One of the
interesting things about building outdoor railroads is dealing with the rain and
the resulting runoff. Most of the time a simple piece of pipe under the track
is all that is necessary to insure good drainage. However, I chose to make some
of my drainage culverts more interesting and more prototypical by building
“timber” culverts. They are easy to build, robust and have a realistic
appearance. These culverts could have been constructed of treated wood, but I
used the same composite material that I used for my ties – Trex. Trex is a
trademark of the Trex Company, Inc. Once installed, they are virtually
maintenance free. This is how I did it – keep the ideas you like, discard the
The basic design consists of 2x6s stacked to the desired height
in 1 ˝ inch increments. Measure or estimate the height to the bottom of the
ties and divide by 1.5; round up to the next whole number. A 10 inch culvert
will have 7 layers of material with the top layer made with 2x2 Trex stringers
to support the ties. A word of caution. Trex is not recommended for structural
members, so I limited my spans to 24 inches. The
strength of the stringer plus the strength of the rail supports the load without
deflection on my railroad.
Below the stringers, the layers are built from 2x6s that have
been notched on each end. My top 2x6 layer is 6 inches longer than my ties.
Each successive layer is 3 inches longer then the one above. The result is
an end support with a 45 degree slope. (1 ˝ inches out; 1 ˝ inches down on each
side) By notching the ends, the bulk of the 2x6 is hidden by ballast, leaving
only the square 1 ˝ inch ends exposed. Thus the wall on each side supports the
track and retains the roadbed.
The basic pieces of a culvert: unassembled; assembled and
The only “trick” in the construction of the end walls is that
the Trex tends to be convex on one side. I ran each piece on edge through my
table saw to remove this crown. With 2x6 material, I had to run it twice, once
on each edge, to provide a flatter surface.
Once the major pieces were cut, I used quality coated deck
screws to secure each piece to the next. Start with the bottom two layers and
work your way up. I also used some sealant between each layer to help prevent
water infiltration. The deck screws are the weak link in this construction
method. They will rust off before the Trex deteriorates. Remember to leave
space for a ˝ inch hole on each side for a piece of rebar to anchor the supports
to the ground. Drill a hole in the end of the top 2x6 on each side wall.
These need to be loose holes so that the rebar does not disturb the end walls
during installation. Once the two end walls are assembled, turn them on their
backs and attach the decorative trestle bent to the face of each one. Either
2x2s or tie material is cut to length and each piece secured with two deck
screws. The outside bent legs are sloped out at about 5 degrees. I used a
cross brace on the taller culvert. While having sides of equal height is
convenient, there are times when unequal heights will be necessary.
Water drains through a culvert built six layers high.
Next, locate the stringers on the top layer and attach with deck
screws. For a 2 foot span, I use two 35 inch stringers (5 ˝ inches on overlap
on each side). The outside measurement should be about 9 ˝ inches. The
stringers are the top layer of the side walls. Cut additional 2x2 material to
fill in between the stringers and along each side 1 ˝ inches wider than the
ties. These pieces will retain the ballast. This completes the illusion that
the side walls are thin while giving ample support to the stringers and track.
From the photos you can see that once the culvert is installed the side walls
appear to be 1 ˝ inches thick.
Installation can be handled in one of two ways – I have used
both. First, preinstall the culvert and build the roadbed up on each side. This
method requires an estimate of how high the culvert should be. This works best
on straight level sections of track where a slight height miscalculation is not
too important. The second method is to install the roadbed then dig out for the
culvert. This method works best on curves and/or grades. You have actual
measurements to work from. When I install another culvert, this second method
is the method I will use.
Method 1: Culvert before roadbed.
Method 2: Roadbed before culvert.
Carefully center both end walls on the right-of-way and check
the distance between them. Mark the footprint and estimate the vertical
distance that each side must be lowered. Next, excavate a shallow (about 2–3
inches deep ) trench below each wall. (Check again to make sure the footprint
is right.) Fill each trench with dry concrete. (Be sure your concrete has small
rocks – big ones get in the way.) Place the first wall and level as necessary.
Next, position the second wall and level as necessary. Cross check the
distance between the walls, the square of the wall with the center line and the
level of the walls with each other and the roadbed. Take your time – this step
requires a lot of fuss. You may have to take the walls out and adjust the dry
concrete several times. Be patient and do a good job. Once you are satisfied
with the result, carefully insert the four rebars and hammer them flush with
the top 2x6 to pin the end walls in position. Be careful not to disturb the end
walls during this process. When the end walls have been installed to your
satisfaction, gently water the dry concrete. The concrete will set up in time
and provide a firm footing for your culvert walls.
With the walls and stringers in place, it is time to
finish-grade the roadbed and install track. Again, I have done this two
different way. Method one, I prebuilt the deck with the ties attached to the
stringers. Then I installed the stringers and deck as a unit. The ties are an
integral part of the culvert structure. Method two, I installed the bare
stringers then placed the track with ties installed on the rails. This is now
my preferred method. Long term maintenance is simpler and installation of the
rail to the ties occurs in the shop instead of the field. Once the track is
installed, a few deck screws through the ties and into the stringers holds the
track in place. If fine adjustments are needed later, use metal shims under the
stringers to level the track.
Stringers with ties attached
Stringers without ties
A few notes about design variations. The double culvert
pictured above has standard end walls as previously described. The center
section is a very solid support also made from 2x6s. The ends of each layer are
U shaped. Ballast is used to fill the ends and give the appearance of a double
wall. The two foot span limitation could be extended if steel stringers were
substituted for the 2x2 Trex. Attaching the ties to the stringers would be a
challenge but the result would be a deck girder bridge with timber end walls.
Troy takes his home built switcher over the new double culvert.
(The “wood” guard rails are not yet installed.)
Because the culverts are resting on concrete, over time the
track will tend to settle a little on each side. On-going maintenance requires
the addition of ballast and a little track leveling. The only other maintenance
is weed control under the culverts. These “timber” culverts are a great
addition to the North Pacific Coast Railroad.
attempt a project like this, you are responsible for calculating the load
handling ability of your culvert. Failure of a culvert can result in injury or
death. The author and this website are not responsible for checking your
calculations or workmanship.
Written by Ken Stanfield
Would you like to discuss
the ideas in this article?
Post a comment or question here.