What is a Garden Railway?

Alan Rankin

A garden railway is a model train set designed to be run in an outdoor environment, such as a backyard or garden. Garden railway systems are generally larger than standard model railroads but smaller than the backyard railroad trains that can carry human riders. As with actual trains, the term railroad is used in the United States, while the rest of the English-speaking world uses the word railway. Like other model trains, garden railways are built to standard scales for ease in ordering parts, cars, and engines.

Roundhouses are used to store locomotives, and may be built by garden railway enthusiasts during the creation of garden railway layouts.
Roundhouses are used to store locomotives, and may be built by garden railway enthusiasts during the creation of garden railway layouts.

Model railroading has been a widespread hobby since the 1800s. Over the course of the 20th century, the hobby diversified into specialized fields, often distinguished by the size of the trains, sometimes called scale or gauge. Scale describes the size of the railway compared to actual trains; gauge refers to the distance between the tracks. Like other model railroad enthusiasts, garden railway hobbyists lay out their sets with buildings, landscape features, and even passengers set to the same scale as their trains.

Backyard and garden railway sets are different from standard model railroads in that they are designed to be left outdoors. They must be able to withstand constant exposure to weather, sunlight, and even the occasional stray animal. Plastic parts, for example, must be painted or otherwise treated to resist the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, which causes many polymers to deteriorate. Other factors must be considered for railways in locations with extreme weather, such as harsh winters. The trains themselves are often built to withstand constant exposure; most hobbyists, however, take their valuable trains indoors when not in use.

Like other model railroaders, garden railway enthusiasts are often ingenious in their layouts. Some make creative use of existing landscape features, turning ponds into lakes and hills into mountain passes. Others run tracks through an opening into an adjacent house or shed, turning the building into a miniature station or roundhouse. Industrious hobbyists even build train tunnels, although these have drawbacks in outdoor railways. Derailed trains in such tunnels can be difficult to retrieve, and animals often find them to be convenient burrows.

There are enough garden railway enthusiasts in the world that they have their own magazines, websites, and clubs, separate from model railroaders of other scales. Some popular garden railways are available for public viewing. The Mitchell Park botanical garden in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, features miniature railway shows every winter, set amid the park’s diverse horticultural displays. Perhaps the most famous garden railway on public display is Bekonscot, a popular tourist attraction in Buckinghamshire, England, since the 1930s.

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