The Railway

The track—the railway itself—forms the underpinnings of your entire creation. Track should not only lie in the earth, but it should be of the earth. Only natural materials—wood and metal—should be used in constructing your trackwork. And even here you must be careful in your choices to ensure that what you achieve is one with your goal. The track should not be a prominent part of the landscape. In fact, the less of it that can be seen, the better. Railroad track in itself is not often a thing of beauty, although it can be in certain instances.

Today, the most common materials for rail are brass and aluminum. If you want your railway to visually recede, by all means use brass. Aluminum looks unnaturally bright, and always will. It can be painted, but the paint will eventually wear off. It can be anodized, but to date I’ve not heard of anyone doing this. In any event, the tops of the rails will always be a sort of unpleasant whiteish color.

Brass, on the other hand, will initially look offensively yellow, but this is a temporary condition. As it is exposed to the elements, brass rail will gradually oxidize to a pleasing dark brown and, with no additional help, will almost disappear into the background. This is what is wanted.

Ties are important, too. Plastic ties as supplied on commercially available track just will not do. They are plastic, after all, and will always have a manufactured, artificial look about them.

Natural wood is the answer here. I like redwood; it is easy to find in our area and, while it is bright and easily seen when new, as it weathers it becomes a nondescript gray, blending into the background along with the rails. Part of the pleasure to be derived from a garden railway is watching it change as the seasons progress. As the new track becomes established in its environment—as it changes color and becomes part of the scenery—it provides for itself a sense of place in the garden. It is no longer something that has been applied to the garden, but is something that is an integral part of it.

Ballast is also an important visual factor. Don’t use stone that is the wrong color, one that loudly announces its presence every time you glance in its direction. If you are using a stone mulch in the garden, use the same rock for your ballast. If this is unsuitable, try to find rock that works visually in a harmonious manner with the surrounding stone. If no stone mulch is used, you have a little more flexibility, but it is still a good idea to choose something that wants to disappear.

The ballast, like the track, will change over time. The smaller fines will sift down, exposing the larger stones. Nearby plants will begin to encroach. Surrounding stones and dirt will begin to blend with the ballast. All of this helps to integrate the railway into its landscape.

The route of the track is also important. The railway should imply a sense of purpose (whether there actually is one or not is immaterial in this regard), and the way the track is constructed can go a long way toward achieving this. Right-angle curves of commercial track are gauche in the extreme and must never be used, even in hidden places. Even though they can’t be seen, you will know they are there, which will detract from your overall vision of your railway, if only on a subconscious level.

Likewise, the spaghetti-bowl look, too often seen both indoors and out, should be avoided at all cost. Less is more. Our goal is to create a plausible railway-like scene, not a toy-train display. A single-track mainline connecting distant villages or industries is all that’s required. Use complex trackwork where it makes sense—at stations, yards, and industrial areas—not where whim overcomes the builder.

A good rule of thumb is to use the widest-radius track possible. Five feet should generally be considered an absolute minimum, with seven or eight feet being more acceptable, and ten to twelve feet an optimum. Of course, space considerations may dictate something less, but it is better to have less, well-made track than more track that jumps around a 90° curve every time it changes direction.

Wide, graceful curves can soften the effect of a railway in the garden, and it certainly softens the way the trains run on the track. No lurching at corners, no neck-snapping S-curves, no spilled soup in the diner, and no lost equanimity amongst passengers or observers. After all, one of the primary the purposes of a garden railway is to be looked at.

Observe full-size railway track. Diverging tracks peel off slowly and gently at the points, even on what would be considered a sharp curve. There should no sudden changes on the railway—no surprises. Perhaps that is a reason that railways have such appeal. Unlike the rest of life, the route of the train is entirely predictable, and its journey—if the track is done right—is stately and serene. The train arrives at the end of its path safely, and the passengers are released from their pleasant travels rested, reassured, and better able to face the rigors of day-to-day living.

The size of the rails, ties, and ballast is less important outdoors than in. The indoor modeler is trying to create a replica of reality, and that unhappy person is constrained to build his models as closely to scale as is humanly possible. Everything must be just right or the illusion is spoiled.

Outdoors, however, we are not burdened by such constraints. Since we are in fact building real railways in miniature, we can do what we like, and the result will, more often than not, be successful. What is most important is proportion. I have used rail that is .332” tall and ties that are 5/8” square and 4-1/2” long. If you were to scale these up to full size—be my guest—you’d no doubt find them grossly over scale. However, in the garden setting they fit right in, especially if the track recedes into the background because of its appearance. We are not dealing with exact scale here; we are dealing with a miniature railway, and whatever works on your railway is what should be done. Probably the only way to achieve just what you want in trackwork is to build it yourself.


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