What kind of Lionel train set should we get? (Caveat: no kids, 2 cats)
December 4, 2013 7:24 AM   Subscribe

My husband, who grew up with Lionel trains, would like to get a new set for the holidays. We have a 1 bedroom apartment, so we're not doing an entire set up. We have no kids, so it doesn't have to be Thomas, but I'm at a loss between O-Gauge and G-Gauge and all the different options! Does anyone have advice?

I have read previous AskMes, as well. We also have two cats who we are a little concerned about, as they like to bat things around, but we will be watching them carefully.
posted by roomthreeseventeen to Shopping (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
We have a two-bedroom apartment, and I set up my Lionels every Christmas. Mine are the traditional O-27 gauge and they take up a lot of space. I can't imagine fitting a G-scale track in our indoor space.

I haven't purchased new equipment for the setup since I was a kid, so I'm kind of partial to the vintage pieces that were mostly die-cast metal instead of molded plastic. In fact, I only every bought one piece of rolling stock brand new - a boxcar that was so light because of its plastic construction it would actually derail the rest of the (all-metal) train. It looks like Lionel is re-releasing a throwback line that may be more durable than some of the newer stuff, but look around.

At the very minimum - single closed-loop track with one train running - you'll need an appropriately sized transformer (and again, no help here as I continue to use the 1000W ungrounded fire hazard of a transformer that was built in the 60s), a power clip, some amount of track, an engine, and some rolling stock. The kits that Lionel sells will probably include all of this except for maybe the transformer. Obviously, the sky's the limit as far as accessories, add-ons, and whatnot. I personally enjoy using two automatic switches tied together so the train can do two loops - it runs the big loop, the switches automatically flop over, then it does the small loop, repeat.

If you want accessories that are activated by the train, there are pressure triggers that slide under the track and depress when the train runs over them. You'll also need another power clip to take power from the rails for the accessory. Lionel has service manuals for all of its products on the web, so you can check whether a given accessory can be run on rail power or if it needs to be wired directly to a transformer.

Oh, and you'll need wires! This is low-voltage DC, so small-gauge wiring from Radio Shack is fine. Get a wire stripper also. The other maintenance you'll need to do is lubricate moving parts occasionally - 3-in-1 oil is fine for this. Use a very small amount - you can apply it with a toothpick - at the points noted in the manuals (I usually do this as I'm setting up the track).

We have cats, and they're curious about the trains but give them a wide berth. They're fairly loud when running, so the cats tend to keep away. Again, since everything I have is die-cast metal from the mid-century there's pretty low risk of damage. They have occasionally walked on the track while it's energized but there's not enough current to hurt them or even for them to notice.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:55 AM on December 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, if he had Lionel trains as a kid, they were certainly O27.
posted by mr vino at 7:57 AM on December 4, 2013

HO, aka Half O. More train for your space! Make sure to buy a new-in-box transformer (not expensive). Everything else is pretty much exactly as your husband remembers. We did this with my dad's trains from the 1950s and every single thing was original except for the transformer.
posted by skbw at 8:03 AM on December 4, 2013

Response by poster: Sorry to but in, but one question. We are planning to buy a set, at least at first. Can I assume this will include the in-box transformer and the required wires?
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:04 AM on December 4, 2013

Argh, I will post more later on this important topic (not being sarcastic). A quick glance at the Lionel site reveals that their only current new sets are a monstrously large size (http://www.lionel.com/ForTheHobbyist/AboutGauge/).

In general, no, the transformer does not come with the set.

Daunting though it may seem, I do recommend getting an old set on eBay plus a new transformer, because what Lionel sells now just doesn't much resemble what he likely had as a kid. The current stuff is chintzy. While the eBay stuff is made of solid metal, built to last. I will come back later to post some recommendations.
posted by skbw at 8:15 AM on December 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Because the majority of Lionel collectors are in their death throes, there's a ton of old metal stock available. So adding to your set or his down the road will be super easy. As far as a new set...visit Charles Ro and Company, they sell a ton of Lionel and Flyer. A nice o27 set can range from $200-$350.00. Yes, they come with transformers
posted by Gungho at 8:21 AM on December 4, 2013

If, as it seems, you're considering all the gauge options, you're not tied to the Lionel brand, is that right? You mean electric model trains in general?

If so, I would second HO (1:87 scale) because there is so much choice, the tracks still work fairly well in casual floor-and-around-the-tree setups and the trains are still big enough to look great and have a lot of detail.
If you're worried about the cats and want your models nice and big (or simply: similar to the Lionel trains your husband grew up with - it might be important!) your choice is likely O; go to a Lionel dealer and talk to them…the wikipedia entry on O scale might be helpful too, search the page for Lionel.

Starter sets in the smaller scales do usually contain all the things needed to get the set up and running, but it's always good to double check in the small print.

[Full disclosure: I'm an n-gauge person: even more trains on less space, while the level of detail and quality these days is absolutely amazing even in these tiny trains. You eyesight and fine motor skills need to be good, though, and when it comes to the cats, I'm not so sure.
posted by Namlit at 8:22 AM on December 4, 2013

O scale is 1/4" = 12" scale, or 1/48th full size. HO is close to 1/8" = 12", actually 1/87th full size. N is 1/160th full size.
Worked in a hobby shop for a while when I was younger. Digging carpet fibers out of HO locomotive mechanisms is a PITA. If you do decide do go with HO, might I suggest now, as I did then, a train *UN* set? Most of the train set stuff is pure junk. You cannot get parts, they cannot be repaired.
Athearn and MDC-Roundhouse products made pretty good cars and locomotives. Athearn parts were (30 years ago I admit) kept in stock at the shop I worked at. I just looked, they still sell parts. Break a car body/wheel ass'y/coupler etc? you can get those. Easy to fix. Burn up a motor with carpet fuzz? Get another motor.
Then get a decent transformer, and track ("snap track" is the short pieces you fit together, like in a set) to suit yourself. All the track, decent brands at least, is interchangable. Atlas makes good track.

If you want steam, AHM and Bachmann made probably the best mass produced low cost ones. Mind you, we had HO locomotives in the 700 to 800 dollar range, in 1970's dollars.

There, you haven't spent very much more money, and you have something that will last.

I just looked, Atlas Model Railroad company now offers HO and 0 gauge, including sets. They sell parts. I'd trust them if I was going to buy a set such as you describe - others may have more recent experience.

My experience is a little out of date, I'm goofing around with stuff that's about 1/5 full size now - ride on stuff. I salute Namlit's eyesight and fine motor skills, and his advantage of not needing hydraulics to lift his trains.
posted by rudd135 at 8:03 PM on December 4, 2013

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