A Christmas tree train on a budget

If you want a train for under your Christmas tree but don’t have a lot of money to spend, here’s how to find one and what to ask for.

Find a store that deals in used Lionel trains, or find a local hobbyist. Search Craigslist or your newspaper classifieds for an ad stating, “I buy electric trains.” I’ll let you in on a secret: most people who buy trains also resell them, because people who buy trains eventually end up with far more than they’ll ever use.

Once you locate a reseller, here’s what to ask for.

Ask specifically for an “MPC era” Lionel locomotive, and say it’s OK if it runs on DC. Actually, if you’re on a tight budget, DC is preferable. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Lionel’s old DC trains, but their higher-end models that serious hobbyists are interested in all ran on AC. Expect the reseller to be surprised at the request, but expect the reseller to be willing to part with a Lionel DC locomotive for $10-$15.

If the reseller doesn’t have any DC Lionel locomotives, another inexpensive alternative is a Marx 400 or 490 locomotive. These can run on either AC or DC, and sell for around $10. Pair it with a non-whistling Lionel tender or ask the reseller to replace the back truck on the Marx tender with a Lionel truck, and it’ll work perfectly with Lionel cars.

You’ll also need a transformer that matches the train. A DC power pack intended for HO trains is fine; expect to pay around $5 for a used one. If the reseller only has AC trains, ask if he or she has any Marx or American Flyer AC transformers of 40 watts or less. Expect to pay around $10 for that.

For track, your cheapest option is a loop of O27 track. Most resellers have more of this than they know what to do with; a loop of clean, used O27 track should cost $5. The two train stores closest to me would charge $2.50. If you have 12-15 square feet of area to spare and want something a little more interesting, ask for a 45-degree crossing and enough track to make a folded figure 8.

And of course you need some cars for the train to pull. Two inexpensive options are MPC-era Lionel O27 (from the 1970s and early 1980s) and Cohn-era Lionel O27 (from the 1960s) cars have characteristics that make them just about ideal; they had fixed, non-opening couplers that make them less interesting to a hobbyist, but it also means they won’t accidentally uncouple on you if you run a train in circles around your Christmas tree and walk away from it. And they were unpainted, so there’s no concern about lead paint with these. Flat cars, gondola cars, hoppers and cabooses of this type typically sell for around $5, and box cars cost $10. Gondolas and hoppers are nice because you can load them up with Christmasy loads like miniature bells.

So, totaling up the damage, you ought to be able to put something together using items of minimal collector interest for $35-$50. See? Lionel trains aren’t always expensive. Just don’t tell the guy near me who posted something similar to what I just described and asked for a high-end Iphone in trade.

And for those of you who resell Lionel trains and are wondering how to clear out your low-end stuff, here’s an idea. Bundle up a low-end locomotive, a red caboose, and an and an assortment of 1-3 gondolas, flat cars and/or hoppers, red or green if possible, and advertise it on Craigslist as a $40 Christmas tree train. I think you’ll be able to unload quite a few of them, and make a good number of people happy while giving them a good and fair deal.

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