17 August 2020
Why build a Garden Railway? There are many reasons, Ian Beech explains his with a tour of his line featuring amazing automatic operation.
What was my reason for spending a lot of time, and money, in virtually filling the available space around our bungalow with yards of 45mm track and its associated infrastructure?
The answer, computer control.
For as long as I have been a miniature and model railway enthusiast I have always had a desire to see a railway operate itself, while I sit back with a glass of beer, or Vimto in my youth, admiring my achievement.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy operating locomotives, be it live steam, battery, DCC or analogue as much as the next trainoholic, but to see trains running, stopping at stations, obeying signals and generally operating themselves with the added possibility of taking over control of any automatic train, or indeed adding in additional manually operated motive power, has always been my goal.
So how to go about it?
For me, DCC was the way forward. I have built automatic 00 and Z gauge layouts in the past using analogue control, but these were only partially successful with stops and starts always being abrupt and loco sound being lost at all the isolated sections. I am sure there are ways around this but DCC makes these aspects so much easier.
I needed a trackplan that would allow a number of trains to run under block control, but at the same time add more interest for the observer.
My method was to build two loops of track each divided into five block sections, but with one section common to both loops. This common section would see bi-directional running with the computer, preventing further entry to this block from either end once occupied.
In addition to this, goods sidings, bay platforms, and a branch line to Lighthouse station incorporating a rack section were included to permit manual operation, while the software took care of the two main running lines.
In order for the automatic system to function reliably for hours on end, derailments had to be avoided, alongside the use of only one manufacturers track and rolling stock. Thermalite blocks were laid into the ground to give a level and even track bed to which LGB rail was pinned down.
I have had only one expansion issue, which occurred along the 21-yard straight run down one side of our home during an extremely hot afternoon, this being cured by the introduction of two expansion joints along this length.
The track was then cosmetically ballasted and, although the odd piece of ballast does get trapped in the point blades between operating sessions due to the rain, once cleared prior to running this has not proved to be an issue. The original ballast came from the sieved sand used in the IOM Steam Railways sandboxes, but re-ballasting has been done using horticultural grit, which, although slightly oversize, looks more realistic being sharp-edged.
Rail connections also needed to be considered as dead spots due to high resistance joints that would develop over time - we live 100 yards from the Irish Sea.
I did not wish to use rail clamps but did want a reliable connection that looked as close to prototypical as possible, so decided to make my own fishplates from brass and to drill all my rail ends and secure with brass 10 BA screws nuts and washers. Approximately 1400 of each were used along with 700 fishplates.
I also decided to wired all point blades to the appropriate stock rail to avoid continuity issues once they have lived outside for a number of years, particularly when short wheelbase locomotives traverse them.
To date, after around nine years of operation, I have not had a single issue with continuity, dead points or loose fishplate bolts anywhere on the railway.
As mentioned above, the automatic operation is currently limited to a maximum of four trains running around each of the two loops, although I find three trains works better as some, dependent on their speed, will stop at signals set at danger, while others will have a continuous run under green.
If different numbers of trains are operated on each loop, variation in trains meeting at stations is achieved. Both loops of the railway pass under the workbench in my workshop and this enables all locomotives and rolling stock to be easily and quickly stored at the end of the running session.
Since the railway is all LGB, although now using a Massoth base station with 12 Amp capacity, it made sense to use software originally developed for LGB by Jurgen Schwarz. This has been available directly under the name Stellwerk Easy for a number of years and originally came to my attention when I purchased a large bundle of LGB items via the usual on-line auction site.
The seller was a very nice gentleman and clearly a very able code writer, the help given to me both prior to purchase and since has been invaluable. This software is still being developed, the latest version being 10.0.013. I have no links with this company other than being a very satisfied customer. The Software is easy to use and once you have your head around using schedule control, lots of things are possible. Each loco is fitted with a magnet that triggers track switches enabling the computer to keep track of train positions.
When used in manual mode, all locomotives, signals and point work can be operated at the click of a mouse or normal hand controllers can be used.
My priority was clearly to have a reliable, automatic layout, which, although not set to any particular time frame or country, still needed to look good. To this end, four stations; Bride, Gorsebank, Jurby and Lighthouse have been modelled along with a goods shed, signal box, Lighthouse and Lingerie Factory owned by G.S.Tring.
All the buildings and platform canopies are illuminated using LED strip and an Arduino controlled cable cars runs at random from its station.
A long, one-piece, double-span lift out bridge built from aluminium and held together with round head aluminium rivets is used to cross the drive. The purchase of a chop saw was invaluable when building this.
Although built for my own amusement, one day, while the railway was in operation, a touring coach stopped outside and asked if the holidaymakers on board could view the railway, this led to a collection being taken.
The interest shown encouraged me to open to the public and I have for the last four years opened on dry Saturday afternoons between 12 noon and 4pm, with all monies raised being donated to the local children’s hospice. To date, £1,425.00 has been raised.
If you are on the Isle of Man on a Saturday between the middle of May and the end of September, please come and say hello and take a look at The Lighthouse, Gorsebank and Bride Railway. Just head for the Point of Ayre Lighthouse and you will find me.
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