Lionel CW-40 vs CW-80 transformers

The Lionel CW-40, also known as the Powermax Plus, looks just like the CW-80, at least if you’re looking from the front. But it has significant differences from its bigger brother. Let’s look at the Lionel CW-40 vs CW-80 and whether those differences matter to you.

Neither the CW-40 or CW-80 are high-end transformers. But if you’re doing anything more ambitious than running a simple loop of track, you’ll probably be happier with a CW-80.

Quality and repairability

Lionel CW-80 vs vintage transformers
The Lionel CW-40 and CW-80 look just alike, but the CW-40 has significant limitations in comparison.

The CW-80 got off to a really rough start, quality-wise, and that tarnished its reputation to this day. Since I don’t see any new complaints about the CW-80, just complaints from people who bought them more than a decade ago, that’s a good indication Lionel was able to work out the kinks. The CW-40 is just a smaller CW-80, so presumably its quality is similar. Firsthand accounts with the CW-40 are rare.

Lionel doesn’t intend for either of these transformers to be repaired. Unlike postwar-era transformers, when the new ones break, Lionel expects you to throw them away and buy a new one. They can be fixed, but not a lot of people know how to work on them.

That said, given the limitations of a CW-40, I wouldn’t put a lot of time and effort into fixing one anyway.

Lionel CW-40 limitations

The CW-40, as its name suggests, outputs about 40 watts of power. That’s enough to power a starter-set locomotive and 3-4 lighted passenger cars. Some people don’t even give it that much credit. A motor uses around 10 watts and each light bulb uses about three watts. So that’s about the limit of what it can do for you.

Because the CW-40 doesn’t have much power to spare, it only has one set of terminals on it, the set that leads to the track. If you want to power any accessories or additional lights from it, you’ll have to run them off the same set of leads. And to have any power left for accessories or additional lights, you’d better be running a freight train, not a passenger train.

If you got a CW-40 with a train set and bought a bigger transformer later, you can use the CW-40 for lights on your layout. Just keep in mind the CW-40 has enough power for about 12-13 miniature light bulbs. And since the CW-40 doesn’t have any fixed-voltage terminals for accessories, you have to use the throttle handle to control how much voltage the lights get.

Lionel CW-80 capabilities

The Lionel CW-80 outputs about 80 watts. That’s more than enough to power a passenger train with four cars. The leftover power is enough to power 12-13 light bulbs on your layout, whether they’re inside buildings or on streetlights. You can set the power of the accessory terminals independently of the throttle, so your lights run at constant brightness regardless of how fast the train is moving. The CW-80 can also handle powered switches if you have them.

Online, the CW-80 doesn’t sell for much more than a CW-40. If you get a CW-40 in a starter set, that’s fine, but I wouldn’t buy one separately. There’s just no real reason for that. And frankly, some postwar transformers are a better value than both of them.

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