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  • Writer's pictureKeith Appleton

My Garden Railway - "Once I built a Railroad" (and made it run)

Spending too much time at the club track? solution build your own railway at home, therefore see more of my wife and children. At least, that was the plan. I have had an interest in model engineering, particularly miniature live steam locomotives for many years, ever since my uncle left a box of model engineer magazines at our house when I was a child. After my career as a musician took many turns, involving much travelling and relocation in various parts of the country, I finally returned and settled in the county of my birth, Yorkshire. In 1984, I opened a recording studio and built a successful business as a recording engineer, producer and keyboard player. With the development of digital computer technology in the recording industry, the job has become very high-tech, and very time consuming. Since acquiring the services of two competent sound engineers to help run the busy studio, I found myself with a little more free time.

So one day at a well-known local model engineering supplier, I took the plunge and bought a 3½in. gauge "Rob Roy". After several visits to my local club, W.R.S.L.S. (West Riding Small Locomotive Society) I realised this engine was just too small and just not powerful enough to haul many passengers in a realistic fashion.

The obsession begins

After parting with some more cash and the Rob Roy, I bought the worst finished 5in.gauge "Midland Spinner" single wheeler. After much re-building, this engine not only looked great, but confounded people by actually pulling much weight without slipping hardly at all. I really took the time to get the balance & weight distribution of the locomotive exactly right over the two huge driving wheels. The confidence I gained from the renovation instilled me with enough confidence to tackle more ambitious projects. The first lathe I bought was too small and not powerful enough, as was the second one. Finally I now find myself with a really powerful old "Smart and Brown" wide bed 6in. screw cutting lathe that removes metal at an alarming rate. This was not always the case however, having no formal engineering training or experience, I reduced much metal to swarf until I finally got the hang of it. I have been fortunate to have had the benefit of wisdom and expertise from both fellow club members and the staff of Blackgates Engineering.

During a visit to a tool supplier, I spotted a part finished 7 ¼in. gauge "Tich", complete with professionally built copper boiler and drawings, all for half the price of the copper boiler alone! This was purchased forthwith and work commenced to complete it. At this point, I realised that it is often easier to start from scratch than to work on someone else's frustrated project, but nevertheless six months later, it was in steam! No more raised track for me! I was allowed on the ground, on a proper railway with the big boys. This engine was a mechanical disaster area, (not all my fault, I hasten to add), but a brilliant steamer nonetheless. After running this engine for approximately one year, I felt the need for a bigger engine, and luckily found one, yet again in the shape of a part finished 7 ¼in. gauge "Black Five". After struggling with the last engine it was a relief to find that the workmanship on this one was first class! That, plus the fact that it had a professionally built, immensely heavy copper boiler, by Mr. Randy Blackburn of West Riding Small Locomotive Society,(WRSLS) made the completion of this engine a relatively painless task. This "Black Five" proved to be an absolutely stunning performer. When running under load, the exhaust beats were perfect miniature replicas of the full size.

Then it happened……

We found a lovely big house in a nice area, that was more than large enough for our two young daughters, the dog and the cat. It also had a very large, overgrown garden to the front and rear which was plenty big enough to accommodate the aforementioned menagerie. The house had lain empty for four years, consequently the house and garden had suffered from neglect, and was in dire need of major refurbishment/ back breaking work. We both immediately fell in love with the place, and when we came to view the property, my wife was no doubt planning the future interior layout of the house. Readers of this modest publication can probably guess the rest. My wife in the kitchen to be, measuring up for kitchen units, me in garden pacing out the railway layout!

Snag was that the house purchase price was more than we could afford, plus, things like the cost involved in the purchase and fitting of all new windows and doors, central heating, new kitchen etc. compounded the problem. The solution was rather drastic. First, I sold my lathe, then my milling machine, in fact the entire contents of my workshop were sold except a few hand tools and my taps and dies. Then "Tich" went, and sadly the "Black Five" had to go to contribute to the necessary funds to buy and renovate the property. Over the next year, the house was more or less knocked into shape. During this period of seemingly non-stop work and house repairs, I was in desperate need of some model engineering therapy.

After the initial house renovations had taken place, I set about re-equipping my workshop.

I bought an old Smart and Brown lathe which was in quite bad condition. It had originally been in a school and someone had thrown away the change-wheels that drive the gearbox, thus disabling all automatic feeds. For this reason the gears in the saddle and gearbox were virtually as new. A two to one toothed belt drive soon remedied this, giving me a really silent gearbox drive. After much messing about with the gearbox/ headstock oil pressure feed pump, replacing a couple of bearings and adjusting the clutch, this machine is now all that I will ever need. The acquisition of a Taiwanese drill/milling machine, a metal cutting bandsaw, treadle guillotine, linisher and grinder/polisher completed the line-up.

With the workshop now up and running, I immediately set about building another 7 1/4 inch gauge "Tich", but from scratch this time. Anticipating much running round my railway to be, I modified the design somewhat ball races being used wherever possible, even on the valve gear links. This has proved very successful, the only discernible wear being on the cross head, which is easily adjusted with shims. A tender-driving car and two passenger trucks were built to complete the ensemble. While the house is still not finished, my railway is almost complete, all I need now is something to run it on.

Initially I enlisted the help of a music student friend during the summer holidays to prepare the foundation of the track. Over the next few weeks, armed with only a spade and wheelbarrow, he visibly lost weight. Especially as he dug the cutting round the back of the house. At a rough estimate, he must have moved fifty tons of rock, stone and soil, not bad for a trombone player! His other part-time job in a garden centre made it slightly cheaper to get the weed barrier plastic sheeting, which was to go under the ballast. His staff discount was to come in handy, as we were going to need a lot….. Four hundred feet of this material was laid in position, and then covered with twenty tons of gravel ballast. The weeds still grow in the ballast, but are easily pulled out. Many miles were covered levelling and trampling the gravel into place. I did not see it as being necessary to hire a vibrating roller, as many feet seemed to do the same job. Next, the sleepers! On initially pricing these from specialist suppliers, the cost seemed prohibitive, the solution was to buy tanalised 4in. x 1 in. timber from a local fencing manufacturer, who also cut them to the required length of 13 inches and treated the cut ends. A top tip for sleeper maintenance is to give them an annual application of used diesel engine oil from my old Landrover. When the sleepers were laid in position, the railway was beginning to take shape.

And now for the track!

Once again specialist suppliers prices, especially aluminium, were out of the reach of my pocket. So the type of construction chosen was the same as W.R.S.L.S. club track, which is 1in.x ½ in. flat mild steel bar for the rails, with 1in. x 1/8in. flat mild steel bar, cut to 3in. lengths for the chairs. These were pre-drilled in a jig, and welded in place at nine inch. intervals on the rails. The welding was beyond my capabilities, I tried it once and only managed to weld things to the vice. So all welding was done by my friend John "electric glue gun" Bolt, whose photographs also illustrate this article. We were lucky to have a long, and fairly level length of garden wall on which to weld the track together. The straight sections of track were constructed in their entirety on the wall, with cross ties welded in, using a track gauge after every third chair. The whole assembly was then screwed to the sleepers with stainless steel self-tapping screws. The straight sections were then placed in position, the full length down each side of the property. At this point it is worth mentioning that nowhere in the finished track did we use expansion joints, as these seemed to be pointless items of over engineering in this scale. All the sections were simply MIG welded together (all the way round) and cleaned up with an angle grinder. That was the easy part. In order to safely hurtle round the garden at a great rate of knots, super-elevation was built into the front curve. The geometry involved in this proved difficult as we didn't have the luxury of bending rollers, or any measuring equipment more sophisticated than a ruler! What we did have was a strange device borrowed from W.R.S.L.S, which is sort of a claw device with a hefty Allen bolt, this bends the track but must be used at 3in. intervals. Little and often is the secret to track bending using this method. Arms like Popeye developed after doing this for a while.

Now don't be misled into thinking that everything went smoothly and swiftly. Not only did work grind to a halt as I felt the need to run the engine after every section of track went down, but a fox ate John's welding glove! All the kneeling and bending took it's toll on John's knees and back, but luckily one of my recording studio clients, who is a professional holistic healer, called in for some cassettes and gave John a therapeutic zap, therefore allowing him to get back to work on the railway. The sleepers were laid roughly in position on the ballast, chairs and spreaders were welded to one track only on the wall, which was then bent into position on the sleepers. Then the second rail was slowly bent parallel to the first and welded to the spreaders using a 7 3/8in. track gauge which was also used while screwing the chairs to the sleepers. The chairs on the second rail were welded in situ, with the welding plant following round the track on the newly completed passenger truck chassis. This process was repeated for all the curves. To make the track interesting, a reverse curve was put in, this will also allow for a future siding, handily situated by the water tap in the front garden. Work on the track in the back garden was slightly delayed due to the building of a York stone flagged patio, which fell under the general heading of "work on the house", and to show that I didn't spend all my time working on my hobby.

The final piece of track was laid across the drive in front of the garage/workshop. We had problems bending this as we laid it in the dark late one night. This section of track was then cemented in place in order for the car to run over it smoothly. Once the foundations had been prepared, the actual construction of the track only took 100 hours! In the three years the track has been down, it has neither moved, distorted or sunk, and running is very smooth, derailments are few. A handy feature of the property was the old oil fired central heating boiler room. Although this is part of the house, it is conveniently positioned to make an ideal engine shed. A section of track was made to run into the shed, over a two piece steel door. A set of points will be added one day, for now a board is used to get the engine to and from the shed road. Since completion, many hours in steam around my garden has made the effort worthwhile.


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