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© September  8, 2004 

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Building a Back Yard Railroad (part1)

April 27, 2003

September 24, 2003

Written by William Gardei   

If you are thinking about building your own track, consider this ... Don't.

It is easy to underestimate the huge investment in materials and labor required to build and maintain even a small track. If you can, find and join a local club. Pay your dues, help with the maintenance and upgrades, and use their track. You can then put most of your hobby allotted cash into your trains. And you will have the chance to make friends with others who have similar interests.

If, on the other hand, you live too far from the nearest track or they run on a schedule that doesn't work for you, and you insist on running large scale trains, you may have no other option. If you want to lay your own track, please do the math first and do all of it. You sometimes see ads from guys who bought rail, found out how big the job really was, and are now selling the rail. This is the story of building my railroad. New Hampshire, where I live, has a few private tracks, but no clubs. The nearest club is in Holliston, Massachusetts, a 2.5 hour drive. That's a 5 hour round trip. They also only run on Sunday, making the trip impossible for us. So, joining that club was not an option.

Doing the Math

Here is a summary of the materials that would be required.

Total line 525'
Rail 1050'
Joiners 105
Ties 1800
Spike Nails 7200
Ballast 20,000 lb (10 tons)

Also, I decided to build the entire line on stringers. So I needed to add these to the list, as well as panel joiners (short stringers between panels) which are the same size as my ties. I used 2" drywall screws to fasten the ties to the stringers and join the panels together.

Cannonball Limited sells a nice galvanized folded steel rail joiner. Here's a box of 100.

Stringers 132
Short stringers 132
2" drywall screws 4128

The rail cost is easy to figure. It's the cost (shipped) per foot times the number of feet required. And always buy extra.

Rail needed 1050' cost per foot x $1.00 =  $1050

This is "Western" profile aluminum rail in 10 foot lengths. I chose to paint it with rusty metal primer to look like steel.

The lumber cost is the number of boards required times the price per board. The tie size I'm using allows me to get 14 ties from an 8 foot long "two by four". At the time I purchased lumber for my ties, pressure treated lumber was $2.69 for a "two by four".

ties/joiners, (1800+132)/14 = 138
stringers, 132/2 = 66
boards needed


cost per board x  $2.69

lumber cost $548.76

Then there are other costs

rail joiners 130 x.70


ballast $150
drywall screws $25
spike screws $35

total misc $301

And this is what 20,000 pounds of 3/8" gravel ballast looks like. Use larger rock. It will drift less in the rain.

Why are some ties white and some green?



The grand total



Lumber $550
Misc $300
Grand Total $1900
(cost per foot ... $3.62)  

And this doesn't include labor which is also monumental.


Making Ties

Material choices are wood, plastic, concrete, and steel. Like most home tracklayers, I chose wood, mostly for economic reasons. This will require a massive, insane amount of lumber.

In one of the photos above, some ties are green and some are white. That's because I started out buying stud grade lumber (cheap, but the bugs love it) and switched to pressure-treated deck lumber. I was treating the stud grade ties using a commercial product containing copper napthanate. Problems with this product were cost, lack of coverage, lack of penetration, and it tends to wash off in the rain. So I switched to pressure treated. It also saves the time required to treat the wood.

The size of the ties was determined by a few factors. Boston and Maine's general rule of thumb was 3000 ties per mile. That's a 1.76 foot tie spacing or 2.64 inches in 1/8th scale. I used 3.5 inches, with the width of the tie one-half that dimension. This would take a lot less ties and allow me to uses "two-by-fours" ripped lengthwise in half. I chose a tie length of 13 5/8", giving me 14 ties per 8 foot "two-by-four", or 28 ties per 98 inch long track panel (counting the gap between panels).

There were many reasons for deciding to use stringers. I live in an area that is "seasonal wetlands". The soil is very soft, and frost heaves are a real problem in the winter. I am not using steel rail, so there is no rigidity benefit added there. Building the line on stringers is similar to building it on a bridge. It is literally suspended off the ground.

continued in part 2


Written and photographed by William Gardei


the end

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