Frequent questions about setting up toy trains and trains and Christmas trees

Here are some train-related questions I’ve received that I really don’t think I ever answered adequately elsewhere. Hopefully this will help.

How much track do you need under a Christmas tree? With American Flyer S gauge (2 rail) track, 12 pieces make a circle. So if you want an oval, 14 pieces (12 curves + 2 straight) will make an oval approximately 40″x48″. Add more straight pieces in pairs if you want a bigger oval, in either direction.

With Lionel O gauge track, 8 pieces make a circle, so 10 pieces (8 curves plus 2 straight) make an oval approximately 27″x36″, or 31″x41″, depending on whether you have O27 or O31 track. Add more straights in pairs to expand the oval.

How to connect an American Flyer lockon and transformer. The lockon clips to the track. Make sure both rails are firmly connected. Run a wire from the clip marked base post to the base post on the transformer. Run another wire from the other post to the other clip. I prefer to use black for the base post and red for the other wire, but for temporary layouts it doesn’t matter much.

If you’re using a Lionel transformer with your Flyer trains, the post marked “U” or “Common” is the base post. If you’re using a Marx transformer with no markings on its posts, then which wire goes where doesn’t matter.

How to connect a transformer to Lionel Fastrack. On modern transformers, it’s color-coded. Just connect the red wire to the red post and the black wire to the black post. If you’re using an older transformer, the black wire goes to the post marked U or Common. The red wire goes to the post marked A. If the transformer has separate sets of posts for track and accessories, make sure you’re using the posts intended for the track. They are labeled. The track and accessories can share the U post, if that matters.

And yes, since someone asked the question, Fastrack works fine with vintage transformers. I’ve used it with a postwar 1033 transformer and also with a postwar ZW.

The train will still run if you reverse the polarity, but your train’s bell or whistle could malfunction.

How to connect a Lionel lockon and transformer. When using old-school Lionel tubular track, the lockon clips to the center rail and one outer rail. Run a wire from the terminal that touches the outer rail (usually marked #2) to the post marked U or Common on your transformer. Run a wire from the other terminal to the post marked A.

Lionel CTC Lockon
A Lionel CTC lockon, properly installed. Note it only touches the center rail and one outer rail.

The lockon should only make contact with two rails, total, and the terminals should sit well to the outside of the rails. Incorrectly connecting the lockon is a leading cause of a malfunctioning Lionel train and it can damage the transformer if left that way for long. So if you think you have it wrong, drop everything and go unplug that transformer now.

The train will still run if you reverse the polarity, but your train’s bell or whistle could malfunction.

If you’re using a Flyer transformer with your Lionel trains, connect #2 to the base post, and #1 to the other track post. If you’re using a Marx transformer with no markings on its posts, it doesn’t matter how you hook the wires up.

How to make the wire stay on the posts on the transformer. This applies to Flyer, Lionel, Marx, K-Line, and all other makes of toy trains, and to some degree, even to model trains in other scales.. To make the wire attach to the transformer posts better, bend the wire into a loop with a pair of needlenose pliers, bigger than the head of the screw or the nut that it’s going over, then put the wire in place, then squeeze the loop tight around the post with the pliers. This will make the wire much more willing to stay in place when you tighten the nuts on the posts. Leave the wire on the track ends straight, since the Fahnestock clips on the lockons connect to straight, bare wire with minimal effort.

How many accessories can you connect to a transformer? It depends entirely on the wattage. Assume the train will use 15-20 watts. Each light bulb will use 2-3 watts each. Switches can use about 5 watts each. Accessories may well use 10-15 watts on their own–but you probably won’t have all of them operating at once, will you? As long as you’re not using more than the full capacity of your transformer at any given time, you can have a lot connected to it. Just estimate a little high on everything, and you’ll be fine.

I hope you’ve found this post helpful. If you have, please share a link, whether it’s on your own blog, a forum, Twitter, or Facebook.

2 thoughts on “Frequent questions about setting up toy trains and trains and Christmas trees

  • December 5, 2010 at 8:09 pm
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    My dad left me his old Amercian Flyer trainset. I haven’t a clue of how to setup transformers, talking station and all the other goodies. I’ve had it for almost six years and hasn’t been taking out of the box. I don’t recall my dad setting it up either since I was younger (30+ years is my best guess).

    Any idea of where I can get instructions (idiot version) of how to set it up? I’ve read your articles on cleaning the tracks; glad to have read before I took an sos pad to them.

    Thanks for your time.

    Linda

    • December 5, 2010 at 8:45 pm
      Permalink

      Hi Linda,

      For the basic setup what I wrote here should be enough to get the train going on a loop of track–lockon to the track, two wires, match up the base post mark on the lockon and the transformer. The talking station will be more difficult; I’ll try to do a little research and see if I can figure out what it takes to connect that. There’s a lot less info out there on Flyer than on Lionel, as I’m sure you’re finding out.

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