Model railroad buffs take their hobby outdoors

By William G. Scheller of This Old House magazine (NYT)

Rich and Joan Watson and their 7-year-old son, Mason, have been buying heavily into the Sandy River & Rangeley Lakes Railroad. They aren't at all daunted that the narrow-gauge railroad in western Maine has been defunct since 1936.

The Watsons are garden railroaders, and their scale-model empire comprises about 250 feet of track, along with locomotives and cars decked out in the maroon and deep green color scheme of the SR&RL, just off the patio behind their home in Harvard, Mass.

"Some people put in a pool. We put in a railroad," says Joan, a specialist in faux finishes and decorative details. "Our idea right from the start was to have a family-oriented hobby. It's not one of those things that you set up and then tell kids they can't touch. Mason spends as much time with it as we do — he's been crazy about trains since he was 18 months old."

As a hobby, garden railroading dates back about a hundred years, to British rail aficionados who laid track and ran diminutive steam-driven trains on their estates. Often those railroads were big enough to carry passengers on open cars, and a few garden trains still are. Ride-on steam, however, has always appealed more to 19th-century technology buffs than to family hobbyists.

"It's a separate hobby," says George Konrad, a rail historian and model-maker in New Hampshire. "It's more like having an airplane."

The little trains favored by most garden railroaders are similar to indoor model trains, although larger. While indoor railroaders work entirely in the realm of artifice, constructing not only trackside buildings but also landscape features from modeling materials, their garden-railway counterparts incorporate natural elements — rocks, soil, even live plants — into layouts that resemble real life, merely shrunk.

This type of garden railroading began about 30 years ago, when the German company Lehmann began producing its LGB line of waterproof electric engines. According to Ralph Williams, the Massachusetts landscape designer who planned the Watsons' layout, the hobby first hit the United States on the West Coast.

"California still has some of the most extensive layouts," Williams says, "but it's been growing by leaps and bounds all over the country."

The magazine Garden Railways nearly doubled its circulation last year. It and at least two other magazines devoted to the hobby are fat with advertising from Marklin, Aristo-Craft and a few other companies that also make electric trains for the garden, and from a host of small builders that make steam locomotives.

Along with the rolling stock come depots, houses, farm animals, barrels, hydrants, shovels and even hobos from dozens of tiny companies. Thus equipped, the models are strikingly authentic, tootling along on brass tracks laid over real gravel ballast, crossing miniature waterways on wooden trestles, switching electrically from main line to spur and even running in multiple units while deck-chair Vanderbilts manage every move with radio controls.

"We even run ours in the rain," Joan Watson says. "We can use the remote from the kitchen or the porch and shunt the locomotive and cars straight through an open window into the basement," which serves as their train shed.

Deliverymen ask the Watsons to run the trains out for a circuit of the looping, multilevel layout, and, Joan reports, "Everyone asks if they can bring their kids over."

In the hobby's early days, many models looked like Alpine narrow-gauge equipment — no surprise since most of the trains were made in Germany. But today, many models replicate the engines and cars used on specific U.S. roads.

Nearly all garden railroads are built to 1 Gauge, also known as G Scale, which measures 45 mm (about 1-3/4 inches) between the rails. (By comparison, O Gauge tracks, the old Lionel indoor standby, have rails 32 mm apart.)

Historic American narrow-gauge trains ran on rails 3 feet apart: With each inch of the models representing 22-1/2 real-life inches, a 30-foot narrow-gauge boxcar shrinks to 16 inches in the garden.

Some manufacturers offer garden-size models of American standard-gauge trains, which ran on tracks 4 feet, 8 inches apart. To make these trains work in G Scale, manufacturers build the cars to 1/32 scale.

Proportions are thrown off when they are mixed with narrow-gauge stock and layout elements, but, usually, only purists will notice and care. Everyone else will simply marvel at a world where 11-foot chipmunks scurry across the tracks and tulips tower like sequoias.

The cost of such fantasy is high. A starter kit with a transformer, electric locomotive, two cars and enough track for a circle a little over four feet in diameter costs about $300, but costs can exceed $5,000 or more just for a locomotive.

It's hard to pin down the top end of costs for miniature locomotives that run on steam because the most elaborate and accurate of them are hand-built. If a layout is large and complex, homeowners may hire a professional to integrate it into a garden design.

The Watsons paid Williams $12,000 to plan, buy, build and install their track and its landscaping. (They already owned their three trains.) Williams says that most of his installations cost $4,000 to $20,000, with about half that often tied up in equipment.

But an outdoor railroad layout also makes a great family project. Two key guidelines come straight from the realm of real railroads: Don't exceed practical grades, and don't make turns too tight.

The big roads don't like to exceed a 2 percent grade, and backyard railroaders should hold to the same limits — two feet of elevation for every 100 feet of track.

As for turns, the rule is simple: Don't make curves tighter than a two-foot radius.

Surprisingly, weatherproofing is a minor concern. Only the transformer must be kept out of the rain. Even snow is no deterrent. Many of Williams' clients, including the Watsons, run trains through scale-model winter wonderlands, just as Williams does at his own display layout at Weston Nurseries in Hopkinton, Mass.

Although you can sweep tracks of snow or fallen leaves with a broom, Williams uses a locomotive custom-equipped with an old paintbrush to clear away light debris. For removing tarnish — electric trains depend on a good contact between wheel and track — he recommends using a Scotchbrite pad mounted on a swivel-tipped drywall-sanding pole or buying a track-cleaning car that polishes as it makes contact with the rails.

But all these technical details ultimately take a backseat to the romance of the rails.

"Our Sandy River steam locomotive has a working headlight," says Joan Watson, "and there's a little red light on the back of the caboose. There's nothing neater for us than watching the train run at dusk."

c.1997 Time Publishing Ventures, Inc. Distributed by the New York Times Syndicate

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