Last Updated on July 6, 2022 by Dave Farquhar
The Lionel 115 station is a popular centerpiece for pre-war tinplate layouts. While best suited for standard gauge trains, its design does lend itself to o gauge, and it was one of Lionel’s pre-war designs that went back into production during the post-war era. Its first run lasted from 1935 to 1942, with a revival from 1946 to 1949.
The Lionel 115 is the second largest station Lionel produced, second only to the 116 station, which has a similar appearance. Its design was inspired by New York city’s Grand Central station, but it used selective compression to give the impression of a big city station without taking the space that would be required of a true scale model.
Origins of the Lionel 115 station
The 115 is an improved version of the earlier 112 and 113 stations. The 115 included a feature Lionel called automatic train control. You would isolate a block of track, usually 3-4 sections, and attach a lock on to the isolated track, and another lock on to the rest of the track, then connect the station in line. When the train entered the track section, the station would cut power, and a timer would keep the train stopped for a few seconds before restoring power and letting the train run again. Of course, you needed to disable the e unit in the train, otherwise the station would just cycle the train into neutral. Lionel e units have a lever for just this purpose.
At 13 3/4 inches wide by 9 1/4 inches deep and 9 inches tall, the Lionel 115 has an imposing presence on a layout. With a standard gauge train, it looks like a 2-story building. With an O gauge train, it looks like a 3-story building. The design was clever in its adaptability.
The 115 is one of a few examples of prewar designs that Lionel resumed or repurposed in the postwar era. It was on the upper end. The humble 6111 log car was an example of the lower end of that scale.
The 115’s legacy
After 1949, Lionel replaced the 115 with the more modest size plastic 132 station, which also offered train stop capability, but took less space on the layout. The smaller stations allowed hobbyists to build up more elaborate communities for their trains to roam around in and between. In the 1930s, the intent was for you to buy two stations, plant a couple of 184 bungalows around them, and make that represent a city. The approach changed as more companies started producing buildings for layouts.
Reproductions have been available since the 1980s. Originals have the words Lionel City stamped above the door. Some reproductions, sold by Lionel under the Lionel classics line as the 1115 station, or under the Lionel Corporation licensing agreement between Lionel and MTH in the 2010s, also say Lionel City. Reproductions sold by MTH or T-Reproductions that were not sold under these arrangements may have a blank spot over the door or the words Union Station.
Vintage examples of the 115 came in three color schemes, and modern reissues introduced a fourth. The initial color scheme had a cream colored structure with a terracotta base and peacock green windows and other architectural details. The later and more common examples had a red base, roof, and windows. There were two different shades of red. One of the modern reissues from the 2010s used the Lionel blue and orange color scheme, with a blue base and roof and orange windows.
Lionel sold the station alone or in conjunction with an elaborate terrace, which further elevated the station and also increased the square footage it took up on a layout. It is much easier to find the station alone than with the base, whether we are talking a vintage example or a modern reissue. Lionel’s distaste for tin lithography was sometimes a liability, but its use of bright enamel paints worked well on the 115 station design. Lionel was able to give a convincing representation of stone blocks and pillars by embossing tin plate and painting it a cream color. The colored windows weren’t exactly realistic but helped make the design pop. Joshua Lionel Cohen noted that having a bright, eye-catching design made it easier to sell his products to women, who were buying them for the children in their lives.
It is also no coincidence that the original color schemes look good under a Christmas tree.
Setting up the Lionel 115 station for automatic train control
The Lionel 115 came with instructions, but if you yours got misplaced over the years, here is how you set one up. To make an isolated track section, remove the center pin from two sections of track. Replace the metal pin with an insulated fiber pin. Lionel recommended using diagonal cutter pliers and levering the pin up against the track to remove it. I find it easier to use a pair of locking pliers. Sometimes it helps to push the pin inward a bit and then pull it out.
Place two or three sections of regular track in between the isolated track sections. This gives you a length of three to four isolated track sections. Place a lock on on The insulated track section, and another lock on on the non-isolated section. Connect the center rail of the non-isolated track to post #1 on the Lionel 115 station. Connect the center rail of the isolated track to post #3 of the Lionel 115 station. Finally, connect the outside rail of either lockon to post #2 of the Lionel 115 station.
Setting up the 115 without automatic train control
It’s also possible to just light the Lionel 115 and not use train control. To do this, run your common wire to post #2 and your accessory wire to post #1.
How the 115 works
The mechanism is part# 115-14. Lionel later incorporated it into its plastic 132 station, which it produced during the postwar era. The mechanism works by having a contact wrapped with a wire. The wire heats the contact, which eventually causes it to close. When the contact closes, it sends power to the track, allowing the train to run.
Popularity and value
The 115 station is easier to find than it was when electric train collecting was at its peak. But it remains incredibly popular. You can usually find a few on Ebay.
Reproductions appeared in the 1980s, which means the station was available in the modern era for longer than it was originally. Repros retailed for around $300 and used examples of those still sell for close to that today. Originals in very good or excellent condition are available for around $200-$300. You’ll pay a premium for a better original example. Before paying a premium, make sure it’s actually original. An example restored in the 1960s or 70s will have a patina again.
Examples in less than pristine condition sell for under $100, at least outside of the November-January peak period for toy trains. Before you pay $200 for one, make sure it’s complete. I’ve seen examples for $200 that look pretty good, but are missing parts. Parts are available, but make sure you know what you’re getting into. Most replacement parts sell for $20-$25 after shipping. That means a window here, a skylight there, and a light fixture elsewhere can turn that $200 station into a $260 station. Don’t pay a ready-to-run price for a project. Repair and restoration is a fun part of the hobby. But if you want a restoration project, buy a sub-$100 example.
Repurposing the Lionel 115 station
There is no shortage of great tinplate train station buildings for us to use. The 115 is modeled after Grand Central Station in New York City, though the result more closely resembles the miniaturized union stations in midwestern industrial cities like Gary, Indiana. But it also resembles a courthouse, city hall, or central branch of a public library in the midwest. So if you place it away from the tracks and surround it with commercial buildings, it can serve a completely different purpose while not looking out of place.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.