Nighttime running on your garden railroad

You don’t need to stop operations after the sun goes down
A train approaches in the darkness on the Tuscarora  Railroad.
Running trains at night casts our railways in a different light. We have a lot of tools at our disposal to craft that light to create just the right atmosphere for our nocturnal adventures.
Kevin Strong
A backyard at night, with lanterns providing background light.
The author’s back yard at night. Lanterns and string lights provide a soft general light while spot lights and lights in the buildings and trains illuminate various scenes along the way.
Kevin Strong
Steve Haskew uses lanterns to light his garden railway at night.
Steve Haskew uses 110-volt lanterns on posts to provide light for his railroad in Lyons, CO. The antique lanterns match well with the rustic mining theme of the buildings on the railroad.
Kevin Strong
Battery powered lantern bought from Amazon.
The author found these battery-powered lanterns on Amazon, and has hung them on fenceposts along the edge of the yard.
Kevin Strong
Decorative yard light
Decorative string lights are an easy way to cast a soft general light over a wide area. They come in a variety of styles.
Kevin Strong
I’ve enjoyed some of the most peaceful times on my railroad after the sun has set.

Most of us likely have a porch light we can turn on to offer some light in the back yard. If yours is anything like my light, it gives off enough light to make sure your dog does his business, but beyond that it’s a bit dim, and not evenly spread though the back yard. (This is especially true for folks with large back yards.)

A step up in terms of the amount of light given off are flood or security lights. These lights are designed to fill an area with a fair amount of light. That’s certainly advantageous for back yard parties, but will usually be too much light when you’re trying to create an atmosphere of what I would term “controlled darkness.” That is, enough light so you don’t trip and can see your controller, but dark enough to where it looks like night on the railroad. We’re not trying to simulate daylight.

The key to general illumination for running at night is to keep the light fairly low, but spread throughout the yard. The easiest way to get even lighting is to use multiple light sources. Party lights, strings of Christmas lights, or rope lights are great ways to provide that kind of light. They come in a variety of styles to match your decorating tastes. They can be strung temporarily or permanently depending on your preferences.

A caution about permanent installations of string lights. The insulation on some wires used for outdoor lighting is derived from soybeans. Squirrels and other critters may chew on the wires, breaking them. A Google search suggested coating the wires with hot sauce or using rodent tape (a tape treated with capsaicin).

You may want to consider running 110 volts to the garden when you’re planning your landscaping so you can put lamp posts in the garden for general lighting. The lights can be put on a dimmer so you can control the level of light in the yard. Bright for yard parties, and dim for running at night. Note: consult an electrician before installation, as most locations have building code requirements.

We also have the advantage of low-current-drawing LED light fixtures that give off a surprising amount of light. For my Tuscarora Railroad, I found antique-looking lanterns with a realistic-looking simulated flame. Bonus, they use AA batteries, so no wiring is needed. I just hang ‘em on the fenceposts or from tree branches and turn ‘em on. There’s no shortage of similar products on Amazon. Most are battery-powered, but there are solar versions as well.


Solar lighting for rural buildings, Aug. 2014
Let there be light: LEDs, Oct. 2011
Let there be light, Aug. 2011
Light up your railroad, Dec. 2008
Build simple street lamps, Oct. 2007
Nightscaping series, Oct. 2005, Dec. 2005, Feb. 2006
Make your own small landscape lights, June 1996


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