Where Lionel trains are made

Lionel is an iconic American brand, and I often hear people refer to it as a made-in-the-USA company. But it’s been a long time since that’s been where Lionel trains are made. Or at least the majority.

It turns out Lionel has a bit of a history with that.

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Cost comparison of Realtrax vs Fastrack

Someone asked me recently for a cost comparison of MTH Realtrax vs. Lionel Fastrack. Both are similar O gauge track systems with plastic roadbed. MTH’s system has been on the market a few years longer, but Lionel’s is more popular, in spite of being more expensive.

Let’s figure out just how much more expensive it is.

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Lionel CW-80 vs vintage transformers

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.

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Get more transformer outputs by using a grounding bus bar

Train transformers have one pair of screws for each output, which is generally enough for a simple layout, but once you have more than one accessory or building with lights in it, you’ll find it’s difficult to attach all of the wires to the transformer posts.

You can get more on the cheap by repurposing ground bus bars, intended forĀ circuit breaker panels. Read more

How Ives-branded track clips ended up in Lionel sets

Ives-branded track clips for Lionel O27 track are relatively common, and although they are often mistaken for pre-1933 items, they were actually manufactured for several decades after the Ives brand name disappeared from the marketplace, and by Lionel, not its erstwhile rival Ives.

The reason was for trademark protection.

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Using old transformers with new

I’ve covered phasing transformers before, which allows you to use more than one transformer on a layout. But I read something today that reminded me of an old question: Can you safely use a modern Lionel transformer, such as a CW-80 or new ZW, with postwar transformers?

Unfortunately, changes between new and old make it difficult. You can use one to power trains and one to power accessories, but you shouldn’t mix them on the same loop of track. Read on to see why.
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A Lionel Fastrack review

How Lionel Fastrack compares to traditional tubular track and competing O gauge track is a common question. I own both, so I can probably make a comparison.

For the most part, it’s not bad. But it’s not perfect. For some people, the drawbacks are easy enough to overlook. For others, they could be showstoppers. You’ll have to decide for yourself.

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No reason for brand wars

On one of the train forums I frequent, a legitimate question quickly degenerated into brand wars. And brand wars are one thing, but when people hold their preferred company to a different standard than the other company–in other words, one company is evil because it does something, but their preferred company does the same thing, it isn’t productive.

Actually, I see very little reason for brand loyalty as it is. I drive a Honda and I use a Compaq computer. Do either of those companies have any loyalty to me? No. To them, I’m just a source of income from yesterday.I don’t like the categorization of companies as "good" and "evil." Companies don’t exist to be good or evil. Companies exist for one reason: Make money. And one thing to remember is that companies will always do exactly what they think they can get away with.

In the case of the toy train wars, the two antagonists are Lionel and MTH. MTH is a scrappy underdog that got its start building trains as a subcontractor for Lionel. A business deal went bad–in short, Lionel left MTH high and dry on a multimillion dollar project, so MTH decided to go on its own and sell the product Lionel decided it didn’t want, but Lionel didn’t like the idea of one of its subcontractors competing with it while also making product for them, and understandably so.

MTH and Lionel have been mortal enemies ever since.

A few years ago, MTH accused Lionel of stealing trade secrets. The specifics are difficult to sort out, but someone with intimate knowledge of some of MTH’s products started designing equivalent products for Lionel. MTH sued and won, to the tune of $40 million. The case is now in appeal.

There’s no question that Lionel benefited from this contractor’s knowledge of the competing product. The question is who knew this was going on, who authorized it, and what an appropriate punishment would be. The only people who are questioning guilt have blinders on. There is no innocence here–just possible degrees of guilt. The other question is appropriateness. Lionel doesn’t have $40 million in the bank. Arguably the company isn’t worth a lot more than $40 million. So that $40 million judgment is essentially the corporate death penalty.

MTH is anything but perfect and holy, however. The thing that bothers me most about MTH is its attempt to patent elements of DCC (Digital Command Control), a method for automating train layouts. It’s an open industry standard, widely used by HO and N scale hobbyists. So MTH was seeking to collect royalties on something that’s supposed to be free for everyone to use. That’s a particular pet peeve of mine, and it’s the reason I haven’t bought any MTH products since 2003.

I came close to relenting this weekend though, when I saw some people bashing MTH while holding Lionel up as some kind of perfect, holy standard. It made me want to go buy a bunch of MTH gear, photograph myself with it, and post it on some forums so I could watch these guys have a stroke about it. Fortunately for them, I have better things to do with $200 right now. I also looked on my layout, and I don’t know where I could put the things I would have considered buying.

I’m more familiar with the computer industry than I am with anything else, and if you mention any computer company, I can probably think of something they did that would fit most people’s definition of evil. HP? Print cartridges that lie about being empty. Lexmark? Same thing, plus using the DMCA to keep you from refilling them. Dell? Nonstandard pinouts on power supplies that look standard, but blow up your motherboard if you try to use non-Dell equipment. IBM? Microchannel. Microsoft? Don’t get me started. Apple? Lying in ads.

As far as I’m concerned though, the most evil company of all is Disney. Disney, of all people? Yes. Disney is the main reason for the many complicated rewrites of copyright law that we’ve had in recent decades. Whenever something Disney values might fall into the public domain, Disney buys enough congressmen to get the laws changed. Never mind that early in its history, Disney exploited the public domain for its gain as much as anyone (which was its legal right), even to the point of waiting for The Jungle Book to fall into the public domain before making the movie, in order to avoid paying royalties to Rudyard Kipling. The problem is that now that Disney is the biggest kid on the block, it’s changing the rules it used to get there, so that nobody else can do it.

Unfortunately I’ve even seen not-for-profit corporations, companies that exist mostly to give away money, do dishonest things and essentially steal. If a charity can and will do these things, you can be certain that a for-profit corporation will.

So I don’t see any reason for brand loyalty, aside from liking a product. If you buy a company’s products and you like them, fine. Keep buying them. But that doesn’t make the people who prefer a competitor’s product evil. They didn’t sign off on the decisions, and your favorite company has done its own share of underhanded things too, whether you know it or not.

And there’s certainly no reason to go to war for your company of choice. It wouldn’t do the same for you.

If you think you can do it so much better, then do it yourself

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately on the Classic Toy Trains forums. It seems like every time a new issue hits the street, someone has to find an article that has something wrong with it and point it out.It started a few months ago when my friend and mentor Joe Rampolla published an article about adding a capacitor to a toy train to make it stall less often and run more smoothly. The claims, as far as I can tell, were false (I had my longtime friend Steve DeLassus, who has a degree in electrical engineering from Washington University, check them out).

But practically every month since then, someone’s publicly taken issue with something in the magazine.

It’s not about a vendetta against a single author. One issue it was Joe. But last issue it was repair expert Ray Plummer’s advice on repairing a Lionel 2037. This issue it’s the legendary Peter Riddle’s article about getting Lionel’s TMCC and MTH’s DCS (two rival control systems) working together on the same layout.

In the case of each of these articles, the things the author said to do work. There might be an alternative way to do them. But that’s the nature of the hobby. Doesn’t it seem like Model Railroader publishes an article at least once a year about making trees, and not one of those articles has been a repeat since at least 1972 (and possibly 1942)? And if you were to read a complete run of Railroad Model Craftsman, you could probably find another 50 different ways to make trees.

Fifty or a hundred people having different ways to do it doesn’t make the guy who wrote the first article about making trees wrong.

In the case of Ray Plummer, what Plummer said matches what my local repair guy said and did when my Lionel 2037 had problems. When the pilot truck is adjusted within specifications, the 2037 and its many cousins run just fine. Plummer’s critic said the pilot truck is a poor design, and when you lengthen the truck to change its pivot point, it works more reliably.

That’s possible. I don’t know the theory behind pivot points. One of my best friends happens to be a mechanical engineer and maybe he could confirm that for me.

What I can say is that Plummer’s advice preserves the historical integrity and collector value of the locomotive. While modifying the pivot point probably wouldn’t make the locomotive worth any less to someone who just wants to run it, it would make it worth less to a collector.

I can also confirm that Plummer’s advice worked just fine on the locomotive that once belonged to my Dad. It’s almost as dependable as my Honda now.

As far as this month’s article to hit the avalanche of criticism, I don’t use any command control system on my layout and I have no interest in doing so. So I don’t have any experience that would back him up, and neither do either of my engineer buddies.

But I trust Peter Riddle. Riddle has written more than a dozen excellent books about trains. Wiring is a subject that confuses almost everyone, but I’m confident that a fifth grader could read one of Riddle’s books on wiring and understand it, then proceed to wire a Lionel layout effectively. Seriously.

I’ve heard the argument presented in these arguments that if an author is wrong about one thing, the reader loses confidence in everything he says. I don’t buy that argument. Riddle’s advice that the Lionel 1121 switch is a good match for early Marx locomotives isn’t entirely correct. From my own experience I know a Marx locomotive will bounce if it enters the switch from a particular direction.

So do I doubt what Riddle says on the other 95 pages of the same book? No. I also know from experience that the things he says on the other 95 pages work. And I know that even though that Marx locomotive bounces through the switch 33% of the time, it doesn’t derail every time it bounces. So maybe he’s never seen the problem I observed.

I’ll daresay there’s at least one mistake in every computer book I’ve ever read. It doesn’t mean I stop reading computer books. I’ve been wrong once or twice before too. Just ask my boss.

Actually, come to think of it I’d really rather you just took my word on that one.

This criticism bothers me on another level too. Writing an article and getting it published isn’t an easy task. For most people it probably takes about 40 hours’ worth of work. CTT pays $70 per page, and a typical article is 3-4 pages long, so you do the math.

How many people want to spend a week of their lives writing an article only to have some self-styled expert rip it apart in five minutes? Is it worth putting your neck on the line for $300?

Most reasonable people would say no.

I’m sure this is largely an ego thing. Most people regard published authors as special people. So when someone knows something that a published author doesn’t, it must make for some kind of a high.

But the price is also high. How many great ideas languish in the mind of a would-be author, never to see the light of day, because the benefits just don’t outweigh that onslaught of criticism if it happens?

So the next time you catch a mistake in print, that’s great. It means you know enough to be an author. So think of something you know better than anyone else and go write an article and advance the hobby.

Of course, criticism is easier than craftsmanship. Zeuxis made that observation 2400 years ago, and it’s just as true today as it was then. Unfortunately.

The story of MTH vs. Lionel

Inc. Magazine published a story about the MTH v. Lionel lawsuit which ultimately led to a $40 million judgment against Lionel.The article has a lot of good information in it, including insights on how Lionel and MTH came to be such bitter rivals. There’s lots of hearsay out there but aside from combing through very old magazine articles I never found much about the MTH/Lionel relationship that existed in the 1990s. This article isn’t a complete picture either but it gives details that I hadn’t seen elsewhere.

The article mostly paints a sympathetic picture of MTH, at one place saying “[MTH owner] Mike [Wolf] is not sparkling lily white in all this,” but not really elaborating. But I can’t blame the author for this.
Mike Wolf and MTH are willing to talk and Lionel isn’t.

It’s a story of industrial espionage and the downsides of using (or being) contractors, outsourcing, and overproduction, and the rise and fall of the American Dream. The question, yet unresolved, is whether it’s Mike Wolf’s American Dream that’s falling, or Joshua Lionel Cowen’s. Or both.

Side note: Speaking as a journalist, this article is a good reason why it’s good to talk to the press, even when your lawyers may not want you to. You have to win, or at least compete, in the court of public opinion as well as in the court of law. Run what you say through the lawyers if you have to, but make sure you say something. If you decline comment, the next-best place for the writer to get information about you is from the other side, which is the last place you want information about you to come from.

In this case, to look less like the bad guy, Lionel wouldn’t have had to say much of anything that damaged the case. Make some general statement about the case. Even if it’s rehashed from a press release, it looks better than “Lionel and its owners declined to comment for this story.” And then go in for the kill. “Why don’t you ask QSI what it thinks of MTH?” QSI is a former MTH subcontractor currently engaged in a separate lawsuit. QSI might not say much, but now the writer has some dirt on the rival to go chase down. It might have only resulted in one more line being in the story, something like, “Ironically, MTH, years after being a Lionel subcontractor, is now engaged in a separate and unrelated lawsuit with QSI, one of its former subcontractors.” With that information in the story, Lionel still doesn’t look like a poor, innocent little puppy (it isn’t), but it makes MTH look less like one (it isn’t either).

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