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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
After several years setting up my garden railroad, I thought it was a good idea to share my experiences.

First of all, I want to extend my deepest appreciation to the members of this site. Almost everything I've done was learned directly from myLargeScale.com, or at least inspired by it. This is an essential resource for the garden railroader, hands down.

My railroad consists of two loops, each about 200 linear feet long, located in Connecticut, USA.
Broken Tree RR.jpg
My goal was to create a relatively simple Garden Railroad layout that would require as little maintenance or tinkering as possible. (I get all the tinkering experience I need or could possibly want with my indoor HO layout). I hoped that eventually the trains would more or less simply run, without much intervention from me. The trains I wanted to run were modern freight trains, initially a BNSF Intermodal train (Eventually, 2 Aristocraft Dash-9s pulling 15 USA Trains Intermodal cars loaded with 2 canisters each), later, a mixed freight train (made by USA trains and 2 more Aristocraft Dash-9s.) The Aristocraft Dash-9s were chosen because DCC decoders can be easily dropped in without any difficult wiring.

Roadbed and Track

a. Loop 1 - I opted for a concrete roadbed in the ground. The idea was to have a strong support for the track that would require little or no maintenance. While a raised track bed would be easier to use in terms of removing trains and the like, I didn't have the know-how or resources to construct it. I also didn't want to put in the concrete myself, but my landscaper was able to do it, at a considerable cost, I must say. I started by obtaining Aristocraft Stainless Steel sectional track. I was planning on using track power, and I knew that stainless probably had less conductivity and was more expensive than brass, but it supposedly needed much less cleaning. (More on powering the trains below.)

I laid out the track over my chosen route, and had my landscaper put the concrete base in following the track layout. It required a lot of digging and framing, tasks that I could not and did not want to do.
When he was done, I put the track on the concrete. At first, I was obsessed with ballasting the track with dirt and gravel to hide the artificial look of just having track laying on concrete. But, hard as I tried, the gravel and dirt washed away and, ultimately, conflicted with my goal of a maintenance-free railroad. In the end, I opted to just let the track sit on top of the concrete. A wise decision, given my priorities.

b. Loop 2 - A year or two later, I decided I wanted another loop to run another train. I didn't want the expense of paying for another concrete road bed, so this time I was going to do it myself. I started by putting weed cloths under the proposed track layout, and then used stone dust to form the track bed. I wanted to use 1/4" fine gravel, but none was easily available. By this time, Aristo-craft stainless track was no longer available, so I opted for Train-Li Nickel Plated Brass (NpB) flexible track and switches to connect the two loops. I used a rail bender (I can't remember where I got it, but it's a standard, readily available one) to shape the track. (This is excellent track, but, like the stainless track, may not have been necessary for my situation given my ultimate choice of power.)

It was hard work, but fun, to lay the track. In the end, however, the rain and hard winters here made the project less than successful. The stone dust would get washed away, and I would have to re-ballast the track several times a season. I recently tried a new approach - I put a soil-hardening product, called Poly-pavement, on the stone dust. It is supposed to turn it into an asphalt-like hardness, and then I would just lay the track on it as I did with the concrete. At first this seemed to work great. The Poly-pavement made a hard crust and the track sat nicely on it. (Again, I had by now given up on any desire to go for any type of prototypical ballasting--maintenance-free, remember). However, after several weeks of intermittent rain, the poly-pavement seems to be washing away, just at a slower rate than the untreated stone dust. I think the poly-pavement would work great in a dryer, hotter climate, and provide a real alternative to concrete. The stone dust, poly-pavement method does not require any digging or framing, and should be cheaper, or at least easier, than concrete. But for me, I don't think it will ultimately pan out, because the summers are too wet and humid here in Connecticut.

My next plan is to try laying brick pavers (which I have a lot of on hand) as support for this track.

Powering the Trains

Having had a lot of experience with model railroading indoors, I initially planned on powering the trains the same way as my indoor trains--DCC and track power. I set up a hub and spoke wiring system, with 10-gauge wires extending from a central location (an enclosed gazebo inside Loop one) and attached to the track every 20-25 ft or so. I used the same DCC system (NCE) I used indoors, upgraded to 10 amps. I installed QSI Titan U decoders in my Aristocraft Dash-9 locomotives.

At first, I had no trouble running the Intermodal train around Loop one. I kept the track clean using the Swiffer method, and everything seemed fine. However, after winter and the second running season began, I ran into all sorts of problems. The train just would not go. It would go for a few feet, and die, go a few feet, and die. I cleaned the track, I re-cleaned the track. I installed more feeders to the track. Nothing seemed to work. To this day, I don't know what went wrong. But I eventually couldn't take it any more, and decided to convert to battery power. After experimenting with various makes of batteries, etc., I eventually opted (after much research here) for the following: 22 Volt Lithium Ion batteries and Tenergy battery chargers purchased from All Battery.com; the NCE G-Wire radio control system, and the same Titan U DCC decoders. I opted to put the battery and a Radio Shack switch in a separate battery car trailing behind the locomotive. Although this cut down on the prototypicality of the look of the trains, it was much easier than trying to install a battery and switch inside the train.

My ultimate setup was after much trial and error, mind you. I found that anything less than 22 Volts wasn't really sufficient to power two Dash-9s in consist pulling 15 fully loaded Intermodal cars. As I said, I was familiar with NCE systems, so I was comfortable with the G Wire controls. The only disadvantage of the All-Battery.com batteries and chargers was that it was necessary to find the appropriate connectors to the Dash-9s and the chargers; they were not pre-installed as with some other batteries. And the Tenergy charger does not have a built-in switch to select between charging or operation.

The conversion to battery power was a life (or should I say, a railroad) saver. Now I no longer had to worry about track cleaning at all (except for removal of twigs or leaves), I didn't have to worry about wire connections. Yes, I lost the ability to just turn the power on and run the trains, and I had to remember to charge the batteries after each run, but these were small prices to pay for the relative ease of battery operation.

The only problem I have been having is the trains stop when I take the G Wire Cab out of range; there is supposed to be a setting to prevent this, but either I am doing it wrong or it doesn't work. Anyway, since I like to just let the trains run, I can just put the Cab in the center of the layout and everything works fine.

As I said, I don't know what went wrong with my track power system. I do know that I eventually found out (after I had converted to battery power) that one of the components of my NCE Power Pro System was defective, and for all I know that was the whole problem. So I can't say that battery power is absolutely superior to track power; I just know that I am happy with battery power.

And relative to what I am doing know and what I initially started out doing, if I knew that I was going to use battery power, I probably could have chosen less-expensive, and more malleable brass track, instead of the more expensive track I did use. I also used Split-Jaw rail joiners in place of the stock joiners that came with the Aristocraft Stainless Steel track, again to insure better connections for track power. I don't know if I would have got those if I was planning on battery power. However, I am very happy with the stainless and especially the Train-Li track, and would continue to use it if, God forbid, I ever sought to expand my layout.

Train Storage

Now, the only issue left was what to do with the trains when they weren't being operated. I decided that in the winter, I would simply leave the freight cars out in the elements, with no protection. I stored the locomotives, batteries, DCC equipment, etc. in my house. For the most part, this has worked out well. The freight cars, particularly the Intermodal cars, have lost some pieces (ladders, walkways, etc.), but they operate fine despite being covered in snow for months at a time. The locos come out of hibernation and start right up. My rolling stock maintenance has been virtually nil.

Short term protection of the locomotives during operating season to protect the electrical components from rain was another matter. Since my railroad is at ground level, removing the locos after each session was really not a good option; in fact, it was a great deterrent to use. I next tried putting large Rubbermaid storage bins over the locos, but that was cumbersome, and just not very attractive.

Finally, I decided on a train shed; and I saw some great ones on this site. But I did not want to build one. So I finally opted for this: a Suncast Garbage Can shed with holes cut in either end. (I don't know if they still make the particular model I have anymore). Pretty it's not. But it is wide enough for 3 tracks, long enough for two Dash-9s and a battery car, has access from on top and in front, and is completely waterproof. I cut holes in the ends to let the trains pass in and out, and put panels made of homosote attached by Velcro to cover the openings when the trains are not in use. I probably will replace the homosote with some type of light-plastic at some point. The homosote bends with humidity, and so does not fit as tightly over the openings as I would like, but since the lid of the shed overhangs the ends, there has been no leaking problem so far.

Scenery

The railroad (I call it the Broken Tree Railroad, because there are so many broken and fallen trees about, although I feel weired naming a railroad that doesn't have any custom rolling stock) sits on a relatively flat plateau in what was once heavily forested land in the back of our house and yard. First we placed a gazebo on the plateau, and then I came up with the crazy idea of running a train around it (after filling up virtually every space inside our small house and garage with various-scaled layouts). So the scenery is basically the gazebo, the train shed, what's left of the existing trees, and a fair amount of rocks. We also have a swing hanging between two trees (My wife's idea), and a couple of places where rope hammocks can be set up, with the trains running right underneath. We put in rubberized mulch in the interior of the loops, hoping this will prevent weeds and be easier to maintain. Leaf cleanup requires a lot of work each season. There are no structures, etc., although I did place a suspension bridge in the outside loop; a gap was left in the cement support over a natural dip in the property. This year we installed a pond under the bridge; a pre-formed plastic pond liner from Lowe's (again, based on suggestions from this site.) I consider this pretty much to be the crowning touch to the railroad.

Miscellaneous

As I said, I wanted this to be a pretty much tinker-free railroad, but I couldn't help installing Kadee couplers on the rolling stock. I was having some random uncoupling issues, and I thought the Kadees would help. I still have one or two random uncouplings, but that is probably just a loose coupler or something. All in all, I am amazed at how well these G Scale trains track over much less than ideal trackwork without derailing or uncoupling -- regular occurrences on my cobbled-together HO layout.

Conclusion

In any event, the system is built (except for the continuing road bed issues on Loop 2), and for the most part operates the way I initially envisioned. I simply power up the engines by flipping a switch in the battery cars, turn on the G Wire NCE Cab, remove the covers from the locomotive shed, and start the trains. And, except for the occasional derailment caused by a new-fallen twig, they pretty much keep going. (Big Knocking on Wood)

That's it - the main points of my experiences in garden railroading. Thanks again for all your help.

Rod

P.S. Sorry for the length of the post, but I felt it was easier to put all this in one place rather than try to split it up in more particular threads.
 

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Great to hear you have a system that works for you.

Sorry to hear that apparently a single defective component caused you to abandon a working system, but in the end if you are happy that is all that counts.

I would also wager you could run regular DC locos now no problem, sounds like your track power system is bulletproof.

Yes, laying track right on concrete still has ballast issues, I have a couple of places where there is no ballast and the track has been very happy there for 10 years.

Regards, Greg
 

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Very nice write up there Rod.

Like you, I started with HO scale and DCC. I have a small outdoor layout now, but am planning on a larger one in the next few years. I have started with Digitrax DCC for my current outdoor layout (just using what I all ready had for HO scale). I'll be upgrading to the NCE 10 amp version when I build the larger layout.

What was wrong/defective with the NCE system?

How did you come about determining that it was ultimately the NCE system being defective?

Just curious in case I have future troubleshooting issues.
 

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The strange behavior of start and stop would probably be an improper short circuit detection, or an actual short somewhere, because the NCE self-resets under a short circuit.

This is my guess, since it sure seems his track, joiners and power connections were bulletproof.

Greg
 

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A very nice write up. As suggested by Greg, I think it might be informative, as to the DCC problems, to try running an engine around on analog DC track power. This would tell you if it is a problem with the track or the DCC.

My railroad is ballasted and on the ground. Rather than putting the weed barrier and ballast directly on the ground, I dug a small trench along the right of way. The trench was about 2-3" deep and 4" wide. I lined the trench with weed barrier and filled it with ballast, laid the track and then added more ballast used a broom to sweep the ballast to a desired level in and around the track and ties. With several inches of crusher fines in the trench it is easy to adjust minor settling and unevenness in the track.

My railroad has been down for 21 years. The last time I ballasted was over 5 years ago. I think that I'll add some sometime this summer or fall. I live in northern Virginia and we get about as much rain as you do, just a little less snow. Having the top of the ballest at the top of the trench helps keep most of the ballest in place. The ballest between the ties does get washed away.

Here is the track at my station. The ballast hasn't been touched in over 5 years. The fines have all washed out, leaving the larger fragments. The green is moss that likes the railroad. I do have to pick out small weeds and remove some moss. The track now sits on top of the ballast rather than in it.





I use analog DC track power and run trains year around, like you do, l let them run and run. I like to just see them running in the background. If conditions are right I will run in the snow.

Chuck
 

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Discussion Starter · #6 ·
What was wrong/defective with the NCE system?

How did you come about determining that it was ultimately the NCE system being defective?

Just curious in case I have future troubleshooting issues.
The 10 amp NCE system has two components, a booster and a command station. The command station is labeled CS02. While I was in the process of converting to battery, I still occasionally tried to run some trains using track power. Eventually, what happened was the PowerPro cab got stuck on the screen that said "NCE PROCAB V1.3 CAB ADDRESS = 02". I could no longer select locos. NCE support said it was probably caused by one of the boards in the CS02 box pulling away from where it connected to another board. I tried to fix it as per their suggestion, but it didn't work. I sent it back to NCE and they repaired it, and the problem of the stuck cab screen was solved.

I don't know if this was what was causing my earlier lack of power problem, because when it first happened I was able to select locos and otherwise operate the NCE system, so I didn't suspect that it was the problem. And by the time the more serious glitch started and I got the repaired CS02 unit back, I had fully converted to battery power, and I didn't really feel like undoing everything and re-setting up the track power system to see if it worked.
 

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Yeah, when the cab receives power, but not "handshake" from the Command Station, you have an issue, usually the command station.

I doubt that was your lack of power problem, per se, but a goofed up command station can cause erratic behavior. My experience though with stopping and starting is usually a short somewhere.

The NCE system will put out about 20 amps, so even with a short, you can get enough power through to move a train. So a "mild" short will trip the system, it will wait a bit, and then re-apply power to see if normal operation can be resumed. Of course this is only a guess, but I have had this happen before.

I have my layout wired to be able to isolate "blocks" very easily, so it was easy to find the short (an Aristo switch, specifically a "stuck" microswitch on a #6 switch).

Regards, Greg
 

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Discussion Starter · #8 ·
My railroad is ballasted and on the ground. Rather than putting the weed barrier and ballast directly on the ground, I dug a small trench along the right of way. The trench was about 2-3" deep and 4" wide. I lined the trench with weed barrier and filled it with ballast, laid the track and then added more ballast used a broom to sweep the ballast to a desired level in and around the track and ties. With several inches of crusher fines in the trench it is easy to adjust minor settling and unevenness in the track.
I agree that my roadbed problem would have been solved by trenching, but I really was then, and am even more so now, averse to digging. :eek:

I was actually attempting your method when I built the second loop, at least as to the materials used, but given my digging aversion, and the fact that I wanted to connect the two loops and the concrete loop was slightly above ground level, I took the easy way out and simply piled up the stone dust, with some gravel on top. Where the track bed was relatively close to the ground, the erosion problem was not a big deal, but where it was piled several inches high it really didn't work. My track came out of the ballast in a few weeks and the underlying dust was also washing away.

Ideally, I should have followed your method to the letter.
 

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Discussion Starter · #9 ·
I have my layout wired to be able to isolate "blocks" very easily, so it was easy to find the short (an Aristo switch, specifically a "stuck" microswitch on a #6 switch).
I think I tried isolating blocks, but it didn't seem to make any difference which block the loco was in.

I generally am not as patient as I should be, and since I really just wanted the G Scale trains to run without a lot of hassle, I pulled the plug, so to speak, on DC power perhaps a bit too quickly. I really tried though; and I thank you for a lot of excellent suggestions in that regard, Using a swiffer to clean the track was a stroke of genius, and I even made a version of the container you used to protect the wire connections, although I kept the DCC command station and power booster inside the gazebo.

In the end, I figured that while it was kind of fun trying to solve all kinds of electrical and DCC issues with my HO set, trouble shooting wasn't so much fun when I had to crawl on the ground checking electrical connections, rail joiners, and the like to find the problem. So I raised the white flag.
 

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Rod

Over the years I and many other hobbiests in "G" have tried to avoid things that we thought could be an easier way to complete a project. We have found out, the hard way, that Mother Nature has other ideas. Welcome to the club. You are not alone, most of us have been there, if not more than once.

Chuck

Ps One of my major SNAFUS, was my lack of planning for drainage on my layout in Virginia. Maybe it was luck, but the heavy rains I experienced in Colorado with my first RR, it wasn't a problem. Now in Virginia, after a heavy rain, I have to rake or sweep the track. Slope wash and debris is a major problem.
 

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Discussion Starter · #13 ·
And please don't take our comments as derisive, just interesting to hear and understand the story!
I didn't take the comments as offensive at all. I thought they were perfectly reasonable; I just wanted to explain why I did what I did more clearly in case anyone thought I was saying that one method or another was superior to another. Most especially, I just wanted to thank everyone here for their excellent advice.
 

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With respect to the range issues you're having with the loco stopping, CV 11 is the packet time-out setting. By default, this should be 0, which means if the decoder loses connection with the transmitter, it will just continue on its merry way at its current speed until such time as it regains communication with the transmitter. A value other than 0 (1 - 255) is the number of seconds it will wait before stopping.

I had one older QSI decoder which exhibited the problems you're having, and programming CV11 to 0 resolved this. Again, in theory, this was the default setting and I hadn't programmed it to anything different from when I loaded the files onto the decoder in the first place, but going in and specifically programming it to 0 resolved the issue. Since then, I just customarily go in and manually program that to 0 when setting things up. (I use the QSI programming interface, so programming the CVs is a breeze.)

The railroad looks good! Glad you're enjoying things.

Later,

K
 

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Remember that this also means that if you lose communication the loco will keep going even if you want to stop!

I still remember the image of a guy with a million dollar plus layout, who lost control of the loco, and it was headed into a tunnel that comes out on into a garage. He was diving after it, actually having the transmitter aligned into the tunnel to "catch" the errant loco.

If you have a layout where nothing can go wrong if the loco "continues" on it's merry way, then sure, let it run forever, but I would suggest picking a value of a few seconds to time out... figure out what the longest "gap" in time would be (worst case) and maybe add a couple of seconds and set that value.

Nothing more frustrating than helplessly watching a train smash into something.

Greg

(I have an emergency stop button that kills everything, it's big and red)
 

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Rod,

It was a delight to read about your garden RR experiences and the extraordinarily thoughtful way it was presented.

My soil is clay and changes with wet to dry seasons - mostly dry now here in California given our drought. So I have been putting the track down on man made decking boards periodically supported with posts dug down about 11 inches or so (no frost line issue here). Since the man made boards tend to sag with longer distances between the post, I support the underside with a rib where the boards are above ground. Appearance wise, it does not look too good for now, but I plan to hide all the structure with rocks and landscape when the layout is finished.

Anyway, The Aristo stainless steel track is screwed down at a tie about every 1 to 2 feet, and so far this method has worked well for me in my climate. The structure and track has not moved over the last few years - no kinks in the track either, even on hot days.

-Ted
 

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Discussion Starter · #18 ·
Ted,

Thanks for your kind message!

That sounds like a great track laying method. I originally thought about raising my track on some kind of decking, even if only a few inches above ground, but the soil here is so rocky that I can't even put weed barrier staples in the ground without hitting huge rocks!

It continues to amaze me how great the G Scale track is. It seems to survive through everything.
 
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