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B&P Garden Railroad - O Gauge Outside. This photo shows Bob Canfield's last run on the B&P railroad.  Lessons learned are included in this article. Click for bigger photo.  Garden Railroading Primer Articles: All about getting a Garden Railroad up and running well Garden Train Store: Index to train, track, and other products for Garden Railroading
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Written by Bob and Pat Canfield for Family Garden Trains
All photos by Bob Canfield

Note from Editor - Family Garden TrainsTM has been getting questions about running O gauge trains outside almost since the beginning. It doesn't make sense to us (or to many of our readers) that a scale so close to 1:32 (the scale of MTH garden trains) should be completely unsupported for garden railroading. Yes, a few brave souls over the decades have figured out how to make it work, but there is still no real manufacturer support. So everyone starting an O Gauge Outside railroad today is facing many of the same obstacles faced by hopeful O Gauge Outsiders in the 1980s and 1990s.

In April, 2007, we got word of an impressive, and 95% successful O Gauge railroad running outside with (mostly) Lionel trains and Gargraves track. So we published some of John Blessing's experiences, in the hope that subsequent O Gauge Outsiders could learn from them. The owner of that railroad just informed us that he has given up on finding a TMCC-controlled switch machine that will hold up outdoors for long, so he is now experimenting with other kinds of switching for his operation. (I was wrongly informed earlier that the Blessings had given up on an Outside O Gauge railroad and were moving indoors, but that wasn't true.) We are glad to continue presenting the experiences of the Blessings and other families so the next family who wants to try O Gauge Outside doesn't have to start from "scratch."

In the meantime, Las Vegas residents Bob and Pat Canfield, inspired in part by the Blessings' railroad, attempted to build a fully-functional O Gauge Outside railroad in their back yard. Though they made impressive strides, they have removed the trackage and determined to build their next railroad indoors, largely for the followings reasons:

  • In spite of manufacturer claims, Atlas Nickel Silver O gauge track is too fragile to use outside, and their switches are especially prone to deterioration.
  • The HDPE material Bob chose for his ladder-style roadbed expanded and contracted too much with the Nevada weather - if he left the track "floating," the roadbed would move way out from under it; but if he fastened the Atlas track down, the rails would pull away from the ties, ruining the tie strips. In addition, the HDPE lumber got a little too "flexible" on really hot days. Bob now thinks that if he had used a composite "lumber" (like Trex), the roadbed might have more stable. (Note: this isn't a big problem for Large Scalers in more temperate climates, for several reasons, but it's worth noting for folks using smaller rails in hot regions.)

  • Like the Blessings, Bob could not find a TMCC-controlled switch machine that would hold up outdoors.

  • Finally, Bob and Pat found a house they could afford with a lot more room, including room for an outbuilding big enough to hold a decent-sized O Gauge Inside railroad.
In spite of the ultimate outcome for this railroad, Bob and Pat made a great deal of progress, so, with his permission we're going to keep the whole "saga" posted, for the next generation of O Gauge Outsiders to learn from. As an example, Bob demonstrated a world-class construction method that probably would have worked if he had chosen materials less prone to expansion. He also demonstrated the reliability of properly-installed TMCC control for trains outside (though not switches). And, frankly, demonstrating the unsuitability of Atlas nickel-silver turnouts for outdoor railroading will help a lot of other folks avoid that choice - Paul.

Evolution of the B&P Garden Railroad (B&P) - Part 7 - Final Outcome and Lessons Learned

Bob & Patricia Canfield, Las Vegas, Nevada

If you'll recall, we decided in 2007 to build an Outside O Gauge railroad, using a raised roadbed made from HDPE fabricated into a ladder-like framework (see Paul and Bill's HDPE Roadbed article for an overview). By the end of Part 4, we had the HDPE roadbed built, track laid, power applied, and trains running.

During the past year, work on the B&P included repairing our Atlas track, installing block wiring, planting shrubs, and planning for trestle bent installation. However, we have now removed all of the Atlas track from the HDPE roadbed, and the B&P Garden Railroad is no longer. Let us explain.

Over the Winter and Spring of 2009, we continued to experience unacceptable track damage due to the expansion and contraction of the HDPE (100% plastic) roadbed in our Southern Nevada climate. We purchased, and began to experiment with Trex decking products (50% plastic, 50% sawdust). Our intent was to develop a new, less-flexible, more-rigid roadbed surface on which to mount our track. We developed a Trex roadbed concept that would sit atop, and float in the existing HDPE ladder roadbed structure.

We removed the Atlas Nickel Silver track in anticipation of relaying it on a new Trex roadbed. All of 40" sections of rigid and flex track, and all of the curved track sections survived with little or no damage. We sprayed all of the removed track with a generous amount of WD-40 penetrating lubricant. This relieved the “friction/stress” between the nickel silver rails and the fragile Atlas spike design. Previously curved, 40" sections of flex track, immediately returned to their original, straight shape.

Unfortunately, when we removed our 14 Atlas turnouts, every one of them became unserviceable due to breakage of the brittle plastic ties and spikes. We began to search for a new turnout supplier. We were attracted to the design and quality of Ross Custom Switches, however, their use of wooden ties, and of a rail material that will rust in the outdoor environment made them unacceptable.

We found GarGraves track products to be very responsive to our inquiries. Their all stainless steel rail switches are made with molded plastic bases replicating roadbed and ties. Some outdoor O Gauge railroaders have found that painting the plastic GarGraves switch bases with gray paint provides effective UV protection. GarGraves offered to do a custom run of our switch order, and pre-paint the tie structures for us, so this is something you should definitely consider if you are going to attempt an O Gauge Outside railroad in a hot climate.

Our plan was to build the new Trex roadbed top, purchase new GarGraves switches, and rebuild the B&P Garden Railroad. We planted approximately 20 assorted shrubs in the Spring, and were looking forward to making it all work again. (See below.)

Click for bigger photo.

Shortly after planting our new shrubs, we took a day off and went for a drive. Unexpectedly, we found ourselves stopping at a realtor’s open house. We had often talked about wanting a larger home. This “chance” event led us too more aggressively search for a new, larger home. The result is that we will be moving in December. As a consequence, work on the B&P Garden Railroad has stopped.

What did we learn during the past three years? What worked, and what did not?

Roadbed Construction

Our concrete footings and PVC substructure were easy to build, and have held up very well. They provided a stable platform on which to place a ladder-type roadbed.

The HDPE was not a good choice for our roadbed. Our climate extremes caused the HDPE to be an unstable roadbed surface. Our experience was that large temperature swings can cause the HDPE to expand and contract more than .25 inch, for every 36 inches of length. Securely attaching the Atlas track, with plastic ties, to this structure resulted in continual track damage.

If we were doing this again, we would use a Trex-type product (plastic/sawdust). We have tested 12 foot lengths of Trex over many months, and found them to not measurably expand or contract in our severe heat and cold. As we noted in B&P Part 1, Trex is not as flexible as HDPE decking material. However, with care, we believe that we could have built our ladder-type roadbed with a Trex-type product, and not have had the expansion and contraction issues we did. Hindsight is 20/20.

Track Selection

We would not use Atlas Nickel Silver Track products in the outdoor environment. Although Atlas advertises this product as UV protected and suitable for outdoor use, our experience is that the “scale” spike/tie design is too fragile.

Brand new, out of the box, Atlas track spikes broke with the slightest provocation. After exposure to extreme heat and cold, the plastic is even more brittle. This is especially troublesome with switches, where rail lengths are relatively short, and the rails are held in place by only a few spikes. See B&P Part 4.

Finally, as we previously discussed, we found Atlas switches to have very poor solder connections for their concealed rail-continuity wiring. This failure was present in almost all of our switches. Based on web-posted accounts, many other Atlas track users have experienced the same problem.

Lionel TMCC

As we have previously discussed, we had excellent command control capability using Lionel TMCC equipped locomotives. This was achieved once we completed all of our wiring as described in B&P Part 6.


We are going to build a new indoor B&P Railroad at our new home. To the extent possible, we will use our salvaged Atlas Nickel Silver Track. While it will not be a garden railroad, when we make some progress, we will share a photo or two with Paul.

We hope our outdoor experience gave you some useful ideas and helps you plan your project more effectively. If we can answer any questions, please contact us through the Family Garden Trains Contact link. Just put the words "Questions for the Canfields" somewhere in your comments and Paul will forward them to us.

Bob & Patricia Canfield
Las Vegas, Nevada

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