A more permanent home for Dad’s Lionel

Gatermann and I spent the afternoon building a train table. I started building one about a month ago but got too busy to finish it. Today was the day I’d set aside to get some work done on it.
It’s slightly larger than 3’x5′, which is pretty much the minimum size you can do in O gauge if you want anything more than a big circle. I built it using lumber that was sitting in a corner of the basement, left by the people who sold me my house. It was a bit warped, and we had to do some piecing together, but the price was right, and it’s certainly good enough for now.

A proper O gauge layout really ought to be 4’x8′, minimum, and a lot of people believe a more realistic minimum is two 4’x8’s. But I don’t have enough track or buildings to fill a 4’x8′ table.

It’s hard to put together a layout in such a small space like mine without a plan. Fortunately, there are lots of free plans available at Thortrains.net, for a variety of sizes.

As we prepared to screw down the track (the trick is to screw it down just enough to hold it in place, but not enough to make it buckle), Gatermann experimented. I had a couple of hold turnouts I pulled out to measure with. They were Dad’s, way back when. We hooked them up once, probably more than 15 years ago. One of them worked but the other didn’t. As it was riveted together and so far as we knew impossible to take apart, we put the turnouts and the control panel back in the box. As this layout required some turnouts, I bought two pair of secondhand manual Marx turnouts from Marty’s Model Railroads in Affton. A third pair of turnouts would have allowed me to do one of the more complex layouts, but, alas, Marty’s didn’t have any more manual ones when I bought my set.

The disadvantages of manual turnouts are that you have to get off your butt and go switch them, and you have to get the order right. The advantages of manual turnouts are that you have to get off your butt and go switch them so you get a little exercise, they cost about 1/3 as much as remote turnouts, and unless you do something stupid like back over them with your car, they won’t break.

At one point I flipped one of Dad’s turnouts over and spotted the Marx logo. I’d figured he was a Lionel partisan. As it turns out, maybe not.

Marx made toy trains in the 1950s as well. Lionel and American Flyer were the big names, and they were what kids asked for. Marx made trains that looked a lot like Lionel, and the tracks and transformers and accessories were all compatible with one another, but an entire Marx set sold for about what a Lionel locomotive would cost all alone. The saying was that if your dad had a good job, you had a Lionel or a Flyer. If your dad didn’t have a good job, you had a Marx.

Since Dad’s dad was something of an aristocrat, you can imagine my surprise at finding Marx gear in Dad’s stash. Either Dad bought those turnouts with his own money, or Dad’s dad, a notorious cheapskate, tried to get the best of both worlds by buying a Lionel starter set and expanding it with Marx track.

Well, now knowing that I had one working and one non-working Marx turnout, I searched the Net for information. There is no advice on troubleshooting Marx turnouts. They’re basically two electromagnets. Pushing a button deactivates the active electromagnet and activates the other. There isn’t much of anything to troubleshoot.

I did find a wiring diagram and a copy of the original instructions. I don’t remember much about how Dad and I wired the turnouts, but I’m pretty sure we tried to power them off the track, the same way you normally power Lionel accessories. The instructions explicitly say they have to run straight off the transformer. The wiring was a bit less than intuitive–the markings that are supposed to be on the turnouts aren’t–so for all I know, we didn’t wire them right either. Either reason may be why only one switch worked.

Since these turnouts would cost $30 a pop to replace (maybe $20 if I can find used ones), I’m definitely hoping that with proper wiring, they’ll start working again.

Meanwhile, my search turned up The Girard and Oak Park Railroad, a site by a hobbyist who got bored with his HO scale layout and replaced it with a large Marx O27 layout, largely by buying junkers on eBay and repairing and/or repainting them.

My layout doesn’t look as impressive as that one, but it runs. My Marx locomotive (a recent eBay find) ran fine on it once we added some weight to its front. The Lionel 1110 that must have been Dad’s first locomotive also runs fine. It takes a little time to figure out the right speed to run the trains on track with turnouts–something we found out the hard way, when my Marx 490 derailed and embarked on a four-foot tumble at high speed onto my basement’s concrete floor. Ouch. It survived without damage–certainly, its designers must have anticipated four-foot drops–but still made me nervous.