Getting started in garden railways

21 October 2022
Building a railway in the garden can be cheaper than you think. Garden Rail Editor, Phil Parker, provides tips for outdoor modelling, without breaking the bank.

Take your modelling outdoors and the world changes. While you can run OO gauge in the 'fresh air', and some have even tried N, really you need to be thinking about the larger scales such as 16mm and G gauge.

It is true that you can spend thousands on a beautiful live steam locomotive to run in the garden, but this isn't compulsory. Starter sets that include a locomotive, two wagons, an oval of track and a controller can be bought for less than the price of a top-end OO gauge model with all the bells and whistles. Despite the climbing prices of smaller scales, the larger ones have stayed pretty much the same for many years. What you get for your money won't be the highly-detailed models that we take for granted in OO gauge, but simpler and more rugged models designed for life outdoors. Cheaper trains can be handled by children without worrying about knocking details off.

This doesn't matter to most garden rail fans because they have a different approach to the hobby than those working indoors. In the garden, we aren't generally building a model of a particular railway, but a line of our own where we use rolling stock acquired from different manufacturers.

What are the scales and gauges for garden railways?  

When looking at garden railways, there are two distinct scales and gauges, and whichever one you chose can affect the models available to you.

32mm gauge – Normally described as 16mm scale, the models are 1:19 scale. Very much a builders scale, there are many kits available, but very little ready-to-run. If you pick this scale, membership of the Association of 16mm Narrow Gauge Modellers is very worthwhile. See

45mm gauge – the commercial scale. Much RTR from Piko, LGB, Bachmann, Accucraft and others. Described as G gauge, the scale is nominally 1:22.5 but this tends to be altered to make the models fit. There are still many kits available, but you can buy a starter set and be running on the lawn in an afternoon. Membership of the G Scale Society is recommended. See

Many models can be re-gauged between the two and since the scales aren't that far apart, people will often use the same kits for either. Narrow gauge railways being far less prescriptive than standard gauge ones, this normally looks perfectly normal.

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Where do I start when building a garden railway?

A good starting point is a Piko or LGB set. Lay the oval of track on the lawn – cut the grass first – plug the controller in and watch your new train trundling around. Being outside is a different and very relaxing way to spend time. The family will love it too – these models appeal to everyone.

There's no need to consider a permanent layout straight away. Imagine you are running a contractors railway and move the setup around a few times. You can always add track to the line and the good news is that it will also take the rough and tumble of being set up and broken down again.

Eventually, you might decide to lay something more permanent, but even then, materials are cheap. Track can be laid on small stones bought in big bags from a builders merchant. Landscaping involves mounds of earth or real rocks and the vegetation, well, it literally grows out of the ground. Be patient and learn a few gardening skills, then you'll spend tiny amounts on small plants and grow as many as you need. Better still, enlist the family gardener and let the garden budget cover the cost of your scenery!

What about trains for the garden railway?

Rolling stock can be bought RTR or built from kits. There is a huge selection of cottage industries ready to supply larger scale modellers. All the parts for a small diesel outline, battery-powered, locomotive can be yours for less than £40. Assembly takes time, but little skill and, after a few evenings, you'll have a model to be proud of. Beware though, locomotive collecting and personalisation can become a hobby in itself. Most garden modellers have a fine collection of 'electric mice', as they are nicknamed.

The biggest problem is often storage. A four-wheel coach can be 30cm long, 10cm wide and 16cm tall. You'll quickly fill a cupboard if you build many. The good news is that even non-enthusiasts can appreciate the large and attractive narrow gauge models rather better than smaller highly detailed ones, so you can often leave them on display.

Finally, if all this is still too expensive, large scale fans love to take less-expensive motorised toys and convert them to models. Years ago, four-wheel drive cars sold as 'Stompers' found their wheels replaced with some suitable for running on rails and the bodies modified using card and wood into small diesels – what the Americans call 'Critters'. Stompers are no more, but last year a lot of 16mm scale fans were buying Tesco Caterpillar train sets for under £30 as raw materials for future projects.

Interested in learning more about garden railways? Keep entertained with all aspects of outdoor model railways and discover their real potential with Garden Rail magazine. Click here to discover the latest subscription offers

Need more advice? Take a look at the BRM Techniques page for all our latest guides and advice articles.

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