Lionel enthusiasts, especially postwar enthusiasts, talk about Magne-Traction a lot. But what is a Magne-Traction train, and what makes it special?
Magne-Traction was a feature Lionel introduced in the 1950s. By putting magnets in the driver wheels, a Magne-Traction train can pull more, climb steeper grades, and run at higher speeds without derailing on sharp curves.
The problems Magne-Traction solved
Lionel trains had a lot of design compromises. Generally speaking, for most of the 20th century, if Lionel had to choose between practicality or realism, it chose practicality. Lionel trains ran on much sharper curves than the real thing. They ran at much higher speeds than the real thing. And if you bought a Lionel trestle set, it climbed at steeper grades than real trains did.
The problem with all of this was Lionel trains derailed a lot. As a sixth grader playing with my dad’s vintage Lionels in our basement, I had a hard time tempering my urge to make the train run fast in order to make it stay on the rails. I never sent any of Dad’s trains flying across the room or anything, but I derailed them quite a bit. And let’s face it, running trains is more fun than putting steam engines back on the rails.
Lionel guessed that Magne-Traction would be a huge hit. And it guessed correctly. It extolled the virtues of its newest invention on the cover of its 1950 catalog. It created the famous disappearing train display layout, where a train descended into the table at steep grade, only to reappear again. Without Magne-Traction, such a display was impossible. Lionel even claimed its trains could climb a 20 percent grade. That was ridiculous, but it did make short work of grades a real train wouldn’t dream of.
How Magne-Traction works
Magne-Traction works by placing a permanent Alinco magnet either inside the axle or right above it. The magnetism travels through the axle, through one drive wheel, through the rails, and back through the other drive wheel like an electrical circuit, holding the train to the rails–as long as you used steel track.
Lionel had experimented with magnets in engines before, in 1948 and 1949, but found the amount of magnetism that would work without harmful side effects varied from locomotive to locomotive. By 1950, Lionel had it down.
Real railroads experimented with Magne-Traction as well. There were several patents granted in the United States and Europe starting in 1859 for magnetized driver wheels. It never worked in the real world, but it worked well for Lionel.
Competitors’ response to Magne-Traction
Magne-Traction was patented of course, so Marx and Gilbert couldn’t just copy it. Instead, both of them put a rubber tire on one drive wheel to improve traction. It worked about as well, and was much cheaper. The disadvantage to using a rubber tire is the tire can eventually wear out and break off, requiring replacement. But that just means you can sell replacement tires years down the road.
Eventually Lionel phased out Magne-Traction on all but its most expensive locomotives. Few Lionel trains use it today. But sometimes Lionel will even double up, fitting a locomotive with both Magne-Traction and a tire.