Wooden ties for electric train track

Someone asked me the other day about the dimensions of the metal ties on vintage electric train track, presumably to cut some wooden ties to match. So I pulled some track out of my stash, got out my caliper, and took some measurements.

Vintage electric train track from American Flyer, Lionel and Marx had large gaps in between the ties. Filling those gaps makes the track look more finished and a bit more realistic.

Matching them exactly using the wood and the tools available to you may be difficult, but you don’t have to be exact. I have some tips for that as well.

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How to attach trucks to Lionel train cars with screws

Frequently the trucks (the wheel/coupler assembly that sits under train cars) come unattached. Lionel trains from the 1970s and first half of the 1980s are especially prone to this, though other makes of trains aren’t immune either. And sometimes you just want to change the trucks–some Lionel and Marx O27 cars are just the right size for American Flyer S scale, for example, only the trucks are the wrong gauge.

It’s tempting to try to just re-attach them with a nut and bolt, but as the train runs in circles around the track, the nut loosens and eventually works its way out.

The key is all in the type of nut you use.

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Fixing track that gets hot at the track joints

I saw a question about a Fastrack layout getting hot at a track joint. That’s a conductivity issue causing voltage drop, which in turn causes the heat. While not likely to be dangerous, it’s a sign of inefficiency and can lead to other problems, such as the train slowing down at some parts of the layout. Poor conductivity also causes motors to run hotter than they should, which can eventually damage the armature.

I can think of two fixes, none of them especially expensive or time-consuming. And although this question was about Lionel Fastrack, it can happen with other makes of track too, and even other scales.
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Fixing old Lionel tubular track

It’s that time of year again. Time to get that old Lionel (or Marx or American Flyer) electric train running before the winter holidays sneak up. More often than not, the track isn’t in the best of shape. Fortunately, fixing old Lionel tubular track is easy. Read more

Cars (as in vehicles) for train layouts

I was at Kmart today, and as I usually do, I wandered down the toy aisle on the off chance I might find some cars that might work on my train layout.

I did a lot better than I usually do–Jada and Maisto came through for me.I won’t talk about HO and N scale trains because for those scales, you can walk in to any hobby shop in the country and find pretty much anything you want. Us Lionel and American Flyer fans have it a lot tougher.

Lionel O scale is roughly 1:48. You won’t find 1:48 vehicles anywhere these days, but you can find 1:43 and 1:50. Some people fret that 1:43 is way too big, but sometimes you can hold up one maker’s 1:43 vehicle next to a similar 1:50 vehicle from another make and find they’re just about the same size. Maisto and New Ray are two makes of cars that size.

Lionel and Marx O27 is 1:64, more or less. Maisto, Jada, and Ertl make lots of 1:64 cars. Some Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars are close, but most are closer to 1:72, which is a bit small.

American Flyer O gauge trains made after 1937 are 1:64 scale, and all American Flyer S gauge trains are 1:64.

Since I run O27, I have lots of vehicles to choose from, but the problem is finding something era-appropriate. Contemporary vehicles are no problem to find, but if you want something old, it’s hard to find much other than a ’57 Chevy. Well, you can find a handful of late ’50s cars of various makes, but it tends to lean towards the late ’50s, and from looking at the stuff in the diecast aisle, you would think Ford and GM were the only two companies making cars in the ’50s. Want a Studebaker or a Hudson or (gasp) a Dodge? Good luck.

Of course I had to make things more difficult. I like really old trains, so a ’57 Chevy isn’t exactly going to cut it. I need 1930s and 1940s cars.

Maisto just happens to be offering a 1:64 ’36 Ford Coupe as part of its G Ridez series. It has homey-ized rims and thin tires, but other than that, it looks pretty stock. Hot Wheels has offered a ’36 Ford since I was a little kid, but it was always a hotrod.

Maisto also offers a ’37 Ford, but it has a prominently chopped roof

And Jada is offering a 1:64 ’39 Chevy Master Deluxe as part of its Dub City Old Skool line. Like the Maisto, it has thin tires and weird rims, but aside from that, it looks stock, and it’s black. This is a very nice car to have because it’s a late 1930s station wagon–a family car. It looks just like the cars you see families using in the movies set in the ’30s and ’40s. I hope I can find a few more of these because it’s the kind of ordinary car that will look natural even if I had several on the layout.

So if your toy train preferences lean towards American Flyer S gauge or Lionel or Marx O27, a trip down the toy aisle at your local Kmart or Target would probably be a good idea.

One thing I’ve learned is that I have to be patient. Usable cars are out there, but there may only be a handful of them issued every year–including anything Mattel releases under the Hot Wheels or Matchbox brands, undersize or not. I take what I can get. But improving the layout a little bit at a time over the course of years is part of the hobby’s appeal. At least it’s supposed to be.

Aliens on my train layout

I bought a couple of aliens for my train consist today. At the annual TCA Ozark Division train show at Lutheran South that happens every December, I spotted some lonely American Flyer bodies sitting neglected on a table. There were two steam locomotives, a gondola, a boxcar, and a caboose. I looked at the locomotives but there wasn’t any way I could remotor them with parts I had available. I did buy the boxcar, and then came back for the gondola.

I spent a total of $3 for these artifacts from 1958. Not bad.The problem for me is, they’re from 1958. American Flyer was doing S gauge in 1958. I’m into O gauge.

But that’s OK.  S gauge is 1:64 scale. O27 (which is the flavor of O I like, because it’s what I grew up with) is supposed to be 1:64 scale. Hold an American Flyer S gauge gondola up next to a Lionel or Marx O27 gondola, and they’re awfully close to the same size. Sure, there’s some difference, but when you look at real trains, not every boxcar is exactly the same height, and not every gondola is exactly the same height and length either.

K-Line took some criticism when it dusted off the old Marx O27 molds, outfitted them with S gauge trucks, and tried to market them to S gaugers because the Marx boxcars are taller than the American Flyers, and when you measure the Marx car with a scale ruler, it’s a funny length. But most people don’t notice. When I put a Marx O27 boxcar next to my Flyer 805 with O27 trucks on it, the difference wasn’t as pronounced. You can tell the Flyer is shorter, but something about the O gauge trucks makes the difference harder to notice.

It took me about 10 minutes to outfit the Flyer gondola with some spare Lionel trucks I had kicking around. Then I decided I wanted a conversion car, so I put a Marx truck on one end and a Lionel on the other. It looks good with my Marx and Lionel gondolas.

It took me considerably longer to get the boxcar in running order, since I had to fashion a frame for it. So I grabbed a bunch of junk from the scrap box and I fashioned a frame. That ended up taking me a couple of hours to do (I can do it a lot faster when I’m doing several at once and I have all my tools and materials in order). For what I make per hour, I could have bought several nice boxcars, I know. But this was more fun than what I get paid to do, and besides, nobody was offering to pay me to do anything today. And besides, rescuing a lonely boxcar off the scrap heap is a whole lot more meaningful than just plunking down some cash.

Once it was all together, I grabbed Dad’s old Lionel 2037 and put it on a loop of track on the floor with the Flyer 803 and 805 and a Marx boxcar that I rescued from a similar fate about a year ago. I had to work out a few kinks of course, but it wasn’t long before the consist was running smoothly.

I know a lot of people who run 1950s trains tend to do so homogeneously. It tends to be all Flyer or all Lionel or all Marx. But all of them have their strengths. For one, all of them did cars that the others didn’t. While American Flyer’s locomotives are amazingly smooth runners–even their cheapies–I don’t think American Flyer made anything that has all of the positive attributes of the Lionel 2037: It’s no slouch in the smooth running department itself, it’s a great puller, it’s reliable, and it’s common as dirt so you can easily find a good one for around $70. And as much as I like Marx, Marx never made anything quite like the 2037 either. The Marx 333 can’t pull with a 2037, it’s nowhere near as common, and these days it’s more expensive too.

But Marx and American Flyer made plenty of cars in plenty of roadnames and paint schemes Lionel never made. And when they did overlap, there tended to be some differences, just like you see in real life. So turning some dilapidated American Flyer cars into O27s was a nice way to add some unique rolling stock to my roster.

I’m happy. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for more American Flyer cars that need running gear.

XTrkCad model railroad track software is going open source

XTrkCad, one of the many model railroad track planning programs–and the only one I know that has both Windows and Linux versions–is going open source. This also means the program is now free.

You can’t download the source code yet but you can download binaries, enter a registration code, and play with it. I’ve been doing just that.One thing I noticed right away when I started trying to use it to plan a layout using Lionel and Marx O27-profile sectional track–which it doesn’t support directly, so I had to enter the track, confusingly, using the “custom turnout” tools–is that the model railroad and toy trains people measure track differently.

A Marx or Lionel O27 curve isn’t an O27 curve in XTrkCad. It’s a curve of radius 12.5 and angle of 45 degrees.

Here are some measurements. Keep in mind this is what they’re supposed to be. Manufacturing tolerances and the effects of age sometimes cause these measurements to be off. Some of my vintage track is off by 1/8 inch or more.


I happen to know that O27 and O34 tubular track use a 45-degree angle, and that Lionel and K-Line O42 tubular use a 30-degree angle. Unfortunately I don’t have a piece of K-Line O54 or O72 sectional tubular track to measure.

Since O42 track is supposed to be 12 sections per circle, and 180/12=15, I believe to calculate the angle measurement of O54 and O72 you can divide 180 by the number of O54 or O72 track sections in a full circle, then multiply that result by 2. The math works for the O27, O34, and O42 track sections I have, but since I don’t own any K-Line O54 or O72 track I can’t be certain.

Also, confusingly, traditional O gauge switches are straight turnouts in XTrkCad, even though one leg of them is curved. Here are the parameters I got by measuring a Lionel 1121. The measurements are close enough to represent Marx or Sakai O27 switches:

Diverging length: 8.5
Diverging angle: 45
Diverging offset: 3.75
Overall length: 8.75

And here’s what I measure on a Marx O34 switch.

Diverging length: 11.375
Diverging angle: 45
Diverging offset: 4.5
Overall length: 11.188

I believe the diverging angle would be 30 degrees on a Lionel or K-Line O42 switch, but since my vintage Marx and American Flyer locomotives won’t make it through modern O42 switches, I don’t have any of those to measure.

I’ve already used the software to draw a layout using Marx O34 track that will allow two-train operation with room on sidings for three additional trains. It’s much easier than setting up track on the floor and measuring it to see if it will fit on the table. And you can do your layout and then print an inventory to compare what you have with what you need. Not having enough track to mock up a layout isn’t a problem anymore.

On the computer some of the things I want to do don’t quite fit; if the track measurements are slightly off, the solution is to cut a section of track to move things a bit, or, if they’re off by less than a quarter inch or so, force it. O27 track has a lot of give, and, like I said, manufacturing tolerances and the effects of time can cause real-world track to not match the published standards.

Running Marx and Lionel trains together

Someone asked (not me specifically) whether it’s possible or desirable to run Marx and Lionel trains as part of the same layout, what the caveats are, and how to do it.

It seems to be a pretty dark secret. The answer is, yes it’s possible, and yes, it might very well be desirable, but it’s possible to run into some pitfalls.

Let’s talk about it.Marx and Lionel competed in the 1950s. While Lionel strove to be a status symbol, Marx had a product for every niche. Anyone could afford a Marx train. And since Marx track and accessories were compatible with Lionel, sometimes they got mixed.

Is it desirable? Sure. Both Marx and Lionel made things the other didn’t. For example, Marx made a nice Missouri Pacific cattle car. Lionel made a Missouri Pacific box car. (The Lionel MoPac car wasn’t as nice as American Flyer’s rendition of the same car though.) And if you’re not a high roller, you can buy Lionel O27 cars (which was Lionel’s cheap stuff) and Marx 3/16 scale O27 cars (which was Marx’s expensive stuff). They’re the same size and look fine together. And both can be cheap. I pay between $5 and $10 apiece for Lionel “Scout” type cars from the late 1950s or 1960s. It’s easy to pay $50 apiece for modern O scale cars.

Lionel and Marx used incompatible coupler designs, but that’s easy enough to fix too. Take your most beat-up Marx car and your most beat-up Lionel car, and drill out the rivet that holds one of the trucks in place on each. Then put a Lionel truck on the Marx car and vice-versa, secured with a nut and bolt. Swap the wheels around if you need to in order for both cars to sit flat. Now you can run Marx and Lionel not only together, but even as part of the same train.

The problem is that a lot of Marx engines–basically everything but the Marx 1829 and the Marx 666 (I’ll just call it the sixty-six from here on out) locomotives had what they call a “fat wheel.” The gears that drive the wheels on most toy trains are in the side of the wheel. On Lionels and the aforementioned Marxes, those gears are smaller than the diameter of the wheel. On all other Marxes, those gears are nearly the size of the wheel.

So what? Well, it’s no big deal if you have a simple loop or figure 8 of track. But if you want your track to have branch lines with switches (also called turnouts), where the train can go off in another direction on a different stretch of track, and you use a Lionel switch, the cheap Marx engines like the 400, 490, and 999 will do crazy things when they hit it. Hopefully they won’t fly too far off the track.

Marx switches are designed for Marx locomotives, of course. The problem is, most Lionel locomotives can’t maintain electrical continuity while they go over a Marx switch. Lionel spaced its electrical contacts differently from Marx. Sometimes momentum will carry the Lionel through the switch and it’ll go on as if nothing happened. But sometimes the momentary loss of power is enough to engage the Lionel sequencer, causing it to either go into neutral (in the case of expensive Lionels) or reverse (in the case of cheap ones).

Flip the switch on the top of a Lionel locomotive to disable the sequencer (also known as an e-unit), and you can run Lionels through Marx switches all day.

You can also modify a Marx switch by inserting some track pins strategically to close down the gap that impedes the Lionels. Simply insert track pins where indicated in the diagram below.


The downside to this is that it limits you to O27 track, but that’s not really a downside–you can get wider-diameter O27 track. Use wide diameter track and then your trains will run just as well, or better, than they would on the costlier O31 track.

You can even go outside of O gauge for rolling stock. If you run across a postwar S gauge American Flyer car and like it, it’s possible to adapt it for use with Lionel and Marx. O27 is supposed to be 1:64 scale, just like S gauge is. So if you run across some Flyer cars and the price is right, consider changing its trucks out for Lionel and adding still more variety to your fleet.

Troubleshooting Marx remote turnouts

Yesterday I hooked up Dad’s old Marx O27 remote turnouts, and again found one of them dodgy.
I can’t find any troubleshooting information about Marx O gauge switches online. I went to the library and checked out all the toy train repair books I could find. Nothing. One of Ray L. Plummer’s books offered advice on repairing Lionel turnouts. But the Marx turnouts are slightly different. Emboldened, I set off on my own.

Before you destroy what little collector value your switches have (The words “switch” and “turnout” are often used interchangeably; forgive me if I try to feed Google to get more traffic), let me tell you how to test them first. All you need your turnout(s) (don’t connect them–just keep them loose), two pieces of wire, and a transformer. I used a 25-watt Marx transformer from an entry-level train set I bought off eBay for $20. This eliminates the control panel, track, and everything else from the equation. Of course, you should use a transformer that you already know to be in working order.

Some transformers have posts for both trains and accessories. Some (like the one I used) don’t. Don’t worry about it; we’ll just use the train posts for this exercise.

Don’t plug the transformer in yet. Run a wire from the center post of the turnout (sometimes labeled “B” or “black,” although not on Dad’s) to one of the posts on your transformer. Connect another wire to the other post, but leave the other end loose.

Now, before you plug in your transformer, please keep in mind that you’re working with electricity and use common sense. Keep your hands dry, don’t do this if you’re bleeding, etc. I’m not responsible for what happens next, OK? If you’ve never done anything like this before, take it to a hobby shop and let a pro handle it–a switch that will cost you $15 on eBay in working order isn’t worth personal injury. Or you can buy a new Lionel or K-Line switch from the local hobby shop for $30-$35. Yes, a 50-year-old Marx turnout is worth less than a new one from Lionel or K-Line. That’s the way it goes sometimes.

Got all that? Good. Still with me? Great. Plug in the transformer. Turn it on. Switches like to run at 16-20 volts AC, so crank the transformer’s lever to full speed. Touch the loose wire to either of the outer posts on the switch. Then pick it up and touch it to the other one. Alternate between the two a few times.

If the accessory is still in working order, the track should change positions based on which post you touched the wire to. If it doesn’t, there’s probably a loose or frayed wire somewhere inside.

If the switch works this way but not when you connect the Marx control panel, your control panel is dodgy. I read on The All-Gauge Model Railroading Page that Atlas controllers for their HO turnouts work fine with Marx O27 turnouts. I also read in the same place that Lionel and K-Line controllers will not.

You can also pick up a Marx control panel on eBay. I saw one sell for $5 this past weekend.

Or if you’re handy with wiring, you ought to be able to fashion your own with a couple of push buttons or momentary switches from your local Radio Shack or equivalent–just make sure whatever switches you buy can handle 20-24 volts of current. (Always over-engineer on this kind of stuff.) If you want to go this route and you’ve never done any model railroading wiring before, pick up one of the books on wiring Lionel/Marx/American Flyer layouts–many hobby shops, larger bookstores, and even a lot of libraries have them–and follow its precautions. I’m not responsible for whatever happens if you go this route.

How do you fix a Marx control panel? It’s held shut by four rivets, so opening it for cleaning isn’t an easy endeavor. I fixed my dodgy control panel by blasting some Radio Shack TV tuner cleaner ($9 for a big can) into the openings, then flipping the unit over a few times to get it circulating, then working all four of the buttons. Seeing as the switch is little more than a couple of handfuls of contact points, there’s a decent chance that’ll take care of you. There really isn’t much inside there that can go wrong.

If TV tuner cleaner doesn’t help, it’s probably corrosion. You can open it up and clean any and all electrical contacts with a piece of 600-grit sandpaper, or fashion replacements from some conductive material (copper foil would be best, but aluminum would work). But you’re on your own from here.

If the switch doesn’t work, period, there’s probably a loose or frayed wire somewhere inside. Fortunately, there are only five wires inside.

Opening the switch’s case is a bit of a chore. It’s held shut by two rivets, easily found by flipping the turnout over and looking for indentations. Disconnect the outside wires and power off your transformer (of course). The proper tool to remove rivets isn’t exactly a household item (at least not in mine), so you can do what I did: Pinch the edges of each rivet with a pair of needle-nose pliers until it pushes through the case. The bottom should then come right off. You’ll notice three screws inside. There should be a wire connected to each. Overzealous loosening of the nuts on the top of the case followed by some jostling can loosen those wires. Tighten the screws (if they’re severely corroded, you might consider replacing them). If any of the wires appear frayed, replace them, or have someone handy with a soldering iron replace them.

If you find wires detached from screws and want to keep it from happening again, you can solder the wires to the screws, but this is probably overkill.

The small box on the top of the switch is held in place by six or so tabs on the bottom of the unit. This houses the electromagnet. You can gain access by gently bending the tabs with a small slotted screwdriver. Check to make sure those three wires are still soldered in place. The biggest place for something to go wrong on a Marx turnout is over by those screws it uses for terminals, however, so chances are there’s nothing wrong over in the electromagnet’s neighborhood.

Closing up shop can be as easy or difficult as you like. Since I don’t care about collector value on a pair of switches that might fetch $25, tops, on eBay, I replaced the rivets with a pair of very thin and short machine screws. If you care about collector value, procure a pair of small brass rivets to replace the two you just ruined.

A more permanent home for Dad’s Lionel

Gatermann and I spent the afternoon building a train table. I started building one about a month ago but got too busy to finish it. Today was the day I’d set aside to get some work done on it.
It’s slightly larger than 3’x5′, which is pretty much the minimum size you can do in O gauge if you want anything more than a big circle. I built it using lumber that was sitting in a corner of the basement, left by the people who sold me my house. It was a bit warped, and we had to do some piecing together, but the price was right, and it’s certainly good enough for now.

A proper O gauge layout really ought to be 4’x8′, minimum, and a lot of people believe a more realistic minimum is two 4’x8’s. But I don’t have enough track or buildings to fill a 4’x8′ table.

It’s hard to put together a layout in such a small space like mine without a plan. Fortunately, there are lots of free plans available at Thortrains.net, for a variety of sizes.

As we prepared to screw down the track (the trick is to screw it down just enough to hold it in place, but not enough to make it buckle), Gatermann experimented. I had a couple of hold turnouts I pulled out to measure with. They were Dad’s, way back when. We hooked them up once, probably more than 15 years ago. One of them worked but the other didn’t. As it was riveted together and so far as we knew impossible to take apart, we put the turnouts and the control panel back in the box. As this layout required some turnouts, I bought two pair of secondhand manual Marx turnouts from Marty’s Model Railroads in Affton. A third pair of turnouts would have allowed me to do one of the more complex layouts, but, alas, Marty’s didn’t have any more manual ones when I bought my set.

The disadvantages of manual turnouts are that you have to get off your butt and go switch them, and you have to get the order right. The advantages of manual turnouts are that you have to get off your butt and go switch them so you get a little exercise, they cost about 1/3 as much as remote turnouts, and unless you do something stupid like back over them with your car, they won’t break.

At one point I flipped one of Dad’s turnouts over and spotted the Marx logo. I’d figured he was a Lionel partisan. As it turns out, maybe not.

Marx made toy trains in the 1950s as well. Lionel and American Flyer were the big names, and they were what kids asked for. Marx made trains that looked a lot like Lionel, and the tracks and transformers and accessories were all compatible with one another, but an entire Marx set sold for about what a Lionel locomotive would cost all alone. The saying was that if your dad had a good job, you had a Lionel or a Flyer. If your dad didn’t have a good job, you had a Marx.

Since Dad’s dad was something of an aristocrat, you can imagine my surprise at finding Marx gear in Dad’s stash. Either Dad bought those turnouts with his own money, or Dad’s dad, a notorious cheapskate, tried to get the best of both worlds by buying a Lionel starter set and expanding it with Marx track.

Well, now knowing that I had one working and one non-working Marx turnout, I searched the Net for information. There is no advice on troubleshooting Marx turnouts. They’re basically two electromagnets. Pushing a button deactivates the active electromagnet and activates the other. There isn’t much of anything to troubleshoot.

I did find a wiring diagram and a copy of the original instructions. I don’t remember much about how Dad and I wired the turnouts, but I’m pretty sure we tried to power them off the track, the same way you normally power Lionel accessories. The instructions explicitly say they have to run straight off the transformer. The wiring was a bit less than intuitive–the markings that are supposed to be on the turnouts aren’t–so for all I know, we didn’t wire them right either. Either reason may be why only one switch worked.

Since these turnouts would cost $30 a pop to replace (maybe $20 if I can find used ones), I’m definitely hoping that with proper wiring, they’ll start working again.

Meanwhile, my search turned up The Girard and Oak Park Railroad, a site by a hobbyist who got bored with his HO scale layout and replaced it with a large Marx O27 layout, largely by buying junkers on eBay and repairing and/or repainting them.

My layout doesn’t look as impressive as that one, but it runs. My Marx locomotive (a recent eBay find) ran fine on it once we added some weight to its front. The Lionel 1110 that must have been Dad’s first locomotive also runs fine. It takes a little time to figure out the right speed to run the trains on track with turnouts–something we found out the hard way, when my Marx 490 derailed and embarked on a four-foot tumble at high speed onto my basement’s concrete floor. Ouch. It survived without damage–certainly, its designers must have anticipated four-foot drops–but still made me nervous.

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