What to do if you can’t find a Lionel Polar Express set

The Polar Express is turning out (so far) to be a bigger hit for Lionel than it is for Tom Hanks. Dealers are sold out and the sets are turning up on Ebay, usually with asking prices $100-$200 higher than the suggested retail price. It’s not as hot as Tickle Me Elmo, but since the words "hot selling" and "train set" haven’t appeared together since the late 1950s, well…

So what should you do if you (or someone in your household) wants The Polar Express and can’t get one? Hint: Ebay shouldn’t be your first resort.First and foremost, Lionel did little other than apply new lettering to existing product to make this set. So if you can live without the posable figures that were included in the set, any 2-8-4 Berkshire steam engine pulling a string of heavyweight passenger cars is going to look like the Polar Express. That’s Greek to you? Don’t worry. If you call up a hobby shop that sells trains and ask for that, someone there will know what that means.

But, from a playing with trains standpoint, passenger cars aren’t nearly as interesting as freights. Once you get tired of watching the Polar Express run around in circles, the set’s going to do time in the basement or the attic and maybe come back out around the holidays to grace Mom’s porcelain village with its presence. There’s nothing wrong with that, unless the train was intended to be played with.

If the Polar Express has kindled an interest in trains, Junior is going to have more fun with a freight set, because freight trains haul stuff. Gondolas and hoppers can haul loads of marbles, flat cars can haul automobiles and construction equipment, and so on. New cars can be added to make it more interesting, usually at fairly low cost. Besides, a freight train isn’t going to scream "Christmas," which the Polar Express certainly does.

I recommend O27 type trains for kids for two reasons. First, I recommend it because it’s what I grew up with and it’s what my dad grew up with, so it must be the best, right? More seriously, O27 trains are big and heavy enough that they can be handled without breaking. The track can be permanently attached to a table, but that isn’t necessary. It works just fine set up on the floor. HO and N scale track don’t work as well if they aren’t bolted down, and an O27 set has much more tolerance for kinks in the track. Also, because of O27’s sharp curves, you can actually squeeze a better O27 layout into a 4’x5′ space than you could an HO set. It isn’t as realistic, but kids aren’t as worried about perfect realism as adults. Another advantage of O27 is that it’s scaled at 1:64, which is about the same scale as the Matchbox-type cars that every kid already has. Kids would probably play with the trains and cars together anyway even if they weren’t the same scale, but since they’re sized to go together, they give more play options together.

What brand? Lionel is the venerable brand, but there are others. If you go to a store like Hobby Lobby, you’ll see sets from a company called K-Line, if you’re lucky, maybe one or two Lionel accessories. Many of the so-called anchor department stores carry a set from either Lionel or a company called MTH in their catalogs, if not in the stores themselves. While the brand loyalty to Lionel and MTH is even more ridiculous than Ford and Chevy pickup truck loyalty, there isn’t a lot of difference these days. The nice thing is that even if you buy a set from one company, the other companies’ cars will work with them. Most of the hobby shops here in St. Louis carry a large selection of inexpensive cars from a company called Industrial Rail. Unfortunately, no matter which brand you get, it’s very difficult to find an O27 gauge set for less than $200.

Used, er, vintage trains can be a lot less expensive than buying new, but I don’t recommend it for a first-time buyer looking for a train set for a child. I’ve bought a lot of used vintage trains, and about half of them run. It’s usually impossible to tell from looking at the outside or from its age if it’s going to run. An 85-year-old train I bought ran–poorly, but it ran–while a 30-year old train I bought didn’t run at all. If you’re going to buy used, buy from a hobbyist who has been using it and can demonstrate that it still works, or buy from a dealer who will stand behind it.

But if you must have the Polar Express, what to do? Ebay may be your only option. Lionel fanatics have known this set was coming for about a year, and they bought up a good percentage of the sets. Most of the remaining sets are spoken for. A phone call to your local Lionel dealers (look in the phone book under "hobbies") might turn up a set. If someone actually advertises a set in the ads on the left-hand side of this page, they’re worth checking out too, on the logic that they wouldn’t pay to advertise something they don’t have in stock.

If you must turn to Ebay, e-mail the seller before you bid to make sure the seller actually has the set. A lot of people are listing sets on Ebay with the intent of ordering a set if someone buys it. This practice is illegal, but these buyers either don’t know or care. But why should you pay someone $350 to order a set and wait until March to get it when you can pay $250 for the set yourself and wait until March to get it?

The other option is to wait until March. Lionel will make more sets. Trust me on that. They need the money.

Lionel bankruptcy

Lionel bankruptcy

It was all over the news when it happened. Lionel, the train maker, filed Chapter 11 on Nov 16, 2004. But a lot of the news stories got some critical details wrong. It’s not the first time a Lionel bankruptcy confused people.

Lionel has been bankrupt before, but the company has changed ownership numerous times so it’s not the same legal entity that went bankrupt in the 1930s and 1960s. There have also been numerous rumors about bankruptcy after 2004. These are usually dealers trying to create artificial demand to clear inventory.

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I\’ll try to check in later this weekend.

It’s a long weekend, and it’s going to be a busy one.

In the meantime, for those of you who like old trains, here’s a link: Standard Gauge Blog. Primarily it’s dedicated to the old Lionel 2 1/8-inch “Standard Gauge” (there wasn’t anything standard about it, in reality). But if you want to talk about showstopper trains, the biggest showstoppers were this style.

I like this guy because he acknowledges there’s more to the world than MTH (and MTH isn’t even the center of the universe!), he talks to experts, and once he even showed how these things were/are made. Worth checking out.

What day is it again?

Passing a few minutes before a movie started tonight, my girlfriend and I went into a nearby store to look around. And what did we find?

Christmas stuff.

Am I smoking crack, or is it still August?I probably shouldn’t encourage them, but I bought some stuff. Many of those collectible holiday village sets happen to be sized about right for O scale Lionel trains. Those that aren’t are usually sized about right for HO scale. I doubt it’s an accident. Around 100 years ago, J. Lionel Cowen convinced everyone that a train belonged around the Christmas tree. These days, ceramic villages and figures are more popular than the trains, and the big brands are every bit as overpriced as anything Lionel or MTH have made in the past decade, but they’re still sized so they’ll look right if a Lionel train escapes from the attic and ventures into the neighborhood. New traditions have a better chance of usurping older traditions if they fit in with them first.

These weren’t Lemax or Department 56. They were cheap knockoffs. This particular series of knockoffs pairs up O scale-sized figures with HO scale-sized buildings. Not my thang. I’m anything but a scale bigot but half-sized buildings get on my nerves.

But I bought a few figures. They came four to a package for a dollar. You’re lucky to pay less than $4 per figure at a hobby shop. For my four bucks, I got 16 figures.

Yes, the figures are dressed in heavy coats and there’s snow on the bases they stand on. So I won’t have them on the train layout at the same time as my open-top convertible 1:43-scale cars. But the availability of the figures makes it just as cheap and easy to make winter scenes, just like the 50-cent Homies figures make it cheap and easy to make summertime scenes.

Useless trivia answer: If you’ve ever wondered where 1:43 scale toy cars come from, they come from trains as well. The British decided that O scale should be 1:43, and Hornby decided it would be nice to be able to sell cars with which boys could populate their cities. The cars became popular toys in their own right, and the 1:43 scale was copied by other companies, so 1:43 scale cars lived on long after Hornby stopped selling O scale trains.

End useless trivia.

Where was I? Oh yeah. Useless Christmas merchandising in August. I decided I wanted 16 vaguely O scale figures in winter dress more than I wanted $4.24.

But I passed on the wreaths and the holly. I can’t think of any good use for those in my basement.

They\’re just toys

I saw someone get up in front of a crowd with his new O gauge model trolley, based on a prototype from St. Louis, manufactured by MTH Electric Trains, that he had ordered a couple of years ago and had finally arrived this year.

He proceeded to tell us everything that was wrong with it. It was a long, long list. I started wondering if he regretted buying it.

And I started wondering what difference any of it made anyway, seeing as the biggest detail was already wrong: It runs on non-prototypical track with three rails and the outer rails a 5 scale feet apart!Tom Gatermann and I talked about it last night. He’s had HO-scale layouts since childhood; now he and another friend have pooled their time and money to build a bigger, badder N-scale layout.

They and I are on polar opposites. They like modeling rural settings; I’m trying to build a city. They like scale models; most of my stuff is semi-scale, and at times I’ve been known to clear all that off and run a bunch of toylike Marx trains and prewar stuff from Lionel, American Flyer, and Ives. Aside from scenery, they’re almost exclusively RTR models and kits for buildings; I enjoy scratchbuilding. (Yeah, I’m a strange, strange mix.) They’re runners; and while I run my trains, I’ve got a lot of collector in me too.

The main thing we have in common is that none of us could care less if our model has 133 rivets and the real-world version had 139. Without a magnifying glass and way more time than we’re willing to spend, we’re not going to be able to tell the difference.

I wonder less now whether the person who bought the trolley regrets it. I read in a book that a lot of hobbyists relish finding and pointing out the inaccuracies in their toys. I guess I have something in common with them too. I want to learn as much about something as I can, and so do they. I guess pointing out every detail that was wrong (besides that pesky third rail and wide track) is a way of demonstrating how much you know; much like artists of old painted people in various stages of undress in order to demonstrate how much they knew about anatomy.

Too bad it comes off as stuffy and, well, just plain geeky. This stuff is supposed to be an escape from the real world. It’s supposed to be fun.

And besides, why get so uptight about the realism of the train? I can find all sorts of inaccuracies if I look elsewhere on the table. See that hill on the layout? What’s its real-world prototype? Do you have the right kind of trees on it? Did you count them? What about that road? Is the width right? Why hasn’t that 1946 Ford pickup truck on that road ever moved? The train moves, why don’t the cars? Why do the people look like department store mannequins? Why are there two Walgreen Drug Stores across the street from each other in your town? (Well, actually that last question might have a real-world prototype…)

American Model Toys and Kusan trains

American Model Toys and Kusan trains

While almost everyone knows American Flyer and Lionel, and a lot of people have heard of Marx, there was a fourth maker of toy trains in the late 1940s and early 1950s that was much smaller, although very innovative, and today is nearly forgotten: Auburn, Indiana-based American Model Toys.

Its legacy, however, ties into virtually every major producer of O gauge trains in business today.

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You still think outsourcing is a good idea?

Don’t be fooled by the topic I put this in: This has potential implications for any area of manufacturing.

Lionel, the most famous U.S. maker of toy trains and model railroads, has been found guilty of industrial espionage and ordered to pay $40 million to competitor MTH Electric Trains.

What happened? Well, both Lionel and MTH outsource their production. As it turned out, some work that was done for MTH ended up in Lionel designs as well.I really don’t think anyone has a good grasp of what happened, but the story I heard is that a contractor who worked for MTH’s subcontractor designing locomotives moonlighted for Lionel’s subcontractor, and that he reused some work that he did on an MTH design on a Lionel design. MTH claims Lionel knew about this. Lionel claims it did not.

Regardless of who you believe, somebody was wronged. R&D work for one company ended up benefiting its competitor, and now that mistake is costing lots of money.

As a consumer, I’m disappointed because I’ve been led to believe that Lionel and MTH do their own designs and outsource production to Korea and China. Evidently they outsource some of their lucrative R&D as well.

Apologists for both companies have said that Korean companies tend to be related by blood or marriage and that workers routinely move from company to company, taking trade secrets with them and using them. That’s the corporate culture. U.S. corporate culture, of course, is exactly the opposite. We demand that you somehow forget all of your proprietary trade secrets when you change employers. Or at least don’t use them in your new job.

The products involved in this case aren’t the $20 locomotives you see at Hobby Lobby or Toys ‘R Us either. We’re talking premium products that sell for five figures here. I’ve seen them in person–they’re definitely impressive looking. But they’re playthings for people who make six figures per year, minimum. I like O gauge Lionel stuff an awful lot. But I don’t expect to ever own one. They cost more than I’m willing to pay for a computer.

I suspect that with those kinds of profit margins, they could have afforded to build them in Michigan or New Jersey, where Lionel understands how its workers work and its workers understand how its employer works. That’s the scenario if you assume Lionel is innocent. If you assume Lionel is guilty, well, that scenario makes industrial espionage much more unlikely. It’s always best not to allow yourself to be tempted to do something wrong–it’s easier to avoid temptation than it is to resist it.

And if they’d had to raise the price of a $1,400 locomotive by another $100, I doubt too many people would have screamed. Especially if the words “Proudly made in USA” were prominently featured on the package.

There’s some question whether there’s even room in a $100 million hobby for both Lionel and MTH. When your industry is worth $100 million as a whole, and you have to share that pie with four or five competitors, you can’t really afford a $40 million jury award, can you?

Saving a few bucks in labor and R&D may have just cost Lionel its life.

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