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Why you can’t get a $50 replacement sound/control board for your modern Lionel train

Every so often, some people start raging on the train forums, or even in the pages of the magazines, about modern electronics in modern O gauge trains. The modern electronics make the model trains sound just like real trains, but eventually heat and power surges take their toll, the board goes poof, and now that $2,000 toy train doesn’t work anymore and needs a $300 replacement circuit board.

And by the time that happens, that $300 replacement circuit board might be out of production, and no longer available at any price.

Which has led to countless calls for some enterprising hobbyist to become a multimillionaire by inventing a $50 replacement board that works on every train.

There are several reasons for the situation.The first problem is those boards going bad in the first place. Lionel trains get their power through the track they run on. Dirt on the track, distance from the transformer, and the stability of the transformer itself causes the voltage to fluctuate. This kills electronics quickly. Just ask anyone who tries to keep old Commodore computers running–the instabilities of the old Commodore power supplies, which were never good in the first place and have only gotten worse as the decades wear on.

If the power doesn’t kill it, heat might. People who pay $2,000 for a toy train don’t pay for the train to have cooling vents where the electronics need it. They pay $2,000 so they can count rivets and complain if Lionel misses one. Given the choice between selling a few hundred trains at full retail or having to sit on them for years and sell them at a tremendous loss to get rid of them, smart manufacturers opt for scale fidelity, regardless of what it does to the life expectancy of the electronics inside.

Which leads to the other problem. The reason the boards cost $300 is because they’re produced in such small quantities. The number of people willing and able to spend $2,000 on a Lionel train with a life expectancy measured in months is much smaller than most hobbyists think. Small quantities raise prices, and these companies are in business to make a profit, so they adjust their prices so they can turn a profit. If they could sell millions of trains, the boards would cost $25. Since they sell hundreds, the boards cost $300.

Since Lionel can’t make a board for $50, a guy messing around in his basement can’t either. The guy messing around in his basement also can’t license the necessary Lionel patents. Maybe when the patents expire, building boards in a basement will be practical. Hobbyists do make replacement boards to do cool stuff with old Commodore computers, but due to the small market–hundreds or maybe thousands of people–the boards tend to cost, coincidentally, a couple hundred bucks. And generally these hobbyists break even. They’re doing it for love, not money. These guys aren’t getting rich.

Now, a lot can change in a decade. Maybe in a decade the cost of FPGAs, or some suitable microcontroller will fall to the point where someone can build replacement boards for Lionel trains inexpensively, and with the patents gone, they’ll be able to do it legally.

But that’s only a maybe. It doesn’t help us much now. Hence the raging on forums and in the pages of magazines.

And, of course, when it happens, that person will have to deal with the same problems of heat and fluctuating voltages, so those boards will fail a lot too, and people will complain that Brand X replacement boards are junk. So I wish that person the best.

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