My backyard is on a slope, and the more I stand at the bottom of that slope and look up the more I want to lay down a garden railroad that can negotiate that approximately 7% grade. That’s the essential challenge, throw a railroad up that hill!
Here is what I know I want so far:
- All rolling stock (and everything else meant to be to scale) will be 1:32 scale. The plan is for the equipment to have Southern Pacific livery from about 1950 (allowing both late steam and early diesel locomotives).
- The motive power will be R/C battery-powered electricity to simplify track construction, wiring and maintenance.
- Accuracy in grades and radiuses will be maintained throughout the layout. Maximum grades will be 2.5%, while the minimum radius will be 60 inches.
- Multiple trains (at least two, possibly three) should be able to be run simultaneously without operator intervention.
- I am not very interested in putting up buildings, especially as just about anything I would want in 1:32 scale would have to be homemade. But realistic bridges and trestles are fascinating.
- Reno features pretty violent weather. It doesn’t get nearly as cold here as it does in the Midwest or New England, but ferocious wind and rain storms are not unusual. I intend for the railroad to stand up to the worst of the Reno climate.
I will not know whether any of this will even be achievable until after I have had the property surveyed (which will be necessary in any case for the planned construction of a separate workshop building). That won’t happen for a couple months at the soonest. In the meantime, I want to conduct as much research as possible to work out what it will take to execute the plan.
Reno was established in 1868 in Truckee Meadows as the Central Pacific swept down the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada along the Truckee River gorge before continuing through the Forty Mile Desert and on to its meeting with the Union Pacific at Promontory Point the following year. Reno’s sister city of Sparks was founded in 1905 after the Southern Pacific, the Central Pacific’s successor railroad, moved the division point there from Wadsworth, 30 miles to the northeast. The metropolitan area of Truckee Meadows has always had a strong railroad heritage (a common nickname for Sparks is “Rail City”).
I moved to the Reno area in the middle of 2016 and bought my house in Hidden Valley, on the western slope of the Virginia Range, last spring. My half-acre lot overlooks the entire Truckee Meadows valley. The transcontinental railroad continues to run through the middle of Truckee Meadows and I can hear the wailing of the trains at all hours. My office is on the south bank of the Truckee River near the center of Reno, and the passing trains are visible from our loading dock.
You can’t get away from the railroad here; it is woven into the fabric of the town. Until a decade ago, the right of way literally ran through the center of Reno’s downtown, with many grade crossings; today the trains pass through a trench that was dug about twenty or thirty feet below downtown street level, but they are back on the surface by the time they reach my office a couple miles east of downtown.
The huge Southern Pacific railroad repair shops, built in 1904, still stand in Sparks and the building is visible from Interstate 80. A forty-stall roundhouse, the world’s largest, was erected nearby, but unfortunately was demolished at the close of the steam age in the late 1950s. I thought about modeling the repair shops, but a 1:32 scale model of the building would have a 10½ by 4 foot footprint and be close to 2 feet tall! I can’t find the dimensions of the roundhouse, but modeling it would be an even more daunting project in any case.
The rolling stock of today, with blocky locomotives and intermodal cars, leaves me cold. I am nostalgic for the streamlined diesels of my early youth, when I rode the Santa Fe in pre-Amtrak days along the Pacific shoreline from Santa Ana to San Diego. I never saw a working steam locomotive, of course, but the ones I find most attractive are those from the 1920s and later, when the technology reached its zenith. So I settled on an era for my layout of about mid-century, when sleek new diesels shared the rails with the last of the great steam locomotives. The Southern Pacific livery is a tribute to the railroad that served Reno and built Sparks, and that was also responsible for so much of the development of the far west.
Home lot and layout
The space at the top of the hill can’t be used for anything else because there’s a septic field underneath. I can’t build anything permanent there or plant any trees. A garden railroad is not a bad use of the space.
The top of the hill is about seven feet higher than the lawn at the southwest corner of the yard, and it is about 100 feet from the edge of the lawn to the top of the hill, for a 7% grade. I have about fifteen to twenty feet of width to work with in making it up that grade.
I envision two phases:
- The backyard phase will be layout and construction of the main lines in the backyard, running between the lower yard (the western lawn) and the upper yard (the eastern septic field). This layout will feature a spur at the western edge of the lower loop that will eventually connect to:
- The front yard phase, which will simply be a single or dual line running along the western edge of the property line into the front yard, where it will loop around and return. Much of this loop will be along a curved trestle a few feet from the street at the northwest corner of the lot.
I plan to use the ladder method of roadbed construction.
There is lots of space at the eastern end of the yard above the septic field, much less space down at the western end, which is dominated by a lawn. Though the railroad will encroach on this lawn, I don’t want to actually run tracks on the lawn because that will make it harder to maintain both the lawn and the railroad (that is, a chunk will be taken from the existing lawn to accommodate the railroad, including re-routing of irrigation lines).
The layout will feature a small yard running north-south in approximately the center of the backyard which will be covered for the storage and recharging of trains. The mainline ascending the hill will run over or under the access to this yard. Eventually, the yard will be replaced by a bench against the western interior wall of a 600 square foot workshop that is to be built in the backyard at the end of the driveway.
I am not actually that interested in operating the railroad in a realistic manner. The main challenge is in the design and construction of the line. I would like the trains to run as automatically and easily as possible. I plan to get some of the neighborhood children involved in the railroad once it’s operational as I suspect they will enjoy running the trains more than I will.
Still, there will be sidings and at least one yard for the storage of rolling stock. And if the kids insist we might build a small town with a depot at the top of the hill at the eastern end of the lot.
While I am waiting for the lot survey and working out the actual layout of the line, I have a lot of questions about how to approach it:
- Is maintaining a strict 1:32 scale practical? I see there isn’t a lot of rolling stock available in this scale and almost no buildings. How much work will I have to do to convert the 1:32 locomotives I do find to battery-powered R/C? BTW, I don’t anticipate collecting a lot of locomotives, maybe three or four at the most.
- What kind of track do I want to use? I think I have settled on type 250 rails, but do I want sectional or flex track? I am pretty sure I don’t want to make my own track, though I anticipate doing so for trestles. I am also pretty sure I don’t want to make my own switches.
- I still need to work out the details of the ladder roadbed. I think I know what materials I will use (PVC pipe as posts supporting PVC planks), but do the posts need to be embedded in concrete?
- What about running electrical power along the line for lights and switches? I am thinking about running PVC conduit all along the rails for this purpose. This would make it easier to add additional circuits later if desired by fishing wire through the conduit (or maybe just fill the conduit with spare wire when it’s put down).
- Oh, and how the hell do switches work anyway? I bought and read a copy of The Large-Scale Model Railroading Handbook by Robert Schleicher, but that wasn’t too clear on how to set up the switches. I see there are pneumatic systems. Are people using these? Are they better than stepper motor or solenoid switches?