The On-Line Magazine of Rideable Model Railroading

  NUMBER 166


© January 20, 2011   

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How I Built My Backyard (very) Shortline Railroad

Written by Steve Gross

In the late 1960s I had a paper route in the small town in which I grew up.  Each day, to reach the far end of my route, I would cross the railroad tracks near the local station of the shortline that ran through town.  That station was no longer used, as passenger trains had not run since the late 50s.  There was a siding there and on that siding there often sat a small 4 wheel flat car like those used for MOW ("Maintenance Of Way" or track maintenance).  I had always loved trains.  I had a Marx O27 train set that I got for Christmas when I was 3 and I dreamed of owning just that siding and the 4 wheel flat car to ride back and forth on and imagined I was crossing the continent on a speeding express.  It turns out that someone has done just that – see

Then I discovered large scale, ride-on railroading – it seemed like just what I wanted.  I still have the catalogs from the late 60s and early 70s that I got from Little Engines, Railroad Supply Corporation, Texas Railway Supply, and Bethlehem Pattern and Model Shop.  But I was in high school at the time, about to go to college, and my interests turned to other things and nothing ever came of my interest in building a ride-on railroad - it was abandoned, along with the N-scale layout I had begun by then.

Decades passed and, in 2006, I found myself in a new job that gave me more free time.  My kids were older and demanding less of my time, and I found I could use that free time to rediscover my interest in miniature trains.  I started work on an HO layout in my basement and my thoughts turned once again to building a ride-on railroad all my own.

That fall I exchanged a number of emails with Sam Pool at Plum Cove Studios (  I had learned about him through an episode of The Train Show ( on RFD-TV.  I decided I would build a 7¼” gauge railroad in my backyard.  It would be small, but I would finally be able to ride on my own railroad.  Before the snow flew that winter I measured out where I could fit a small 32' x 37' oval of track. 

During the winter I scoured the web for information that would help me build my railroad.  The most useful site I found was the one for the Island Pond (, though I ignored the primary piece of advice offered by the website, “If you are thinking about building your own track, consider this ... Don't.”  I resolved to build my track in panels as is described there.  I bought an arch bar truck kit from Plum Cove Studios and 60' of aluminum rail from Real Trains (  Bill at Real Trains cut the rail into 5' lengths for me and shipped it to me via UPS.  I wanted to make sure I could actually build the panels before fully committing.  Before the snow cleared from my backyard in the spring of 2007 I had built a flatcar, straight panel, and two curved panels in my basement.  I was ready to go!

*see editor's note

*see editor's note

I ordered the remaining 160' feet of track I needed to complete the loop from Real Trains and, when the snow finally melted, I used a laser level to lay out the oval where I had decided to put it the previous autumn. 

Throughout the summer, construction proceeded at about 5 feet per weekend – I would fabricate the panel, then grade where it would go, put down weed block, put down the panel and ballast it with rock.  That September, I performed my “golden spike / golden joint bar” ceremony.

Even before it was finished I had been giving rides on the new railroad by pushing the flatcar with my passengers aboard around the track that was already laid.

The next winter I purchased a running gear kit for a Plum Cove Studios Generic Electric locomotive.  Rather than the box cab offered by Plum Cove Studios, I chose to build a shell for the locomotive that I loosely based on a GE 25-ton switcher.  As soon as it was done, I shoveled out the oval of track and gave it a try.  What a thrill – I was finally riding my own railroad!

Since then, I've purchased a second pair of trucks, this time from Lawntracks ( and built a second flatcar.  I also constructed shells I can slide over the flatcars, one of a box car and one of a caboose, so that I can run trains of more than just flatcars (as you can see, I subscribe to a kind of “impressionist” style of modeling).

This year's project was to add a switch.  I purchased a #4 frog from Cannonball Ltd. ( and some more rail from Real Trains, built it in my garage and installed it when the snow had cleared this spring.   Future plans call for building a train barn at the end of the spur I've created, then adding a spur on the other side of the oval and expanding the current branch into a little yard.

Backyard railroading is every bit as much fun as I had imagined it would be, even if it did take me 35 years to make my dream a reality.

Written by Steve Gross

*Editor's Note:  The use of nails or spikes in 7.x gauge track is generally not recommended. Hex head screws will hold better and need less maintenance later on.  When using Copper Azole treated lumber, you must use stainless steel screws or other treated screws that will not corrode when in contact with the treated wood.  The Aluminum rail must not come in direct contact with the Copper Azole compound.  Direct contact will cause rapid oxidation of the aluminum.  Also, it's a good idea to stagger your rail joints at least a couple of ties from each other to reduce dips and possible kinks.

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