Saturday, June 5, 2010

We've got a railroad! Preparing the First Stretch

I naturally chose the hottest day of the year to lay the first track on the Ponderosa Lines. It topped 90 degrees today, a rare occasion for our 7,000-foot elevation. And the reverse loop materialized as the sun blistered down in the early afternoon. I knew this wasn't logical, except this was the next step that I couldn't resist! The raised dirt "shelf" was ready, I had track sitting in the house, and a pile of ballast (quarter-minus stone) was sitting in the driveway. Of course I was going to try my hand at some track work. We had more "screened fill" dumped in our front yard yesterday, along with the aforementioned track ballast, technically referred to as "Apache-pink quarter minus". This is what we have in Flagstaff - pink ballast. Who would have thought? Oh well, the stuff will make for a unique right-of-way. Now that I've seen it in "true color" with track embedded into it, however, it seems to fit in well with our subtle gray and brown soil tones around here. The truck driver tried not to stir it up much in the delivery, as I asked to have the fill dirt and ballast placed in the same load. Less expensive that way, considering the delivery charge surpassed the cost of the actual dirt and stone. Once I convinced the company that I wouldn't sue if the dirt mixed a bit with the stone, they said "ok, we'll try it". Overall it sorted out pretty well - the dirt is less dense and is therfore lighter than the quarter minus, which I believe is crushed granite. Being the talented driver he is, Joe gently nudged his truck and arked the load just right so that the ballast "waited" to exit the truck until the dirt was already on the ground (at least it seemed that way). That made up for his thorough crushing of our retaining rock wall with the back two axles of the truck. Oops. Some work to do out front, I suppose. For now, the twin tire tracks up and over the wall are amusing at best.

I digress. Here is the story of laying the first G-scale track of our lives, along with the process I used. Around noon time, the whole track-laying approach was nothing more than theory in my head. I had read instructions, arguments, web sites, forums, and spied on three or four G-scale railroads myself in the past year. I had decided how to do it, and to take my chances with the chosen method. By early afternoon, to our delight, we had an operating railroad (see next post please). After that it was nap time, satisfied that the magic ballast had actually performed well and turned to veritable cement. I hadn't believed it, but it happened. Throw a little water on that stuff, and "poof"! That track isn't going anywhere. Time will tell how amazing it really is, our wonderful Apache Pink.

Frost Heaving in northern Arizona?
My biggest concern was with the potential for washouts and, especially, frost heaving. Forum posts and blogs have clearly revealed the horrors of frost heaving in colder climates, for those of us not forutnate enough to be in southern California or equivalent. Track torn up, ballast washed away, annual efforts to reset the entire railway as previously buried rocks shoved the track upward religiously every spring. No thanks. Is this worth it? I asked a local meteorologist friend last week about whether we could expect heaving problems, as part of me suspected that we don't. Because of our extreme diurnal (daily) temperature fluctuations, it generally warms up each day to prevent the continuous buildup of soil ice. Even in January, it can be 5 degrees F. at 6:30am but warm up to 50 by 3pm if the sun is out. Snow storms are rare, and so are deep freezes. The answer, by the way, to the question about frost heaving in Flagstaff was "it depends". Lately, our drought conditions and general warming trend have prevented much frost, though it can occur in localized pockets of cool, poorly drained soils. One more definitive answer came with an email from a local friend who is about a year ahead of me with his own G-scale railroad, in a similar forested environment here in town. The news was stunning. He "went outside, cleaned off the track, and ran trains". No problems whatsoever, and the railroad survived our above-average snowfall this winter. I was overjoyed to learn this, as I was about to embark on my own adventure with "floating" my own track in ballast, without much trenching due to the packed "hard-pan" ground. Even more assured now, it was time to lay track and "git-er-done".

The Railroad Building Process
To recall, I have chosen to "float" my track in ballast, using quarter-minus roadbed and ballast material. The blazing sun and heat did hold an advantage for this method - the rail certainly was expanded to the maximum extent due to the sun, to the point where I could not touch the rails without burning my fragile fingers! I hadn't counted on that, but this stuff gets hot! Had to wear gloves just to handle it. With the track expanded like this, I could join the track as tight as possible (like HO-scale, I imagine) and it would only shrink when it cooled down. In the HO world, this is important, as it is common to find your well-laid track totally crumpled up on itself after the rails expand too much in a heated building. Not fun. Tried to prevent it here. The most significant potential problem here at 7,000 feet is not necessarily the driving rains (rare), snow (it just sits there), or frost heaving (hopefully). It's the diurnal temperature cycle and the remarkable freeze-thaw process that we get here for 10 months out of the year. The track will need to expand and contract daily and hourly, so Linda and I vowed to not cement in ANYTHING in our yard. Everything needs to remain flexible to account for freeze-thaw. Thus, floating the track in uncemented ballast made the most sense. We'll see how it goes.

STEP 1: Testing the track layout for placement

I was starting with the most difficult track-laying project of the railroad - the reverse loop with multiple turnouts. If I could "make it here," as the song goes, I could "make (railroad) anywhere". The main line would certainly be less complicated. It was therefore necessary to lay out the track pieces and try to fit them together like a puzzle. This required a good half hour and some patience - and numerous trips to the garage to find yet another curved or straight piece of a specific length or radius. G-scale track is fortunately forgiving, however, so it is possible to "bend" pieces around to make things fit if it's not too far out of whack (such as allowing for slight kinks at joints). The photo above was the "test fit" stage, hoping the reality would play out ok (it did).

Step 2: Mark the right-of-way and drop some ballast (quarter-minus crushed granite).

I decided not to "trench" because we really don't get much rain here, which is the typical concern with ballast washing away in wetter climates. Instead of trenching, I laid a 1-2 inch layer of ballast on top of the packed fill dirt, and will later add another layer of fill dirt around the right-of-way, to help contain the ballast. I don't need my track to be elevated much anyway, as one would not expect to see that much on the narrow-gauge routes of the Southwest. I prefer the appearance of having the track blend in with the surroundings rather than the "highly manicured" approach.

Step 3: Place the track and level it (or, "Fuss" with it until you're happy)

This process was easier than I had anticipated. Once I had the track joined together in an acceptable fashion, it was time to level it out. I used a 2-foot long plastic level that can be bought at any hardward outlet to make sure there were no major dips or elevation changes from one piece to the next. If part of the track was too high, I simply shook it gently back and forth until it naturally dug further down into the roadbed. If track was too low, as was much of the reverse loop curve, I added more ballast on top, pulled the track upward an inch or so, and let the ballast fall underneath. This "fussing with the track" process took some patience but not a lot of time until I was satisfied with the final placement.

Step 4: Add more ballast on top and smooth it out. (No photo, sorry!)
After dumping more ballast onto the track itself (looks like a mess, no doubt), I took a stiff broom (about a foot wide, in my case) and gently moved down the track to even out the ballast and fill in any remaining holes. This was basically a grander version of HO scale when using a toothbrush to smooth the ballast before gluing. The process went very quickly, though I was careful not to get ballast too close to the turnout points, while removing larger pebbles from inside the flangeways. Dirt occasionally caked up (the "minus" part of the quarter minus) inside the rails, so I loosened that as well. It really started to appear like a real railroad after this!

Step 5: Just add water!

 Because I didn't want the railroad to turn into a source for blowing dust (plenty of that around here in the spring), the final ingredient to the process was water. I grabbed the hose and gently gave the entire railroad a good soaking. I used the "shower" option on the nozzle, allowing for a gentle "rain" to fall evenly across the tracks, moving back and forth and being careful not to drown it. This is the key to the entire process. The smaller particles lodge down into the larger ones, creating a veritable cement, though not as strong. I was amazed myself. Only 10 minutes after watering, the track would not move without a lot of force. I kept testing it through the afternoon because part of me still didn't believe it. This track wasn't going anywhere, and neither was the ballast. My final step, sometime before we get rains in July, is to place a layer of fill dirt (and eventually mulch) on either side of the right-of-way to help contain the ballast to help prevent runoff. For me, this is the opposite of trenching, which is not an easy option for most of this layout. (Thanks to Linda for helping to capture the action today in the form of photos, some of which are shared within this posting.)

At the risk of burning my fingers, I occasionally tried gently to move the track after the ballast was nearly dry. The track was locked in tight, and I kept mumbling to Linda that what I had read was actually true! Sometimes it works that way. I will be curious to determine the level of maintenance and upkeep as the year progresses.

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