By Pat Cross
Around two years ago, I decided to sell my flat in the big city, and head for the countryside – village life, rural cottage, the whole bit! Sadly, country cottages are quite expensive, but I found a lovely place I could afford to rent instead; close to my Model Engineering Society and Heritage Steam Railway where I like to work and visit, it was the answer to all my prayers.
All, perhaps, except one. For years I had hankered for a property with a garden so I could build my own garden railway. Now I had a garden, but was not in a position to start digging it up and laying concrete and brick foundations for a railway – my landlord is very helpful, but there are limits!
So it would have to be a garden railway that can be taken apart and stored when not in use, but readily assembled and used as required. It would have to pack away into quite a small space, be quick and easy to make, and low cost as well.
As if that wasn’t enough, the garden was not ideal. My cottage is built ‘back to back’ with my neighbour’s home, so instead of a front and a back garden, I have areas of garden on either side, and a rough paved area in between. The area on the left is very ‘busy’ with sheds, car parking space, pots of plants, etc. so the only usable area is a long, narrow strip of grass (which slopes in both directions!), and a rather lumpy lawn area with a stone pathway in between. There was a difference in height of about 2.5” between the two grassed areas. This was to be the site of my railway.
Designing the layout was not difficult as I had very few options! I decided to build a narrow track bed that would run in a straight line up the narrow grassed area, cross over the path via a bridge, and enter a loop via points on the lawn area. I added a crossing link via two sets of points in order to return the loco back down the track to the start, where it would terminate for refuelling, watering etc. Track would be Mamod (since I already had loads of the stuff), and it can be easily packed away after use.
The track bed would be timber, so I bought a pack of planed timber lengths 70mm x 10mm for the straight sections, and four sheets of ¼” birch faced ply to cut out the curved sections. Each section was to contain four pieces of Mamod track, making the straight sections each 45.5” long.
I needed to be able to raise the track bed above ground, and provide a level surface on which to lay the track. After some thought, I decided to use 40mm dia. plastic tubing from the DIY store to act as a support; this was to be help in place with a metal peg inserted through the bed and tube and into the ground.
At this point, I had a lucky find. I found sets of long aluminium tent pegs for sale on Ebay, which were manufactured and distributed from China. They were available in two lengths, 9” and 12” and were available in packs of 10 for around £12 a pack. Each had an aluminium cylindrical head threaded onto the spike.
This then was to be the track bed support system. On the underside of each track bed section I glued and screwed a 20mm square section of timber, slightly shorter in length than the track bed, about an inch or so short at each end. Using a selection of flat drills, I drilled two holes through the wooden section, so that the aluminium spike and head would snugly slot into the track bed, but not so tightly as to be a struggle to remove. I cut the plastic tube into two different lengths, 5” and 7.5”. This was to allow for the difference in height between each lawn area.
Each section of tube had a 20mm square section cut out from the top of the tube using a Stanley knife so that it could be slotted onto the square section of timber under the track bed spike hole. A reasonably tight fit is desirable.
To join the sections of track bed together, I used a short length of ‘U’ section aluminium, screwed to one end of each track bed piece which enable the next section to slot into it. I drilled a small (3mm) hole through the top of the assemble sections, and pushed a round headed nail through the hole to keep the sections together.
For the curved sections, I attached a short piece of timber to the underside of one end of each section, and drilled through to accept a short 6mm dia. bolt and wing nut to fit the sections together.
I decided the track should be simply laid onto the track bed, not screwed or fastened down, but I did fix a couple of sticky backed pads that fitted between the track rails to each track bed section, to help locate the track in position.
Finally, I painted all the wooden sections with wood preserver, and made a wooden support for an old set of Hornby buffers to fit onto the end of the straight section, to help prevent running off the end of the track.
Fortunately I had a suitable bridge in my collection (here’s one I made earlier!) that could be used to bridge the path at the top of the garden, so I was now ready to put the system to the test!
I started with the long, straight sections that would take the track up the garden to where the bridge was to be sited. For ease of assembly it is best to slot the two pieces of tube first onto the underside of the track bed, and then offer the end of the bed up to the aluminium section in the end of the previous piece. Once this is slotted in, drop the nail into the hole to prevent the sections pulling apart. Drop a spike into each of the two holes and using a rubber mallet, hammer them down until the top of the spike is flush with the top face of the track bed. Use a spirit level as you go to check all is flat. One end might need an extra tap to ensure it is level, if necessary have some packing to hand to put under the tubes. Then move on to the next one. Once into the rhythm, this can be done surprisingly quickly.
The bridge was fixed to the end of the track bed with a couple of bolts and wing nuts. I had cut some plastic tube to support the bridge on each corner, and these were packed to ensure the bridge was level.
Onto the lawn area, and the oval section of track bed bolted together. I found it best to assemble everything first before driving in the pegs, and checking all was level and packed accordingly before fully driving home the pegs.
Laying the track onto the bed came next. With Mamod track, there is little or no flexibility in laying the track onto the bed, so any flaw, however minor, in the construction or fitting of the bed will now be apparent.
Mine didn’t fit. It took me over an hour to take out the relevant sections, and go up to the workshop to reconfigure the track sections until they fitted satisfactorily, and then relay the track.
Finally, two hours late, I was able to fire up one of my trusty Mamods, and send it around the track. It took the straight section up to the bridge perfectly, but some sections on the lawn needed further work in the packing department before a faultless circuit could be achieved.
Taking it all to bits again afterwards was just a simple reversal of assembly, it was just a darned sight quicker, and all the bits were ready to be packed away within half an hour.
No temporary system is ever going to be as good as a beautifully laid out, mature, well maintained garden railway which we see in each and every edition of 16mm Today. These things take many years to create, develop and enjoy, and bring countless hours of joy (and frustration!) to all who build them. But if you have only a small garden, or one which cannot be recreated as a railway for whatever reason, then a small layout like this is better than nothing. It can be left in place for several days, (or until you need to cut the grass again) and needs little attention once built and assembled, but care is needed in ensuring the section fit together well, and levelling of the track is as good as you can get it to be. At the time of writing, the tent spikes I have described are still around on Ebay. I found some from a UK distributer, but are, of course, more expensive.