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As Marty has pointed out, there have been many past threads describing the various methods ... and the method chosen depends on lots of variables (as well as a goodly dose of personal prejudice).

A few factors which influenced my own decision (and other members of the Ottawa Valley Garden Railway Society www.ovgrs.org ) included:

1) a desire to have elevated trackage even if it leads to terraced gardens ... in order to better enjoy prototypical ops sessions as well as make construction/maintenance more comfortable
2) there is serious frost heave here - the frost line is 42 inches and the railroad will sit under snow from mid November through early April
3) maintenance of trackwork is a serious issue - the most trouble method of keeping track smooth enough to operate derailment free is the goal
4) battery power or live steam will be in use so no concerns for electrical continuity need be entertained

The end result was a solid roadbed built either via the ladder construction or pt 2x6. This solid base is elevated on pt 4x4 posts set in deck blocks on 4 to 6 foot centres. My track is all Llagas Creek code 215 aluminum flextrack - it is the best looking and the cheapest of all the available commercial track. It is easily cut with flush cutting pliers and can be readily hand bent to accept any radius - no special tools are needed. I attach it to the solid roadbed by spiking every twelfth tie through the ends with brown aluminum siding nails. The spiking through the ends prevents the ties from twisting when the rail moves due to any temp changes.

I leave very small gaps between each length of rail but since I lay track in summer and the railroad is generally shaded, heat expansion is not a huge problem. More common is cold contraction during the winter when the temp can sit below 0F for seemingly weeks on end. I have had at least one joint to be repaired each spring where the rail has contracted far enough to pull out of the rail joiner.

You asked about grades. i try to keep them to 1.5% or less for live steam operation. Normal grades are easily built just by making the 4x4 posts the desired height and allowing the pt 2x5 to accept a slight bend.

This particular approach yields very smooth trackwork that does not require maintenance to keep it laterally level. It is a bit more work and expense initially to raise the roadbed but that pays huge dividends saving my back and knees ... plus I now do virtually no track maintenance.

I would be the first to agree that for those who need track power, maintaining electrical continuity means a somewhat different approach. And those who want ground level track that might be walked on also have different constraints. In summary, think through what you want as a final product and factor in how much maintenance you want to do to keep trains running without derailment ... then plan accordingly.

Regards ... Doug
 
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