We had an Oak tree die last year and it needed to be taken down. Now in the not too distant past I would have fell it and never looked back. Enter the wife and her practicality; the tree is over the propane tank, it is leaning towards the house, you’re an old fart now. Wow didn’t need that last one. So in the end we thought it would be a good idea to have a tree service come in to remove it. The tank loop trackage was still in place so I thought it would be a good idea to salvage it before the rail could be damaged by the tree guys.
As I started removing the track I thought maybe somebody would be interested in seeing what 15 year old hand laid track looks like. Did it work, did it survive, what condition is it in?
A little background, well OK, a lot of background.
I built my first “garden railroad” in 1997-98, just a small loop of track about 90 feet with one switch and a 20 foot long spur. Having moved, up as they say, from ON3 scale modeling I had brought a lot of bad habits into the garden from the train room. I think the worst one was trying to build scale model structures that had no chance to withstand the outdoor environment, but that is another story as they say.
The second worst notion I had was that any track that was any good at all had to be hand laid on wood ties. Now don’t get me wrong, I still think there is no track that looks better than hand spiked rail on wood ties. Hand laying track can produce a scale model in its own right, but there is a heck of a difference between the train room and the garden. Thank goodness I finally realized that difference and in 2005 when we changed the “garden” railroad to tabletop height we went with all commercial track and used the saved time in other areas of the hobby.
But back in the day I thought hand spiking track was the way to go. In 1996-97 Marc Horvitz did some articles on building and laying hand spiked track in the garden and I followed his procedures pretty closely and achieved some fine results. We ran continuously on the tank loop, so called because the garden and railroad circled the propane tank that supplies the house, until 2005 when we started the new railroad. Over the next few years it was used less and less as the new rail line progressed. By 2008-9 the bridges were removed and the Tank Line was completely abandoned, although the rail was left in place.
All the above background information may not have been necessary for the pictures of track aging that I am going to show here but it was fun remembering the old railroad. So without further delay let’s move on to the pictures.
I couldn’t find any pictures of the prefab sections of track that I built but did find a couple of road bed prep shots that I was able to scan in. They are not very good pictures but will give an idea on how I prepared the roadbed for the track sections.
Back in the 90’s when the Tank Loop was in full operation it was all track power using aluminum 6061T6 rail, aluminum joiners and copper wire jumpers, all this on Redwood ties and stringers.
I ran all metal wheels and had very little residue except the black carbon dust from spark jump.
Just a few pictures to show that I really did do a “garden” railroad at one time but no more; no more hands and knees, no more gophers and moles, no more weeds and plants, no more wild animals and pets damaging the hard work the day before the train club meet.
A view of part of the line before I started digging up the track, I took the picture here because you can actually see the rail and ties. Most of the rest of the line is not quite so visible. I actually clipped a power pack to this section of rail and ran a Shay along it a couple months ago just to see if it would still function. Well it bucked and stalled a little so I used the old sanding pole and the locomotive ran as smooth as can be. The two rail joints that I crossed were working perfectly, electrically and mechanically.
The ties were sawn from Redwood to ½ inch wide by ¾ inch deep and nailed to ½ by ¾ inch Redwood stringers that buried in the ballast. The ¾ inch depth of the ties gave more material for Mother Nature to work on and (I think) increased the longevity of the finished product.
Stainless Steel Vs Steel spikes.
When I laid this track in 97-98 the accepted thought was to use Stainless spikes because they didn’t rust away and fail. This was very true and still is, however this benefit created another problem, the spikes won’t stay in the wood. Every time the wood gets wet then dries the dang spikes crawl up out of the wood. Starting in 1999 I went around replacing randomly the SS spikes with steel spikes and the picture below gives a good view of the issue.
The steel spikes are down against the rail foot the SS spikes are all airborne.
In this picture we have a close-up view of some pulled spikes, the two SS spikes at the top and the steel spike at the bottom. Note the steel spike is uniformly rusted and was very difficult to pull from the tie. Notice the stain rings on the SS spikes where they slipped up and spent some time before slipping up again to spend more time in the air. Of course to say they moved every time the moisture content changed is a bit of an exaggeration but they do climb up out of the ties at an alarming rate. My conclusion, don’t use SS spikes under any circumstances.
With the rails removed and the first section dug out of the ballast (crusher fines) it is easy to see how the wood has weathered away on the exposed top side everywhere except directly under the rail.
Here is a view of how the splines were nailed in short sections to the bottom of the ties on the curved sections of track. I used a 6 foot section of 1 inch wide heavy duty electrical cable as a pattern. I would take it out and form it to fit the next section in the roadbed then carefully move it to the bench in the shop and trace it onto a piece of plywood used as a pattern base. I would then use double sided tape to lay the ties out on the pattern then nail the splines on and turn it over and mount the rails.
Of course I won’t try to tell you it was all sweetness and light, here is a section that didn’t fare all that well. Notice that the splines are rotted away but the ties are still in pretty good shape, this condition was completely un-noticeable until being dug up. A climate of thirty inches of rain and snow all winter and irrigation all summer, actually they held up pretty well considering all that.
After pulling the spikes and getting ready to lift the rail in this section I found a bit of a problem. This root has grown between the splines and the rail; of course it is a root belonging to one of the wife’s favorite shrubs so I had to do some creative wood sawing in the dirt to save the root.
When I installed this track I didn’t want to depend on rail joiners or clamps to supply good continuity so I drilled each rail end and tapped in a brass bolt I then soldered a 20 gauge jumper wire 3-4 inches long to each bolt head. All of this was done on the bench while building the track sections. Once in the garden it was a simple matter to solder the jumper wires together and bury them in the ballast. In this picture you see the connections just as they came from the ground after 15 years. Notice that the cheap spray paint also held up pretty well.
Here the same rails have been cleaned up with a wire wheel in a Dremel tool. As you can see the solder joints are solid and there are no signs of the dreaded electrolyses eating away at the aluminum rail
The home built switch used nickel silver rail for the frog (for soldering) and aluminum rail everywhere else, note the steel spikes are holding well. I used Split Jaw brass clamps at the switch and at the bridges with the thought that it would make them easy to remove for any maintenance. It is true it would make them easy to remove but jumper wires would make them even easier, in later installs I have used nothing but jumper wires.
What do the clamped surfaces look like after 15 years? Good question, here is a look at my results. At first I thought “here it is the dreaded electrolysis” but no, it is just the joint paste gunk that I put in there to stop that problem. I was going to wire brush up one of these joints and show you the cleaned up version but unfortunately as happens more and more these days, I forgot.
The switch on its 2 X 12 pressure treated wood base after being dug out of the ballast. No signs of decay at all in the base or the Redwood ties.
The bottom view of the switch base.
Rail and track dug up and removed. Nothing left but a faded sign, the faint trace of an old road bed, and a memory of what once was.
Maybe these pictures will encourage some of you to try some hand laid track, or possibly discourage you, depending.
Thanks for taking a look.