How big is a Lionel post war train? The answer isn’t as simple as it could be, because these were toys, and it varied. This is confusing even to experienced train hobbyists sometimes. But I can give you some guidelines and ranges and explain why there were such variances in Lionel post war train dimensions and measurements.
They were toys
The first thing to remember is that Lionel trains were first and foremost toys. They were not attempting to be fine scale models. Their job was to resemble a real train while hitting a certain price point and fitting in a post war living space. The market for basement sized layouts was not enormous. Lionel wanted to be a mass market company, and they achieved it. For a time in the 1950s, they were the largest toy company in the world, and the trains were essentially their only successful product. Lionel made other toys, but they were imitations of competing toys and they were not nearly as successful.
Lionel product ranges
The trains came in essentially two product ranges. Lionel called one of them O gauge, and later Super O, and they called the other one o27. The 027 line wasn’t entry level product, intended as a starter set for parents to buy as a Christmas gift, but not a super extravagant one. Think of it like a game console today. At the time of this writing, Nintendo has three models of Nintendo switch. These models retail for $200, $300, and $350. The least expensive model serves two purposes. Someone who can’t afford one of the more expensive ones can buy that one. But it also makes the $300 model appear to be a better value.
The way Lionel could meet several price points was by varying the size. The smaller trains made the bigger trains look like the better value.
Size of Lionel 027 trains
A Lionel 027 engine was about 2 in wide and 9 in long. The cars were somewhat shorter, around 8 to 8 and 1/2 in long, but still about 2 in wide. The height varied depending on the type of car, but was generally a maximum of 3 and 1/2 in, with 3 in being more typical.
The length of the entire train depended on the number of cars, but a typical set would include a steam locomotive, a tender, two freight cars, and a caboose. Add those totals up, and you get around 45 inches in length.
The track itself came in sections. The name of 27 came from the size of the curved sections. A circle of sectional track measured 27 inches. A straight section of track was about 8.75 inches. The actual length could vary slightly due to tolerances, but we won’t get pedantic. If you made an oval out of the track that came with a typical starter set, you ended up with an oval that was 27 inches wide, and 44.5 inches long.
Watching a train chase its tail on such a small oval of track got boring after a while, and that was the point. The whole idea was to sell a starter set, and then sell pieces of track, additional train cars, buildings, and other accessories to keep it interesting. That’s where the money was, just like in game consoles. You sell the console one year, then you sell software and accessories for years afterward.
Measurements of Lionel o gauge trains
The larger more expensive trains were about 15% larger than the entry level 027 Lionel trains. An o gauge steam engine tended to be closer to 10 and 1/2 in long. The train cars were closer to 9 and 1/2 in long.
A train consisting of a steam engine and tender, two freight cars, and a caboose ended up being somewhere between 48 and 50 in long, depending on the configuration. The cars were still around 2 in wide, and a fraction of an inch taller than their 027 counterparts. But the size difference wasn’t too great. The idea was if someone bought a starter set and then got a higher end set, the trains would still work together and the 027 trains wouldn’t look too far out of place.
Trap was slightly larger, with a circle measuring 31 in, and an oval in a very basic set would be 31 in wide and 51 in long. Notice a basic train looked a little less ridiculous chasing its tail on an 031 loop. Lionel was clever.
Measurements of Lionel trains: in conclusion
The size and measurements varied, and this was by design. Generally speaking, the individual component ranged from about 8 in to 11 in in length, and an oval of track ranged from about 48 in in length and 27 in wide to whatever you have room for. My dad had a layout in the bedroom he shared with his brother that was probably about 4 ft by 8 ft wide. But not every family had that much room, so it could easily fit in an area closer to 15 square feet if that was all you had.