The following is an excerpt from an upcoming Plum Cove Studios publication. It's presented here in rough draft form. There are probably mistakes, misspellings and incorrect quotes or typos. The text is copyrighted by Sam Pool and Plum Cove Studios, however the text may be duplicated provided: 1) credit is given to author and Plum Cove Studios, 2) the copyright 2006 notice is included, and 3) no profit is derived from such.


Welcome, and congratulations on your interest in the live steam, backyard railroad hobby.  We call it “live steam” but that may be a bit of a misnomer, as many individuals are currently building models of diesel locomotives, or gas, or electric ones.  Some even build engines that look like they’re steam powered, but in fact run on internal combustion or battery power.  Whatever the case, when most folks speak of the “live steam” hobby, they’re usually describing model trains capable of hauling human passengers.

The term “Live Steam” comes from the fact that prior to the 1940s, a preponderance of the models products were exclusively powered by steam.  Model engineers would spend thousands of hours in their basements or workshops painstakingly creating each of the parts, often from scratch.  Twenty or Thirty years wasn’t an unusual gestation period.  No wonder those builders were passionate about their locomotives.

Nowadays, there are several providers of steam locomotive kits.  It isn’t as hard as one might imagine to produce a locomotive.  Sure there are literally thousands of parts, but each one can be manufactured by an individual with only modest skills if he is patient and willing to undertake the effort.

Steam locomotives no longer have a monopoly on the rails though.  As the population ages, fewer and fewer people have been exposed to full sized steam operations, and as a result aren’t as interested in reproducing one in miniature.  It is common, and normal, for individuals to want to model trains they’ve witnessed in prototypical operations… hence the desire of young children to want to ride on the model “Amtrak” train rather than the “old steam train.”  Happily there’s a number of manufacturers offering reproductions of just about every type of prototype.  If you have the desire to build one, chances are someone offers the necessary parts for sale.


It’s generally understood that the hobby started in Great Britain in the late 1800’s, which make sense since that country boasted an impressive and thoroughly modern (for it’s time) railroad infrastructure that model engineers were quick to emulate in miniature. From it’s beginning in England, the hobby spread to North America and the rest of the world.  Today Live Steamers can be found just about anywhere from the deserts of Africa to the lush forests of New Zealand.

Over the years a number of different scales and track sizes have been employed, with some becoming more popular than others.  Some of the “standard” sizes include 2.5 inches, 4.750 inches, 5 inches, 7.250/7.50 inches, 12 inches, 15 inches and 18 inches, although certainly you can find railroads constructed to just about any gauge imaginable if you look hard enough.  For North Americans the most popular gauge for live steam backyard railroads is 1/8th size trains running on 7.25 or 7.50 inch track.  The gauge originated in Great Britain as 7.25 inches and emigrated to the Northeast of the United States in the 1930s, where it quickly caught on.  Folklore has it that Walt Disney, or one of his staffers, saw the 7.25” trains in the northeast and were immediately smitten with the size; practical to build, maintain and transport, yet large enough to haul decent loads.  Without hesitation they brought the 1/8th size concept west to California.  However somewhere in the process the gauge was misinterpreted from 7.25 to 7.50 inches.  Sadly the hobby exploded and the mistake was copied before anyone noticed.  Today, in North America, 7.50” is the dominant gauge.  A quarter of an inch may not sound like much, but it’s enough of a difference to prevent equipment built for one gauge from running on the other.  Half a century later, the quarter inch gap still exists and those running 7.25” trains cannot utilize the 7.50” tracks, and vice-versa.


Believe it or not, it’s extremely easy to get started in the live steam hobby.  It doesn’t require lots of money, lots of space, or the skills of a master mechanic to enjoy the companionship, camaraderie, or thrill of riding upon one’s own train.  An old saw once commented that it took a certain amount of time, skill and money to complete a live steamer.  And while it’s true that the amount of effort required to produce a locomotive or trainset is a fixed value, you can trade off time, skill or money to accommodate your personal situation.  For example, if you have no have no money simply take your time and scrounge up the parts for free.  Or, if you have lots of money, you can buy other people’s time and skill.  If you have great skill, you can build a locomotive from free scrap.  For the average Joe, a live steamer is perfectly obtainable with a reasonable mix of time, effort and modest investment.


Before you dive in to backyard railroading, take some time and look around.  Chances are there’s a club within a reasonable drive.  Somewhere not far away from where you are right now, there’s a group operating backyard trains.  Look through the resources in the sidebar for a group near you.  Contact them, visit them.  Learn what size, scale and gauge they’re using.  Talk to the group.  Introduce yourself.  They’re always looking for like-minded folk and will probably be happy to help you get started with advice, training and maybe even help assembling your trains and track.  Live Steam clubs are a great resource.  If there’s one nearby, you may choose to not build your own track and instead concentrate on building locomotives and rolling stock. 

If there isn’t a club track nearby, or within reasonable driving distance, you may consider building your own private track.  Before you do though, it’s wise to still visit the nearest club, even if it’s several hours away, and find out what standards folks in your area are using.  There’s no point in going through all the effort of building a miniature empire, only to find that your neighbors can’t bring their trains over to visit. 

Once you’ve investigated what standards are popular in your area, it’s time to review again the costs versus the benefits of building your own track.  It can take a significant amount of time and effort to build a track.  And it will also take time and effort to maintain the track once completed.


What are the time and costs associated with building a small, backyard railroad in 7.50” gauge?  Well, before we even look at the numbers, let’s remember to keep them in perspective: imagine the costs of obtaining the typical small family boat, the cost of fuel, trailering, dock space, etc.  When you amortize the cost of building a backyard railroad over the many years, and the enjoyment it will provide, you’ll quickly recognize what an amazing bargain it is! 


It makes sense that you can’t have a railroad without rail, so we’ll examine that part first.  There are several options when it comes to rail.  You can use whatever is readily available such as steel flatbar, steel angle, etc… or you can use extruded steel or aluminum that looks like miniature rail.  There are several manufacturers, and for the average backyard railroad you can’t go wrong with any one of them.  Shop around for not only price, but also location as shipping costs may quickly tilt the scales towards the nearest provider. (LIST PROVIDERS)

Aluminum rail is lightweight and durable.  True it won’t last as long as steel rail, but for the typical backyard railroad it will outlive whoever installed it.  Costs range from about $1.00 per foot to $1.75 per foot (in early 2006) depending upon manufacturer and size of rail.  Don’t forget you need two feet of rail for every foot of track. 

Let’s assume we’re building a small track around our backyard.  Figure in sidings and switches, and we’re going have 400 feet of track.  You may have more, or  you may have less, but we’ll use this fixed length as an example.  And let’s say you find rail that’s middle of the pack in terms of cost: $1.40 per foot.  So if you need 400 feet of track, you need 800 feet of rail.  Direct cost is 800 times $1.40, which equals $1120. 


Naturally, before you began construction of your pike you investigated what gauge the local clubs are using, right?  Chances are, they stick to track standards set forth by the International Brotherhood of Live Steamers (IBLS).  Track gauge standards are reproduced here.  (IBLS disgram)


Once you’ve got your rail, it’s time to procure ties.  Ties not only hold the rail in place and to the proper gauge, but they also keep the rail from rolling over when the train enters a curve.  You can use any material that fits the bill, metal, plastic, wood, or what-have-you.  The simplest is 2x4 wood, preferably pressure treated to prevent rot. Tie length is a matter of personal preference, but typical lengths range from 12” to 14”.

Let’s figure the tie costs for our imaginary 400 foot railroad.  Let’s make it easy and use 12” ties of pressure treated 2x4 wood.  Let’s also use 24 ties for every ten feet of track, that’s 960 ties.  Some people use more, some use less, but 24 per 10 feet is a nice average, and it makes it easy to figure the math: two 12foot length of 2x4 for each section of track.  As of this writing 12 foot sections of pressure treated 2x4 sell for $4.50.  So, if we need two 12footers per section, and we have a forty ten foot sections, that’s $360 worth of ties.


To hold the sections of rail together, you’re going to need rail joiners or, simple, “joiners.”  Usually joiners are made from whichever metal you’re using for rail (e.g.: steel or aluminum) and have four oblong holes, which allow for expansion and contraction of the rail as temperatures flux.  Aluminum rail joiners usually come in sets of four (for connecting one section of track to another) and cost about $1 per set.  If we have 40 sections of track, we’ll need about $40 dollars worth of joiners.

Don’t forget the nuts and bolts to hold the joiners in place.  They’re inexpensive, and shouldn’t cost much more than the joiners.  Let’s assume you’ll spend $40 to complete the whole pike.  Not bad.  And don’t forget: don’t tighten the rail joiners too much, you wan the rail to be able to expand and contract as the temperature changes!

You’ll also need spikes to hold the rail to the ties.  On most backyard railroads, simple roofing nails should be adequate to hold the rail securely in place.  However, if your pike is to see lots of traffic, or if you anticipate folks walking on your track, you should consider using some sort of screw with built in washer. PHOTO.


Ballast, or crushed stone has several tasks, the most important of which are: 1) supports the track and keeps it nice and level, and 2) keeps moisture away from the ties, preventing premature rot.  Experience has shown that 3/8th or ½ inch crushed stone works best.  Ballast should have rough edges, which helps bite into the ties, locking them into place.  Avoid smooth rocks like river stone or washed stone, they won’t do a good job of holding your track in place.  Experience has shown that cubic yard of crushed stone will level and hold down approximately 25 feet of track.  So, for our 400 foot railroad, we’re going to need 16 yards of stone.  COST PER YARD?


Timeframe: Keep in mind, it can be a lot of work assembling a backyard railroad.  Figure about two hours to assemble one ten foot section, and about an hour to level and ballast that section.  That’s almost four hours for a ten foot section, and you’ve got forty sections.  That doesn’t include more complicated items like switches, or re-grading the right-of-way, or culverts or bridges.

Gradients: locomotives like level track.  It goes without saying that locomotives can pull less up a hill than they can on level track.  The loss of pulling capacity is dramatic on even slight grades.  Take the time to design a railroad that is as level as possible, even sculpting the land if necessary: filling in low areas, and cutting trenchs through the high areas… just like the prototype railroads did.  Gradients are measured as percent, and are determined by comparing the elevation change, in feet, over a fixed distance of 100 feet.  So if your track gains two feet over 100 lateral feet, you have a 2% gradient.  If at all possible, don’t exceed a 1.5% or 2% gradient on your new railroad.

Curves:  Curves are the biggest challenge to the backyard railroader.  Most of us have limited space, and are attempting to cram as much railroading as possible into compact suburban lots.  For most 7.50” equipment, it’s best to have a radius of at least 30 feet.  That means a diameter of sixty feet.  Small locomotives, and carefully built rolling stock, can sometimes handle tighter corners, but there’s going to be a trade-off in performance.  Tight curves introduce additional friction, and reduce the amount of weight a locomotive can pull.  And the tighter the corner, the greater the friction. Keep your corners as wide as possible.

Switches:  Switches seem complicated at first, but are quite simple to build.  However great care must be exercised to ensure the switch will reliably accommodate your train’s wheels.  As such, it is highly recommended that you seek out additional information from magazines, online resources, or from a member of your local live steam club prior to attempting to build your first switch.


Don’t forget a place to keep your train!  Even if your train is lightweight, and you can carry it, do you really want to take the time to ... TO BE CONTINUED.


If you're ready to start your own railroad, don't hesitate to consult with Sam or Paul Pool at 978 865 6727.