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© December 01, 2004 

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Building a Back Yard Railroad
Part 3, Working with Rail

First switch on the line. It is on the north leg of the Carl Baskin cutoff, a switchback that will allow trains to reverse direction. It will join the main loop at the southwest corner, and also is access to the yard tracks.

Written by William Gardei   

Continued from part 2

My rail finally arrived. The first task is to paint it. Next task is to fasten it down. I use 3.5d x 1 1/4" zinc plated or hot galvanized roofing nails to hold the rail down.
Editor's Note: I suggest using hex head screws to mount the rail to the tie. Works great with a battery drill. Nails have a tendency to loosen up.  Spikes will too.

I've been asked what the fan and the cardboard are for. It's hot here in the summer. Plus, the fan is the best mosquito repellant I've ever found. The cardboard protects the track gang from the deer ticks and poison ivy.

Did you notice my track gauges in the photo  below? You need at least two sets. One set is for straight track and is 1/16" over gauge. The other is for curves under a radius of 60 feet and is 1/8" over gauge. Also notice, I use an inside gauge and an inside-outside gauge.

Do I need a rail bender? That's a question I hear a lot. I have curves down to 38 foot radius, and I never once needed one. But That is one of the advantages of using stringers. The ties hold the rail in place. Just like in real railroading. I have one switch that needed a pre-bent rail. I used two trees as a bender.

Ballast was moved to the track by wheelbarrow an laid with a grain scoop. The track was leveled with a (full size) railroad pick and carpenter's level and tamped with the "Florida Stick". When you use stringers, you don't pick the track up by the rail, you pick it up by the stringer (with the RR pick).

I have now switched to the new ACQ lumber. The warnings are just as bad as with the old pressure treated lumber, and maybe worse. Plus, the new lumber is somewhat more reactive than the old. The supplier indicates the need to stop using the old fasteners and start using enameled ones. We are told to NOT put aluminum in contact with the new wood. The only reaction I have observed so far is, the rail forms a white oxide where it contacts the ACQ lumber. The only precaution I am taking, is to paint the bottom side of the rail.


So how do you build and install a switch?

You will almost certainly need to build at least one switch (or turnout if you prefer) on your railroad. Once again, use the track panel building bench and template. Do you need a special template? No. Use the straight track template. The ties do need to be cut to the correct lengths, though.

Two of the ties need to be extra long to support the switch stand (right). Don't under estimate how long these need to be for the stand to be clear of trains.

Two switches are being laid out in the photo (right). Be sure to figure out the length for each tie (tie length calculator, curved switch tie calculator). You can see in the photo that each tie gets a little longer.

Also in the photo you can see the wheelbarrow used to transport the ballast.

click any image to enlarge

I was thinking about using a stub switch here, but then I thought that would be rather pointless.
This little switch machine controls the position of the points. The handle clearly indicates the route the switch is set to.

And here is my frog and guard rails. The frog is the "X" shaped component in the center. Its job is to support and guide a flanged wheel as it crosses the other rail. 

This frog is a #6 from Cannonball. A 5.5 would be ideal, but 6 is close enough. The smaller the number, the tighter the radius the turnout will make (frog calculator).

The guard rails (to the right and left of the frog) are made from leftover pieces of stock rail.  The rail guards are necessary to prevent the wheel from wondering off as the wheel on the opposite side of the axle passes thru the frog.

Take a close-up look at the photo. You can see I staggered the nails used to attach the rail to the tie. If you don't stagger the position of your spike, screw or nail, you run the risk of splitting the tie or at the very least, weakening the attachment.

I wish New Hampshire had a live steam railroad club. That way many of us could pool together our resources and build a colossal track. Instead, we have a few really small tracks. But despite the huge amount backbreaking labor, moving earth and rock and pulling up roots, I really did enjoy working out in nature and in the weather. Every day brought something new. Plus I lost about 40 pounds. No other activity I participated in was able to do that.


Written and photographed by William Gardei

Continue to follow this project, visit William Gardei's web site.

Check out the Track Builder's Forum.

the end

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Here are some of the track laying questions...
  • Is steel or aluminum rail recommended and why?
  • How is track tamped and lined if stringers are not used?
  • Is it a good idea to excavate prior to laying track? If so, what is the recommended depth?
  • Should I use some type of weed barrier?
  • What is a good source for rail?
  • How do you join the panels?

Here are some answers for the above track laying questions...

  • You must tamp down the ballast or hope it settles enough over the winter.
  • We tamped our track the old fashioned way, by hand with a steel bar.
  • Steel vs. Aluminum. Aluminum will wear out after years of constant service on curved sections of track. Aluminum will not cause as much wear on the wheels.  Steel track will get rusty unless coated. Steel supports better, you can use fewer ties.
  • To cut down the wear on our aluminum rail we use 7 9/16ths gauge on the curves with the outside rail slightly elevated (super elevation).
  • We use Trex ties that have two benefits; longer lasting and the density of the material adds a tremendous amount of weight to the track panel and helps keep it in place. We also use a air hammer with a special attachment to tamp the ballast on the days we feel extra lazy.
  • DO NOT use sheets of black plastic (poly) under wooden ties. We tried it as weed control. The problem was, it prevents the water from draining away from the ties and caused premature rotting of the wood. The weeds could still grow above it in the ballast anyway. Spraying turned out to be the better option for us. If you want to use a barrier, get the netting type.
  • A money saving tip for aluminum rail: When you start to get wear at a curve, swap the rail inside with outside or forward to backward, so you get to wear out both sides of the head instead of one.
  • About the best weed control I've found is called "Round-Up". It comes in a concentrate that makes enough to weed 5 tennis courts. A gallon pressure-jug sprayer full will last a whole summer. And it's been blessed by the EPA.

Here are some photo's of my track leveling tool. Charlie Jensen

  • Even if you use stringers, you will still need to level and tamp. The photos show Charlie Jensen's leveling tool, but where's his tamper stick? If you pick up either side, be ready with the tamper. I use a handle from a broken shovel, sawed off on the end so it's nice and flat. I call it my "Florida Stick". (as in Tamper, FL) [grin]

  • Tamping ballast: Many tamp more on the outer-sides and just under the rail, a little less tamping in the center so the rail will not tend to rock

  • Aluminum rail: my 30 foot radius. I just give a little pre-curve by holding one end of the rail up in the air and kind of bouncing it or give it a little hand pressure down to relieve the natural tension/stress. Wrap it around the curve fastening as you go. It will tend to roll-not lay flat. Take a couple big Crescent wrenches and here and there give the rail a twist back to lay flat. For more Curved forming on ends, put your foot against the rail, use the Crescent wrench to slightly pull the rail to shape. Be careful not to pull too hard and kink the rail. I t takes a little practice to use these bending methods and you don't need a rail bender to have a good track.



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