but it has a few idiosyncrasies that need to be recognized. First, it will adhere to almost anything. Including fingers, hands and clothes. I keep a wet cloth handy, but that does not get it all off. Goo-gone works, sort of. Next, as mentioned above, if one or both of the gluing surfaces is dirty, even just dusty, the glue will not stick. This is really important to recognize if you want to glue brick or cinder block to something. Clean the surface with water. Which is another weird thing about Gorilla Glue, it actually likes water. So you can use the glue on a damp surface. Lastly, Gorilla Glue expands as it dries. That is why you need to weight down the ties. Otherwise they will rise up. You will also see that the glue oozes out from the sides. This will be covered up later with ballast.
I use code 250 nickel silver rail. In my opinion brass corrodes too fast and is a bit harder to keep clean (not an issue for battery operated layouts). I have not tried stainless steel, but I understand it is difficult to solder a wire to, and a bit harder to bend. The photo shows Sandy spiking down some rail. Some may find this tedious, but I find it relaxing. Two lengths of rail are laid on the ties. Sharp curves require the use of a rail bender to shape the rail. This step can be omitted for gentle curves. I place both rails on top of the ties that are spaced (roughly gauged) by home built spacers. I often have to use a brick to keep the rail where I want it. Then I use two commercial rail gauges next to the area that I am spiking rail. Most of the time, I can use needle nose pliers to push and set the spikes in place. For tougher ties, I use a small hammer and nailset (as Sandy is using in the photo). Every half foot or so, I slide the gauges back and forth over the track to ensure the rail is in gauge, and that there are no high spikes (gauge will click when hitting a spike).
The first few turnouts were handmade. Not any fun for me. In smaller scales, a few swipes with a file and points were shaped. Using code 250 rail required using a rotor tool and file, and just took too much work for my taste. So I now purchase rail points and frogs from a vendor. Makes laying turnouts much more enjoyable now.
I initially ran my garden railroad with analog controllers. As such I used the customary block wiring. I still can switch to analog controllers, so I have continued the block wiring scheme. Although with DCC control this isn’t necessary, it does make it easier to find shorts and open circuit issues.
I use Romex (12 or 14 gauge) as an electrical bus beside the track. Each and every piece of rail has a drop lead soldered to the rail, and affixed to the electrical bus. In this manner circuit completion is not reliant on the rail joiners.
My turnouts are also electrically controlled. A short story: I first used stall motors for the turnout switching. As these are exposed to the environment, I placed each motor in an electrical box with a sealed lid (fortified with silicon). Wire entry was also sealed with silicon. The turnout actuating rod was passed through a rubber boot that the RC guys use on their axles. Sealed up, right? Well after time the turnouts would start to get sluggish and finally stop working. I would finally open the electrical box to find that they were filled with slugs. So full that the stall motor would stall without moving. As I said, sluggish operation.
My turnouts are still electrically controlled, to a relay that opens an air valve, and a small air ‘motor’ at the turnout. The relays and air compressor are placed inside of buildings and thus protected from the weather. The air tubing and air motors are weather proof.
I use chicken grit for ballast. It is a bit large scale wise, but presents itself well. I also fasten the ballast down with glue. I use Titebond III (water proof) for the glue. If you use the less expensive Titebond II (water resistant, a prolonged rain will turn your ballast milky white and subject to washout. Titebond III can withstand days of rain.
This is much different the way most garden railroads are built, wherein the ballast is wetted and allowed to settle in. The method I use to affix the ballast is the same as indoor railroad layouts. I use a mixture of glue and water, probably almost 1/3 glue. I add a touch of detergent as a surface breaker. I thoroughly wet the ballast with this mixture and allow it to dry. While still wet, take a rag and wipe the top of the rail clean of glue that may have found it’s way there. (A lot easier while the glue is wet than when it dries.)
The resulting track work is solid. I can walk on the entire roadbed, except for the bridges. The track is my primary access to the far reaches of the layout.
Alterations are not easy, but doable. Rail can be lifted, ties and ballast scraped or chisled off. And if necessary, the concrete roadbed can be cut and altered (not any fun, but doable).