Lionel T-Rail track was high end pre-war O gauge track. It was available from 1935 to 1942, and Lionel featured it on its legendary 1937 showroom layout in New York City.
What was T-Rail track?
In the 1930s, Lionel nearly went bankrupt. There are two prevailing theories regarding what saved Lionel. One story was a windup O gauge hand car featuring Mickey and Minnie Mouse that Lionel sold for the uncharacteristically low price of $1.
The other theory was Lionel’s high end production, which featured true 1:48 scale trains running on a new track system. This track system was called T-Rail and it featured realistic t-shaped solid steel code 250 rails that attached with fish plates and bolts, had more realistic ties than traditional tubular track and 10 ties instead of the traditional 3, and came with wide O72 curves and long straight sections that were about 13 7/8 inches long.
Both stories are probably an oversimplification, but they represent some of the more dramatic changes Lionel made at both ends of its product line. And the replacement of the big, brightly colored Standard Gauge trains at the high end with T-Rail track and its associated scale trains was a big change.
A major shift
Although Lionel proclaimed themselves the leader in model railroading, that was more marketing bluster than anything else. The 1:48 scale train cars pulled by your choice of a700E Hudson and 708 Pennsy B6 060 switcher, both scaled to 1:48 with realistic paint schemes, were the first true scale model railroad products Lionel made. Some would argue they weren’t models because they had three rails, but even serious O scale hobby products in the late 1930s frequently used an outside third rail.
The best track Lionel ever made
T-Rail track has a rabid cult following today. The value of most Lionel trains peaked sometime in the late 90s or early 2000s, but that’s not the case for T-Rail track. T-Rail track track has continued to increase in value. The two best ways to get it are from eBay and at the twice a year TCA Eastern Division train meet in York, Pennsylvania. The straight sections are more expensive than curved sections. Expect to pay $20 per section for curves in nice condition, and $40 per section for straights in nice condition. Switches sell for anywhere from $125 to $250 each.
The connecting hardware frequently is missing or incomplete. Reproductions of varying quality are available, and you can use modern Code 250 track connectors to connect the center rails.
Diecast track ties with molded detail
The ties were diecast, rather than being pressed steel, and they were subject to zinc pest. Sometimes you find just the rails alone because the ties crumbled like Dorfan trains, and sometimes the track sections are just missing a small number of ties. If the ties are 2.33 inches long or longer, that’s a sign that zinc pest has kicked in. Such swollen ties are more prone to break from handling, including when you attach them to the table.
The track is extremely inflexible, and forcing track sections to fit the way we do with tubular track will damage the ties on T-Rail track. It is also much more difficult to assemble than tubular track and modern track types. Attaching all of those tiny fish plates with tiny and fiddly nuts and bolts takes a lot of time.
Advantages of T Rail track
But proponents call it the best track Lionel ever made. Being solid rail, it works really well with Magnetraction even though that technology wasn’t invented until after the war. The solid rails also mean less voltage drop. And the flat tops make for smooth running and good contact with the wheels. It needs frequent cleaning but cleans easily due to the flat tops.
Its proponents say it was the best track Lionel ever made. It’s not exactly the most practical, since a simple circle of it will cost around $320, and it will cost $80 to turn that circle into the most basic oval. And it needs a lot of space because a circle is 6 feet in diameter.
But it’s something not everyone has, and for that matter, not a lot of Lionel fans even know what it is.
Lionel T-Rail track’s legacy
The trains and the track were available for 7 years. World war II put an end to their production, and Lionel didn’t resume production after the war. It may have been lack of demand, or it may have just been a pure economies of scale decision. There was a great deal of pens up demand in 1946 for electric trains. The closest parallel to today would be if production of video game consoles had to stop for 3 years. When production resumed, presumably one of the biggest objectives would be just getting as much product out the door as possible.
Lionel did develop a new high-end track system called Super O, which it eventually released in 1957. Lionel developed it much earlier, but didn’t bring it to market right away. They didn’t seem to need it. Of course the ill fated 1970s Trutrack looks a bit like T Rail but was far less successful.
Copycats and lasting influence
The T-Rail track seemed to have influenced Lionel’s competitor American Flyer, however. When American Flyer resumed production, it changed gauges to S gauge. And they formed the rails on their new track out of sheet metal like tubular track, but they found a way to form it into a t-shape. For ease of use and controlling costs, they connected the rails with pins rather than fish plates.
Flyer may have copied Lionel, but T-Rail track wasn’t Lionel’s original idea either. Marklin of Germany made a very similar track system, and it hit the market before Lionel’s answer did. It’s possible that Lionel just didn’t want to cede the high end of the market to a potential rival from Germany. I have never seen the two track systems side by side personally, but from what I understand, they look very much alike and it is possible to use them together.
It’s always been possible to approximate the look at a lower price. You can buy code 250 rail, cut your own wooden ties, and attach the rail to the ties with track plates and spikes. That’s called hand laying track, and I guess the wonder in the late 1930s was that you could get that handlaid look with something available commercially off the shelf, already assembled into sections.
I imagine to onlookers who saw it in the Lionel showroom in 1937, it looked like the future. The last, it was a future that never arrived. There was never anything quite like it again.
Specifics of the Lionel T-Rail track product line
For a product line with such a rabid following, surprisingly few items were available.
- #771 Curved, O72
- #772 Straight, 13 7/8 inches long
- #730 90 degrees crossover
- #731 O72 Switches
- #772S insulated straight track section produced only from 1940-1942
It attached with fishplates and miniature bolts on outer rails, and power clips on the middle rails similar to the track connectors for modern G scale track.
Madison Hardware and many hobbyists made uncoupling sections by adding an uncoupler to a #772 straight. Hobbyists sometimes made custom sections by cutting custom lengths or even rebending curves. Some hobbyists even made custom crossovers, such as a 45 degree crossing.
Servicing Lionel T-Rail track
It’s possible to replace missing ties, if you manage to locate original replacements. Here’s a process that’s worked well for many hobbyists.
Lionel punched the rail base at the edge to hold ties in place. If you carefully file or drill away that bump, it’s possible to slide the ties around. The only way to move or remove the ties without breaking them is to slide them off the rails, so removing that bump is necessary.
If the missing tie is not at the end, move ties from the nearer end so that all missing ties are at one end. To do this, drill out the punch mark between the two outer “spikes” on each end of every tie you need to move. A #55 drill bit tilted about 20° into each punch mark is usually enough free the ties to slide. Slide them slowly and carefully, taking care to keep them square to the track. If you twist them, you will probably break the molded spikes.
If any of the ties are longer than 2.330 inches, they will probably break in the process. You can attempt to repair them with epoxy, or replace them.
After you free a tie, only slide it about halfway. File off any burrs left from drilling. This makes it easier to move the next tie and minimizes the chances of damage.
When all the ties are where they belong, punch the rail base flange on each end of each tie using a sharp center punch or a 3/32 inch cold chisel.