The Recycled Railroad

20 04 2012

Railroads are one of the most environmentally friendly means of transportation available. Whether we’re talking a packed commuter train rolling into a city, or a mile-long train of shipping containers crossing the continent – the economies of scale and the mechanical advantages of the railroad make a world of difference.

Despite the iconic image of smoking steam locomotives, railroads have long had a tradition of supporting the environment. Some railroads designed locomotive fireboxes that could burn culm – or waste from coal mines that was too inefficient to use elsewhere. Cinders were used for ballast in rail yards. Old equipment was reassigned to work service or rebuilt to extend its life. If it couldn’t be reused, scrapped rail cars were melted down into new steel. Recycling like this wasn’t just good for the environment, it was good for the bottom line.


Our model railroads can do the same. There are endless options for recycling everyday materials for use on our layouts. Take a look at our recent diorama project from here on the blog; it was built almost entirely from repurposed materials.

  • Benchwork (Frame) – The lumber from this project came from my scrap pile. The MDF board was heavier than needed, but it was just sitting in the garage – and it was free. The plywood for the frame came from some discarded exhibit panels.
  • Fascia – The fascia for the edges was salvaged from Masonite panels used on larger modeling projects.
  • Foam Scenic Base – A while back, I spied a pile of insulating foam that had been used as packing materials headed for the dumpster. They were far from pristine condition, but still perfect for modeling use. Out of a landfill and into a layout – enough foam to easily complete a typical layout was had for nothing.
  • Rocks

    A realistic rock cut is only a broken ceiling tile away.

    Rocks and Plaster– The rocks came from scraps of ceiling tiles left over from a basement renovation, as did the drywall plaster. The paints used were already on hand from other projects, but can often be found on sale at craft stores for about $1 – $3/ bottle. Thinned like they are, a bottle will last a long time!

  • Ground Cover – Dried leaves – back yard. Dirt – back yard. Stone – driveway shoulder. Weeds – an old piece of twine. A few additional commercial ground covers were also used, all on hand from other projects.
  • Culverts – Scraps of balsa wood and soda straws.
  • Track – I used a few pieces of very old track for this project – knowing that operation wasn’t a priority. The 50-year-old track actually looked better since the rails had lost their new shine. The wood for the ties and stone ballast were some of the few items actually purchased for the project.
  • Trees – Aside from two dowel rods to make tree trunks (which also made the posts for the highway railing), almost all of the products used for the trees were found in the yard.
  • Roads – Again, drywall from home renovations and paint from the modeling shelf. The guard rail details recycled the dowel rod used for trees and black thread.
  • Snow – Baking powder from the pantry.
Finished Diorama

Thanks to recycled materials, this entire scenic display was built for less than $10 - saving more than just space in a landfill!

All that salvage added up to saving more than just space in a landfill. The entire diorama was completed for less than $10 in new expenses! There is also a great sense of pride and satisfaction that comes not only from the recycling but from the creative process of making something new and unique. And the example seen here is only the beginning. You can make great loads for your train cars out of things you might otherwise throw away – everything from empty cash register tape rolls to pencil shavings can be turned into something new with a little paint and imagination.

If you are looking for a great way to get your kids excited about recycling and the hobby, a simple project for Earth Day or just a rainy day, or if you just want to stretch your own mind and hobby budget, give it try! To sweeten the deal, we’ll even give you a little more incentive…

Recycled Railroad – A Contest

We want to see what treasures you can create from what you find. You have between now and May 10 to create something new from something old. Make anything you want as long as it will fit on a model railroad and uses recycled materials. Make it a family project and get the kids involved! It’s a great way to have fun and teach an important lesson for Earth Day.


Thanks to Mother Nature and a little time and effort, an entire forest can be had for practically nothing. What are your thrifty tricks?

Take your best photo of your project and email it to us along with a brief description (300 characters max) of what you used and how you did it. We’ll also need your email and mailing address in case you are one of our winners.

After all entries have been collected, the photos and captions will be posted in an album on our Facebook page May 11, where you and all your friends can vote by “liking” your favorite project. The recycled project with the most votes by May 18 will receive a $5o e-gift card to! Also, everyone who submits a project will be entered into a drawing to receive a Lionel Scout Train Set. For complete rules of entry, please see our official contest page.

So put your thinking caps on, get your cardboard tubes, newspaper and popsicle sticks ready – and get creative. Oh, and don’t forget to unplug the trains and turn out the lights when you’re finished!



2 responses

1 05 2012
Joezie Hickman

Recycled Railroad i have some thin wall pipe from tail parts of plumbing under the sinks i use the as rail load cut to differt sizes and the can be painted rust color or just have then in the rail yard .

2 05 2012

Take a picture and send it in! We’ll be happy to put it in the contest. Just email it to me directly at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: