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©MARCH 17, 2007   

©Maricopa Live Steamers web site where it originally appeared. Article used here with permission.
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Switch Building at Maricopa Live Steamers


Written by Bill Lowe

Long before I joined the club, three members, Lenny Rossow, Mel Gooch and Ken Bain, built our switches. Once a month or so a trailer was brought to Lenny’s home and the new switch or switches were delivered to the club. They did an excellent job, and most of their work is still in use today at Adobe Mountain Park.

Today, building switches at MLS is a group project. We have numerous and very talented members in our organization so we have decided to pool our resources. I can assemble and have ready to install 3 switches in one weekend, thanks to several other members volunteering their expertise in advance. MLS has currently over 245 switches on the ground, and at least another 70 planned. With this kind of volume, one person could never keep up with the track laying crew. My most sincere thanks go out to all that assist in this process.

Starting from the ground up, Bob Douglas & Bob Alkire keep track of the ties in the switch barn, pre-cut all the ties for future use, and then have them sent for pressure treating. Frank Behrle does the milling of the stock rails & points. Cliff Fought supplies the frogs he designed & builds. They can be seen & purchased on his website - . Cliff designed his frogs to be plug & play, as the rail joining up to it needs no milling, and simply bolt onto the frog, as you will see later in this article. Bill Pardee & his son assemble & weld all the throws together, and paint them. Tom Knorr supplies parts for the frogs, points & throws. Perry McCully cuts and shapes all the guard rails. Various members, who wish to remain anonymous, donate all the nuts & bolts used.

Al Ford, construction superintendent and one of the parks founders, organizes and oversees track laying. He gives me an order list of what switches to make. Also, he taught me all I know about switch building. Recently Al titled me as "Master Switch Builder", but I will always consider him the master and myself as his apprentice.

Now to get started. Here you can see the switch jig we use, which is 18’ long and 24" wide. The spacers are 2 ¼" x 6" and 4" on center. The 2 cuts on both sides of the jig are for the 48" throw ties. I start by laying out all the ties needed for either a #7 switch (60’raduis) or a #9 (100’ radius). We use #9 switches on all of our mainline passing tracks, and #7s for yards and stub sidings. All of our mainline tracks have 100’ radius minimum curves. We are building a left-hand #9 today for the 3rd passing track on the new Far Flung Flats branch, and will be switch #252 at MLS (click photos to enlarge).
After arranging the ties for either a left or a right switch, I then attach a 1" flat steel bar to the end of each tie. This keeps everything in line during the construction, as we do not bend our rail. Without the flat steel bar, the switch would end up as a wye (click photo to enlarge).
I start by securing the straight stock rail. I pre-drill holes in the foot of the rail, opposite where the rail is milled for the points. I use a 1" aluminum spacer between the stock rail and the steel bar when screwing down the rail with 1"x #8 sheet metal screws. Where there is no milling, one screw on each side of the rail in needed.
Here you can see the straight stock rail completely attached to all ties, and the points lined up and the frog in place with gauges. The curved stock rail is just laid in place for now.
This photo shows the points. We use standard 1" steel "C" channel, milled on one side to form the point. Hinge tabs are welded on the heal end and the throw tabs on the toe end using a jig. Because of the length of a #9 point (44") we use 2 stabilizer bars further down the point to connect both points together to reduce stress. For #7 points (24"), stabilizer bars are not needed. You can see one of the tabs to the right. The machining and welding performed on the C-channel, sometimes results in warping. Prior to installation, I sight down both points ensuring the straight point is actually straight, and put a gradual bend in the curved point. This is done so the transition between the point & curved closure rail is undetectable.
The next step is to place the frog. I set the points in place, gauged to the straight stock rail and measure from the heal end of the point to the point on the frog, 88" for a #9, 66" for a #7. I get the frog positioned as close to this measurement as possible, while keeping the tabs underneath aligned with the ties. You can see where I used a router to cut ¼" of the tie out for the bottom plate of the frog to sit in. Because the rails bolt to the top of this plate, it is lower than the top of the ties and some tie material must be removed.
With the frog gauged in place, next we measure for the length of the closure rails. I measure to determine the length of the straight closure rail and add ¼" for the curved closure rail on a #9, and 3/8" for a #7. This measurement varies depending on where the frog is placed.
After cutting the closure rails to length, I bolt the points to them.  All the bolts & nuts used on our switches and rail joints are stainless steel and all nuts are nylocks. The end rails are measured next which will attach to the frog. We use a 24" offset on our switches and track panels.

the completed closure rails and points, using a 10-32x5/8" hex head bolt and 10-32 nylock nut

The next step is to attach all 4 rails to the frog. I found it easiest to elevate the frog and rails so I can align the rails, insert and tighten the ¼" x 1 ½" bolts and ¼" nylock nuts.


the underside with the rail and hardware in place

the frog back in place and gauged

you can see the frog secured in place with 1 ½" #8 sheet metal screws.

securing the straight closure rail is accomplished with gauges and track screws


Once the straight closure rail is done then I have to eyeball the curved closure rail until there is a perfect transition from the toe end of the point all the way up to the frog, and then secure it with track screws.

The curved stock rail is screwed into place using the aforementioned 1" track screws, gauging it to the curved point and curved closure rail, again drilling holes in the foot of the stock rail where it is milled for the point.

both closure rails secured in place

The next to the last step is installing the guardrails. Here you can see one end of the guardrail attached. I laid out the parts we use to attach them. Shown is an 8-32x1 3/16 hex head bolt, 5/8"x ½" spacer, a #8 washer and a 8-32 nylock nut. The screw, washer and nylock nut are again stainless steel and the spacer is aluminum. We use old worn out rail and remnants cut to 18" for the guardrails. We cut 2" off of one side of each end at 10 degrees and buff the sharp edges with a flap wheel. We find this easier and faster than bending the rail at a 10-degree angle. Both are prototypical.
Here is the attached guardrail with track screws holding the inside of the rail. You can also see where I pre-drill then screw down the stock rail through the foot of the rail next to the frog (1 ½" #8 sheet metal screws). This eliminates heat expansion problems during the summer (where it can get up to 125 F at times out here in the desert).

both guardrails completed

For the throw assembly we use 1" flat steel bar, bent 90 degrees at the end with a ¾" brass bushing threaded in to receive the tension springs seen at the bottom of the photo. The points have a tab welded on the end, with a ¼" threaded stud pressed in. I hold one point off ¾" from the stock rail and have the other point touching the other stock rail, mark the throw bar & drill a ¼" hole for each stud.

starting the throw assembly

the throw bar attached to the point studs with ¼" nylock nuts

This photo shows where I have screwed in the throw on the long ties at the proper distance, pressed on the tension springs, and adjusted the throw rod (1/4" stainless steel all thread rod) with 2 ¼" nylock nuts and ¼" washers. Notice we use a plastic tie where the end of the points rides. This is for ease of point movement. Oil will not soak into the plastic as easy as wood will. You will also notice I have installed 1/64" shims under the stock rails. This is to add a small gap between the ties and the points, also for ease of movement. You can see 2 of these shims on the bottom of the photo captioned "starting the throw assembly".

Here you can see the throw assembly completed along with the 2 stabilizer bars installed I mentioned earlier. All of our switches are designed for the engineer to look at the throw handle to see which way the train will go. We also affix reflective tape to the throw handle for night operations.
Here you can see the completed switch. I have inserted 3 - 26" and 2 - 28" ties at the end of the completed switch as the last step as they do not fit into the jig. Once they are attached this switch will go out on the stack and I will start another. 252 down, 70+ to go. Ahhhh! Job security at its finest.
Nit Pickers Beware!!! I have been told from visiting Live Steamers that the hinge tabs we use to connect our points to our closure rails won’t work. "They will eventually break". I have built over 130 switches at MLS over the past 3 years, and all of the switches are in use, ALL using this same steel hinge tab. It is securely welded to the point and bolted to the stock rail. We have had absolutely NO failures.

Also, we have over 100 of Cliff’s steel frogs in use, again with no failures. We discovered the aluminum frogs wear out at the point of the frog and break where the rails bolt to them. I have 5 broken/worn out aluminum frogs in my scrap bucket to go to the recyclers. I know I will be replacing many more in the future.

And for those of you who insist on calling them "Turnouts" I apologize. At MLS, we call them switches.

Well, that’s the whole process of building switches at MLS. This procedure and our materials seem to work best for us here in the southwest desert. It takes me about 3 hours to assemble a #7 and 4 hours for a #9, again thanks to the efforts of several MLS members ahead of time. If you have any questions or suggestions, please email me at Thank you.


Written by Bill Lowe


Read about automating the switches at MLS:

Switch Machines at Maricopa Live Steamers

The Automation of Adobe City


the end

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