|North Pacific Coast Railroad
|Building the North Pacific Coast Railroad
by Ken Stanfield
|Troy, Jon and Greg ride behind a GP-40
When I set out to build the NPCRR, I had no experience building in 7.5 inch gauge. I
listened, I talked, I read, I visited – but no one could give me a simple way to easily,
accurately and cheaply assemble track panels. So I developed my own way and here
it is. Keep the ideas you like, discard the rest.
First I set some standards for the NPCRR.
- 2.5 inch scale for my equipment
- 7.5 inch nominal gauge – 7.625 inches actual
- 2.5 ties per foot – 16 inches long
- 25 foot minimum radius to fit the property
- Maximum grade of 3%
- Number 6 switch frogs to match the minimum radius
- Manually operated spring switches
Trex composite decking, my choice for ties, is widely available in a nominal two inch
thickness. I found a business that buys surplus supplies from contractors then resell
the material to the public. I was able to purchase Trex for about half the retail price.
Ask the local lumber yard and contractors that use Trex – you may be able to buy
excess, damaged or discolored material from them at less than retail prices. My first
track panels went down in September 2003. The ties, cut from 2x6 Trex, are still in
place, unaffected by cold, heat or our 50+ inches of annual rainfall.
Do not use Trex that measures 1.55x1.55 inches – It is advertised as
baluster material. It does not stand up to ground contact and the
weather. I had to replace all of this size material after a couple of
years exposure. There is a 1.75x1.75 inch material (no longer listed in
their catalog) that works well that I use for switch stand ties.
Ties 1 & 2 are standard ties (approx. 1.75x1.55 inches) cut from 2x6
decking. Tie 3 is 1.75x1.75 inches and holds up well. Tie 4 is a
1.55x1.55 inch baluster material and fails in a couple of years. I have
not tried 5/4 decking material for ties.
If you look closely at my photos you will noticed that the tie colors don’t match.
There are light ones, dark ones and other ones. I bought what the supplier had without
regard to color. In the end, the trains don’t know the difference. 2x4s and 2x6s were
cut to length on a miter saw then ripped on the table saw into ties. Composite
material is tough on blades. The Trex Company recommends using fewer teeth on a
carbide blade for best results. I keep a couple of inexpensive blades on hand just for
cutting ties. Trex is a trademark of the Trex Company, Inc.
While 14 inches is more common for tie length, I chose a 16 inch tie for two reasons.
First, I wanted a narrow gauge look to the track – longer ties spaced farther apart.
Second, there is less waste of material – 16 inches is a common home construction
dimension that yields 27 ties from a 12 foot 2x6. At 25 ties per 10 foot panel, that
leaves two extra ties. There are 30 ties 14 inches long in the same 12 foot 2x6. Most
standard gauge modelers use 30 ties per 10 foot panel and therefore use more material
than I did. Either way, for planning purposes, each 10 foot track panel needs 12 feet
of 2x6 material for ties. Neither 14 or 16 inches is a scale tie but they are functional
and will have the right “look”.
I built a 10 foot by 32 inch assembly table from 2x4s and a sheet of ½ inch OSB
(plywood also works). It is 10 feet long because the track panels are also 10 feet. It
is 32 inches wide because that is twice the tie width and will handle the longest
switch tie. There are ¾ inch raised sides on one end and both sides. This table needs
to be sturdy as it will take a lot of abuse before you are finished. Use a pair of
sawhorses for legs to bring the top to a good working height.
My assembly table sits on top of a hydraulic
lift table with a 1000 pound capacity. The
lift table is also a work stand for my
equipment and a lift device for loading and
unloading equipment from vehicles. It has
been fitted with lockable 4 inch casters to
ease movement. You can find the basic
table advertised as a motorcycle stand.
The next step was to develop a way to space the ties and temporarily secure them
during panel construction. I cut 3 inch squares of ½ inch material to uses as spacers –
two for each tie. To determine the size of the square that you need, take the ties
(usually 25 or 30) you are going to use per 10 foot track panel and line them up on the
table in direct contact with each other. Measure the remaining table length. Divide
that length by the number of ties and round down to the nearest 1/8th inch. That will
be the size of your squares (about 3” for 25 ties or 2 ½” for 30 ties). Set your table
saw fence and cut strips of material. Then without changing the fence run the material
through again to cut squares. You will need a minimum of 50 or 60. Make plenty just
in case you misplace some. It takes approximately four square feet of material to
make spacer squares.
With some scrap material, cut one or two T blocks that will help locate the rail from
the edge of the ties. The exact size will vary depending of both tie length and ties per
panel. Full size patterns for the two most common sizes are shown here.
There is one more preparation step to complete. By now you have decided on a
minimum radius for your railroad – right? Using the cutoff material from the assembly
table and a long measuring tape, draw an arc on the board that is one half the tie
length (7” or 8”) shorter than your minimum radius. This puts your minimum radius at
the centerline – add 3 ½ inches to put it on the inside rail. Try to cut smoothly and
cleanly on the line. You must have at least this one template. Other radii may be
useful as you construct your railroad so cut additional templates as you need them.
Example: 25’ minimum radius with 16” ties –
An arc of 24’ 4” for 25' radius at centerline
An arc of 24’ 7 ½” for 25' radius at inside rail
What I (and most others) use for spikes are zinc coated #8 one inch Phillips modified
truss head sharp point screws. The screws are available in one pound boxes at the
home improvement stores or they will special order a case for you. Just take a box to
the special order desk and ask for a case. By the case, the cost is less than 1 cent
each. I can assemble over 60 panels from one case. The heads of these screws will
eventually rust, and some will “pop off” in time. To reduce “pop off”, you want the
heads snug against the rail but not tight. A drill motor with an adjustable clutch can
help prevent over tightening of the screws.
Not all Phillips driving bits are created equal. With these screws, some #2 Phillips
bits work better than others . Buy a couple of different brands or styles to find the
one that works best for you. I also like a short magnetic extension to hold the bit and
screw. This keeps the chuck away from the rail head and allows my left hand to hold
the rail instead of the screw.
Keep in mind that with over a hundred screws per panel, a drill motor can get hot and
heavy. I purchased a light weight, inexpensive variable speed reversible corded drill
just for spiking track. 140 track panels and 13 switches later, it was worn out but my
Finally, we are ready to assemble a track panel. Lay out your ties on the table with
two spacer squares between each one. The first tie goes against the table edge at the
closed end. Secure the last tie on the open end with a clamp or spacers with screws.
All ties should be tight up against the outside lip.
Using the T block, position a rail on the ties with the rail end at the mid point of the
width of the end tie. Secure the rail to the first full tie. The screws should be put in
at a slight angle away from the head of the rail. Do not snug the screws down too
tight – the foot of the rail will squirt out from under it. When this happens, just back
the screw part way out, push the rail under and try again. With just a little practice
you will get it right almost every time. In the photo below, I am securing every third
or fourth tie on the first pass. On the second pass I put in the rest of the screws.
Spiking is one of the few operations that has a right way and a wrong way. The spike
pattern should match the photo below (or its mirror image) The screws must be
offset on each side of the rail and be opposite each other between the rails. This
spike pattern is very important, as it will prevent the panel from folding or racking
when you move it. I also use a pattern of three screws on the first tie of each end to
further stabilize the panel during transport.
Once the first rail is spiked to every tie, position the second rail using gauging bars.
I purchased a set of three 7 5/8 inch metal gauging bars and made a number of wood
bars. The metal bars are for spiking and the wood bars for temporary placement.
Lay out ties Spike first rail Layout second rail Spike second rail
Three is the right number of bars to use for spiking. When working the second rail,
start at one end and spike every tie as you work toward the other end. Set one bar at
the start of the rail, the second between the 1st and 2nd tie and the third between the
3rd and 4th ties. At each tie in turn, spike the inside of the rail then the outside. If
the gauge is going to shift slightly, it is better for it to shift out rather than in. When
you have finished the 3rd tie, shift only the first two bars down the track to ties 5-6
and ties 7-8. Continue spiking, shifting 2 bars each time until you come to the last
tie. Treat the last tie as you did the first, with a bar on each side when you spike it.
You have completed a straight track panel. With a little practice you can assemble a
straight panel in 10 to 15 minutes. Go ahead and build several before you tackle a
section of curved track.
Now you know all of the basics and it is just a matter of adapting them to curved
panels. First, I strongly recommend that you prebend your curved rail before you
assemble a panel. Straight panels can not be bent in the field to a smooth curve – you
will always have kinks and flat spots. I bent the rail on my entire railroad by hand,
using the curved template that we made earlier as a pattern.
A rail bender is handy to have but not a “must have” item. To bend the rail by hand, I
mounted three fulcrums to the side of my assembly table. They were spaced six
inches and twelve inches apart. While mine are turned metal, three large bolts
wrapped with duct tape could do the same job.
By inserting the rail between two of the fulcrums, the rail can be levered down to
create a curved rail. You have to work the rail over its entire length, bending it in
segments a little at a time. By feeding the rail in and levering down every few inches
you can work a curve into the rail. Use the template to check the smoothness of the
curve. The first six inches at each end are the most difficult and most critical to
bend. The biggest problem with curved panels is the short “flat spot” that tends to
occur at rail joints. Two rails bent to the template curve will work well when spiked
– don’t worry about the radius difference between an outside and inside rail.
Now that we have bent rails, we can proceed with the assembly of the curved panel.
Place the curved template against one side of the assembly table. Put a spacer square
in first against the template and back edge. Add a tie, then one spacer square then
another tie. Continue this all along the template until the ties resemble wagon
spokes. Remove any slack and secure the last tie with spacer and clamp or screw.
From here on just duplicate the operations for assembling a straight section. Using
the T block, secure the inside rail at every third or fourth tie; work back spiking all
ties; use the gauges to position the outside rail; starting at one end spike each tie
moving the bars as you go. Because there is a difference between the inside and
outside rail radius, the inside rail will be too long. I found that it was difficult to cut
this rail in the shop and get a good joint in the field. Cut the inside rail during
installation on the right-of-way.
That is the basics of straight and curved panels. But what if a compound panel that is
parts straight and part curve is needed? Lay track panels up to the point where you
need the compound panel. Bend your rails until they fit the area you need. Take them
out to the right-of-way and lay them down. Prebend more than one panel if needed to
visualize the results. Haul a finished panel out and leave a gap if it helps. The wood
gauges are used to hold the rails in position to verify the alignment. The panels can
be adjusted a couple of inches to either side during installation but it helps to be
Back to the shop to build the compound panel. Start with whichever end is longer –
straight or curved. Set up the curve with the straight section toward the open end of
the table. Set up the straight with the curve to the center of the table. Spike that
section of track as before. Finish both sides of either the curve or straight then swap
the panel around and set it up to do the other portion. That was easy.
Another little twist is constructing a curved panel for which you do not have a
template. No problem. Start by bending the rails to the curve you want. The radius
is usually verified with field tests similar to the compound panel. Once you have the
first rail bent, it can be the pattern for as many as you need. Next question, is there a
template close to this radius (larger or smaller) or is it closest to a straight section.
Pick one and set up the assembly table to accommodate it. Take the first rail and
spike it to the ties the normal way. This will mean that you have to force the rail into
position (either more or less radius) – just do it. Clamp the second rail down
(without bending) to hold the ties against the table if needed. Once the first rail is
spiked, release the ties from their lock position. Shove the rail and ties away from
the template or side wall. Clamp one end to the table; leave the other end loose.
Using the second rail as a template, gently bend the first spiked rail and ties into
conformity with the second rail. Once positioned, clamp the lose end of the first rail
and ties to the table. Now proceed to spike the second rail into position as before.
Some hand adjustments to the tie spacing may be required as you progress. The
result will be very close to the desired radius and can be field adjusted to fix.
Cost of material for building one track panel
1. 2 aluminum rails – 10 feet long $10.00 each $20.00
2. 25 composite wood ties $ .50 each $12.50
3. 104 screws $ .01 each $ 1.00
4. 2 rail joiners $ .50 each $ 1.00
Total cost for one 10 feet panel – less than $35.00
or about $3.50 per foot.
There you have it. This is my solution to building track panels. My first panels
were installed in September 2003 and continue to provide excellent low
For private use only – all rights reserved 2007
If you attempt a project like this, you are responsible for calculating the
load handling ability of your track. Failure of a track panel can result in
injury or death. The author and this website are not responsible for
checking your calculations or workmanship
One of the things that I noticed as I visited other railroads, was the amount of
maintenance that goes into the track. While realignment and ballast replacement are
important issues, by far the largest maintenance item was tie replacement. Because I
am basically a lazy person – I don’t like to redo a job when I can do it right the first
time – I decided to use composite wood ties. Yes, it may have cost more initially, but
in the long run this decision is going to keep me off my knees and behind my engine.
I'm not getting any younger. Are you?