Lionel Trains, Model Trains, Model Railroads, Toy Trains

Learn about toy trains, model trains, model railroads, train platforms, railroad layouts, train layouts

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Z Gauge

Märklin introduced the Z Gauge (1:220 scale) in 1972. It is the smallest currently-available model railway scale.

Although its very small size can be used to make proportionally small layouts, its proponents cite its primary advantage as being able to produce more scale miles in the same space that would be used by a larger-scale layout. For example, a 4x8 sheet of plywood is 384 scale feet long in O scale. The same space is 1760 feet—1/3 of a mile—in Z scale. Even when compared to N scale, Z scale permits 37.5% more mileage in the same space.

This allows longer trains and smoother curves, and thus more realistic operation than is possible in larger scales under most circumstances.

There are now many different manufacturers of this equipment, and it has thus become less of a curiosity and more of a legitimate modelling scale. However, Z-scale rolling stock, buildings and figures remain much more scarce than their counterparts in the two most popular scales, HO and N.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

The Philosophy of Model Railways

(a simple, non-technical guide, avoiding 'railway jargon')
Whether it is a simple clockwork train on a circular track, or a huge detailed layout run to a timetable with historically accurate signals and train formations, the essence of a model railway is that it presents the appearance of a working railway. It is essentially the pursuance of this appearance which causes people to spend varying amounts of time and money creating a model railway, sometimes making it a lifetime’s project. Anyone intending to make a model railway, however, must sooner or later confront not the similarities between their model and the real thing, but the differences. Unless these differences are accepted and accommodated in some way, the model is unlikely to be successful or satisfying.

Generally speaking, the purpose of a model railway is to be interesting to see and to operate, whether the ‘interest’ depends on historical accuracy, fidelity to the appearance of the original, or complexity of operation. Those models which contain more detail, more track and rolling stock, are generally more interesting. But it is important to remember that this is not the purpose of a real railway. If the railway companies of the past could have implemented a ‘Star Trek’ method of transporting passengers and goods instantly from A to B they would quickly have abandoned the use of trains, which was always an expensive method of transport. They would never have used more locomotives or coaches than was essential to maintain their traffic, and certainly they would never have built and maintained ‘interesting’ and complex track formations, which were notoriously expensive, without first making every effort to simplify them.

There is another essential difference to be dealt with. Even the largest model railway cannot model an entire line, unless it be a cliff or miniature line. Most if not all interesting lines would ‘go off’ somewhere to connect with the rest of the system. Even a very large layout must compromise, therefore with the need to ‘disappear’ off the edge of the modelled world.

Many modellers begin with the urge to see trains running as soon as possible, and rush into the first type of layout that occurs to them. Many of them find too late that they have committed themselves to a design which is not going to interest them for long, or they see when halfway into construction that they would have been better to adopt a different plan, even to model a different railway altogether. Successful and satisfying layouts are almost always the result of a considerable amount of planning involving compromise and tradeoffs. This can be frustrating at first, though it can become an enjoyable pursuit in itself, but the results of a well-planned layout are usually well worth the time and effort involved.

The first stage in planning is to decide what sort of layout is wanted. All is not what it seems here, for though a large layout may seem more interesting to a beginner, it is likely to prove too exhausting in its construction and operation to be truly satisfying. On the other hand, someone who is determined to be historically accurate above all may spend an enormous amount of time in the construction of a layout which in reality had only three or four trains per day, using at the most two locomotives. It is therefore very important to decide first what one wants from a layout. Common themes include historical accuracy, detailed modelling, and operations. One popular approach is to choose a locale and a period in history, for example Virginia in the 1940s or New Mexico in the 1960s.

For many years the most popular form of layout was the ‘continuous run’, evolving from the simple ‘trainset’ or ‘toy train’ circuit of track. The advantage of this layout is that the trains do indeed run continuously, and a train can be seen running for a period of time not greatly reduced from that of a real train journey. It also avoids the need to have a ‘rest of the world’ located offstage somewhere. The disadvantage, however, is that it is most unrealistic. No real train appears again from the same direction after a few seconds! Modellers who really wish to see main line trains run for lengthy periods, however, may suspend their disbelief, or compromise with this aspect of the model, in the interests of getting what they want.

The other extreme from this type of layout is the ‘branch line terminus’, also known as a point-to-point line. The advantage of this layout is that while simple to operate and requiring few locomotives, it is realistic in operation. The trains arrive and depart like a real branch-line train. Much satisfaction can be gained from the inclusion of a small goods yard and the visit and shunting of the daily goods train. The disadvantage is that all the rolling stock must have an ‘elsewhere’ to go to, off the layout, representing the ‘rest of the system’. This is commonly known as a ‘fiddle yard’ where all traffic intended to run onto the layout is assembled by hand, and of course this requires extra space, often as much as the ‘real’ or modelled part of the layout. Another disadvantage is that the operation can become very unvaried after a while. Modellers whose urge to start a layout came from watching long expresses racing by will not find this very satisfying.

Many layouts follow a middle course, and model a stretch of line with ‘rest of the world’ at both ends. This is both realistic and satisfying to watch. Here too, though, there are disadvantages: two ‘fiddle yards’ are required, one at each end, and the amount of rolling stock required to represent a realistic selection of traffic is considerable. The modeller with time and space to spare will, however, find this a source of satisfaction.

To decide which layout to build requires some decision as to the 'philosophy' of one’s railway, and time spent thinking over the alternatives and their relative merits will be a good investment. The design, size and character of a layout can be very different according to what aspect of railways interests the modeller. Some are interested mainly in highly detailed scenery and buildings, realistic trackside vehicles and figures, others may be interested in signalling, and will want a fully signalled layout. Others will be happy with no signals at all, however unrealistic this appears. Most modellers seem to prefer locomotives in action above all else, and the other aspects of the model take a backward place. Whatever it is, much time and effort will be saved in construction if this is decided in advance of starting.

Rail Transport Modelling

Model railroading (US) or Railway modelling (UK) is the hobby in which rail transport systems are modelled at a reduced scale, including rail vehicles, tracks, scenery (roads and buildings, natural features such as streams, hills, canyons, etc.), and rail operations. The earliest forms of model railways are the 'Carpet Railways' which first appeared in the 1840s.

Model railways are a popular hobby, and involvement in it can range from the simple possession of a train set (especially by children), to spending many hours and large sums of money on custom layouts and scenery.

An HO scale model railroadLayouts vary from the very stylistic (sometimes just a simple circle of track) through to the 'absolutely realistic', where scale models of real places are modelled in extreme detail. One of the largest of these is in the Pendon Museum in Oxfordshire, UK, where a OO model of the Vale of The White Horse as it appeared in the 1930s is under construction. The museum also houses one of the earliest scenic models ever made - the 'Madder Valley' layout built by John Ahern. This layout was built in the 1930s and brought in the era of realistic modelling. Bekonscot in Buckinghamshire is the oldest model village, and also includes a model railway.

Model railway clubs exist for model railway enthusiasts to meet. Clubs sometimes put on displays of models for the general public. One rather specialist branch of railway modellers concentrates on larger scales and gauges, most commonly using track gauges of 3.5 or 5 inches. Models in these scales are usually hand-built and are powered by live steam, and the engines are often powerful enough to haul humans as passengers.

One particularly famous model railway club is the Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) at MIT.

Toy Train History

The earliest toy trains date from the 19th century and were often made of cast iron. Motorized units running on track soon followed, powered by a steam or clockwork engine. Some of these trains used clever methods to whistle and smoke.

Toy trains were revolutionized when Märklin, a German firm that specialized in doll house accessories, sought to create an equivalent toy for boys where a constant revenue stream could be ensured by selling add-on accessories for years after the initial purchase. In addition to boxed sets containing a train and track, Märklin offered extra track, rolling stock, and buildings sold separately, creating the predecessor to the modern model train layout featuring buildings and scenery in addition to an operating train.

Electric trains followed, with the first appearing in 1897, produced by the U.S. firm Carlisle & Finch. As electricity became more common in the early 20th century, electric trains gained popularity and as time went on, these electric trains grew in sophistication, gaining lighting, the ability to change direction, to emit a whistling sound, to smoke, to remotely couple and uncouple cars and even load and unload cargo. Toy trains from the first half of the 20th century were often made of lithographed tin; later trains were often made mostly of plastic.

Prior to the 1950s, there was little distinction between toy trains and model railroads—model railroads were toys by definition. Pull toys and wind-up trains were marketed towards children, while electric trains were marketed towards teenagers, particularly teenaged boys. It was during the 1950s that the modern emphasis on realism in model railroading started to catch on.
Consumer interest in trains as toys waned in the late 1950s, but has experienced a resurgence since the late 1990s due in large part to the popularity of Thomas the Tank Engine.

Today, S gauge and O gauge railroads are still considered toy trains even by their adherents and are often accessorized with semi-scale model buildings by Plasticville or K-Line (who owns the rights to the Plasticville-like buildings produced by Marx from the 1950s to the 1970s). Ironically, however, due to their high cost, one is more likely to find an HO scale or N scale train set in a toy store than an O scale set.

Many modern electric toy trains contain sophisticated electronics that emit digitized sound effects and allow the operator to safely and easily run multiple trains on one loop of track.

Previous Standards

The first widely adopted standards for toy trains running on track were introduced in Leipzig, Germany in 1891 by Märklin.
  • Number 5 gauge - 120 mm - 4 ft 5/8 in - 1:8 - Also known as V Gauge.
  • Number 4 gauge - 75 mm - 3 in - 1:11 or 1:20 - Also known as IV or 3 gauge. Measurement is sometimes also quoted at 2 15/16 in.
  • Number 3 gauge - 67 mm - 2 5/8 in - 1:16 or 1:22 or 1:23 - also known as III, II, IIa gauges.
  • Number 2 gauge - 54 mm - 2 1/8 in - 1:22.5 or 1:27 or 1:28 - also known as II gauge.
  • Number 1 gauge - 45 mm - 1 7/8 in - 1:32 or 1:30 - Also known as I gauge. Used by modern G scale.
  • Number 0 gauge - 35 mm - 1 3/8 in - 1:48 or 1:43 or 1:45 or 1:64 - Introduced later, around 1900. This is modern O gauge.

Märklin measured the gauge as the distance between the center of the two outer rails, rather than the distance between the outer rails themselves. Lionel's Standard gauge is allegedly the result of Lionel's misreading these standards, as are the variances in O gauge between the United States and Europe.

Most of these standards never really caught on, due to their large size, which made them impractical to use indoors, as well as the high price of manufacturing. Wide gauge trains, which are close in size to 2 gauge, are produced in limited quantities today, as are 1 gauge and O gauge trains. Of these, O gauge is the most popular.

The modern standards for toy trains also include S gauge, HO scale, and N scale, in descending order of size. HO and N scale are the most popular model railway standards of today; inexpensive sets sold in toy stores and catalogs are less realistic than those sold to hobbyists. O gauge arguably remains the most popular toy train standard.

Although the words "scale" and "gauge" are often used interchangeably, toy train manufacturers have only recently concerned themselves with accurate scale. The terms "O scale" and "S scale" tend to imply serious scale modeling, while the terms "O gauge" and "S gauge" tend to imply toy trains manufactured by the likes of Lionel and American Flyer. While S gauge is fairly consistent at 1:64 scale, O gauge trains represent a variety of sizes. O gauge track happens to be 1/45 the size of real-world standard gauge track, so manufacturers in Continental Europe have traditionally used 1:45 for O gauge trains. British manufacturers rounded this up to 1:43, which is seven millimeters to the foot. U.S. manufacturers rounded it down to 1:48, which is a quarter-inch to the foot. However, most engaged in a practice of selective compression in order to make the trains fit in a smaller space, causing the actual scale to vary, and numerous manufacturers produced 1:64 scale trains—the proper size for S gauge—in O gauge, especially for cost-conscious lines.

Some of the earliest O gauge trains made of tinplate weren't scale at all, made to unrealistic, whimsical proportions similar in length to modern HO scale, but anywhere from one and a half to two times as wide and tall.

Some adult fans of toy trains operate their trains, while others only collect. Some toy train layouts are accessorized with scale models in an attempt to be as realistic as possible, while others are accessorized with toy buildings, cars, and figures. Some hobbyists will only buy accessories that were manufactured by the same company who made their trains. This practice is most common among fans of Marx and Lionel.

Toy Trains

A toy train is a toy which represents a train, distinguished from a model train by an emphasis on low cost and durability, rather than scale modeling. A toy train can be as simple as a pull toy that does not even run on track, or it might be operated by clockwork or a battery. Many toy trains blur the line between the two categories, running on electric power and approaching accurate scale.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Collector Value

The collector value of "modern era" Lionel trains has been limited compared to the trains produced by Lionel Corporation prior to 1969. There has been only limited collector interest in trains produced by this succession of entities, from MPC through to Lionel Trains Inc. and Lionel, LLC, especially if the items are in less than mint condition and do not include the original box. In addition, Lionel's reissues have somewhat decreased the collector value of even vintage Lionel and American Flyer equipment.


On November 15, 2004, Lionel, LLC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, citing the $40 million-plus judgment in the MTH lawsuit as the primary factor. In the filing, it listed $55 million in debt and $42 million in assets. The largest secured creditor was PNC Financial Services Corp., owed $31 million. The MTH judgment was not included in the $55 million figure.

The Wellspring Era

Lionel changed hands again in 1995, when Kughn sold controlling interest in the company to an investment group that included rock and roller Neil Young and holding company Wellspring Associates. The new company became known as Lionel LLC. The company continued marketing reproductions of its vintage equipment, and the trend towards producing new equipment that was ever-more-detailed (with a correspondingly higher price) continued.

Additionally, Young helped finance the development of Trainmaster Command Control, a technology similar to Digital Command Control which permits, among other things, the operation of Lionel trains by remote control. In order to proliferate this standard, Lionel has licensed it to several of its competitors, including K-Line.

Lionel, LLC continued to manufacture and market trains and accessories in O scale under the Lionel brand and S gauge under the American Flyer brand. While most of the American Flyer product comprises re-issues using old Gilbert tooling from the 1950s, the O scale equipment is a combination of new designs and reissues. Lionel also ventured into HO scale at times during its history, with limited success.

In 2001, Lionel closed its last manufacturing plant in the United States, outsourcing production to Korea and China. While this move proved unpopular with some longtime fans, there was no backlash like the failed move of production to Mexico in the 1980s. The company also licensed the Lionel name to numerous third parties, who have marketed various Lionel-branded products since 1995.

The 2004 Christmas movie Polar Express, based on the children's book of the same name, provided Lionel with its first hit in years. Lionel produced a train set based on the movie, and stronger-than-anticipated demand caused highly publicized shortages. Various news stories told of a reporter's quest to locate a set, and some dealers marked the prices up above the suggested retail price of $229. Sets turned up on eBay with buy-it-now prices of $449 as Lionel ordered an additional production run but said it would not be able to deliver the additional sets until March of the following year. Although many criticized Lionel for not producing more sets, Lionel's management called the set a great success.

This era was marked by legal troubles. In April 2000, competitor and former partner MTH Electric Trains filed a trade secret misappropriation lawsuit against Lionel, LLC, saying that one of Lionel's subcontractors had acquired plans for an MTH locomotive design and used them to design locomotives for Lionel. Additionally, on May 27, 2004, Union Pacific Railroad sued Athearn and Lionel for trademark infringement because both companies put the names and logos of UP, as well as the names and logos of various fallen flag railroads UP had acquired over the years, on their model railroad products without a license. While Athearn quickly settled and acquired a license, Lionel prepared to fight, arguing that it and its predecessor companies had been using the logos for more than 50 years and had been encouraged or even paid to do so.

The misappropriation lawsuit by MTH eventually went to trial, and on June 7, 2004, a jury in Detroit, Michigan found Lionel liable and awarded MTH $40,775,745. On November 1, 2004, a federal judge upheld the jury's decision. Lionel announced it would appeal, but two weeks later filed for bankruptcy.

The Kughn Era

Kughn was a prolific toy train collector who said that his friends joked that the only thing his collection lacked was the company who made them. Kughn believed that if he moved production to Detroit, it would be possible to improve quality to a level characteristic of the original Lionel Corporation and still maintain profitability.

After his purchase, Kughn founded a company called Lionel Trains to continue the brand, and Lionel Trains Inc. opened a plant in Chesterfield, Michigan. In 1989 Lionel Trains introduced a locomotive featuring realistic electronically-produced sounds.

During this time frame, Lionel began producing new products based on designs from the Post-War era, when its popularity was at its peak. Additionally, some offerings began to depart from Lionel's toy-like design and place more emphasis on scale realism and detail.

Additionally, Lionel began selling reproductions of its designs that dated from the period before World War II. These products were made by MTH Electric Trains using original Lionel Corporation tooling, which had been sold at bankruptcy in the late 1960s after sitting unused for decades. This arrangement ended in the early 1990s after a disagreement between Kughn and MTH owner Mike Wolf.

The year 1993 brought Kughn's Lionel an opportunity. The original Lionel Corporation had recovered after the sale of its trains and survived as an entirely separate entity, operating a successful chain of retail toy stores for 24 years and becoming for a time the second-largest toy retailer in the country. However, it went bankrupt in the early 1990s under increased competition and liquidated in 1993, allowing the train manufacturer to purchase the Lionel trademark after years of operating as a licensee.

The MPC (General Mills) Era

The bankrupt Lionel Corporation sold the tooling for its then-current product line and licensed the Lionel name to General Mills in 1969, who then operated Lionel as a division of its subsidiary Model Products Corporation. General Mills did not buy the company, however. Lionel Corporation went on to reorganize as a chain of toy stores.

Due to General Mills' cost-cutting measures, production of Lionel-branded toy and model trains returned to profitability, but sometimes at the expense of quality. Detail was often sacrificed, and most of the remaining metal parts were replaced with molded plastic.

In 1982, General Mills moved production of the trains from the United States to Mexico, an unpopular move that was reversed by 1984. The brand was sold to Kenner-Parker in 1985 and sold again in 1986, this time to a railroad enthusiast real estate developer from Detroit, Michigan named Richard Kughn.

Lionel, LLC

Lionel, LLC is a designer and importer of toy trains and model railroads, based in Chesterfield, Michigan and currently in bankruptcy. Its roots lie in the 1969 purchase of the Lionel product line by cereal conglomerate General Mills.

Although Lionel, LLC now owns all of the trademarks and most of the product rights associated with Lionel Corporation, the original producer of Lionel trains founded in 1900, there is no direct connection between the two companies.