Live Steam - My Lifelong Hobby
Written by Philip Schram
For as long as I can remember, a passion for trains was in my blood, in
my DNA. My grandfather on my mother’s side had a company with 450
employees that specialized in train track repairs. My other grandfather
was a train engineer….and my Dad thinks that there is nothing better
than mass transportation via train.
My first contact and immediate interest in live steam was at a temporary
exhibit in Paris, France in the Garden of the Louvres Castel (the very
place where the kings used to rule France up to 200 years ago).
A few years later, my Dad and I built a 200 foot long oval loop dual
gauge track in our backyard in France.
Tich pulling a 5" gauge rail car
We were steaming our 0-4-0 3½"
gauge Tich and 5" gauge 0-4-0 Ajax. I finished my education and earned a
Master’s Degree in engineering which helped me get a job at a large
For the next two decades, I lived downtown in France, so no live
steam activities were possible. In 2000, with my family, we had the
opportunity to move to the United States. I was relocated by
my employer, a prominent automotive supply company. Cincinnati welcomed
us. Unfortunately, our first house was too small to accommodate a train
In 2005, still in Cincinnati, OH, we acquired a second house with 1.3
acres of steep wooded backyard. Immediately, I saw the opportunity.
Using AutoCAD software, I started to design a layout.
I bought the first lengths of rail in June 2008. At the beginning, it
was a lot of prototyping. I had to engineer almost everything. I got a
lot of questions answered at the Cinder Sniffers in Cincinnati. The two
Civil Engineering for Outdoor Railroads books became precious reference
guides. Building a backyard train in an already landscaped garden would
promise a nice end-result. However, there was still a lot of landscape
to move around: grading, concrete work, wood structures, trees and
flowers, lighting, and walkways. Other pre-existing structures had to be
re-designed to accommodate the track and the train shed.
My goal was to model enough in the first 30 feet to determine what
would be scalable and what would not. I finalized a prototypical module
and then documented it.
My train layout is a scaled-down model, and so, for me, an authentic
visual appearance is important. For example, I have studied the ties,
the cadence of in-between spaces and ties so that aesthetically, it
resembles a full-scale train track.
First prototypical unit. My son, who is a big help, testing the
My track goes under our deck. Gradually, I began to see this area as the
entrance to a silver mine. With this in mind, we started to design a
silver mine set up.
Typical silver mine entrance
Beginning of an inspired silver mine
For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects is actually building the
track. As real railroad companies do, I use the track that has already
been laid to help build more track. I have a flatcar on which I put
protective planks to carry the clay and building materials to their
What is the difference between a club track and a backyard track? At the
club, you interact with experts. At home, you invite guests who are
blown away by your track and the trains. The smile on the children's
faces reminds me of Christmas and gives a one-of-a-kind satisfaction. In
September 2010, the line was officially christened with two events: the
Golden Spike and the Street Block Party.
Beginning of the line: Victoria Station, tribute to our British
neighbors (neighbours as spelled in British English)
The Golden Spike Ceremony was held with friends and close family.
Everybody had the opportunity to screw and nail gold painted fasteners.
Immediately thereafter, the GE switcher left the ceremony site with the
first guests to head down to the silver mine and the Paris-Gare de Lyon
train station. Paris - Gare de Lyon is in reference to our French
origins, and my wife’s birthplace in Lyon.
The second event was the Block Party. Twenty children and twenty adults
were lining up, all excited about the ride. I “trucked” my neighbors’
kids (and sometimes their parents) back and forth. What are the visitors
saying? They are impressed by the steep incline and the landscape. The
landscape was hard on the construction workload, with a lot of earth to
move by hand, one bucket at a time. But the result is spectacular and it
is fun for the riders to be sitting on a train overlooking cliffs.
Middle section of the line
Under the deck, the “silver mine” under construction, soon to be
enhanced with a turn table to serve as underground depot. Photo taken
from the second station, the Paris Gare de Lyon, the most famous French
station in Paris with trains leaving for the French Riviera.
The French Bistro set up has been designed by my wife.
Having a track at home, you can adapt it quickly as the year unfolds. It
can be the Halloween Short Line or The Christmas Polar Express. With
snow, it is an opportunity to snow plow
The line will be extended from the Paris - Gare de Lyon station with a
bridge around the cliff.
All the track has been set with a laser leveling
and is accurate to 1/16"
Many more projects to come:
- Building a restaurant rail car. Everybody is asking for one, so I
will design it to entertain my railroad guests
- Doubling the line in the mid section to allow two trains to run at
the same time
- Turn table at each end
- Train depot under the deck
- Looking for a Doepke Super Yardbird engine (let me know if you are
aware of an available one)
- And finally, running the live steam engine on the line:
440 Little Engine
Written by Philip Schram