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.

The transformer

The first thing to do is to check the transformer. While external appearance is no guarantee of good things going on inside, it’s a safe bet that if the case is rusty, there’s corrosion inside. If you’re interested in a more thorough checkout, I go over that here. If the power cord is frayed, it’s a fire hazard or electrical shock hazard. Don’t plug it in in that state, but you may be able to fix it yourself.

Lionel’s nicer transformers, the KW and ZW, are prone to a problem with their binding posts. Here’s how to fix ZW binding posts. KW repair is very similar.

The transformer should say its wattage and whether it’s AC or DC somewhere on the surface. A modern Lionel or K-Line AC transformer is a suitable replacement for all vintage Lionel, Flyer, and Marx transformers. A few Lionel and Marx sets used DC transformers. Absolutely any hobby shop that sells trains will be able to sell you a suitable replacement DC transformer. If you can’t get an AC transformer, you can use a DC transformer in a pinch, but the reverse is not true.

Testing the locomotive

If your transformer is safe, it’s time to test the locomotive. Connect a wire to each terminal on the tranny. Flip the locomotive over. Marx locomotives will have a copper shoe on the bottom. Most Lionels will have a pair of roller wheels. Very old (pre-1945) American Flyers also have roller wheels. For these types of locomotives, touch one wire to the shoe or roller and the other wire to one of the big driver wheels and turn the transformer on to a low speed. With any luck, the motor will turn over and the wheels will turn.

If the locomotive hums and the wheels refuse to turn, and the wheels don’t turn easily by hand, you may have something binding. Stop before you burn up the armature–an expensive repair.

Post-WWII American Flyers are trickier. They used two rails, so the wheels are the only electrical pickups. Steam engines usually used the wheels on the tender–the coal car that sits behind the locomotive–rather than the wheels on the engine itself. Flip the tender over and look for wheels that seem to be made of metal. Connect the tender up to the locomotive–the wire tether only plugs in one way–then follow the same procedure as above.

Cleaning the locomotive

If the locomotive doesn’t run, clean the driver wheels and the pickup with cotton swabs and rubbing alcohol. Simply dip a swab into the alcohol, rub it on the wheel, and when it gets dirty, repeat with a new swab until the swabs stay clean. Be prepared to use a lot of them.

If the locomotive runs, clean the wheels anyway. Trust me, they’re probably filthy, and the dirtier the locomotive, the more sparks will fly.

There’s one other simple repair to try if the locomotive still doesn’t run. Flip it over and look inside the body. See if you can find a copper piece inside. Sometimes it’s visible and sometimes it isn’t. If you’re lucky, it’s just visible enough that you can get a cotton swab up into it. Dip a swab in the alcohol, apply it to that copper piece, and turn the wheels. Yes, this is one of those tasks that would be much easier with three hands. Repeat until the swabs stay clean.

If even that fails, I cover more about Lionel motors here and Marx motors here.

Cleaning track

Now that you’ve established that the locomotive is good and the transformer is good, it’s time to tackle the track. Ideally, the track should be clean, bright, and shiny. Clean and dull will still work too. But all too often it’s dirty and even rusty.

The safest way to clean the track is to use paper towels and a household cleaner. My favorite to use is mineral spirits, but in a pinch you can use alcohol, white vinegar, or glass cleaner. Citrus cleaners often do a good job but they leave residue, so if you use a citrus cleaner, follow it up with alcohol or glass cleaner.

I also have a one-time treatment that pretty much ensures you never have to clean track again. It takes about 30 minutes and costs about $5.

Fixing track

You can clean off light rust with a kitchen scouring pad and vinegar. For track that shows heavy damage, I cover fixing that here.

Clean up enough track to make a full circle. If you have more track, you can always clean more track later. You can make life a bit easier on yourself if you test each piece of track for shorts before spending too much time cleaning it.

Also check for missing and/or damaged pins. If any pins show heavy rust, you need to sand them down or replace them. Salvage pins from other pieces of track if need be. You can remove pins from track with a pair of locking pliers. Just pull with a back-and-forth motion.

Hooking up track

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

Once you have a circle of clean track, look for your lockon. That’s the piece that has two wire terminals and two clips to connect to the track. If you can’t find a lockon, you can jam the wires into the bottom of the track with a slotted screwdriver. For Lionel, Marx, and pre-1945 American Flyer, one wire connects to the center rail and the other to the outer rail. Postwar American Flyer takes one wire to each rail.

The test spin

With a clean circle of track set up and the transformer connected, it’s time to put the locomotive on the track and take it for a spin. Be sure to put one car behind the locomotive but don’t make a whole train. We want to give the locomotive enough of a load that it won’t be as likely to fly off the track but we don’t want to make it work too hard too soon.

Plug in the transformer and turn it on to a slow speed. Gradually increase the speed until the locomotive moves. Give the locomotive a push if it needs it. If it runs but not well, push it around the track to give it some help.

After these machines have been sitting unused for years or decades, it can take some time for them to get used to running again. But all of the Big Three made good products in the 1950s; chances of them running well after some coaxing are pretty high.

Wiring

When the time comes to set it up permanently or semi-permanently, the wiring depends on your transformer. Here are wiring tips for the Lionel 1033, KW, LW, and ZW.

Lubrication

Before you run it extensively, it’s usually a good idea to lube them. Don’t reach for a can of WD-40; this calls for a better oil and more precision. If you have some 3-in-1 oil or another sewing machine oil, that’s good. Some people also use motor oil. I use synthetic 10w30. A quart will last a lifetime for train use.

At any rate, get some oil and a toothpick. Stick the tip of the toothpick in the oil, and touch the toothpick to any exposed axles you see. Put a very small amount of grease on the gears.

There are usually some gears inside as well, especially on post-1945 American Flyers, but always do the simple things first and see if they run, then stop unless the engine still has problems. It’s very easy to give an old engine new problems if you get too ambitious too quickly with your repair.

Parting words

At any rate, chances are pretty good that your locomotive is running by now. I think I’ve messed with 15 different old locomotives over the course of the past year. This procedure was enough to get all but two of them running–including a locomotive that dated from the 1920s.

Have fun.

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