How to get that dusty old train running again

How to get that dusty old train running again

It’s the weekend after Thanksgiving. The time of year when nostalgia runs high and ancient toy trains come out of the basement or the attic and get set up again until sometime after the new year.

Well, hopefully they make it that long. Here are some tips for getting old Lionel, American Flyer, Marx, and similar electric trains running again.

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What to do if you can’t find a Lionel Polar Express set

The Polar Express is turning out (so far) to be a bigger hit for Lionel than it is for Tom Hanks. Dealers are sold out and the sets are turning up on Ebay, usually with asking prices $100-$200 higher than the suggested retail price. It’s not as hot as Tickle Me Elmo, but since the words "hot selling" and "train set" haven’t appeared together since the late 1950s, well…

So what should you do if you (or someone in your household) wants The Polar Express and can’t get one? Hint: Ebay shouldn’t be your first resort.First and foremost, Lionel did little other than apply new lettering to existing product to make this set. So if you can live without the posable figures that were included in the set, any 2-8-4 Berkshire steam engine pulling a string of heavyweight passenger cars is going to look like the Polar Express. That’s Greek to you? Don’t worry. If you call up a hobby shop that sells trains and ask for that, someone there will know what that means.

But, from a playing with trains standpoint, passenger cars aren’t nearly as interesting as freights. Once you get tired of watching the Polar Express run around in circles, the set’s going to do time in the basement or the attic and maybe come back out around the holidays to grace Mom’s porcelain village with its presence. There’s nothing wrong with that, unless the train was intended to be played with.

If the Polar Express has kindled an interest in trains, Junior is going to have more fun with a freight set, because freight trains haul stuff. Gondolas and hoppers can haul loads of marbles, flat cars can haul automobiles and construction equipment, and so on. New cars can be added to make it more interesting, usually at fairly low cost. Besides, a freight train isn’t going to scream "Christmas," which the Polar Express certainly does.

I recommend O27 type trains for kids for two reasons. First, I recommend it because it’s what I grew up with and it’s what my dad grew up with, so it must be the best, right? More seriously, O27 trains are big and heavy enough that they can be handled without breaking. The track can be permanently attached to a table, but that isn’t necessary. It works just fine set up on the floor. HO and N scale track don’t work as well if they aren’t bolted down, and an O27 set has much more tolerance for kinks in the track. Also, because of O27’s sharp curves, you can actually squeeze a better O27 layout into a 4’x5′ space than you could an HO set. It isn’t as realistic, but kids aren’t as worried about perfect realism as adults. Another advantage of O27 is that it’s scaled at 1:64, which is about the same scale as the Matchbox-type cars that every kid already has. Kids would probably play with the trains and cars together anyway even if they weren’t the same scale, but since they’re sized to go together, they give more play options together.

What brand? Lionel is the venerable brand, but there are others. If you go to a store like Hobby Lobby, you’ll see sets from a company called K-Line, if you’re lucky, maybe one or two Lionel accessories. Many of the so-called anchor department stores carry a set from either Lionel or a company called MTH in their catalogs, if not in the stores themselves. While the brand loyalty to Lionel and MTH is even more ridiculous than Ford and Chevy pickup truck loyalty, there isn’t a lot of difference these days. The nice thing is that even if you buy a set from one company, the other companies’ cars will work with them. Most of the hobby shops here in St. Louis carry a large selection of inexpensive cars from a company called Industrial Rail. Unfortunately, no matter which brand you get, it’s very difficult to find an O27 gauge set for less than $200.

Used, er, vintage trains can be a lot less expensive than buying new, but I don’t recommend it for a first-time buyer looking for a train set for a child. I’ve bought a lot of used vintage trains, and about half of them run. It’s usually impossible to tell from looking at the outside or from its age if it’s going to run. An 85-year-old train I bought ran–poorly, but it ran–while a 30-year old train I bought didn’t run at all. If you’re going to buy used, buy from a hobbyist who has been using it and can demonstrate that it still works, or buy from a dealer who will stand behind it.

But if you must have the Polar Express, what to do? Ebay may be your only option. Lionel fanatics have known this set was coming for about a year, and they bought up a good percentage of the sets. Most of the remaining sets are spoken for. A phone call to your local Lionel dealers (look in the phone book under "hobbies") might turn up a set. If someone actually advertises a set in the ads on the left-hand side of this page, they’re worth checking out too, on the logic that they wouldn’t pay to advertise something they don’t have in stock.

If you must turn to Ebay, e-mail the seller before you bid to make sure the seller actually has the set. A lot of people are listing sets on Ebay with the intent of ordering a set if someone buys it. This practice is illegal, but these buyers either don’t know or care. But why should you pay someone $350 to order a set and wait until March to get it when you can pay $250 for the set yourself and wait until March to get it?

The other option is to wait until March. Lionel will make more sets. Trust me on that. They need the money.

Lionel bankruptcy

Lionel bankruptcy

It was all over the news when it happened. Lionel, the train maker, filed Chapter 11 on Nov 16, 2004. But a lot of the news stories got some critical details wrong. It’s not the first time a Lionel bankruptcy confused people.

Lionel has been bankrupt before, but the company has changed ownership numerous times so it’s not the same legal entity that went bankrupt in the 1930s and 1960s. There have also been numerous rumors about bankruptcy after 2004. These are usually dealers trying to create artificial demand to clear inventory.

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Troubleshoot your locomotives on the floor!

I’m not going to write up a comprehensive tutorial on troubleshooting old Lionel, American Flyer, Marx, and Ives trains just yet. But I’m going to present a hard-learned lesson.

When troubleshooting a locomotive, set it up on the floor, not on a table.I was working on an Ives locomotive this evening. A lot of Ives frames were made of cast iron, where Lionel and American Flyer had a tendency to use pressed steel, or when they were feeling saucy, brass. And Ives locomotives were top heavy.

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Tin litho buildings for a traditional pre-war train layout

Tin litho buildings for a traditional pre-war train layout

In 2004, after being back in the hobby a few months, I decided I didn’t want a train layout like the ones I saw in the magazines, which all take a hi-rail approach. The layouts looked nice, but they all had the same buildings and figures on them. I wanted to do something different. That got me looking for tin litho buildings for a traditional pre-war train layout. And it started a quest that continues to this day.

Don’t get me wrong. Today I have more than enough tin buildings to populate an 8×8 layout. Had I known what I was looking for from the start, it would have taken a lot less time. I might as well share my experience.

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Taking the losses with the wins

I think I just missed a pretty nice Lionel prewar set today. I spotted it on my way out the door. Unfortunately, a guy was hovering over it, talking on a cell phone.I couldn’t get close enough to it to get much of a look at it. The locomotive was a streamliner type, and the passenger cars all had nickel journals. The whole set had the early Lionel latch couplers that predated the automatic box couplers. So I’m guessing the set was from the 1930s.

I couldn’t gauge condition but it seemed pretty good. The price was more than I had intended to pay for anything, but I know the locomotive alone was worth close to the asking price, and the passenger cars alone had to be worth the asking price, if not more.

The guy obviously had no great love for old Lionels. What I don’t know is if he was doing a friend a favor or if he was out to make a buck.

I wanted that set. I didn’t need it, but I wanted it.

I suppose I could have offered $20 more than the asking price, if I were that sort of person. But that’s not how God wants us to act. So on my way out the door, I took the guy aside, told him he was getting a good deal, that if he weren’t about to buy it I would have jumped on it, and congratulated him.

I also told him, in case he was wondering, that the second pile of Lionel stuff that was next to it was overpriced. I had paid $35 for a similar lot a few months ago. This lot was priced at more than four times that.

He thanked me, and I left.

I still can’t help but think the set would have meant a lot more to me than to him. Losing it stung a little. If doing the right thing felt good, losing out on that felt worse.

But I have an American Flyer passenger set I bought a while back that I still need to put in working order. I guess you call that compensation.

Last weekend\’s find

You never know what you’ll find when someone advertises “old trains.”

This is an American Flyer Type 4 locomotive. This variety was manufactured in Chicago from 1927 to 1929. It’s powered by clockwork, as many inexpensive toy trains were at the time. You wound it up with a key. The key for this one is long lost. I may be able to find another one, but keys are easily fabricated from K&S brass parts, available at hobby shops.

Amazingly, the motor still runs. The train doesn’t. It’s missing one of the drive wheels, and the other wheel isn’t soldered to the axle very well. Replacement wheels are still available and I can re-solder the other one. It ought to take about $5 worth of parts and about 15 minutes to get it running again.

It runs on O gauge track, the same as Lionel. But the track has two rails, you say? It sure does, because it’s not an electric train, so there’s no need for the third rail. This train predates American Flyer’s 2-rail S gauge electrics by about 25 years.

The locomotive is made of cast iron, cast in two pieces and held together by a screw. The tender and passenger coach are made of pressed steel, plated with tin. This is commonly called “tinplate”. The graphics on the coach are lithographed, a form of offset printing. This was very common on cheap toys up until the 1950s, when lithographed tinplate was gradually replaced with molded plastic, which was cheaper, could hold more detail, and could be made without any sharp edges.

This item isn’t particularly rare, but it’s an interesting curiosity.

I’m very happy to have it, but the genealogist in me really wishes people would hang on to things like this. This was someone’s grandfather’s train. All too often people’s reaction to an old train is “What’s it worth?” They’re looking for a fast buck.

In this condition, this particular train is worth about 50 bucks, give or take a few dollars.

Any toy that once belonged to any of my grandparents would be worth 10 times that to me.

Converting Bachmann On30 cars to O or O27?

There’s always a discussion about the cost of O gauge/O scale somewhere, mostly because it’s hard to find new locomotives for less than $500 and new train cars for under $75. You’d think this was a hobby for trial lawyers and brain surgeons.

One guy pointed out how much bang for the buck he’s getting when he buys On30.

Now, a bit of terminology here. O scale is 1:48 scale. One quarter inch on the model is equal to a foot on the real-world equivalent. O27, the cheaper brother of O scale, is actually 1:64 scale, though it runs on the same track. “Serious” hobbyists often look down on O27, but the nice thing about O27 is it lets you pack a lot more into a smaller space.

So what’s this On30 stuff and what’s the difference between it and regular O or O27 scale?

I’m glad you asked.

On30, On3, and the like refer to “narrow gauge.” Most train track in the United States has its rails 4 feet 8 inches (or 8 1/2 inches) apart. That’s “Standard gauge.” Occasionally, a railroad would lay its track 3 feet apart, or 30 inches apart, or some other measurement narrower than 4’8.5″. This was especially common out west in regions where they had to deal with a lot of mountains. On30 refers to 1:48 scale models of 30-inch gauge trains. On3 refers to 1:48 scale models of 3-foot gauge trains. On2 refers to 1:48 scale models of 2-foot gauge trains. And so on. I’ve talked more about On30 here if you want to know more.

Now it just so happens that the distance between the rails on regular old HO scale track measures out to 31.3 inches in O scale. For most people, that’s certainly close enough. O scalers have been living with track that’s 5 scale feet wide ever since we decided that O scale was 1:48, back in the 1930s or so.

So Bachmann, the makers of the cheap HO and N scale train sets you see at Hobby Lobby, decided to take advantage of this convenient accident, make some 1:48 scale cars, put narrow trucks on them, bundle some HO scale track and commercialize On30. So now it’s actually easier in some regions to get a Bachmann On30 train set than it is to get a Lionel O train set.

I found this page on converting Bachmann On30 cars to S scale. What the author did was remove the Bachmann trucks and couplers and substitute American Flyers. Since S scale stuff is even more scarce than regular O scale, this is a slick trick. And, as you can see from the pictures, for the most part the stuff still looks right. Rivet counters won’t like it, but if you’re a rivet counter you’re probably not reading this page anyway. For people starved for inexpensive trains, or for trains, period, they’re fine.

Well, I like my Lionels. I’m not going to convert to On30. But I don’t like Lionel prices. So I build some of my own stuff, and the stuff I do buy, I buy used. So I’ve amassed a pretty sizeable collection, even though I’ve spent a lot less than most hobbyists will spend on a single locomotive.

But I’m always looking for something new and different.

A K-Line passenger car costs $117. A Bachmann passenger car costs $28.

A pair of K-Line freight trucks costs $8. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

You can’t put freight trucks on a passenger car. That’s what I’m thinking. Freight trucks are different from passenger trucks for some reason. Something about people wanting a smoother ride than cows.

But you get the idea. $36 is a lot less than $117.

K-Line passenger trucks are $25 apiece. That’s more than the car. But $78 is still less than $117, though I’d just live with using freight trucks, myself.

If the S scalers can do it, why can’t we?

Getting rid of some rust on old toy trains

I’ve seen some old tin 6-inch Marx cars in nice condition, but I sure seem to have a talent for finding Marx rustbuckets too. I also have a set of very nice Lionel tinplate–nice except for their rusty couplers.

Professional restorers remove rust by bead blasting. How do you deal with rust if you don’t happen to have a sandblaster laying around?A number of products exist catering to auto restorers. They claim not even to damage paint in some cases. I’m told that Oxisolv works safely on toy trains, or at least on Marx trains. Finding the stuff is another story. Every place I’ve looked wants as much to ship it as they want for the liquid.

As I was poking around under my kitchen sink this evening, I came across a household cleaner intended for removing rust stains from bathtubs. But the label also said it would remove rust stains from tools. Not seeing any difference, chemically speaking, between soaking a pair of pliers in the stuff and soaking a Marx train wheel, I broke out my rustbucket Marx 553, removed its wheels, put them in a plastic container, and dribbled on enough cleaner to cover it.

An hour or so later, there was visibly less rust on the wheels and axles.

Most of these products use a mild acid that readily eats away iron oxide, but has little effect on plain old iron. If you’ve heard the legends about Coca-Cola dissolving rusty nails or freeing rusted bolts, it’s the same principle.

I’m not quite brave enough to try it on the painted surfaces, and different brands will almost certainly vary, but this is a cheap way to at least improve a car’s wheels, especially if you happen to already have the stuff on hand.