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The copper piece on a locomotive

I get a lot of inquiries about “the copper piece on a locomotive.” They mean a toy train locomotive. Depending on the make of the train, there may be one copper piece on the motor, or there may be two.

Here’s what those pieces are called, how to find them, and how to care for them.

Marx locomotives and some older American Flyer and Ives locomotives have two copper pieces. On the underside of the locomotive there will be a copper pickup shoe that rides on the third rail of the track. Sometimes people call this a trolley pickup shoe or a trolley shoe. When this piece wears out, you need to either fix or replace it. You can replace the shoe or the whole pickup assembly. I prefer to just replace the shoe unless the assembly’s fiber board shows damage.

The Marx locomotive on the top shows a prewar three-part shoe. The lower locomotive has a repair someone improvised themselves. The motor is missing a bushing (lower left) so it runs poorly but the pickup shoe functions perfectly.

A well-worn Marx locomotive I picked up at a train show had a clever basement repair. Someone fashioned a replacement out of a piece of scrap copper and soldered it in place. It’s not the most elegant looking repair but it works fine. Before the Internet and Ebay, it was hard to find these parts, so someone improvised. If you have a Marx locomotive with a damaged fiber board, you could copy this approach to get it working again cheaply.

Most Lionel locomotives use rollers instead of shoes. Rollers create less drag, but shoes cost less and they clean the center rail nicely.

The series of copper plates underneath the motor’s brush plate is called a commutator. Here I’m cleaning a Marx commutator with a cotton swab. When the commutator is clean, the motor runs better.

All electric motors have a copper piece called a commutator. Over time the commutator gets dirty and needs a good cleaning. Here’s a commutator cleaning job I did on a Lionel 2034, and a more thorough writeup of a Marx 999. Other makes of motors will vary slightly but the overall process is very similar.

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