What You Need to Know about Powering Your Trains
Most of the toy trains shown in this web site are either Standard or O-Gauge and run on three rail track. All of them trains are powered by an AC transformer which can deliver a variety of fixed and variable low voltages. The voltage and current required depend on the size and power of the locomotive, the number of accessories and light bulbs in use, and the number of cars being pulled, etc. The product of the transformer's voltage and current is called the wattage and determines the size, weight, and cost. Small O-27 sets require as little as 50 watts, while large layouts with several locomotives and numerous accessories can make good use of the 275 watt ZW transformer. Locomotives will require between 6 and 22 volts and up to 5 amps to operate at full speed and under load.
By convention, the center rail of the three rail track system has the active voltage which goes to the pickup contacts under the locomotive. The two outer rails are the neutral side for track voltage, and will be connected together by the wheel sets of the locomotives and cars as well as the track ties. When adding additional spurs, sidings, accessories, or powered loops, this must be considered, or else shorting may take place. It is best to use color coded wires from the transformer to the track connector (“Lockon”) so as to prevent future difficulties.
Lionel transformers (which will also operate trains produced by American Flyer and Ives) generally share a similar terminal convention. A variety of fixed voltages are available between certain combined terminals, as labeled on the transformer itself. These may be used for powering accessories (crossing gates, light towers). Variable voltages for operating the engines use terminal “U” or “COM” as the neutral and one or more other terminals for obtaining a range of variable voltages, such as 5 to 16 or 6 to 20. Each transformer type has its own voltage combinations, but they all have a label indicating the possible choices. The oldest transformers (used for locomotives without E-unit reversing) provide variable voltages in a succession of steps, which can be seen as brass buttons on top of the transformer. A type 81 rheostat (slide-operated variable resistor) may be placed in series with the track supply to smooth operation between these steps.
Lionel Transformers are the most abundant and thus easy to find. They will run American Flyer, Ives and Lionel Wide / Standard Gauge trains. The output power will dictate the number of trains / accessories that can be run at a given time:
Here are some transformer choices for use with Standard Gauge Trains:
Lionel Type Z (250 watts) will run any combination of four standard gauge and O-gauge trains.
Lionel Type V (150 watts) will run two standard gauge and two O-gauge trains, all at one time.
Lionel Type R (100 watts) will run two standard gauge or two O-gauge trains, all at one time.
American Flyer made several very robust AC transformers with power outputs of 100 watts or greater. These transformers can be used to operate most American Flyer, Ives and Lionel O-Gauge equipment. The American Flyer transformers with a maximum output voltage of 16 are adequate to operate some Standard Gauge locomotives.
What binding posts do I use to connect my transformer?
There is often some confusion regarding how to connect a transformer to either the track or to the accessories that use fixed voltages. This problem is often magnified by the fact that most old transformers no longer have an instruction sheet available. In general, Lionel transformers provide a built-in means of identifying proper connections. Refer to the pictures of the Front and Back Panels of the Type R transformer from the 1940's. This transformer provides two variable voltages using the front panel knobs and also four fixed voltages noted on the rear panel. Lionel typically provides two different variable voltages per control knob (except with types V, VW, Z, and ZW). The Front Panel is inscribed with the voltage ranges of the Type R Transformer. They are 6 to 16 (at rear posts B to F or B to C) or 14 to 24 (at rear posts A to F or A to C). It is wise to start with the lower voltage range to as not to overspeed your locomotive off the track. Conversely, the fixed voltages are shown on the back panel with numbers and lines between.A note of caution about all of the Lionel vintage transformers. All of their output voltages are electrically connected internally to one another, using what are referred to in electrical technology as voltage taps. If you attempt to connect any two outputs together at one end, you will likely create a short circuit and possibly damage the transformer. So as an example for the type R, you may light a 14 voltage bulb on an isolated accessory by connecting it between posts A and D. However, you may not connect any accessory associated with track voltage (i.e. cattle car set) to these terminals unless it is on a totally isolated track section. This same thinking applies to the two variable voltages. They cannot be connected together except under special circumstances. One such situation occurs when two trains are run on isolated track sections and it is desired to move a train from one section to another. In this case, the two voltage knobs must be set to produce identical outputs.
Question: How is the track connected to the stockyard? My father owns one of these and he cannot figure out what track to use or how it is connected? Can you take a picture of the top view of the track without the cattle car on top?
Response: If you look at the right hand side of our video https://youtu.be/2OwrEjPypEk, you will see two clip leads going to the two binding posts that are part of the platform. This is where power is applied to the set, part of which is the car. The car is powered by two blades that are part of the platform and contact the shoes on the bottom of the car. Lionel made blades for both O-31 and O-27 track, since the rails are of different heights, and therefore you must have the proper blade. These can be purchased if needed. The voltage to be used to power the platform is generally supplied by the track terminals of the transformer by way of an on-off switch. Approximately 12 volts works best. Also note that one of the binding posts on the platform is electrically connected to the outer rails of the track, so the other one must be connected to the transformer terminal that is NOT labeled common, or to the center rail of the track via a nearby Lockon (track power clip). The picture shows the platform (without car) attacked to O-27 track. Shown to the left are the factory supplied switch which turns the assembly on and off, a Lockon for obtaining power from the track, and the two blades to be used when running on O-31 track, whose rails are higher. Note that only one blade is required for the O-27 track. The second one at the left side is made as part of the platform and is also the common terminal (outside track rails). The binding post without an insulator underneath is also the common connection.
What You Should Know about Track Dimensions and Details
What kind of track and switch gear can I use for my toy train outfit?
There are many answers to this question, but in general, bigger is better in terms of diameter. The train will run faster and more easily on large diameter track. Here are some common track dimensions which will form a complete circle:
O Gauge is 1-1/4” between outer rails; diameters of 27, 31, 42, 54, 72, 36 (realistic Super-O and modern era FasTrack).
Standard or Wide Gauge is 2-1/8" between outer rails; diameters of 48, 54, 72.
S-Gauge is 2 Rail American Flyer, 7/8" between rails; 54" diameter (made after WW2).
Manufacturers are Lionel, Ives, American Flyer (Pre-WW2 Std. and O; Post-WW2 "S")
Lionel track is designed such that the two outside rails are connected by the ties (except in a few special cases), which should also connected to the transformer binding post labeled “U” or “COM”. The insulated center rail delivers power to the roller pickups of the locomotive, whistling tender, and illuminated cars and thus should be connected to one of the variable voltage binding posts as labeled on the transformer nameplate.
Some track can be intermingled between manufacturers, especially O-31 & Std. 48. Many of the other track types will not pin together because of different pin styles and the height to the top of the rail. Most locomotives will operate properly on any Standard or O Gauge track that is noted above.
Manually and electrically operated switches and cross-over tracks are available for all gauges, styles, and diameters.
Lionel made specialty tracks for accessory operation and uncoupling in gauges O-27, O-31 and Super-O/FasTrack. The older multi-conductor wiring used to connect accessory tracks is often found deteriorated and non-useable, but replacement wire is available.
When should I use fiber connecting pins on my layout?
Fiber pins, also known as insulating pins, are only used for a few special train functions, the majority of which include the following:
The purpose of insulating pins is to keep the track physically together and also to keep electrical current from flowing except when made through a specific external connection. Note the unique shape of the insulating pin, with a bump in the middle. This insures that a metal wheel moving between insulated track sections will not touch both simultaneously. Note also that insulating pins are not needed for a typical oval layout and in fact will prevent the flow of electric current around the loop when so used. Most track should be connected with normal steel pins.
Question: I recently got a transformer with a Marx Crossing Gate. Can you tell me the proper way to wire the gate?
Response: Please see the following diagram that shows the wiring for any Marx Two-Terminal Crossing Accessory.
Things you want to know about Fixing Your Trains
Lots of good information about the internal workings of your vintage trains is available. One of the best documents we have seen was an insert from Popular Science Magazine published in 1959. It depicts the important internal parts from vintage Lionel and American Flyer engines and cars and provides a host of maintenance and trouble shooting tips. While the trains shown in this copied material were manufactured after World War II, it should be noted that the internal details of both Lionel and American Flyer trains made in the late 1930's are nearly identical to what is shown in the copies of these documents. View the scanned replica of the document.
Question: How should I Lubricate my Toy Train?
Response: As is the case for all rotating machinery, components such as the armatures, gears, wheels, and axles of any train should be lubricated periodically. If this is not done, they will develop excess friction and deteriorate due to wear, ultimately causing the train to slow.
The frequency of lubrication depends on the amount of use the item will have, but typically lubrication should take place after 2 hours of motion, particularly for a locomotive. When bringing trains out of storage, the trains should be lubricated before they are placed into operation.
Lionel would include a tube of grease known as Lionel Lubricant with sets of trains it sold in the 1940's and 1950's. While use of this material would suffice for a time, it tended to thicken (and eventually solidify) with age, actually impeding the operation of a motor and the related gearing.
A far better lubricating choice is a quality oil, particularly one known as an instrument oil. Also, non-toxic lubricants without he irritating odors of petroleum distillates are available today, and we have found that they function quite well. An appropriate dispenser for any lubricants mentioned in this paragraph might be an eye dropper or a syringe, as some come with spray heads and tend to disperse the lubricant to unwanted locations.
Other lubricant choices include sewing machine oils and brand name household oils. If parts have become frozen due to corrosion, a multi-use chemical compound may help to free them, but these materials should not be considered for lasting lubrication.
Question: My Standard Gauge Locomotive stops when it is running over a Switch. Do you have any suggestions?
Response: Check the center track rails on the Switch. A center rail on the switch may have become deformed, causing the contact roller on the engine to lose electrical connection with the track. Carefully straighten the deformed center rail by prying the rail upward.
Vintage Toy Train OPERATING ADVICE and Books for Sale
Things to know about How Your Trains Work
Whistles and Horns
In the mid 1930’s, Lionel began to offer an operating steam whistle located in the tender of locomotives. The whistle is really a small fan motor and a tuned chamber which makes an appropriate sound when air is pushed through it. A motor control relay is operated either by the whistle button/lever of the transformer or by a #161 whistle controller wired in series with the track voltage supply. Pressing the whistle button causes a small DC voltage to be impressed on to the normal AC track supply. This in turn closes a DC relay in the whistle mechanism, allowing the impeller motor to run. Whistle tenders have pickup rollers to contact the track center rail so that power may be obtained. Because DC voltage is added to the normal track supply, the train may sometimes speed up when whistling. Use of the old whistle controller in series will cause the train to slow, because it “steals” some AC voltage in order to provide the DC for the whistle relay. Diesel locomotives with horns also use a DC relay to activate the sound, but the horn is powered by a D size battery inside the loco. Care must be taken to assure that this battery is fresh, as corrosion products can leak out and damage the engine. A customer sent us a tender with an inoperative whistle and the problem turned out to be a seized armature whose lubricant had dried. The photograph of this whistle shows the proper point to lubricate, using 3-In-One oil.
Coupling and Un-Coupling
Lionel first began to offer cars with electrically operated uncoupling mechanisms in the late 1930’s. These mechanisms consisted of track pickup contact between the center and outside rails, a coil, an armature which was moved by current in the coil, and a box or knuckle which released adjacent cars by lifting or opening. The operating couplers required use of a special track section called the “RCS”, which included two additional rails which made contact with the pickups under the cars. When the “Uncouple” button was pressed, track voltage would be supplied to the uncoupling rails and thus car pickups, opening the knuckles or lifting the boxes (pre-war). Cars may be re-coupled by backing the train into the stray cars. This should be done on a straight section of track.
Cars made after 1949 did not use a wire coil in the coupler. Instead, an additional electromagnet was placed in the newer RCS sections which pulled down a spring-loaded metal section under the car truck. This released a pin, opening the knuckle. The electromagnet only, mounted in an 0-27 track section, is also available for uncoupling. A momentary push button should be wired in series with this section. Current should pass from the track lockon (center rail terminal), into the push button, then into one magnet terminal, and finally from the other magnet terminal to track neutral (outside rails). The electromagnet can also be used to activate the plunger on the underside of some operating box cars, opening the door to deploy a workman figure.
A huge variety of operating accessories was made by all toy train manufacturers. Description of each is beyond the scope of this document, but there are different classes which are broadly described here in numbered sections. Yard lighting is most easily powered from fixed transformer taps of 12 volts or so and requires no further discussion. Most accessory types described in the text which follows operate best with around 12 volts, either from a fixed voltage tap or set by the transformer’s track supply.