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Garden Railways : Electric, Live Steam or Battery Powered Locomotives

Updated on August 2, 2011
All Images : Copyright David Lloyd-Jones 2011
All Images : Copyright David Lloyd-Jones 2011

Electric, Live Steam or Battery Motive Power?

There are a number of ways to power your trains on your garden railway, but which one is best for you depends on what type of trains you are going to run.  Electric, live steam and battery power are the three main types, and each has its advantages and some serious disadvantages too.  Garden railways is not a cheap hobby, with some locomotives costing many hundreds of dollars /pounds.  Clearly, deciding what type of power you are going to use before the planning stage is key as this will influence the type of layout you are going to build.  

For a example, a live steam locomotive needs a dedicated area for lighting up and raising steam, which is at waist level and good all around access for oiling etc.  Electric and battery power doesn’t require a specialised area.  You can run all three types of powered locomotives on the same tracks if you wish, but it’s not really recommended.  Live steam locomotives throw a lot of oil around the place, and this can serious impede electrical rail connection when you run an electric powered locomotive afterwards. Self powered battery engines don’t suffer from the same problem, and are quite happy to run on the same lines as live steamers.

Electric Power

Electric power is very popular among garden railway modellers, its clean, easy to set up and is ready to use in an instant. The low voltage, 12-18 volts DC is safe to use in the garden, even in the rain.  Of course, you use a ground-fault circuit interrupt between the house and the power pack for extra protection, but it’s safe to say than nobody has died playing trains is the garden.  Apart from the traditional 12-18 volt power pack, the modern alternative is Digital Command Control (DCC).  While this gives far more control, especially if you have a large fleet of locomotives, DCC ready engines are a lot more expensive to buy.

However, while electric power is simple and convenient, using this type of power has a number of problems when used outside.  Dirt on the track is a major problem, and the rails need to be cleaned often.  If you have a large layout, cleaning the tracks can be a big and annoying operation. The other major problem is track connection.  As the electric power has to pass from rail to rail via a connector, each poor connection means a slight drop in power.  Times this by several poor joints and you have a serious power drop which means the locomotives run slower or grind to a halt on a steep grade or hauling a heavy load.

Live Steam?
Live Steam?
Electric Power?
Electric Power?
Battery Power? Which will you choose?
Battery Power? Which will you choose?
All Images : Copyright David Lloyd-Jones 2011
All Images : Copyright David Lloyd-Jones 2011

Battery Power 

Battery powered locomotives have become very popular as they don’t need clean tracks to run or a load of wiring to provide the power to the rails.  They can run in any weather, and even run on the same tracks as live steamers.  In fact, many garden railway modellers operate a battery powered engine first, while they are waiting for their live steamer to reach full pressure. They also use the same engine to ‘rescue’ the live steamer when it runs out of steam later.

There are very few disadvantages to battery power, apart from the some smaller engines need to carry their battery pack in a separate goods van.  Radio control is a must for this type of locomotive power to get the best results, which can be quite costly but not as much as buying a live steamer.  Sometimes radio interference can be an issue, affecting control of the engine, but this can be often cured by switching frequencies.  

Live Steam

There is something magical about live steam whether it's a prototype steam locomotive or a model.  We love how the combination of fire, water, steam and smoke brings an engine to life.  The sight of a live steam locomotive chuffing majestically around your garden is a sight to behold. A miniature live steamer works the same way as the full size versions.  Of course, just like the real thing, it takes time to ‘fire-up’ a live steam locomotive, which can take several minutes to reach full pressure, and they need to be oiled all around too.  

Unlike electric, which is instantly switched on, your live steam engine needs a bit of time to prepare. It needs filling with water, fuel for the fire such as gas, coal or meths added, the boiler lit, all moving bits oiled and the pressure slowly built up all before the locomotive can move.  Even then, they have to primed backwards and forwards a few times to remove all the water out of the cylinders before they are ready to haul a train.  But once they get going they are just like the real thing, and some even have real whistles too.  

A live steamer needs to be driven all the time, and cannot be left just to run like a electric locomotive. Radio control is a must for full control of the engine. However, as mentioned above, its not wise to run live steam and electric on the same layout due to the oil thrown out from the live steamer on to the tracks resulting in a poor electrical connection. 

The choice is yours, but picking the correct method of powering your engines at an early stage is a must, as it can be very costly to switch from electric to live steam power or vice a versa later.

 © David Lloyd-Jones 2011

Live steam at its best in the Garden - a must see


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    • Midnight Oil profile image

      Midnight Oil 5 years ago from Isle of Man UK

      A live steamer needs to be driven all the time, and cannot be left just to run like a electric locomotive. Radio control is a must for full control of the engine.

    • katiem2 profile image

      katiem2 7 years ago from I'm outta here

      Oh how cool, I love trains and marvel at your garden railways basics electric live steam or battery power. I think the steam option is fantastic. I have a steam engine train for my Christmas tree, its so magical :) Katie