If you want to fix a Lionel train, what you probably really need to do is repair a Lionel train motor. There isn’t much to the rest of the train.
The motors tend to be pretty rugged and they’ve held up over the years. Most “repairs” are really more of a clean and service job, not unlike taking your car in for an oil change. Here are some general principles to follow when you clean and service a Lionel motor.
First, let me give you some advice. Before you try to service a family heirloom yourself, if you’ve never fixed a train before, you might want to buy the cheapest Marx locomotive on Ebay you can find and practice on that. The easiest way to learn how to fix a Lionel is to fix a Marx first. Marx’s motors are simpler.
That said, fixing your own Lionel does give you a sense of accomplishment. It can even be fun.
Dropping out the motor
On Lionel steam engines, usually there are four screws holding the motor in place. One screw is up top, another screw coming from the side, and two screws in the bottom. Remove all four, and the motor comes out. Specifics vary, but here’s how to disassemble a Lionel 2026 or 2037. Others will be similar but don’t expect them to be identical.
Here’s a tip that helps me a lot: Take pictures every step of the way. Then you can easily see how it goes back together when the time comes. Digital cameras make this easy, and you probably have one. Take advantage of it.
Cleaning the motor
After you remove the motor from the locomotive, turn the motor so the side that has gears faces you. You’ll see two screws holding the brushplate on. Remove that, and be careful because the two brushes will probably go flying out. It can help to put the locomotive in a plastic bag and remove the brushplate inside the bag. That way the bag can catch the brushes.
Underneath the brushplate you’ll see a copper commutator. Chances are it’s fouled with carbon dust and other grime. You’ll need lots of cotton swabs and a good solvent to clean that up. I like to use mineral spirits or contact cleaner, but alcohol will usually do. I clean up as much of it as I can with solvent, then follow it up with some metal polish to get it as clean and shiny as I can, then follow that with another round of solvent. Then I use a toothpick to clean out the gaps in between the copper plates.
If there are deep grooves in the commutator, you’ll need to replace the armature or the whole motor. But usually all you find is dirt, and when you clean that up, the motor will run a lot better.
Also clean the brass or copper tubes the brushes live in. A cotton swab with some solvent will clean out anything that’s inside there. A little carbon dust doesn’t hurt but dirt and oil does.
Now let’s get controversial. I like to put one tiny drop of Rail-Zip on the commutator. Rail-Zip impedes oxidation, improves conductivity, holds some of the graphite dust in suspension, and cuts down on noise by reducing the drag on the brushes. In the long run you may need to clean the motor a little more frequently if you do this, but it will run quieter in the meantime. You can skip this step if you wish, but I think you’ll like the results if you try it.
Putting the brushplate back on
This is harder than it needs to be. Hold the brushplate face down. Place the brushes into the holders. If they stay in on their own, continue. If not, place a long piece of electrical tape over each brush and stick it down just enough to hold the brush in place. Be careful not to cover the hole the armature goes in.
Now, while holding the brushplate face down, pick up the rest of the motor and guide the armature shaft into the hole in the brushplate. Once the brushplate is on, you can turn the motor over. Before you replace the two screws, give the electrical tape a good yank to pull it out. Now replace the screws.
Lionel e-units get finicky if they get dirty. The easiest way to clean them without taking them apart is to squirt some CRC QD contact cleaner into them and let it dry. If there’s dirt or oil fouling up the e-unit, contact cleaner will do a nice job of freeing that up. Failing that, spraying it down with CRC 2-26 will help if the problem is corrosion. CRC 2-26 is the closest modern equivalent to the TV tuner cleaner that Radio Shack used to sell. It works similarly, and is a lot cheaper.
If contact cleaners and enhancers don’t get it working for you, then you’re looking at a rebuild or replacement. Sometimes heat causes the parts to deform, and when that happens, no chemical cleaning can help.
When it comes to rebuilding Lionel e-units, I can’t explain it any better than Tom McLean did in this series of Youtube videos.
If you find that too intimidating, the going rate for a working e-unit is $25-$45, so sometimes it makes sense to just swap it out. There are two yellow wires and a black wire that run between the motor and the e-unit. Take photos as you work so you can wire the replacement e-unit in the same way the old one was.
You can’t actually change the oil in a Lionel motor, but it does help to flush out the old lubricants and start over. The best thing to use in 1953 is definitely not the best thing to use now. Modern lubricants work wonders. I have trains I last serviced in 2004 that run like I serviced them yesterday.
Spray down the gears with some contact cleaner or apply some mineral spirits with a paintbrush. Set the motor down and let it sit for a good five minutes at least while the solvent flushes out the old oil and grease.
Apply a drop of high quality oil to anything that moves. I like Labelle 107 oil but you can use a high quality motor oil intended for cars. Oil the wheel bearings and all of the side rods and linkages. The side rods and linkages are easy to forget, but if you want a smooth-running locomotive, those need a drop of oil too. Oil sparingly. Too much oil causes problems down the road.
Additionally, apply a bit of high quality synthetic grease to all of the gears. I’ve been using Labelle 106 since 2003 or 2004 and find it works well. Lucas Red N Tacky is another popular choice, and you can buy it at home centers and auto parts stores.
Now let’s get controversial. I like to use a drop of Rail-Zip to lubricate the axles on the pickup rollers. Any oil will do, but I find dirt and corrosion on pickup rollers really affects running, and Rail-Zip does a nice job of fighting that battle. Rail-Zip is something you either love or hate, so if you hate Rail-Zip, put a bit of the oil you regularly use on the pickup roller axles. Lubricating the rollers is one step most people seem to forget. It makes a big difference. I’ve actually brought dead engines back to life by doing only that.
Replacing the motor
To replace the motor, work backwards. Refer back to the pictures you took while you were taking it apart. Always leave a bit of slack in the screws until you get everything into place, then tighten them down. You don’t need to crank the screws down like King Kong would, but it’s best to get them pretty tight so the train holds together well.