How do you make a Lionel train whistle? Well, you need a whistling tender and a transformer with a whistle button or handle. If it’s all wired correctly, pushing the button or handle while the electric train is moving will make it whistle.
And if it doesn’t, let’s try to figure out why.
The first thing to check is to make sure you have a whistling tender. The tender–sometimes incorrectly called a coal car–will have little pickup rollers in between the wheels if it has a whistle inside. If your tender doesn’t have those rollers, it doesn’t have a whistle. You can frequently pick up a whistling tender at a train show, a hobby shop, or Ebay for around $35. As far as I can tell, Lionel doesn’t sell whistling tenders separately anymore.
If you have a whistling tender but pushing the button or handle on your transformer doesn’t make it whistle, try reversing the wires on your track. Assuming you use posts A and U on the transformer for power (the most common arrangement), just swap which wire is on which post. Typically, transformer post A goes to post 1 on the track lockon and transformer post U goes to post 2 on the lockon. But there have been a few notable exceptions over the years. Don’t ask me why. If you have modern Lionel Fastrack and a modern transformer, the wires and posts are color-coded. If you hooked them up according to color and it’s still not working, try swapping them anyway. It won’t hurt anything to try that.
If it still won’t work and you have a vintage transformer, you may have worn-out rectifier discs. Ambitious types may enjoy this site that talks about replacing the discs in the iconic Lionel ZW with modern diodes. If you’re the type of person who fixes a toaster when it breaks, have at it. But if you aren’t, you may wish to leave that job to a professional repair shop.
In vintage tenders, the motor that blows air into the whistle can gum up. Cleaning and re-lubricating that motor can help. But again, if you’re not the type of person who fixes your own small appliances, it’s best to leave that job to a pro.
Most of the time, the issue is reversed wiring. Fortunately, reversing the wiring is a quick and easy fix to make a Lionel train whistle again.