Building the Little Railroad

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Building the Little Railroad

The North American Live Steamer, Volume 1 Number 11

by Frank H. Moore, Jr.

(The author has participated in the building of the Paoli, Leopard and Sugartown Railroad of the Pennsylvania Live Steamers from the start of construction, and this article is based on that experience. Nevertheless, the opinions expressed are the author's own, and are not an official pronouncement of the Pennsylvania Live Steamers.)


For the small railroad, the nature of the track of land available dictates, to a large extent, the layout of the track. The site available for the Paoli, Lopard and Sugartown borders upon a secondary highway which carries little traffic. From this, the land slopes upward for about 200 feet to a low ridge, then drops off on the other side of the ridge. The alternatives considered were a loop near the road, and a loop farther back from the road. The first made possible a level loop, the side near the road being about two feet above the ground, with the engine terminals on this side. It was fondly imagined that such members of the public as were interested would stand outside the fence and watch firing up. (How naive!) ON the other hand, a level loop could be built around the ridge, with the track above the ground on both side, or a loop could be built on the opposite side of the ridge from the road. The last, however, would have entailed more excavation, and more difficult excavation due to the presence of many glacial boulders, ranging in size up to that of a very large desk. In favor of the back location, all would have been hidden from the road, and perhaps much of the public would not have known of the existence of the railroad.

The plan adopted was the first. On a Sunday afternoon, when engines are operating cars have been parked for the length of the adjacent field, while their drivers paraded over the railroad as though they owned it. Occasionally, some idiot drives past at too great a speed, creating a traffic hazard. The owner of the property, one of our own members, to reduce this danger, has made a part of the adjacent field available for parking by the public.

There is also the possibility that a fence rail may break under the weight of people perched thereon. To alleviate this, we have planted roses along the fence, as barbed wire is verboten along the road.

Another factor which was not properly considered when the line was located is the matter of cutting grass. Before the construction of the railroad, the grass grew long, as in a hayfield, and the cuts and fillers were originally seeded with sweepings from the hayloft. AS time went on, however, it became necessary to mow the grass like a lawn. The vast majority of the tract is taken care of by the forces of our good landlord, but the part abutting upon the track and engine terminals, which cannot be reached by the power mower, must be taken care of by the club. Therefore, the ground around the engine terminal has been covered by broken stone and salted and oiled to prevent the growth of grass. The track has also been oiled for the same reason.

It would be very interesting to have a report of the experiences of other clubs in handling the public, care of the grass, and other matters. The consensus of opinion of the members of the Pennsylvania Live Steamers is that the place for a railroad is back from the road, away from the public, and preferably in a shady place.

The Nature of the Layout

A little railroad must be planned for the purpose intended. Personally, I regard the purpose of any railroad, from H00 to 4 foot 8-1/2 inch or even 7 foot 1/4 inch, as to afford a place to operate locomotives. A club railroad should have capacity for the maximum number of locomotives, in proportion to the expenditure of effort for its construction. This dictates a loop, since any layout requiring the throwing of switches, or the reversing of the locomotives, will reduce the possible frequency of trains, and number of locomotives which can be operated simultaneously.

Further, I think that one of the most interesting functions of a railroad is the testing of locomotives. This can be most satisfactorily done on a loop. It is worthless to read that Joe Doe's engine pulled five people up the grade of the Madagascar Live Steamers line; how do you compare it with yours? Does everybody have to build a grade of this percentage? Yes, I know that you can multiply the weight by the percent grade to get the grade resistance, but it still is not as good, especially in dealing with locomotives of vastly different sizes, as a level test. Further, on any line other than a loop you cannot have a continuous test. In Germany, the big locomotives are tested by placing a dead locomotive behind the dynamometer car to compress air, and in England a similar effect is obtained with an electric loading car, but who wants to do this with our little fellows?

A level line also permits the operation of smaller locomotives and the pulling of more load by the big ones. The initial loop of the Paoli, Leopard and Sugartown is, therefore, level, and is the ideal arrangement.

Arrangement of Gauges

When the Paoli, Leopard and Sugartown was first planned, there were locomotives available for immediate operation in 2-1/2 inch and 3-1/2 inch gauges. Before construction began, several members indicated an interest in 4-3/4 inch gauge, and it was decided to incorporate these three gauges. To get the possibility of operating the most locomotives for a given expenditure of effort, and as quickly as possible, all of these gauges were placed in a single track. We were using second hand ties from a 7-1/2 inch gauge railroad, so it was decided to lay the three gauges side by side, not one within the other, as this gave a better scale appearance in proportion to the ties. This had two great disadvantages. First, the two inside rails of the four are common to two gauges, and the inside of the three gauges cannot be gauged without disturbing one of the other gauges. Secondly, these two rails are traversed by flanges on both sides, which means that frogs must be special. ON the other hand, an advantage is that on no gauge do the rods or injector overflows come over the rail of another gauge to drip oil or water on it.

On the Paoli, Leopard and Sugartown, there are two engine terminals. One, inside the loop, serves only the 2-1/2 inch and 3-17/32 inch gauges; the other, outside the lop, serves only the 4-3/4 inch gauge. AS the 4-3/4 inch track is on the outside of the loop on the main, its sidings leave the main loop by conventional frogs and split switches. The sidings to the 2-1/2 inch and 3-17/32 inch engine terminal leave the main by stub switches and special frogs.

The arrangement of gauges, on a multiple gauge railroad, should have only one common rail, and all gauges should be set off from it. If two engine terminals are provided, one on each side of the main, the gauges on the main should be placed on both sides of the common rail, in such a way that each gauge is restricted to that side of the common rail on which is its own engine terminal. This makes it unnecessary for the common rail to be crossed by any other rail, and all frogs will be conventional.


For a railroad of the size of the Paoli, Loepard and Sugartown, the easiest way to lay out a tangent is to stretch a string between two stakes, and the easiest way to lay out a curve is to swing an arch of a circle, using a steel tape or wire as a compass. When this is done, the tension on the tape or wire must be kept as constant as possible, to avoid stretching, and the tape must be kept horizontal, to avoid shortening the radius.

Figure 1

Where a building or other obstruction prevents swinging an arc with a compass, the methods used in layout of the big railroads are handy. I recommend a study of "Field and Office Tables", and the accompanying text "Railroad Curves and Earthwork" by C. Frank Allen. Briefly, on the big railroads, the sharpness of a curve is measured by the degree. The degree of a curve is defined as the angle at the center subtended by a chord 100 feet long. (See Figure 1) This practice is arranged to make things as easy as possible. All you have to do is to set up the transit at the point of curvature (PC), and lay off successive angles of 1/2D, D, 1-1/2D, 2D, 2-1/2D, etc. At the same time, the chainmen cut these angles with the successive 100 fort chords. These curves are too large for the Paoli, Loepard and Sugartown, so we scaled one down, and used the same procedure with ten foot chords, on the hill track where the club house intervened.

Figure 2

A curve must be superelevated, and, if an arc of a circle meets the tangent, the outside rail should theoretically suddenly jump up a distance of as much as six or eight inches, on the big railroads. To avoid this, the foreman, O'Sullivan, may pull in the track toward the center, at the point of curvature, as in Figure 2. The curve then begins at B instead of at PC, and a gradual transition from tangent to curve is obtained. Sometimes this freehand, or O'Sullivan' spiral, is smoothed by having a locomotive run over it a few times before the ballast is placed between or at the ends of the ties. It will be seen, however, that if this kind of transition is used, there will be a point C, along the curve, where curve will be sharper than would be the case if no transition were used.

Figure 3

A better way to obtain a transition is to pull the whole curve in the direction of the center, as in Figure 3. Here again, big railroad practice is adapted to make things easy for the layout in the field. The AAR spiral approximates the cubic spiral. (x equals ks3) and may be laid out by means of a transit set up at the beginning of the spiral and a pair of chainmen, who lay off ten points on the spiral by equal chords. Since the engineers of the Paoli, Lopard and Sugartown did not always have a transit handy, the spirals were laid out by offsets from tangent, using the easy tables in Allen's book, and scaling down to suit our purposes. These curves are not used universally by the big railroads, so do not be surprised if somebody tells you that the XYZ does use them. They are used by all. The four transitions of the PL&S were laid out in the manner described, but as this was about eight years ago, I do not know how closely they approximate them now.

Another curve which is very handy is the parabola, (y equals kx2). If you cannot swing an arc of a circle, this is the easiest curve of all to calculate and lay out, without tables. It can be used for alignments, but is handiest for vertical curves, where to grades meet at the top of a hill or the bottom of a sag.

I have been told that the HO railroad in the Wilmington, Delaware, Pennsylvania station laid out transition curves by unwinding a string from around a wastebasket. This gives an involute curve. Personally, I cannot see where it would be particularly useful for railroads such as ours. It is the curve used for almost all gear teeth, and, if anybody wants to investigate it, see "Spur Gears", by Earle Bucking ham, Chapter III. This gives a good discussion of the curve, including a table of the involute function, which is defined as the tangent of an angle minus the angle itself (expressed in radians).

General Construction

The Pennsylvania Live Steamers originally considered various types of construction of the railroad. Personally, I belonged to the faction which favored building an elevated structure, as I believed that riding would be easier if the legs could hang down, as in riding a horse. I am very happy to report, however, that it was decided to build the line on the ground, using the same methods of track construction which are used by the nearest neighboring outdoor railroads, the Pennsylvania, Reading, and Philadelphia and Western. This avoided buying lumber for a structure at a time when wood was scarce and expensive, avoided complications at turnouts, gives a very fine roadbed which can easily be surfaced and leveled, and gives a fine scale appearance. As to riding on the ground, I am so convinced of the ease of riding a 2-1/2 inch gauge flat car that I am planning to build a rider car for my son's 2-1/8 inch (Standard) gauge railroad. For anybody building a live steam railroad I unhesitatingly recommend the construction which the big railroads have found most successful.


The level loop of the Paoli, Leopard and Sugartown involves maximum cuts and fills of about 20 inches. Originally, these were made with comparatively steep slopes, not flatter than 1-1/2 on 1. When the problem of grass mowing arose, these slopes were flattened considerably, to permit operation of a power mower. For the excavation, Ken Sousser, our good landlord, brought out his new tractor with scoop, and we had real power earth moving machinery. For an extension now in progress, Ken bought a new tractor, and Willard Small borrowed a baby bulldozer, so that we had two pieces of power equipment. The excavation for the original loop was almost entirely loose soil, but on the present extension, we encountered many large boulders, ranging in size up to that of a large desk, which were moved by the bulldozer and jacks. The machinery takes care of about 95% of the total yardage moved, but there is still plenty of trimming to be done by pick and shovel and wheel barrow.

It was originally thought that ditches would be required in the cuts, and ditch parallel to the track on the uphill side, was planned, but experience has shown that water is no problem, as it soaks into the soil rapidly enough to cause no damage. However, this might not be the case in all types of soil.

Underground Power Tubes

Copper tubing is laid underground from the clubhouse to the two enginehouses for compressed air. We were too lazy to dig to a great depth, and it is probably about six inches under the surface.


Several culverts were installed. One, of cast iron pipe, was laid alongside of the track at the one grade crossing. This was removed at the time of a slight realignment. Another, of terra cotta sewer pipe, was placed at the point where the ground was lowest; that is, at the highest point of the fill. There is no visible indication that water has run through it. On the present track expansion, a culvert would theoretically be provided at the lowest point of the ground inside the new loop, but as an experiment, we are leaving it out. Obviously, such procedures are dependent on a very great absorbing power of the soil.

Bridges and Elevated Structures

The only bridge or trestle structures on the Paoli, Leopard and Sugartown are the engine terminals. These are supported on posts cut from old telephone poles, set about two feet in the ground. Longitudinal stringers, of 2 by 8 inch wood are bolted to the posts, one on each side, and the ties nailed onto these stringers. This construction is very substantial. These structures were built about eight years ago, and no difficulty has been experienced. The old telephone poles had been pressure creosoted originally and we painted them with creosote before setting them. The stringers were also painted with creosote.

These arrangements are entirely satisfactory in every respect as far as performance is concerned, but some of the members of the club feel that, on future extensions it would be nice to have a scale trestle, like those of the Ahwanee Railroad of California. Other members feel that this would not be sufficiently substantial in a climate such as ours. However, the baby bulldozer and Ken Sousser's new tractor and scoop made earthwork so easy that we are again using plain fills. It would be interesting to learn of the experience of other clubs with scale trestle structures, particularly in latitudes subject to freezing.


The ties used on the original loop were acquired when the Pennsylvania Live Steamers bought the 7-1/2 inch gauge track of the railroad of Mr. Bois Penrose, principally for the rail. They are of cyprus, and most of them were in pretty good condition. We dipped them in creosote before using them, and most of them are still in good shape. They are 2 by 3 inches, and are laid with the 3 inch dimension vertical, spaced a little more than a tie width apart for appearance. When this supply was nearing exhaustion, a batch of new ties was obtained, which was pressure creosoted. They are larger than the original ties, being 2 by 4 inches, not because of any felling that the 2 by 3 inch were inadequate, but because the creosote plant had a lot of scrap wood of that size.

A quantity of switch timbers of the same cross section were obtained as part of this order. These ties have been used on a branch which runs from the original loop up the ridge previously mentioned, and accommodates only the 3-17/32 inch and 4-3/4 inch gauges. Untreated redwood ties were considered, but found to be too expensive. For the present extension, scrap 2 by 4 inch have been acquired, and will be dipped before being used.


As has been stated, the 7-1/2 inch gauge railroad of Mr. Bois Penrose was acquired for a very reasonable price for the sake of the rail. This is steel Buddy-L rail, with the brand of the Bethlehem Steel Company, 1.5 pounds to the yard. Mr. Penrose had had moswt of it galvanized, so that we were doubly fortunate in this accession. Some of those who participated in the removal of the rail had more desire for speed than good sense, and many of the pieces were unnecessarily bent. They can be straightened without much real difficulty, but it is a monotonous and time consuming task, which requires far more work than would have been required to life the rail carefully.

The galvanizing must have been an excellent job, as it was in service for a number of years on Mr. Penrose' railroad, has had ten years of operation on our railroad, and is still in excellent condition, except for a few spots here and there where rust is beginning to appear.

As regards adhesion and rolling friction, we have no other rail with which to compare it. I hope that those who have tried several kinds of rail will write on this subject. New rail is needed for the present extension and thought is being given to dural, reserving our remaining steel for critical spots such as switch points and grade crossings.

Other Track Materials

The original angle bars acquired from Mr. Penrose were used on the original loop; later some galvanized ones were obtained from another source, and have been used on later construction. Brass 6-32 bolts were used, but the nuts are so large that they touch the curve of the angle bar at the bottom, placing a bending stress on the bolts. At first, we filed a bevel on one side of the nut, then we decided that this was too much work, and simply use care in tightening them. This was not a permanent cure, however, as they broke off from time to time, and had to be replaced. One of the two greatest advances in track construction in the history of the railroad occurred when Henry Townsend introduced 6-32 stainless steel bolts. As far as I know, no stainless steel bolt has ever broken. These were fine when obtainable, but as a result of the critical material situation during the Korean situation-which-was-not-a-war, we had to revert to brass on the hill track, knowing that they would break. Stainless steel bolts will be used for future construction, and are being used for replacement of all broken brass bolts. At one time we used stainless steel nuts with the stainless steel bolts, but we now use brass nuts, as they are cheaper, and offer no disadvantage as compared with the stainless.

The spikes used originally were galvanized roofing nails. The second of the great advances in track construction came when Harold Geissel discovered galvanized boat nails. These have far greater holding power, maintain the gauge, and can be pulled with a claw hammer without breaking off the head. The smaller heads give a much better appearance. We use 1-1/2 inch length, but there is some talk of going to 1-1/4 inch.

Expansion joints have been placed at four points in the loop, near the point of curvature of each curve, at the end of each tangent. These consists simply of ordinary joints with the angle bars bolted to one rail only.

Some of the frogs are cast bronze. Others are milled from steel, including those where a common rail to two gauges is crossed. These are special, having flangeways for both sides of the common rail.

Some of the switch points of the split switches are purchased Buddy-L items; others were milled specially for the occasion.

Regular rail is used for guard rails at the grade crossing. At stub switches, lengths of rail are placed on the ties beside the running rails, to keep things lined up.

No tie plates are used.

All switches are thrown by ground throws. Some are Buddy L, with a barrel or cylindrical cam; others were fabricated for the occasion by George Thomas. George's design have levers which swing transversely to the track, with a metal flag to show the position of the switch.

Track Laying and Surfacing

When the original loop was built, the tangents were made in ten foot lengths, that being the length of a piece of rail. Each piece consisted of the four lengths of rail required for the three gauges, spike to the ties. Later it was decided that the rigidity and ease of alignment of the track could be improved by breaking joints. Certain rails were therefore pulled along, and half rails inserted. On later construction, the rail was laid the hard way, on the ground, in place.

In constructing the track, ballast is first put down, then the ties, the rails spiked in place, and more ballast added between the ties and at their ends. At first, a piece of wood was placed parallel to the track to keep the ballast in place. The method now used, as found better by experience, is to dig a shallow trench about three inches deep, so that the side of the trench confines the ballast. In this feature our track differs from that of the big railroads. Our ballast is smaller and more subject to displacement by feet, and as one has said, "You cannot scale nature."

For spiking a tie where the spikes have come loose, or gauging, or other circumstances where the spike must be driven after the original placement of the track, George Thomas has invented a very handy sky hook. This consists of a bar having a hook to go over the rail, and a lower end which reaches under the tie, and supports it. In use, one man handles the sky hook, while another drives the spikes. In laying new track, sometimes three men work, one driving the spikes on each side of the rail, but two men are as good as any.

Water Supply

Water is available at each engine house and at a point opposite them, on the original loop. Ken Sousser is good enough to furnish the water from his pump in the house; the club has laid underground copper water lines to the points where it is needed. The pipelaying was all done in one weekend. The procedure was to first cut a furrow with Ken's tractor, then ditch by hand. The pipe is no where near frost line, and we always must be careful to turn off the water in the fall before freezing weather.

For conditioning the water, one of the members of the club promoted the idea of an "Elvis" water conditioner. The promotional literature of the manufacturer does not give any understandable indication of how it works, and the company was in difficulty with the Federal Trade Commission. Nevertheless, the engineer who sold the club on the idea finds that the balls in his checks do not accumulate white incurstation as they did at one time. He had previously tried bronze instead of stainless balls, without success. As of this season, we have the further very real advantage that Ken Sousser has installed a Permuttet system in his cellar, for all of his water, including that which comes to the railroad, so we now get real soft water.

Engine houses

There are two engine houses, one serving the 2-1/2 inch and 3-1/2 inch gauges, the other the 4-3/4 inch gauge. The former has a turntable with radial tracks, the latter has parallel tracks. For the members' own use, the radial tracks of the turntable have always been more than adequate. On the occasion of annual meets, Bill Morewood brings his temporary track, and adds to the radial tracks, so as to give much more capacity.

Both engine houses are provided with outlets for both compressed air and electric power, so that neither method of firing up may be used. The compressed air is also very handy for blowing cinders out of the smokebox and ashpan, and cleaning the engines generally. It can also be connected to a sprayer to spray the engine with cleaning fluid, such as a mixture of oil and water, or kerosene and oil, or what do you like?


The above gives a pretty comprehensive account of the construction of a small railroad as carried out by one club. In the course of work, methods have been developed which we think are good. No doubt other procedures have been developed by other clubs and individuals, and I hope that their experiences may be written up in The North American Live Steamer, so that we may all benefit to the utmost by each other's experiences.


  • B&O Bob posted on
    • Then there was the Bassett Lowke "George the Fifth" 4-4-0 that ran on Pennsylvania Senator Boies Penrose's estate on the Main Line in the early 'thirties. That one possibly surfaced at a recent auction in Fairfield, ME, where it was bought by James D. Julia. It too was thought to have been on the Rinek railway. PLS bought all the Penrose track for $50 in early 1947 from Charles Penrose for the start of the club in Berwyn.