Last night, the Lionel train under our Christmas tree–a low-budget special, of course–started struggling. It had been able to pull five cars before, but suddenly could only pull four. Here’s how I fixed it.
I’ve been noticing that a post I made several years ago about my experiments fixing a Marx 490 train locomotive has been getting a disconcerting number of hits. Disconcerting, because I repeated some advice on how to fix old Marx locomotives from another web site that I later found, by experience, wasn’t all that good.
Here’s how I go about doing simple repairs on Marx trains today, now that I’ve done a few.
Note: Please don’t do what I did in this post. Chances are you’ll make things worse in the long run. If you’re looking for information on fixing a Marx train that won’t run, go here for instructions on how to do that.
I fixed my Marx 490 locomotive this weekend. I used the tips in The All Gauge Model Railroading Marx Trains guide. Scroll down to the heading titled, “The Marx motor.”
I was skeptical because these instructions call for WD-40, and it seems I’ve read a hundred other places never to use WD-40 on any model train. But my Marx 490 wasn’t running well, and it would cost more to have it professionally repaired than it’s worth.But before I continue, let me interject something. If you’re here from Google because you just found a box of old trains that say “Mar” on them, the company is Marx, not Mar. And the trains look a lot like Lionel, but they’re not Lionel. In a few rare instances, Marx trains are very valuable. But in most cases, a Marx isn’t worth as much as the box a Lionel came in. Which is why I said it would cost more to repair my Marx than it was worth. I just had two Lionels repaired for $25 each, plus parts. You can usually get a Marx 490 with some cars on eBay for $25.
But that’s not to say Marxes don’t have charm. They certainly do.
There. I feel better now. Back to the story. Where was I? Oh yeah. WD-40. I didn’t use WD-40 on my Marx. I used Gunk Liquid Wrench instead. Two reasons: The main purpose behind WD-40 and similar oils is to clean, rather than lubricate. They leave a little bit of lubricant behind, but not a lot. Gunk Liquid Wrench, like WD-40, is primarily a solvent. But it has synthetic oil in it, whereas WD-40 has kerosene in it. In my mind, this makes Liquid Wrench a better choice for this purpose because what little lubricant it leaves behind when the solvent evaporates will be of higher quality and last longer than WD-40’s lubricant.
But there was a second reason. Liquid Wrench was on sale, so it was cheaper. I also thought long and hard about Marvel Mystery Oil in a spray can–it works in cars and airplanes something wonderful–but opted for Liquid Wrench because the instructions called for a penetrating lubricant, and I didn’t know if the Marvel would exhibit the same kinds of properties. I’m a journalist-turned-computer tech by trade, not a chemist.
But first, I tried omitting the WD-40 step and just cleaned it with Goo Gone and TV tuner cleaner. Like I said, every time I turn around I read somewhere that you shouldn’t go near a model train with WD-40. Between the TV tuner cleaner and the Goo Gone, the train looked brand new very quickly. I was impressed. It ran very nicely too, but the next day it didn’t run at all. Figuring that now I had nothing to lose, I broke out the Liquid Wrench.
After a spraydown with Liquid Wrench, it ran too well–it flew off the track and fell 4 feet to my concrete floor. Ouch. That left a mark. One corner of the cab busted off, and it took me a good 15 minutes to find it. After I’d let the locomotive run 20 minutes–with a big load this time, to slow it down and keep it on the track–I re-glued the broken corner with some Tenax-7R plastic welder. Tenax is great stuff–apply a small amount of it, hold the pieces together for a minute, and they’ll stay. It’ll take 8 hours for the joint to completely dry and reach full strength, but after just a minute, the joint is as strong as it would be with every other glue I’ve ever tried on plastic.
Lesson learned: Keep your test track on the floor. Or surround it with pillows. Or use a Marx transformer that can send just a couple of volts on its lowest setting, so slow actually means slow.
The next day, I ran my 490 the opposite direction on my track–the first time I’d ever run a locomotive that direction on the track. And guess what? I found a bad spot on the track. It derailed–again–and the piece I’d glued fell off in spite of the cushions I’d placed all around my table.
Then I remembered that Tenax is amazing stuff if your two pieces fit snugly, because unlike some glues, Tenax doesn’t fill in the gaps at all. The break must not have been clean enough to give the Tenax adequate surface area to create a very strong bond. So I re-glued with epoxy, since epoxy will fill gaps. It held this time.
So now Marxie has a battle scar and he’s probably worth half what he was worth a week ago, but he runs very well. It’s short on ability but long on heart–it struggles pulling loads that won’t make a Lionel break a sweat. But it’ll pull them, and you can see it working hard doing it. And where a Lionel will just give up on a grade with a curve with a long load of cars, the Marx just keeps spinning its wheels, ever faster, until something manages to catch and it propels on its way.
I think that’s what I like about it. It never gives up.
There are a few other things to like about them too. Like I said before, you can buy a Marx locomotive for less than the price of the box a Lionel locomotive came in. Marxes are easy to take apart–mine’s held together by four joints, easily pried apart with a small slotted screwdriver. And the motor is simpler than a Lionel, so it’s easier to understand. If you want to learn how to fix toy trains, Marxes are easy to learn on, and if you mess up, you ruin a $15 locomotive rather than a $100-$1,000 locomotive.
I unboxed Dad’s old Lionel train Monday night. They don’t make them like that anymore.
Dad’s train led a rough life. My investigative reporting skills tell me he got the train sometime between 1949 and 1952, and then sometime after 1953 he got a new locomotive and cars. And then sometime in the 1960s, the trains ended up in a box. I remember him telling me it came out a few times in the 1970s for Christmas, but most of my memories of Dad’s train are four big pieces of plywood with rusty track mounted on it, sitting in the garage next to a stack of repurposed liquor boxes containing train parts.
Finally, when I was in the fourth or fifth grade, my incessant pestering paid off and the train found a new home in the basement. Dad and I plugged the track back together, and Dad wired the transformer. Then Dad produced two locomotives out of one of the boxes. Dad’s fanciest locomotive didn’t work at all. The smaller locomotive sputtered and sparked when he put it on the track. That was more than the fancy one did. Dad’s answer to everything mechanical was WD-40, so he went back up to the garage, got the can off the top of the gun safe (there was always a can of WD-40 on top of Dad’s gun safe), came back down, and blasted the locomotive with several spurts of the tinkerer’s favorite. (Incidentally, for those of you here seeking advice on trying to get an old Lionel train to run, this isn’t a good idea.) This time, when Dad put it on the track, the train produced a lot more sparks and a lot more noise, and it even moved a little bit. He picked it back up and blasted it again, with similar results. I asked Dad why the WD-40 helped. He said it would lubricate the moving parts, but it’s also a conductor of electricity.
Dad eventually gave up and started paying more attention to the football game. I ran the train around the track a few times by hand. When I was in the fifth grade, this was more interesting to me than football. For that matter, it might still be more interesting to me than football. When I got bored with that, I decided to go over to the transformer and give the train some juice. The train hesitated, and it sure didn’t move fast, but it moved. I gave it some more juice, and it chugged its way around the track, gradually picking up more speed and creaking less. The more we ran it, the better it got. We started adding scenery. There wasn’t much of anything realistic about it, and Dad didn’t have much scenery short of a plastic diner and two train stations, but it was fun.
Well, we moved a couple more years later, and the train found itself back in boxes again. Eventually it made its way out of the boxes and into the new basement. If I remember right, this was Dad’s doing, and not mine. The second time around, Dad spent more time with the train than I did. But after I went off to college and my parents finished the basement, the train went back into boxes. After Dad died, the trains stayed in boxes in Mom’s basement. After I bought a house, one weekend the trains showed up in my basement, where they stayed for about a year, until this week.
What I found this week was a trio of dusty engines, three trailing tender cars, bits and pieces of scenery, one caboose, and a whole lot of rusty track. That was one more locomotive than I remembered and a lot fewer cars than I remembered. I suspect there’s still a box or two of train cars somewhere in Mom’s basement.
One of the locomotives was very clearly missing a few pieces. I set it aside. I recognized one of the others as the plain-Jane locomotive Dad and I first messed with. The other one was fancier. I took eight straight pieces and eight curved pieces and made a circle. One of the straight pieces had the contact piece for the transformer, so I connected the transformer with two pieces of wire. I put the fancy locomotive on the track, fired up the transformer, and recalled the episode from 17 years earlier.
I skipped the WD-40 this time. I didn’t have any, and the residue it leaves behind tends to attract dust, making the situation it was supposed to correct worse in the long run. I grabbed the other train. It was about as lively as I am first thing in the morning, but it made noise and it moved. I gave it a little push, and it moved even better.
Eventually I searched the Internet, and I consulted with Tom and his mechanically inclined sidekick Tim, and they suggested I clean the track with some 600-grit sandpaper to remove the oxidation. After doing that, both locomotives ran pretty well.
As for the engines, the first thing you want to do is use a soft brush to remove any dust you can find, both on the visible surfaces of the cars and locomotive but especially on the underside. The most common advice suggests a small, soft paintprush. I didn’t have one, so I ended up using an old soft-bristled toothbrush. That was fine, but you want to make sure it’s a soft-bristled one, such as an Oral-B. A paintbrush would definitely be gentler. The idea here is to get the dust off the equipment so it doesn’t find its way onto the track or, worse yet, inside the engine where it can gum up the gears and motor(s).
Next, use a light grease to lubricate the gears and a light machine oil to lubricate the other moving parts. I didn’t have any grease, but I have a little tube of oil I use to keep my electric razor working well, so I applied some of that to a toothpick and lubed some of the moving parts on the two engines. Honestly, I don’t know how much of a difference the oil made. It seems to me that just running the engines, pushing them around the track with power applied until they were able to move on their own, made a bigger difference than anything else I did.
If the only lubricant you have handy is WD-40, skip it. If you happen to have some compressed air, blasting some of that into the crevices after you’ve done a job with the brush probably will knock loose some more of the gunk that’s accumulated inside, but I wouldn’t bother unless the engine isn’t running well.
It doesn’t seem to take much to get a vintage Lionel working again.
There’s a train store on the way home from work that has a Lionel sign in the window. I stopped in on my way home tonight. I bought a very overpriced Lionel-branded maintenance kit–for $14.50 I got a little tube of oil, a little tube of grease, a bottle of some substance with the words “track cleaner” and “biodegradable” on the outside, and a pencil eraser. I bought it mostly for the directions on the back, and to hopefully help ensure that train store will be there a little bit longer.
Perusing the store and perusing the awesome Postwar Lionel Trains Library, I found out, not to my great surprise, that few of the pieces I’d unboxed were particularly rare. The only rarity was Dad’s caboose. That did surprise me. It wasn’t popular, so it wasn’t made very long, so now it attracts interest. Figures. But that’s how it always goes with collectibles.
The store had an elaborate Lionel layout in the front, with three trains and a level of detail I’m more used to seeing in HO- and N-gauge layouts. They used an aftermarket track with wooden ties and the middle rail painted black to make the notoriously unrealistic O-gauge track look much more like real track. The new locomotives had digitized sound effects and the whole layout operated by remote control. I have to admit, it was pretty impressive. But the cars and the engines looked cheaper and flimsier than Dad’s stuff made in the fifties.
“For $130 I can add sound effects to your old engine,” he said when I looked less impressed than most people probably are.
It sounded like a cool idea. But for now, I don’t think I want to mess with that. This set’s charm isn’t just about trains, and I’m not sure if jaw-dropping whiz-bang technology would enhance that charm or just cover it up.