model train set on track

How to Make Giraffe Cars Work with Ballasted GarGraves Track

e*Train Issue: Apr 2020   |   Posted in: ,

By John S. Halajko

My Lionelized Ertl Thomas/Percy and Giraffe Cars Meet the Atlantic Division Layout, Part I

The Atlantic Division built a fabulous 12’ by 6’ highly animated layout for children of all ages to enjoy. Lots of buttons for the kiddos to press and see animation happen. Ballasting the GarGraves track added extra realism to the layout as you can see below:

The Atlantic Division Layout

Unfortunately, one cannot use the Giraffe Car Actuators unless you destroy the ballast. Any layout using realistic ties with or without ballasted track has the same problem. Here is an overview of the clearance issue:

Simply put, there is no home for the unmodified actuator base unless you modify the GarGraves track. Not only do the ties and ballast get in the way but the GarGraves track rails that connect to the ties need to be put on a diet and have their bottoms removed.

Lionel Giraffe Car Actuator, Side by Side Comparison
Clearance Interference

Along with the actuator interference issue, I discovered that my Lionelized Ertl Pull Backs, Thomas and Percy, would not run on the AD Layout due to too tight of a diameter turn. They used to run flawlessly on my former club’s O120 modular layout with my RBB&B K-Line tender and a consist of ten Giraffe and Horse Cars. Alas, I had to figure out what was wrong in time for the upcoming AD Meet.  

My first thought to fix Thomas and Percy was to extend the homemade linkage between the two Lionelized Ertl units, but the fix was simpler. All I needed to do was to Dremel tool out the tender coupling slot to allow Percy’s homemade coupler shaft more clearance to rotate on curves.

Percy’s Coupler Shaft Clearance

Thomas and Percy are now happy to run on O27 curves: 

It is well known that the Lionel Giraffe Car Actuators present clearance issues for steam locomotives. For those of us who run O72 Mallets, Giraffe Car Actuators create an insurmountable clearance issue. Either you run the Giraffe Cars without their actuators, or you restrict O72 Mallets and other steam locomotives from lines dedicated to Lionel Animated Cars like the Giraffe, Cop and Hobo and other cool things until the clearance issue is removed. The key here is the ability to remove the Actuator and regain track clearance. So that is exactly what I did for my home-made Giraffe Car Actuator.

MTH Premier Y3, Widest Mallet That I Own, Requires Shim to be moved Too Far for Actuation
Steam Locomotive Clearance Issue with MTH GS4

My solution for the Giraffe car actuator is a compromise. I chose not to modify the Lionel Actuator and restrict the AD Layout to pull Giraffe Cars with Lionelized Ertl Thomas/Percy and Diesel Locomotives along with any other locomotive that has its piston, side rod and drive rod not extend too far out from the end of the GarGraves tie. 

You can use thinner wood or sheet metal to gain more clearance along with actuating the Giraffe Car, with only a portion of the metal covered shaft. My choice of materials was based on scrap layout materials left over from the Newtown and West Wellington Line Phase I Project. About one-inch thick piece of wood carved with a leading and trailing ramp is all that is necessary to form an actuator with unballasted track. Remember, you can use thinner wood, sheet metal or RR Track to gain more clearance and make the ramp angle as gradual was you wish. 

Overhead View of Clearance, Note Space Between GarGraves Ties and Actuator Shim
View of Shim Used as Actuator, Note Gradual Ramp Angle

Simply make a custom removable shim or modify a Lionel Actuator. Being a PURIST, I chose not to modify a Lionel Actuator base. Shim design can be as long as you wish and can include multiple up and down movements of the Giraffe Head. Shims can be used on layouts using Lionel Super O Track, Atlas, GarGraves or MTH track. Lionel Fast Track can be cut to bring the shim in closer to the center rail.  

So now you have it. For more information contact me at [email protected].