Building your dream garden railway is a very complex project. Read our advice and suggestions about the process. We hope you find it usefule.
Do you need planning permission?
This is a bit of a contentious issue. You don’t need permission to build a miniature railway in your garden in most cases. In contrast, the rules may be different if you plan to add structures such as brick-built sheds or tunnels. It might be worthwhile to contact your local authority even just to confirm that no formal planning permission is required.
How about the neighbours?
Have you checked that there are no objections from your neighbours? Garden railways can be a tad noisy Make sure the neighbours will be ok with the project before moving forward. Some garden railways have had restrictions imposed after complaints from neighbours. If your neighbours complain about your activities, you may face repercussions from local authorities regardless of whether you need planning permission or not.
Plan your garden railway project in one go, not piecemeal.
A garden railway needs to be carefully planned before you begin construction. Make sure you know what you are trying to accomplish from the beginning. Having a complex layout with bridges, water features, and tunnels is great, but it requires a lot of maintenance and time. You might be better off with a simpler layout to start.
Decide now, whatever it may be. Create a plan for the entire railway system from the beginning. When planning piecemeal, there can be all sorts of compatibility and fit issues later. The track doesn’t have to be built all at once; you can start with a shorter, simpler section of track and add to it later. Plan out your finished project before you start though.
What tools will you need including those required to prepare the ground?
It obviously depends on the extent of your groundwork. On a flat grass surface, you may only need a shovel, spirit level, rake, and a cart to haul away the cuttings to prepare the ground for a simple single gauge circuit. You may need mechanical earth moving equipment, surveying and construction tools for more extensive work.
What is your budget for building your railway?
It is important to know the full cost before committing. Garden railways can be expensive to build. Establish a budget that you can afford. It could take years to complete a project like this, so plan your finances carefully so you can complete it without breaking the bank.
What is your annual budget for running and maintaining your railway?
There will be ongoing costs for fuel and maintenance. When you’ve decided what type of railway you want and what you’re going to run, you can estimate your operating costs.
What are you going to be running? There are many things that depend on the weight, gauge, and scale of your locomotive and rolling stock.
What scale will you choose? This can affect your plans. Some 7¼” gauge locos weigh in at over a ton. With a locomotive of this size and weight, you’ll need deep ballast and heavy-gauge rail.
What is meant by scale? A model’s scale is how large it is in comparison to its real-world counterpart.
What gauge will you use? We supply garden track kits in 3½”, 5” and 7¼” Gauge, dual Gauge 5” & 3½” and 7¼” & 5”. The two larger gauges are the best options for ride-on railways. When it comes to stable ground level passenger hauling, 5″ gauge is considered the minimum and only for garden railways.
What is meant by gauge? Trains and rolling stock are built to a particular gauge, which is the distance between rails.
What is the minimum turning radius of your loco? You will need to know this to plan the track layout within the space confines of your garden. It may also influence which loco you decide to buy.
What is the weight of your loco? This will determine the rail profile which in turn may have implications for sleeper size and chairs.
What is the minimum passing width when carrying passengers/riders? If you want to allow two riding trucks or cars to pass safely, leave enough space for protruding knees and elbows.
What is the maximum gradient your loco can manage with passengers on board? Miniature locomotives do not like steep gradients. You may need to flatten out steep gradients before laying track. Some locomotives have been known to pull an adult up a 1 in 10 grade when hauling passengers, although 1 in 40 would be considered the sensible maximum.
How will you store your engines and rolling stock? Miniature locomotives and rolling stock can be a target for thieves. They are also heavy. Consider secure roll-in, roll-out storage on your railway. If not, you may need to invest in a hoist to lift your rolling stock on and off the rails. This will also come in handy if you need to lift them onto a workbench.
This will determine the gauge, turn radii limitations, ground preparations and type of rail you will need to use.
Preparing your track bed. – In addition to supporting the transfer of the rolling stock load to the ground, the track bed also holds the track in place. Track beds should be constructed with drainage and geotextile fabrics that prevent plant growth but allow water to drain.
Ensure that your track bed is level across. Even though the track bed may have minor gradients, it is important that it is level from side to side. A failure to do so can lead to vehicle tipping and derailments.
How much headroom will you need? Make sure you take great care when it comes to overhanging plants, trees, and garden structures. Make sure there is sufficient headroom so the tallest person can stand comfortably while riding.
What immovable obstructions and service access are there? A proper survey of your proposed site may reveal underground services that you weren’t aware of. As part of your railway design, you must incorporate access to such services and ensure that objects that cannot be moved are navigated around.
Are there banked areas that are too steep, and can they be levelled? The maximum advisable gradient is 1:40. Track gradients greater than this should be levelled if possible, avoided if not.
What type of ballast will you opt for? Ballast serves to spread the load from the sleepers to the ground, facilitate drainage, anchor the sleepers to the ground and assist with track levelling. As rounded stones can cause the track to shift, it is best to use stones with sharp edges. Track stability minimizes derailment.
Ensure rail alignment is correct before ballasting. Before packing with ballast, make sure your track panels are aligned correctly in the track bed. Once you have ballasted, it is almost impossible to re-align.
Will your track be a there and back or circuit? If you usually need to lift your track, there and back railways are often the best option, and it also avoids the need for rail bending. However, we believe most would agree that circuits are far more satisfying.
What overall length of track are you aiming for? You must know the length of your track to calculate the final cost. We supply garden track kits in 10m lengths that contain everything you need to create a 10m track panel (except tools) in your chosen gauge and chair type and have sufficient sleepers for the recommended spacing which are shown below. If you buy individual parts you will need to decide on your required sleeper spacing and calculate how many sleepers you will need.
Suggested sleeper spacings:
- 3½” Gauge - 70mm centres
- 5” or 5″ & 3½” Dual Gauge – 80 mm centres
- 5″ True Scale - 100mm centres
- 7¼” or 7¼” & 5″ Dual Gauge – 166mm centres
What rail profile do you require? Your gauge and the kind of rolling stock you operate will determine this. In general, the larger the gauge and the heavier the rolling stock, the higher the rail profile and rail weight.
As a general guide:
- 3½” Gauge – 5/8 x 5/8 16mm Aluminium or 21mm Aluminium or Steel
- 5” Gauge – 5/8 x 5/8 16mm Aluminium or 21mm Aluminium or Steel
- 7¼” Gauge – 21mm Aluminium or Steel (For light vehicles running occasionally you could use 16mm Aluminium).
|ALUMINIUM – 16mm and 21mm||STEEL – Profiled rail – 21mm|
|Doesn’t cause excessive wheel wear||Less susceptible to expansion/contraction|
|Relatively light||Can be welded|
|Easier to bend||Stronger than aluminium|
|Wears more quickly||May cause excessive wheel wear|
|More susceptible to expansion/contraction||Relatively heavy|
|Harder to bend|
|Susceptible to rusting|
Will gauge widening be required and where? There will be a need to widen the gauge on track curves to enable locomotives and wagons to manoeuver safely around sharp bends. As this function is built into our plastic sleepers and chairs, it is easy to facilitate. The spigot is off set, so placing the chairs on the sleepers with the arrows facing in will set the gauge. Read more in our Buying Guide to Standard Scale Track
What type of sleepers will you use? Rottable wood or resilient plastic? Plastic sleepers offer the advantages of being more resilient and requiring less maintenance. The initial cost of wooden sleepers can be less, but they may need to be replaced sooner. Our plastic sleepers come with pilot holes already drilled and their hollow base will anchor into your ballast for greater stability.
What are the pros and cons of wooden and plastic sleepers? Plastic sleepers are more hard-wearing being frost, rot, and UV resistant. If using our plastic chairs and sleepers, automatic gauge widening is built in.
How will you secure your chosen rail? Rails can be secured to sleepers in a virtually endless number of ways. Pins, screws, nails, clips. It depends on personal choice. PNP standard scale rail chairs are moulded in resilient plastic and can be screwed down or clipped in depending on your choice. We offer chairs for 16mm and 21mm rail profiles and a bar rail chair for 10mm x 20mm black bar rail. One of the advantages of using our screw fit or clip fit system is that they can easily be removed should you need to lift your railway or replace parts.
What will you use to allow for expansion and contraction? Rail will expand and contract as temperatures change. You will need to allow for this when laying your track by leaving gaps between rail ends. If no gap is left, the expansion may cause the rails to expand and buckle. A fishplate is a metal strip that is screwed to the ends of two rails to join them together and allow for expansion and contraction movement. We offer 2 types of fish plates for standard scale, light, and heavy options.
How will you bend your rail for the turns? Rail is usually supplied in straight lengths which means you will need to bend the rail for your curves. The advantage of 16mm aluminium rail is that it is softer and therefore easier to bend. 21mm steel rail is harder and may take a bit more effort. You can bend rail using a lot of patience and a garden fork or buy a purpose-built rail bender.
Where will you drop fire and oils? It will be necessary to have a section of track over a fire pit if you intend to run steam locomotives so that you can “drop fire” while de-commissioning or re-firing your locomotive. Ideally, this needs to be a fireproof pit with drainage.
What allowances will you need to make for utilities? Will you need to put water pipes under the track bed for hosepipes? Do you need to wire in power for gardening tools and lawnmowers? Will you later need underground wiring for things like signalling or lighting? Where will you get your water supply for steam engines? Think about all these things when planning your railway. Once you have created the track bed and laid your railway you won’t relish having to dig it up again to add in these items.
Will you need to include points? Depending on the complexity of your railway, you might need to include points. Laying the points first allows other track panels to be soft-laid before fixing everything. You can buy points already made for your chosen radius or make them yourself using sleepers, chairs, and rail. You will also need to install point levers to activate the point change. When finalizing your track plan, you may wish to determine which points and gauge you will use. Trying to get points in a random radius may be difficult.
This will determine the extent of groundwork needed and the quantity and type of rail, sleepers, chairs, and fixings that you need.
And almost finally…………………..
Draw up a detailed scale plan before going any further. This should be for the end vision you have for your garden railway. You don’t have to build it all in one go but it will really help you if you plan it all out to start with.
It may also help to read our Buying Guide to Standard Scale Track.
These youTube videos may also be useful:
How to create a garden railway that uses PNP Railways plastic sleepers and chairs.
PNP Garden Track Kits come with all the parts you need to create 10m of track.
Order yours here:
*Tools not included.
And really finally………ENJOY YOUR GARDEN RAILWAY!
Thank you to our contributors for the images and videos.