The Aero Monorail Company of St. Louis

The Aero Monorail Company of St. Louis

The Aero Monorail was a futuristic monorail train that first hit the market in 1932. Manufactured in St. Louis by the eponymously named Aero Monorail Company, it was designed to suspend over Lionel standard gauge track and run  faster than the standard gauge train.

The stands came in two varieties: a pair of free standing towers, and a series of towers that slipped under Standard gauge track and used the same 42-inch diameter. The motor looked like an Erector motor and ran on 6-8 volts, either DC or AC.

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Measuring the voltage and amperage of your train transformer’s output

Sometimes you want to know how many volts your train transformer is feeding your trains, in order to avoid damaging the motors. And it’s also helpful to know how many amps you’re pulling from your electric train transformer, so you don’t damage the transformer.

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How to clean inside Lionel tubular track

If the outside of your Lionel track is rusty or dirty, there’s a chance the inside is too. Here’s how to clean inside Lionel track.

The condition of the inside of the track is the standard reason people give for discarding old Lionel track rather than trying to fix it. But if you’re willing to put in some effort, this problem, too, is fixable.

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What is On30?

To a newcomer, and even many people with years of experience, the phrase “On30” is confusing. Basically, it’s O scale models (1:48) of narrow-gauge (30 inches in this case) railroads.

And that probably raises a few more questions, so I’ll try to answer them.
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Making trees from wire, plaster and lichen

I like this tutorial because it uses common materials and works for almost any kind of train: Making detailed oaks and maples.

It doesn’t hurt that the results look good too.I don’t think there would be anything wrong with using these trees on a tinplate prewar O gauge, Standard Gauge, or 2-inch Gauge (Carlisle & Finch and the like) layout. I don’t know if hobbyists were using these techniques 100 years ago, but the materials were all available then.

Lichen is available at craft and floral supply stores. You could also buy floral wire there to use in the project in place of electrical wire. Plaster is available at craft and hardware stores. And you can paint it with craft acrylics, available at craft stores and even some discount stores.

A lot of projects require a good hobby shop close by, and not everyone has one of those anymore. Living where I do, there are three good shops within 15 minutes of home (one is only about three miles away) but some projects require specialty items those stores don’t have. About a year ago I went to the estate sale of a model railroader who was extremely good at building and superdetailing kits. Virtually everything he had came from a hobby shop much further away.

The first thing I thought when I saw this project was that I could probably go out and buy everything I needed to make some of these even if I was visiting my in-laws in southeastern Missouri. And I might not even have to drive 30 miles to the nearest Hobby Lobby to get what I need.

It might be the first project I’ve ever seen where this is true.

An O scale glossary of sorts

I just spent some time explaining some of the terminology that goes along with Lionel and other O gauge and O scale trains. So I thought maybe a definition of some terms might prove useful to somebody.

Gauge — the width of the track. O gauge track is 1.75 inches wide. “Gauge” and “Scale” are often used interchangeably but they aren’t the same. Very few Lionel trains made up until the mid-1990s that ran on O gauge track were actually true O scale.

Hi-rail — realistic scenery using toy trains. The term originated because Lionel O gauge and American Flyer S gauge track are much taller than scale.

Narrow gauge — Track that is less than 4’8.5″. This was used for short, private railroads (such as in and around mines) and in mountains, where smaller trains presented a cost or mechanical advantage. Some modelers model narrow gauge lines because it can be possible to model an entire railroad in a relatively small space. Narrow gauge models are designated as the scale, followed by the letter n, and the track gauge, i.e. HOn2, On30.

O27 — The cheapest track system used by Lionel, Marx, Ives, and American Flyer. A circle of O27 track measures about 27 inches from one side to the other. This curve is very sharp, so trains intended to run on O27 track tend to be undersize.

O27 profile — O27 track stands about 3/8 of an inch high, so “O27 profile” track refers to straight and wide curves that will plug into O27 track.

O31 — This was Lionel’s costlier, more durable track. Its wider curves allowed for bigger trains, and since the rails were made of heavier metal, sometimes it can withstand being stepped on. A circle of standard O31 track measures about 31 inches in diameter.

O31 profile — straights and wide curves made the same height and thickness as O31 curves.

On30 — Narrow gauge trains running on track that’s a scale 30 inches in gauge. This was popularized by Bachmann, because HO scale track is very close to 30 inches wide in O scale. Bachmann seized this idea, using HO track and mechanisms to make O scale trains. There wasn’t a lot of 30-inch gauge track in the real world, but it caught on and now is possibly the largest-growing segment of the hobby.

Prewar — trains made before World War II. By and large these trains are more colorful and less realistic than those made after World War II.

Postwar — Trains made after the end of World War II but before Lionel Corporation sold its train line to General Mills in 1969. Technology advanced rapidly during these years, allowing the trains to become more realistic and gain new features. Since these are the trains Baby Boomers grew up with, they are very popular.

Scale — the size of a model in relation to the real thing. O scale is 1:48, meaning a quarter inch on the model equals a foot on the real thing. S scale is 1:64, meaning 3/16 inch on the model equals a foot on the real thing. An O scale model of a 6-foot tall human being is 1.5 inches tall. When people talk about “scale trains” in the context of O gauge, they generally mean 1:48 scale trains of recent production that have much greater detail and scale fidelity than trains produced during the postwar era.

Standard Gauge — Large-scale Lionel trains made until the 1930s. There was actually nothing standard about it, but it caught on. They were big, loud, gaudy, colorful, and toylike.

standard gauge — Four feet, eight and a half inches. This is the standard width of railroad track. When someone talks about “standard gauge O” or “standard gauge HO,” they’re talking about an O scale model of a standard gauge train.

Super O — a form of track introduced by Lionel in the late 1950s to address some of the shortcomings of tubular track. It was much more realistic, and while it developed a cult following that remains to this day, it didn’t really catch on.

Tinplate — Before plastics, most trains were made of tin-plated steel that was formed into shape. Either the metal was printed with a design (usually lithography) before it was formed, or it was formed and then painted with enamel paints.

Tubular track — the oldest form of toy train track, invented by Marklin in the 1890s, made of steel sheet formed into a tube and crimped onto a small number of large, oversized ties. Lionel’s O27 and O31 track are both tubular. A number of companies now offer newer track with a higher degree of realism.

Tin litho buildings for a traditional pre-war train layout

Note (1/4/2017): I wrote this blog post many years ago after deciding to try something different.

The approach to train layouts has changed a lot over the years and I assumed in the 1930s it was similar to the 1950s. I’m no longer certain it was. That said, if you want to know about how to make a 1950s-style layout that looks prewar, I have blog posts about vintage tin buildings and newer tin buildings that describe what I found after years of searching. If you want to know what’s available for you to buy for your own layout, check out those two links.

If you want to hear my questions that started my research, read on below.

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Converting Bachmann On30 cars to O or O27?

There’s always a discussion about the cost of O gauge/O scale somewhere, mostly because it’s hard to find new locomotives for less than $500 and new train cars for under $75. You’d think this was a hobby for trial lawyers and brain surgeons.

One guy pointed out how much bang for the buck he’s getting when he buys On30.

Now, a bit of terminology here. O scale is 1:48 scale. One quarter inch on the model is equal to a foot on the real-world equivalent. O27, the cheaper brother of O scale, is actually 1:64 scale, though it runs on the same track. “Serious” hobbyists often look down on O27, but the nice thing about O27 is it lets you pack a lot more into a smaller space.

So what’s this On30 stuff and what’s the difference between it and regular O or O27 scale?

I’m glad you asked.

On30, On3, and the like refer to “narrow gauge.” Most train track in the United States has its rails 4 feet 8 inches (or 8 1/2 inches) apart. That’s “Standard gauge.” Occasionally, a railroad would lay its track 3 feet apart, or 30 inches apart, or some other measurement narrower than 4’8.5″. This was especially common out west in regions where they had to deal with a lot of mountains. On30 refers to 1:48 scale models of 30-inch gauge trains. On3 refers to 1:48 scale models of 3-foot gauge trains. On2 refers to 1:48 scale models of 2-foot gauge trains. And so on. I’ve talked more about On30 here if you want to know more.

Now it just so happens that the distance between the rails on regular old HO scale track measures out to 31.3 inches in O scale. For most people, that’s certainly close enough. O scalers have been living with track that’s 5 scale feet wide ever since we decided that O scale was 1:48, back in the 1930s or so.

So Bachmann, the makers of the cheap HO and N scale train sets you see at Hobby Lobby, decided to take advantage of this convenient accident, make some 1:48 scale cars, put narrow trucks on them, bundle some HO scale track and commercialize On30. So now it’s actually easier in some regions to get a Bachmann On30 train set than it is to get a Lionel O train set.

I found this page on converting Bachmann On30 cars to S scale. What the author did was remove the Bachmann trucks and couplers and substitute American Flyers. Since S scale stuff is even more scarce than regular O scale, this is a slick trick. And, as you can see from the pictures, for the most part the stuff still looks right. Rivet counters won’t like it, but if you’re a rivet counter you’re probably not reading this page anyway. For people starved for inexpensive trains, or for trains, period, they’re fine.

Well, I like my Lionels. I’m not going to convert to On30. But I don’t like Lionel prices. So I build some of my own stuff, and the stuff I do buy, I buy used. So I’ve amassed a pretty sizeable collection, even though I’ve spent a lot less than most hobbyists will spend on a single locomotive.

But I’m always looking for something new and different.

A K-Line passenger car costs $117. A Bachmann passenger car costs $28.

A pair of K-Line freight trucks costs $8. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

You can’t put freight trucks on a passenger car. That’s what I’m thinking. Freight trucks are different from passenger trucks for some reason. Something about people wanting a smoother ride than cows.

But you get the idea. $36 is a lot less than $117.

K-Line passenger trucks are $25 apiece. That’s more than the car. But $78 is still less than $117, though I’d just live with using freight trucks, myself.

If the S scalers can do it, why can’t we?

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.

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.

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