I have a Lionel 2034 that had a bent cab I fixed, but it ran poorly too. It would run, but only in super slow-mo, and that was when it would run at all. If I was really patient, sometimes I could get it to run a little after a few minutes, but it had minimal pulling power even then. So I took a shot at Lionel 2034 locomotive repair. It was successful.
The motor needed some maintenance, but it didn’t need any parts. Here’s how I fixed it in less than an hour.
Sometimes you can get these motors running again by spritzing them down with solvents, but you can do a better job and get a longer-lasting repair if you take it apart. That was what I did.
Dropping out the Lionel 2034 motor
First I had to drop out the motor, which in the case of the 2034, involves removing one screw from the top and two screws from the bottom. Then the motor just lifts out.
Looking at the motor, on one side of it there are a bunch of gears. On the other side there are some wires, two nuts, and some other stuff that makes the motor work–the stuff that, in this case, I had to care about.
Parts of a motor
It might help to know a little bit about how an electric motor works. A motor is basically a big electromagnet that changes polarity really fast so that it will spin and turn a gear. The magnet that spins is called an armature. The part that makes the motor change polarity is called a commutator, and the parts that supply power to the commutator are called brushes. Brushes in early 20th century trains are sometimes made of copper, but in postwar trains like the 2034 they’re made of graphite, which has the advantage of being self-lubricating.
Frequently when a train runs slowly and erratically and oiling it doesn’t help, the cause is a dirty commutator. I was hoping that was the case with my 2034.
The part held on by the two nuts is called the brush plate. Let’s get back to the repair.
Lionel 2034 basic motor maintenance
I removed the nuts, lifted off the plate, and grabbed the two brushes that fell out and set those to the side. Then I looked at the commutator. It’s supposed to be as shiny as a new penny, but this one was as black as Enos Stanley Kroenke’s soul. OK, I exaggerate a bit, but it was a mess. On the plus side, I could tell this train had spent a lot of time on the track. It was time to get it back into its element.
Start with the commutator
A lot of people use pencil erasers to clean commutators. I used rubbing alcohol and half a dozen cotton swabs. Once they were fairly clean, I used a Scotch-Brite pad to get the rest and polish out the groove that had developed where the brushes rub against the commutator. If I’d had a Magic Eraser on hand, following up with that would have been good. Since I didn’t, skipped that step and went straight to metal polish and got the commutator looking smooth and shiny. Then I used another cotton swab with alcohol to remove any lingering residue. I also cleaned the slots between the commutator plates one last time.
Cleaning those slots between the copper plates is important. Once they get fouled with too much carbon from the brushes, the commutators start to lose their ability to change the motor’s polarity and the motor operates poorly.
Clean the brush wells
I also cleaned the two brush wells, which are the brass pieces the brushes came out of. Again I used a cotton swab with alcohol . The process is just to wet the swab, push the swab into the holder, spin it around, and repeat with another swab until the swabs don’t come out dirty anymore. Carbon in the brush wells doesn’t necessarily hurt anything, but oil can. Cleaning it eliminates that possibility of oil messing things up.
Clean the brushes
I also cleaned the ends of the brushes with some alcohol. These brushes were still smooth and square so I didn’t have to do anything else. If they’re no longer square, some people replace them–replacements are readily available on Ebay and relatively inexpensive–and some will sand them square again with fine-grit sandpaper.
Putting the motor back together
Putting the brush plate back on is the hard part. I pushed the brushes back into their holders, then quickly flipped the brush plate as close to its final position as I could. I had to repeat a couple of times until the brushes stayed in their holders.
Then I had to slide the plate around a bit until the holes in the plate lined up with the threads on the motor assembly. I tightened the nuts down onto the threads but not all the way.
There is a groove in the brushes that pushes up against the springs in the holders, but the grooves came out of alignment when I put the brush plate back on, of course. Conveniently, a small flat bladed screwdriver fits in that groove and I was able to spin the brush until the spring snapped into place. With the brushes aligned and everything else looking good, I tightened the nuts down snug.
Then I put a drop of oil–automotive 5w30 works well–on each side of the axle on the commutator. Just one drop is all it takes. Before I reassembled the locomotive, I took the motor to the track, put it on, and applied power. It ran. It clearly didn’t have much traction so sometimes it sat there and spun its wheels more than it moved. But it ran better than ever before now.
At this point it’s not a bad idea to put some grease on the gears as well. If the motor squeaks when you turn the wheels, it needs grease and oil.
I reassembled the Lionel 2034, put it on the track, and ran it for about 10 minutes in both directions. It ran well. This particular class of Lionel locomotives never ran like a Swiss watch, but it was able to pull a train of five passenger cars without struggling. I never dared to try that before.
Not every Lionel motor is put together exactly the same, but they all work the same way, so the principles that apply to the 2034 apply to other Lionel postwar motors, and for that matter, to Marx and American Flyer motors as well.
There’s a good deal of partisanship when it comes to vintage electric trains, but the truth is, these old trains were durable and high quality, regardless of who made them, so with a bit of cleaning and lubrication, it’s possible to get them running like new again. Or sometimes better than new, since we have better lubricants today than we had three quarters of a century ago.