Lionel’s Trutrack experiment

Last Updated on June 1, 2022 by Dave Farquhar

In 1973, Lionel tried to give its flagging product line a boost with a new track system. It combined elements of some of its other very successful track systems. Here’s why Lionel Trutrack crashed and burned and you’ve probably never heard of it.

Lionel Trutrack

Lionel Trutrack
Lionel Trutrack had better-looking track ties than traditional track and had optional rubber roadbed. But it never caught on because it had aluminum rails.

Lionel Trutrack looks like a reasonable product at first glance. It does have the third rail, but it’s narrower. And it has a eight track ties, a reasonable number to not scream at you that it’s toy train track. At least not quite as loudly. It came in O42 curves, which would have provided smoother running than the standard O27 or O31 curve.

Lionel sold it with optional rubber roadbed, taking a cue from American Flyer. So the track looked reasonably good, and the roadbed made the track look better and would have been great for floor layouts. It combined some of the best elements of Super O track and Fastrack.

The problem was the track didn’t work. Well, and it was flimsy. Unusually flimsy, especially for a company who had attacked competitor Ives‘ products as being flimsy a few decades before.

It also didn’t work with Magnetracton, which was a disadvantage with postwar-era trains.

There are some people who think it was never released. It was released, but it sold poorly, so it didn’t last long. It’s easy to think it was announced but never released, because not a lot of people ever saw it.

From what I’ve been told from people who own enough Trutrack to make a circle of it, the track fails to conduct electricity. There are two reasons for it. First, the track pins are poorly designed, so they just don’t fit right and they don’t make a good electrical connection. Chances are you could solve that problem by bending the pins a bit, until they make a tight connection. And I guess you shouldn’t say the track doesn’t work. If you polish it thoroughly, it should work for a little while. But we’re talking weeks.

That’s because the track was made of aluminum. Hey, it was the 70s.

Aluminum and electricity

If you are familiar with old houses, you may have heard about aluminum wiring. In the 70s, aluminum wiring was a trend. The idea was that aluminum is a lot cheaper than copper, so we could use aluminum instead and save a ton of money. There was a copper shortage at the time, it wasn’t just a random idea.

It worked out poorly. The wiring had a tendency to overheat and cause house fires, and even people who weren’t born yet when this is going on have heard about it.

There’s a misconception that aluminum doesn’t conduct electricity, because of those house fires. That’s not completely accurate. Aluminum itself isn’t a bad conductor. It’s not as good as copper, but it’s better than steel. The problem is aluminum oxide. Aluminum oxidizes much faster than iron. Unlike iron oxide, aluminum oxide stays on the surface and prevents further corrosion. But just like iron oxide, aluminum oxide is a terrible conductor.

You can mitigate aluminum wiring by using special outlets and following very specific instructions for installing them. But that’s another story. And aluminum is used in electrical applications today, but they generally plate it to prevent the oxidation.

The thing is, in 1973, not all of this was widely understood, and Lionel didn’t consider any of this. They had a batch of the track made in Italy, shipped it over to the United States, put it on the market without testing it first, and it flopped.

Theoretically, a product called No Ox ID A Special, my secret for not having to clean conventional track, would work on Trutrack. But I’ve never had the opportunity to test that theory.

At any rate, Lionel Trutrack is the worst track system you’ve never heard of.

It’s rare, but not especially valuable because you can’t do anything useful with it.

Not everything Lionel did during this era, the MPC era, was a disaster. The Pullmor motor is an example of something Lionel certainly did right during its time under General Mills’ ownership. But Trutrack was definitely among the low points. Great idea, just too many flaws in execution.

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