Last Updated on April 6, 2023 by Dave Farquhar
The Rock Island train set was a cheap battery-operated train available at discount and toy stores from about 1988 to 1990.
The set was made in Mexico from old Plastimarx tooling. A small company called Great Lakes Promotions imported it into the United States and distributed it.
The Rock Island toy train set was pretty nondescript. The box simply said “Rock Island toy train set” on the front, with no further branding. The set itself ran on plastic O27 gauge track, the same as Lionel’s cheapest sets, although it had no need for a center rail. It came with two switches and enough straight and curved track to make an oval with one siding.
The battery-operated locomotive resembled a 70-ton diesel, from the same tooling Marx had marketed as the Marx 588 locomotive a quarter-century earlier.
The cars included a gondola, box car, stock car, tank car and caboose molded in random colors, most of them undecorated. The caboose sometimes came lettered “Arkansas R.R.,” as Plastimarx had done. In spite of the name on the box, neither the locomotive nor the cars were lettered for Rock Island, the defunct Class 1 railroad.
Other than the branding, the Great Lakes set resembled the inexpensive sets Plastimarx had produced for the South American market. The train was made in Mexico, but the box and instructions were printed in Hong Kong. This causes some confusion today but the train is of Mexican origin.
Marx collectors refer to this set both as “the Rock Island set” and “the Great Lakes set.”
Why Rock Island?
The Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific railroad, also commonly known as the Rock Island railroad or simply “The Rock,” went out of business and into liquidation in 1980. Unlike other defunct railroads that merged with surviving Class 1 railroads, nobody owned the Rock Island trademark. Rock Island is the biggest railroad name that anyone can use.
Using the Rock Island name gave the set a little bit of name recognition without adding any cost or legal liability. Other railroads purchased Rock Island’s inventory of locomotives and freight cars and didn’t necessarily go to the expense to repaint them before putting them into service, which meant the name was still in public view in the late 80s. Occasionally you can still see former Rock Island equipment in operation even today.
Quality of the Rock Island toy train set
Marx had a reputation for making and marketing sets of reasonable quality at a low price. Unfortunately, the Rock Island set didn’t follow in those footsteps very well. The cars used Marx’s four-wheel design with dummy plastic trucks to make them look like they had eight wheels, and Marx’s fixed knuckle coupler. The cars looked cheap, especially without any decoration on them, but they were durable.
The locomotive was a different matter. With a plastic body and a low-voltage DC motor, the locomotive had no weight outside of the battery that powered the motor. The locomotive struggled to pull the weight of the included cars. If you wanted to buy two sets and combine them, you could forget about trying to pull a longer train. The locomotive just wasn’t up for it.
Marx collectors who want to operate the set will sometimes swap in a motor from a damaged Marx 588 locomotive. The older Marx motor fits without issues, and it’s very easy to change the motor back without any damage or modification.
Rarity and value of the Rock Island toy train set
Retail stores only carried the Rock Island toy train set for two or three years, so the set is much rarer than the similar Marx sets that stores like W.T. Grant sold throughout the 1960s and 1970s in spite of being 25 years newer.
The sets used to be easy to find. I remember seeing them in secondhand stores, and passing them up, in the 2005-2006 timeframe. Today they are harder to find and getting more expensive. I could only find one for sale on Ebay, and it was a new, sealed example priced at $80. Extrapolating from that, a used set in nice condition is probably worth $20-$40.
If you’re interested in selling yours, be sure to include the name “Great Lakes” in your description and in your title if there’s room, and the phrase “from Marx/Plastimarx tooling.” Marx collectors are the target audience for this set and they may not think to look for it solely under the Rock Island name.
When Quaker Oats divested Marx in 1976, the Mexican subsidiary, Plastimarx, wasn’t part of the deal. So Plastimarx continued to operate and outlived its U.S. counterpart. Not only that, Plastimarx trains outlived Marx trains. Plastimarx continued producing and selling four-wheel plastic sets after Marx quit selling them in the United States in 1976. The Rock Island train set looks like a cost-reduced Marx Meteor train set from 1974-75 because that’s pretty much what it was.
When Great Lakes started importing these sets in 1988, K-Line had been producing and selling trains based on old Marx designs for several years. Since the tooling was in Mexico, K-Line had no access to it. K-Line never sold 4-wheel plastic cars from Marx tooling, nor did they sell a locomotive based on Marx’s 70-ton switcher.
Model Power, a company better known for producing HO sets, did briefly market inexpensive Christmas-themed sets based on the old Marx 4-wheel tooling. Model Power’s HO scale trains were based on Marx’s old HO scale line.
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.