Getting Started

Having made the decision to build my own backyard train using plans from 1965 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine, my first research project was to determine where to put the track for the train to run on.  The plans call for a minimum radius of thirty feet for the curves (a tighter radius would tend to make the train derail), so I had to have at least sixty feet between the two sides of the oval (assuming a simple track pattern of two 180 degree turns with a straight run between them).

I finally settled on a location that would take the track bed through some wooded area for half the run (dodging the larger trees that I don’t want to clear), and in a clear area for the remainder.  But the track area is not level, so the train will have to be able to pull a grade.  By measuring the vertical drop from the high side to the low side, and calculating the linear run of the track, I figured that the grade will be about 3.8%.  This is pretty steep for a train, so I don’t know if the engine will be able to climb a grade this steep.

The only way to know for sure is to build the engine, lay some track, and run some tests.  If the engine can handle it, then I’ll just lay the track on the ground.  If not, then I’ll have to figure something out.  I could reduce the grade by trenching the high side, or by elevating the track on the low side with trestles.  But I’ll deal with that problem later, if I have to.

So, at this point, my goal is to get the engine chassis far enough along that I can run some hill tests before I can start building the track.  But to get a running chassis will require the completion of the engine frame, wheels, axles, and bearings, drive motors and drive train, and some sort of remote control device so I can stop it before it runs off the end of the track.

By the way, this project brings entirely new meanings to common phrases in my lexicon, such as “train wreck”, “off the rails”, “light at the end of the tunnel”, and “add the bells and whistles”.


Cutting out the Pieces

I’ve made a list of materials and supplies that I know I’ll need to get started, and have purchased the ones I know I need to start building the chassis of the engine.  The plans call for plywood in thicknesses of 3/4″ and 3/8″.  Neither Home Depot or Lowes carry sheets of 3/8″ plywood.  But I’m using 1/2″ in its place.  I don’t know how that will affect the measurements of some of the pieces yet.

I’ve got most of the pieces cut on the band saw and set aside for later.  Now that the chassis is cut out, I need to get the wheels and axles built and installed so I can run the “hill climb” tests.  That’s next.

Chassis Underside
Chassis Underside


I wondered what it would take to get a private train in my backyard, and discovered that there are a number of options.

The first thing I discovered was that the trains can be powered by either real steam engines, gasoline engines, or electric motors.  Steam engines are the most expensive and potentially hazardous, so that was not an option for me.  I didn’t like the option of a lawn mower engine, either, as it would sound like, well, a lawn mower, instead of a train.  The electric motor option seemed to be the most cost-effective and practical solution.

The second thing I learned is that there are a number of options for the size of the train, which is related to the width of the track.  Popular track width options for backyard trains are 7 1/4″ and 7 1/2″.  This is the distance between the two rails.

And the third and most important thing I learned is that these trains can be very expensive for a casual hobby.

So I looked into possibility of building my own train instead of purchasing one, and came across a video of one such train that had been built by Keith Mills of Mills Apple Farms in Marine, IL.  His train locomotive was built using plans from a 1965 issue of Popular Mechanics, along with some of his own modifications and enhancements.

So this is the path I chose to pursue toward my goal of having a backyard train.  This website is my journal of a project that I’m sure will involve rewards and frustrations, progress and setbacks, and unforeseen problems and solutions.  If you’re interested in building your own train, or just want to watch while I build mine, feel free to drop in from time to time to see how the project is progressing.