Lionel CW-80 vs vintage transformers

Last Updated on September 5, 2019 by Dave Farquhar

Someone asked me recently about the Lionel CW-80 and how it compares vs older transformers. That’s a fair question, and one that tends to stir up a lot of emotions on train forums. So I’ll try to present the pros and cons in a fair manner.

Advantages of the CW-80

Lionel CW-80 vs vintage transformers
The Lionel CW-80 has some things to offer, but vintage transformers offer a compelling choice as well.

The CW-80 actually outputs 80 watts of power, unlike vintage transformers, which are rated for the wattage they pull from your electrical outlet. So when you pay $99 for 80 watts of power, you actually get 80 watts of power. So there’s something to that.

The CW-80, unlike older transformers, has both bell and whistle/horn buttons, so if you run modern diesels that have both a bell and a horn, you can control it with a CW-80. With an older transformer, you get one or the other.

You can adjust the voltage output of the CW-80’s accessory posts to get exactly the voltage you want.

Also, although the typical street price of a CW-80 is around $99, you can get them quite a bit cheaper off Ebay. A typical price is around $60 before shipping. But I’m still hesitant to recommend them, for reasons I’ll get into. I’m even less inclined to recommend the CW-40, which is a cut-down CW-80.

Neutral things about the CW-80

The CW-80 is newer. There are people who think old transformers are dangerous simply because they are old. But the old transformers were inspected and certified by regulatory bodies when they were new, and nothing about transformers has changed since then. As long as the transformer has been serviced relatively recently, using a transformer made in 1950 is no more dangerous than using a lamp made in 1950.

If you like trains that have a computer stuffed inside them, you’ll need some protection between the track and transformer to lessen the chances of destroying that computer, but that’s the case with both the CW-80 and vintage transformers.

Disadvantages of the CW-80

The CW-80 isn’t a true transformer. Like a UPS for a computer, it outputs a pseudo sine wave that resembles AC, but it’s not a true AC wave. Old and new Lionel trains don’t care about that–they work regardless. Some other brands of modern trains hate that, particularly MTH trains with command control and digital sound. If you have any of those, or might ever have any of those, it’s best to avoid the CW-80.

Another problem, and this is a big one to me, is that the CW-80 isn’t very repairable. It’s held together with security screws. While a 1/8″ slotted screwdriver will open those screws if used carefully, the proper screwdriver to use is a TA-27 triangle-head screwdriver. Precious few people know that.  So few, if any people are salvaging the usable parts out of dead CW-80s and reselling them. There is an 8-amp fuse inside the CW-80 that can blow. But with no easy way to replace it, I wonder how many CW-80s have been thrown away over a 75-cent part. There’s also a really cheap 9v fan in there that tends to fail after about a year of heavy use. I happen to know that a 40mm Evercool ball-bearing fan will fit. Throwing away a transformer over a $3 fan is also a shame.

Lionel considers it a throwaway transformer, whether you pay $60, $99, or $149 for it. It’s not necessarily a bad deal at $60, but you can spend less to get a better, fixable transformer. And I recommend that you do.

Vintage alternatives to the CW-80

Secondhand vintage Lionel transformers, even when professionally serviced, are cheap. And you can service them yourself if they ever need it. I’ve fixed a number of them over the years and they’ve done well for me. I have a CW-80, but it sits in the corner most of the time because the vintage transformers I’ve accumulated over the years are better.

Lionel 1033

The Lionel 1033 is a 90-watt transformer. I’ve covered it in some depth here, but what you need to know relative to the CW-80 is that its real usable output is closer to 60 watts, so it’s not quite as powerful as a CW-80, but it costs a lot less so you get more wattage for your dollar with it.

They aren’t hard to find at all for $50, and with a little luck you can get them for much, much less than that. That’s a much better deal than a CW-80. Lionel used to bundle the 1033 in its starter sets in the 1950s, so a lot of people got them by default then. A lot of people get them by default now, because they’re easy to find, but when the time comes to get a second transformer, many of them get a second 1033 because they liked the first one.

Lionel RW

The Lionel RW is a 110-watt transformer, so its usable output is closer to 70 watts, making it slightly less powerful than a CW-80 but still a pretty good alternative. And like the 1033, these are serviceable and dependable. They only have one flaw and it’s easy to fix. Literally all you need is a screwdriver and a popsicle stick. It’s entirely possible to pick one of these up for around $30. Yes, for some reason the 1033 sometimes sells for more than the RW. I think the RW is very underrated.

Lionel LW

The Lionel LW is a 125-watt transformer, yielding a usable output of about 80 watts. So it’s the closest postwar equivalent to the CW-80. These are serviceable and dependable. It’s not all that hard to get one of these for the price of a CW-80, or even a bit less. It doesn’t seem like there are as many of these out there as there are KWs. Then again, there’s more demand for KWs too.

There are two things I don’t like about the LW. The throttle turns in the opposite direction of other transformers, so when I run one, I often speed up the train when I intend to slow it down. That’s not so much of a problem if you only have one transformer, but it’s something to keep in mind. Since I’m used to the other direction, I prefer the RW even though the LW has a bit more wattage.

The other problem with the LW is that it inexplicably uses the “A” post as common, rather than “U,” like most other Lionel transformers. So if you ever want to do a multi-transformer layout with the transformers in phase, you’ll have to remember the LW is an odd duck. It’s a quirky transformer but none of that quirkiness affects reliability.

Lionel KW

The Lionel KW is a 190-watt beast, one of the better transformers of the postwar era. It will thoroughly outclass the CW-80, and it’s not hard to find one that’s been serviced for around $100. That’s admittedly higher than the Ebay going rate for a CW-80. But it’s close to the regular going rate for a CW-80 from other sources. With some luck you can sometimes find a tested, working KW for less than that.

If you’re willing to try fixing one yourself, you can take a chance on an untested one. Expect to put a couple of hours of time and $30 worth of parts into fixing it. But this is a popular enough option that a lot of people even bundle together repair kits. You’ll come out ahead.

I have to admit I don’t understand the physics involved. But when I power a layout with a KW or ZW versus a smaller transformer, I notice a bit less voltage drop on the far reaches of the layout if I haven’t run as many power drops as I should. I can still see some drop, but it’s not as significant. So, even if you never touch the second handle on a KW, you’ll notice a better-running train with a KW than with a CW-80.

Lionel ZW

The Lionel ZW was the biggest Lionel transformer of the postwar era, at 270 watts. Finding one of these for $100 will take some luck and patience. But it is possible. It helps if you’re OK with getting one with a little bit of cosmetic damage. You’ll probably have to win it at auction rather than through buy-it-now. But I see them go for less than $100 sometimes, even in winter when prices are higher. Also, like the KW, you can buy an untested one, pick up a repair kit, and save yourself some money.

Every kid wanted one of these in the ’50s, and besides looking big and expensive, it worked extremely well. I thought Lionel was overrated until I ran a Lionel 675 locomotive with a ZW. After seeing how that combination runs, I understand Lionel’s mystique.

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