How do you make a Lionel train whistle? Well, if you have a whistling tender, a transformer with a whistle button or handle, and it’s all wired correctly, pushing the button or handle while the train is moving will make it whistle.
And if it doesn’t, let’s try to figure out why.
The first thing to check is to make sure you have a whistling tender. The tender–sometimes incorrectly called a coal car–will have little pickup rollers in between the wheels if it has a whistle inside. If your tender doesn’t have those rollers, it doesn’t have a whistle. You can frequently pick up a whistling tender at a train show or a store that deals in used Lionel postwar trains for around $30. As far as I can tell, Lionel doesn’t sell whistling tenders separately anymore–only the costlier train sounds tender that adds crew chatter, steam sound effects, and other electronic effects in addition to the old-fashioned whistle.
If you have a whistling tender but pushing the button or handle on your transformer doesn’t make it whistle, try reversing the wires on your track. Assuming you use posts A and U on the transformer for power (the most common arrangement), just swap which wire is on which post. Typically, transformer post A goes to post 1 on the track lockon and transformer post U goes to post 2 on the lockon, but there have been a few notable exceptions over the years. Don’t ask me why. If you have modern Lionel Fastrack and a modern transformer, the wires and posts are color-coded. If you hooked them up according to color and it’s still not working, try swapping them anyway. It won’t hurt anything to try that.
If it still won’t work and you have a vintage transformer, it’s possible the discs that respond to the pushbutton are worn out. If you’re ambitious, here’s a site that talks about replacing the discs in the iconic Lionel ZW with modern diodes. If you’re the type of person who fixes a toaster when it breaks, have at it. If you’re the type of person who doesn’t fix your own small appliances, you may wish to leave that job to a professional repair shop.
In vintage tenders, the motor that blows air into the whistle can get gummed up. Cleaning and re-lubricating that motor can help. But again, if you’re not the type of person who fixes your own small appliances, that’s a job best left to a professional.
Most of the time, the issue is reversed wiring. Fortunately that’s a quick and easy fix.