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Planning & Site Survey 


Choosing a suitable site for your railway and carrying out a proper survey are essential activities in constructing your layout. Although we will explore these aspects separately, they are virtually inseparable as each will have some bearing on the other.


The Need for Good Planning  


As is the case with most building projects the importance of proper planning prior to constructing your garden railway can never be  overemphasised. Just as you are often advised in DIY to measure timber twice and cut once (or in my case measure three times and cut twice!) the same maxim can also be applied to building a model railway in the garden only magnified to the nth degree. The more planning is involved beforehand the better the eventual outcome is likely to be.


It goes without saying that your layout will have to cope with the vagaries of the British weather and it is vital that you incorporate features that will help to combat these conditions and maximise both the life and the operation of your railway.



Planning Block (or Obsession?) 


Whilst it is essential to plan your garden layout in sufficient detail having due regard to the natural landscape and potential hazards on site, it is also crucial that you avoid the loss of inertia which can easily occur if planning becomes too meticulous and starts to become an obstacle to actually getting your trains up and running.












This is a fairly common occurrence as it is all too easy to deliberate too long (even years in some cases) figuring out how to go about building your railroad and miss out on laying your track and actually running trains.


I have read in numerous articles that you should

“Plan Big and Start Small” which I believe to be very

good advice to all beginners.  That is to say, you

should just begin with a simple layout (which can

be readily extended without undue upheaval) and

thus gain practical experience rather than attempt to

try to create your ultimate dream layout from the

outset.  If you are tempted to acquire locomotives

and rolling stock in anticipation of your eventual

railroad empire being completed you will at least

have somewhere to run them in the meanwhile.


Don’t forget that if you join a local Garden Railway Society you will probably have an opportunity to run your trains on the local group’s own layout or those of its members. Members are only to keen to share their accumulated knowledge with a newbie.


It is certainly important to avoid any costly pitfalls that could arise from inadequate preparation but you will probably want to modify your layout at some stage in the future so in practice most mistakes can eventually be rectified (albeit usually at some cost in time and expense).


However, in practice it is best to avoid as many glitches as you possibly can at the outset. Time devoted to planning the layout properly is hardly ever squandered. It will ultimately save you money, wasted effort, time and a great deal of frustration. Not only that but sound planning will help you to create a realistic railway operation which fulfils your expectations both initially and later on as your railroad empire expands and develops.

Start Small Think Big logo.PNG

Site Selection  


Where is the best place to build my layout? That’s always a good question and like most "good questions" hard to answer.


Every location will be different and pose its own challenges. It is paramount that you thoroughly explore the area around your property to determine the most appropriate and safe location for your railway.


If you only have a small garden or outside space the choice may be restricted and you just have to make the most of the space available. Don’t dismiss unpromising areas too readily. It is often the case that even the most problematic sites can often offer the best scope for  creating an attention-grabbing layout.


In reaching your decision bear in mind the following considerations:


  • Health & Permanence 


Your choice of site and the type of layout to build will largely depend on your age, physical                capabilities (now and in the future) and how long you expect to reside at your current property. As a   construction project the work could take several years and if you are to fully enjoy the results of your  endeavours you need to look ahead.


How long do expect to live in the property? Building a  permanent or semi-permanent layout may mean leaving it all behind should you have to move house. It can be a disheartening job to dismantle all your years of hard work or equally upsetting to part company with your handiwork.


What is your current physical condition and will you be as fit in 10 years’ time? If you construct a ground or low-level installation will you be able to physically bend over to run your trains or carry out any necessary maintenance in future years without straining your back?


  • Security 


It is a sad reflection on today’s society (or perhaps it was ever thus) that one has to consider whether there is adequate  security for your envisaged layout. Your garden trains will represent a substantial investment which needs protection from the less-well behaved members of our communities not to mention the local wildlife.


It may not always be prudent to place your layout in a situation which is highly visible from any public thoroughfare for security reasons. On the other hand, you will want to make sure that your layout can be viewed to the best advantage from around the site - especially if you intend to operate with manual sight control.


However, in general, try to avoid siting your layout in a location which is highly visible from a public street or adjacent path.


Try to choose a part of your property that is enclosed and not immediately visible to potential vandals and other miscreants.


The back garden (or yard which I believe is the American expression) is often the preferred setting as it tends to be private and more secure – two prime considerations.  It may well already be enclosed with a hedge, fence or wall offering better protection from budding delinquent, the light-fingered fraternity and even interloping creatures who may take an interest in the goings on.


If you have a rear entrance to the property make sure that it is fitted with a suitable padlock and kept locked at all times. It may prove inconvenient but the loss of a prized locomotive or installed track would prove much more distressing.


  •   Animals                 


I am always surprised by the reports of various animals causing havoc with a model railway installation. Whilst we might not have to endure the threat of bears, gophers, racoons, moose, beavers, etc. experienced by our North American cousins we still have our own indigenous fauna to contend with such as deer, badgers, foxes and the dreaded moles which can wreak just as much   damage in no time at all (as I know to my cost).


If you are unable to protect your garden perimeters from such incursions, I would suggest that you install some sort of physical barrier around your layout in order to minimise the chances of any damage.


Adequate drainage is also a primary consideration. You certainly need to avoid the situation where the lowest point of your line is situated in the centre of your layout or you are likely to end up with an unintentional pond. This dilemma can be compounded if you decide on a raised roadbed so make sure that you incorporate suitable drainage (perforated plastic pipes are ideal) in order to divert water away from where it is not needed.


Always have due consideration for your neighbours (especially if in close proximity) and site your layout where it is least likely to cause offence or interfere with those who may not necessarily share your passion for trains. Believe it or not, not everyone enjoys the constant sound of locomotive whistles and steam chuffs.




This is another opportunity to check access to your layout for further construction work and maintenance, I am sure that you will have considered this aspect at the design planning stage but you may have introduced changes to the original plan which could potentially impede reaching across your layout to work comfortably on your layout, remove derailed stock, etc. as well as obstructing garden machinery.

It is surprising how even a modest increase in elevation of your layout, just a few inches, can severely restrict accessibility.




Keep in mind also, the question of where the line will be operated from and best viewed by yourself and your guests.  Ideally the operator should be able to observe the entire layout whereas general viewing points can be dotted around the perimeter. These locations need to on firm standing and connected by suitable hard-standing paths.

It is generally considered that the optimum viewing point for the human eye is looking down from about 2’ above the track level. This can be problematical if you have chosen to build at ground level so consider constructing your layout at circa. 3.5’ to 4’ high which would be ideal for most people.

There should also be no obstructions around the layout so that any emergency can be dealt with speedily and without the  danger of injury. This is especially important if you intend to use a remote controller and move around the layout unimpeded.



Whilst it may be tempting to position your railway adjacent to, or actually attached to, an existing fence be mindful that this may eventually cause problems when the wood  eventually rots.  Similarly, it is not always a good idea to connect power cables directly to a fence as if it does blow down or decay (as all fences eventually do) your power supply will go with it.


In fact, far better to build a block wall or wooden framework about 2-3 feet in front of the fence to support your railway and any associated electrical wiring. This will also allow access to the back of the layout for maintenance work and recovering recalcitrant wagons and passenger cars.


If you are contemplating using electricity to power your trains, operate point switches, illuminate structures, or possibly incorporate a pond or irrigation system you will also need to excavate channels to accommodate electrical and water supplies. Clearly these are best installed before any landscaping is undertaken and certainly before the roadbed is begun. It can be a nightmare to have to have to connect these vital services after the tracks have been laid.


It goes without saying that mains voltages should be avoided in an outdoor environment so the installation of low voltage cables does not need armoured protection. If the amount of wiring is minimal lightweight domestic blue MDPE (Medium Density Polyethylene) is ideal as it affords sufficient protection and long service life. Alternatively, conventional house drainpipes are a cheap product if the wiring is substantial.


As you can never quite predict where electrical supply points might be needed, especially in the future, it is  recommended that these conduits are installed under the proposed roadbed  together with a few lengths of string inserted to enable the wires to be subsequently pulled through  without too much effort.


There is a complete chapter on Power to be found later in this manual.



  • Utilities  


Be wary of underground electrical cables, sewers, drains, gas and water supply pipes, soakaways and any other utilities that may have been laid under your chosen area.


There is a free service called DigDatConnect on the internet which enables you to find out who your local service providers are using any address / postcode. I tried it and was amazed to come up with a list of no less than 39 individual companies and organisations who operate in my village to approach for information. Unfortunately, there seems to be no easy way of sending a general enquiry to all the companies involved – you just have to contact the likeliest authorities that might have had installed something on your land at some time in the past and if they have anything, they will email you a copy of the plans.


I have a suspicion that given the age of my house, it was built in 1937, even if they have plans of what is in the ground they are almost always out of date and lack the accuracy necessary to avoid problems. The current status seems to be that all the connected services are now solely the responsibility of the property owner so you proceed at one’s own peril!


The depth at which services are buried underground:

  • can vary from utility to utility, geographical location and age of property

  • depend on the professionalism of the builder(s) in satisfying the prevailing building regulations

  • can sometimes rely on whether a clerk or works or building inspector was present to oversee the works

​which is hardly reassuring.

This uncertainty probably means that to have a higher degree of confidence you may have to incur the cost of hiring a specialist company to identify what may be hidden underground which is a pain when the chances of hitting anything are quite slim.


You could also try dowsing but the accuracy of this method is equally uncertain so If in any doubt seek expert qualified advice before getting to work with your mini-digger!

  • Drainage  

  • Neighbours  

  • Maintenance  

  • Weather 


When deciding the best site for your model railway it also makes sense to consider the potential effects of the weather. A windy location can not only make it uncomfortable to operate your railway but it can blow debris and leaves onto your track and cause damage to structures, etc. In less temperate climes you also have to contend with permafrost heave and even occasional earthquakes!


Apparently, frost heave is a common phenomenon in cold regions and can affect both garden railways and real railroads too, typically where clay is present.  The frost upheaval mostly happens in the subgrade but can also occur in the ballast layers and can make a real mess of your railroad.


  • Fencing 


Whilst it may be tempting to position your railway adjacent to, or actually attached to, an existing fence be mindful that this may eventually cause problems when the wood eventually rots. Similarly, it is not always a good idea to connect power cables directly to a fence as if it does blow down or decay (as all fences eventually do) your power supply will go with it.


In fact, far better to build a block wall or wooden framework about 2-3 feet in front of the fence to support your railway and any associated electrical wiring. This will also allow access to the back of the layout for maintenance work and recovering recalcitrant wagons and passenger cars.


  • Soil Type 


Another consideration to be borne in mind is the nature of your soil, or dirt as it is commonly referred to (originated from the Old Norse word ‘drit’ apparently which was sounds a far less  agreeable substance).  Heavy clay is always a problem as it invariably seems to be unworkable being either too wet to work or as dry as concrete. In fact, it also contracts and expands which can cause surface upheaval exacerbated by cold frosts. Sandy soil can provide much better drainage but does require compacting to become stable.

You need a material that drains well and compacts easily to provide a firm base. In building my own raised bed I was fortunate to have a significant quantity of builders’ rubble from our house extension including broken roof tiles which I was able to put to good use. I supplemented this with 20 mm Shingle,10 mm Gravel, and Sharp Sand nearer the surface. So far this has proved to be a very firm base to walk on and so farI have not  experienced any track subsidence.

Another popular aggregate often recommended in the model railway press is crushed granite chippings (or decomposed granite or limestone apparently called 'finings') although I suspect that this may prove a costlier base unless you happen to live adjacent to a quarry or builders’ yard. Far better, and a lot cheaper, to utilise any old concrete or builder’s rubble (possibly not plasterboard) that might be more readily to hand. See if your neighbours have anything suitable that they wish to dispose of – could save them the cost of a skip

Make sure to fill in all the voids. Once you have achieved the required level trample the entire area using ‘foot power’ to firm the surface. Top up any depressions and tramp some more.


  • Rocks 


Another constituent to bear in mind when “hardscaping” are rocks. If realistically placed they can certainly enhance the look of your garden railway but stones just dropped in a haphazard fashion will look contrived and detract from the overall appearance. A natural rock formation can also obscure the other side of your layout,  provide a justification for the track to negotiate around it, and also add depth to the scene.


Some modellers may choose to create their own artificial rocks in situ (se Module:      ) but if you plan to adopt the natural method this is the time to bed them in (certainly the larger rocks) as they can be heavy to move later and could damage your sub-structure or track.


I was very lucky in moving to a garden ”peppered” with individual stones of modest size (granite I think) which have proved  invaluable to relocate to my slightly raised layout. They may not be a good match for the mountains of Colorado (my layout is based on the old Denver & Rio Grande Western lines) but  will certainly create an exciting backdrop as my Bachmann C19  struggles up the grade with its Jackson-Sharp passenger cars.


I am also hoping to experiment with modelling artificial rock strata from pieces of Celotex I salvaged from the house extension and have already tried my hand at using a concrete mix to support / conceal the elevated inclines.

In a later module I will cover the topic of “rock creation and "laying” to achieve realism along with other scenic features.


Summary of Key Points  


  • Track and buildings represent a major investment and, therefore, an attractive target for thieves.


  • Remember that animals can also cause damage to your line.


  • Make sure your layout has adequate drainage.


  • Ensure that you can reach any part of your layout  unimpeded.


  • Determine optimum operating and viewing positions on hard standing.


  • Make suitable provision for all electrical circuits and water pipes before laying the track.


  • Don’t build adjacent to or attach power cables to a fence or similar material.


  • Locate any underground services before doing anything.


  • Determine your soil type and the potential use of large rocks which need to be manoeuvred into place before the roadbed is finalised.

Suaoki L12R Clasic Mini Laser Level Self
Stanley Intelli Tools INT177340 Cubix Se
Masons Line.PNG
Water Level Kit.jpg
Water Level Device (Graphic).png
Grid Pattern Diagram.png

NOT TO SCALE: Illustrative only

line level.jpg

Evaluating the Location & Terrain 


When constructing a model railway layout outdoors there is a natural tendency to try to re-arrange nature and seek to impose your own thoughts and ideas on the landscape in order to create a more attractive miniature scene.

This might involve building a high-level railway, forming a “mountain”, creating a pond or simply driving a cutting through heavy or  shaping the overall contours of the site.


Such groundworks are usually very labour-intensive requiring  considerable physical effort without the help of mechanised equipment. Moving tons of earth and rock from place to place is physically  demanding and not to be engaged in lightly.  


Preparing the site properly is likely to take quite a while and you need to get it right if costly problems are to be avoided later.

Before you embark on anything too ambitious first consider whether these changes are absolutely necessary to the implementation of your envisaged design. Spend time observing the terrain and elevations across your site and assess how much work is likely to be required to excavate and backfill - then double your estimate!

Sometimes it can be more beneficial to use the terrain that nature has provided you with and adjust your proposed scheme to take advantage of the prevailing topography rather than try to fight it .

If the thought of hard back-breaking work does not deter you by all means press ahead. The effort will certainly provide you with plenty of valuable aerobic exercise.

As a corollary of the foregoing see if the natural landscape can be used to enhance your layout ambitions rather than be a constraint. For example, if you have a steep rock outcrop consider a mountain line hugging the sides of the rock-face along narrow ledges; perhaps with switchbacks or loops to enable your trains to gain height. Use nature as a partner rather than an adversary to help you to create the right feel and aesthetic look to your layout.


Optical Illusions 


However substantial you build your railway you cannot hope to create scale distance equivalent to a real railway. On smaller layouts your train will only have travelled a short distance before they reach their destination or return to where they started. Even to build a short 5 mile line to 1:22.5 scale would equate to a track length of 0.22 miles (just over 1,160 feet). A considerable amount of compression is thus, unavoidable.


Example:  Visualise a point-to-point layout measuring 42 feet in running length. A passenger train, approx. 6 feet long, sets off to the other end of the line. When it arrives, it will have effectively travelled only 5 times its own length and even at very slow speed this will prove an  “underwhelming” journey, especially if the end of the track is clearly visible.


To add realism, it is necessary to use subterfuge to create an illusion giving the impression that the train has actually travelled somewhere at a reasonable distance from its starting point and remained their for some duration until returning to its original departure location.

Visual Barriers 


The obvious solution to the foregoing issue is to install visual obstacles to prevent the casual observer from seeing the entire layout all at once regardless of from where they might view the railway.


Probably the most popular artifice is to construct a large mountain to hide the far side of the layout. Some modellers install a tunnel to  conceal a spiral “helix” track within the bowels of the mountain to  create a much-extended run before emerging through a portal the other side. Other ruses include a ‘hidden siding’ where the train simply stops for a brief respite on its journey before eventually continuing to its  ultimate destination and forests of trees to act as a visual barrier. Don’t worry too much about everything being perfectly to scale in this  situation. How tall is tree anyway?


You will probably find lots of other ingenious methods of achieving the same result in your further research so by all means explore (even smaller scale layouts) to see what might suit you best.



Many of you may be familiar with model “dioramas” where a particular scene is depicted by a three-dimensional representation where objects or models are artistically arranged in a natural setting against a

realistic background.


I would suggest that this is useful stratagem to adopt on a garden railway. Depending on the theme or nature of your layout you could replicate particular scenes reflecting a rural scene (say haymaking); a town or cityscape; a busy port; logging activity; or a mountain canyon setting, etc.


If these characteristic settings do not naturally sit alongside each other try to segregate them with discernible barriers such as rivers; roads; trees; and bridges to clearly separate each individual scene.


Creating False Perspectives 


We are playing more “mind games” here rather like a trompe l’oeil (a style of painting where the eye is deceived by creating an optical illusion). We have already mentioned using the available terrain to        incorporate grades (gradients) in your layout. There is a practical limit to the extent to which the track can rise and fall due to the inability of the locomotive to climb or descend such inclines.


However, there is nothing to prevent you from accentuating the impression of a train struggling up or down a relatively ‘easy’ gradient by making the surrounding terrain appear to rise and fall at the same time.

Extend the Length of the Line 


Another ploy to break up the journey somewhat is to lay the track in such a way as to meander along the route circumventing natural hazards and physical barriers along the way. On certain lines (especially narrow gauge and industrial lines) this can look more natural and inject a greater degree of realism.


I have already referred to “hidden sidings” and ascending and  descending "helix loops" which can also extend the apparent journey time to useful effect.


Realistic Speeds 


I fully acknowledge that when we were much younger the main aim of playing with a model railway set was to see how fast it would whizz round the track before flying off the curve at an alarming speed. Just as well no real passengers were involved.


Now that we are older, and hopefully more mature, it is wise to run our expensive locomotives at a realistic speed as close to the prototype as possible. With DCC and Radio control it is now possible to allow your engines to pick up momentum slowly from rest and decelerate when approaching a station, etc. accompanied by all manner of “bells and whistles”.


This is harder to achieve using conventional DC power controllers (but much easier to achieve using modern DCC techniques) but the slower you can drive your locomotive the longer it will take to go around the track and arrive at its destination. By installing progressive loops, it may even be possible to extend a 30 second journey to several minutes significantly improving the overall “watchability” of your layout.


Exploiting the Existing Topography 


Surveying the terrain is a vital pre-requisite to be completed before you even contemplate laying track and naturally follows on from your initial site inspection.


Take your time to inspect the chosen site carefully paying particular attention to any obstacles both natural (trees, shrubs) and man-made (fences, paths, garden ornaments, ponds) which may be present.


Unless your site is completely flat you need to plan how you will either follow the contours of your garden or undertake earth-works to reduce the high levels and conversely, build up lower sections, dips and troughs so as to ensure that your locomotives can successfully navigate the line.


In determining the best way to utilise the existing topography make sure that any ground-works (especially moving earth from one location to another) are kept to a minimum as this task can often involve  moving tons of heavy soil which is hard work (particularly if you suffer from a bad back)!


Existing slopes can often prove to be an advantage but try to identify and work with the prevailing levels rather than spending vast amounts of time and energy on massive groundworks.


Be aware of the natural drainage and prevailing wind direction appertaining to your chosen site as well as the movement of the sun (if we are likely to get any). Endeavour to circumvent potentially boggy areas and land liable to possible flooding for tunnels and excavated   cuttings. Also avoid siting ponds, harbours, etc. under tree-cover (especially deciduous varieties) where leaves and assorted debris might prove a problem in the future.  

When deciding where to locate tunnels, cuttings, embankments, bridges and viaducts, etc. use common sense to avoid impediments which cannot easily be re-positioned. Try to steer clear of obstructions and potential hazards such as overhanging trees, washing lines, concrete paths, etc.


Also ensure that you will have access to the track on any part of the line as any derailments, etc., are bound to happen in the most unreachable locations. 


If in doubt the old adage "keep it simple" is definitely the most appropriate course.


Surveying the Site 


There are various tried and tested methods for actually surveying the chosen site from the very basic techniques to the latest high-tech solution employing sophisticated modern lasers and measuring devices. Each approach has its place and there is no right or wrong way. Choose the method(s) of mapping the topography you feel most comfortable with.


  • Rough Sketch 


Since time immemorial it has always been common practice to start with a rough sketch showing the overall layout, existing structures and approximate elevations of your proposed garden site (See Diagram A). From a fixed datum point show the approximate length and width of the plot (measurements do not have to be exact at this stage – normally counting strides is sufficient – but try to get everything in proportion) and note the position of any physical obstructions. This will help you to visualise what you have to work with and plan accordingly. It is recommended that you use A4 size paper for this task, ideally secured to a clipboard to provide firm support.


In today’s increasingly hi-tech world there is also another way and this is to use the incredible powers of Google Earth. Download the app (its free) and just pop your postcode in the box provided and within a matter of seconds you can be viewing your local neighbourhood from a unique vantage up in the air. Use the zoom facility to home in and magnify your location. You can also use Google Maps if you encounter difficulty in positioning directly above your proposed plot. The scale is usually indicated on the map. You can even measure distances by right-clicking between two points. Print this off and use as your preliminary plan.



  • Preliminary Ground Plan   

Next, convert this initial rough sketch into a more accurate ground plan using more precise measurements. This is to establish not only the true dimensions of the plot but also the relative height above datum level.


More accurate measurements are probably best taken using a simple 'grid system' where the site is divided up into uniform squares (1m or 3' or similar). Then marker posts (small sharpened hard-wood stakes approx. 2" x 2" x 30”) are  hammered firmly into the ground spaced equidistantly apart at each intersection (See Diagram B) using a spirit level (on top of a length of timber if necessary) to make sure that the tops of the marker posts are all level.





Alternatively, especially if the layout is relatively simple, you can take measurements along the actual route of your line.


Either method will give you an idea as to where the ground is too shallow (and needs building up) or conversely too high and needs to be cut away. Soil excavated from the latter can be used to fill the former saving importation of more ‘dirt’.


The most difficult part is to calculate the differences in height at each junction marker. At this point the levels do not have to be that precise as any fine-tuning adjustments can be made when the roadbed is laid. You will need to establish a datum level from which all measurements are take - usually from the stake where the ground is at its lowest point.


You now have a number of ways of establishing any slopes (or grades) or undulations across the site designated for your layout. There are variants but the three most popular methods in ascending order of cost and complexity are as follows:


  • Line & Spirit Level (Mason’s Level)  

  • Employing a Water Level 


  • Laser Level 


 These are explained below:

  •    Mason’s Line & Spirit Level 


This approach involves stretching a non-degradable nylon

twine or braided cord (it helps if it is red or orange in colour)

across each dimensional line of markers from the first

marker to the final marker in the line. The line must be kept

very tight at all times and you will also need a ‘hanging’

torpedo style spirit level to attach to the line and regularly

check that it is sufficiently taut and level. 

(See Diagram C).



















                                                              Diagram C


Next mark where the line intersects with each stake in the row with an indelible marker pen. Continue to do this at each intersection across the entire site.


Then measure the distance between the ground and the mark on the stake – write this on the stake in inches or centimetres as appropriate.


When you have done this at every stake transfer these  measurements to you plan to generate an elevation map of all the respective ground heights. Major differences are not necessarily a problem but can be good indication of where to introduce grades (inclines) on your layout without moving too much ground material.

A variant to the grid system, providing that you already have a clear idea of the layout you plan to construct, is to insert the stakes along the actual route of your tracks. You can locate the marker stakes at the same interval as before (1m or 3’) or closer / further apart depending on the precision you feel appropriate. This way you could also create a 3D three dimensional view of your layout (more later in this Module).


For more detailed advice there is a website called “Levelpedia” (I kid you not) which explains everything you have ever wanted to know (and a lot more!) about levels of all sorts.



For info on Levels Generally:           



For specific info on Line Levels:       



  •    Employing a Water Level 

Another popular and well-publicised solutions alternative is to employ a simple device that has been around for many centuries (some say it dates back to the Ancient Egyptians but although they were responsible for an amazing number of inventions - especially to do with surveying - I was unable to find any evidence for this and it may have been discovered by the Greeks) called a “Water Level”.)


                                                           A water level is a simple low-tech device for establishing                                                             elevations at specific locations that are too far apart for a                                                             conventional spirit level to span and relies on the natural                                                             phenomenon that water will always find its own level.. It                                                               is sometimes more accurate than modern lasers over                                                                   longer distances.



You can purchase one ready-made from builders merchants, diy retail

stores and online or is relatively easy to make it yourself. The simplest

water level is made from a long section of clear tubing, largely filled

with water (you can use an ordinary garden hose provided you have

graduated sight tubes and vent caps firmly inserted at each end for

visibility and ensure there are no bubbles. If using glass tubes make

sure that they are unbreakable.)



The ends of the tube are held in a vertical position, with the rest of the tubing laid on the ground between the two elevations to be compared. The level of water at each end of the tube will always be at the same elevation, whether the two ends are adjacent or far apart, as water always finds its own level (due to the atmospheric pressure). 



You will find detailed instructions on how to build a Water Level at  Wikihow. The addition of car washer fluid and a few drops of washing up liquid can also act as an antifreeze and reduce surface tension. Colouring the water with food dyes also helps to view the level. Make sure that you don’t lose any water whilst moving around the site.


There are also a number of YouTube videos explaining how to build and use a Water Level but my favourite is from This Old House which conveniently demonstrates all three methods of establishing a level grade line. Use this link:   

First measure the height of both water levels at each end (either above or below the meniscus) using a yardstick or metre-rules on ground you know to be level. 


Both water levels should be exactly the same. If not identical check for bubbles in the tube.


Once again, starting at the lowest point, it is possible to use your water level in order to calculate the elevation of all the other points on the grid.


For the next step it helps considerably to have two people so that one can hold one end vertical (usually at the lowest point of the proposed line) whilst the other does the same at the far end where the incline or gradient is to be established.

Each end is then measured from the ground level upwards using millimetres or fractions of an inch according to which form of measurement you have chosen.

If you deduct one height from the other it will give you the increase in height or elevation from the initial marker to the secondary marker. For example if the first measurement reads 18.5 inches and the second reads 16.25 inches the overall slope from one to the other is 1.75 inches.  Similarly when using metric if the initial measurement is 323 mm and the next is 275 m the  increase in height is 48 mm.


Repeat the process around your plot either using the stakes already in place or you could also insert stakes along the actual line of the railway if you have a plan  already formulated.








  •    Laser Level 


At one time this professional high-tech solution would have been far too expensive for the majority of garden railway modellers but in recent years the cost of self-levelling laser devices has fallen considerably to around £50 making them a realistic option, especially if you envisage using one for other projects around the house. If you are a member of a local Garden Railway Club it is worth asking other members if they could either lend you a lase level Set or possibly club together to hire or buy one for all members to use.


It is desirable that the laser you choose for this task is capable of projecting a beam of high intensity light (rather than simply a spot) which is clearly visible in daylight conditions.


Many of today’s cross-line lasers are capable of working  at distances of up to 15m and even further if they are of the Receiver Detector type.


If you can rope in an assistant using a laser measure to calculate elevations can certainly help to speed things up once you have mastered the technology. If you do not possess a technological aptitude most people are content to do it the traditional and more primitive way.


Whatever method you use when you have completed your measurements transpose these to a large sheet of A4 or A3 size graph paper using a suitable scale e.g. 1 cm to 30 cm, to make a more accurate site drawing.


  •   A 3D Plan 


Many people (and I am one of them) find it difficult to envisage layout designs that are only in their minds.   Others experience difficulty in converting these thoughts into to two-dimensional drawings. Making accurate  drawings can also be a very time-consuming process if you are lacking the necessary skills.

Some Track Planning Software has an option to view your finished design in 3D but to be honest I have never been able to reproduce a three-dimensional plan that looked realistic.


An alternative approach, advocated by garden railway expert Jack Verducci, or indeed complementary technique if you feel insecure dispensing with the paper method altogether, is



It is certainly a down-to-earth way of visualising your layout in three-dimensions, even before laying any track , and is fully described by Jack Verducci in his excellent book "How to Design & Build Your Garden Railway" (Published by Kalmbach - ISBN-13: 978-0-89024-644-3) which is packed full of practical advice and recommended reading.


You may conclude that this is a lot of trouble to go to but in the long run it is probably a worthwhile investment of your time and energy





    This is only a brief look at the options available but do your own research and decide what works  best          for you.





If you happen to already have a scaled up track layout

plan you can always mark this out on the ground  using

a can of fluorescent paint (an environmentally friendly

brand if possible.) This will give you a rough idea as to

whether your ideas are practical in the space available

and if the  proposed curved radii look right and are


               Grades or Inclines 

Then overlay the proposed line and establish where the adjustments to the surface have to be made in order to achieve the required elevations. Do not make the easy mistake of making your grades too steep as this may severely limit the length of train that can negotiate the line.

When building real railways inclines are kept to the absolute minimum and rarely above 2% on mainline tracks.


They don't have to be perfectly level but bear in mind that on inclines a steady grade of 1% is desirable i.e. 1' in a 100'; 10 mm in 1000 mm,  so that your locomotive can pull a reasonable number of cars or wagons without undue exertion.


You can increase this slope to 2% - 3% if you have to providing the incremental rise is steady (or even 4% if you are prepared to "double-head" your trains or use a more powerful locomotive for that stretch of line) but bear in mind that, as a general rule, for each 1% increase in the steepness of the gradient the potential length of train     reduces dramatically by around 50%. So for a train comprising a locomotive pulling 8 wagons on the level you could only run the same loco and 4 wagons on a grade of 1% and as few as 2 wagons on a 2% incline. Food for thought and possibly why some enthusiasts go for dead-flat layouts!

This topic will be covered at length in a later Module.





When determining the height and width of the track on your layout make sure that there is adequate clearance in tunnels or overlapping track for any locomotive or rolling stock you might wish to run, either now or at some point in the future.


You can measure this nominal minimum clearance by adding around 2-3 inches to the height and width of the largest piece of equipment you currently possess taking account of the height of the ballast and track. If you plan to use tight radius curves you may need to increase this further to allow for projecting stock overhang.


However, if there is any prospect of you wanting to operate a larger locomotive say, at some time in the future I would research the market and see if you can ascertain the dimensions of the largest product available in the scale you are planning to follow.

Once again this subject will be expanded upon in a later Module.

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Railway Tracks
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