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Buying Passenger Cars ("Old Timey")Here's a confession. I love passenger trains. Even when I'm doing freight operations, I like to have a passenger train running somewhere. And when I run trains after dark, I especially love the look of lighted passenger cars circling the track.
But folks who are new to the hobby are realizing that the passenger trains they really want have all been discontinued, some for years. The truth is, as of Oct., 2021, there are far more choices in the used market than in the new market. And not all of those choices are equal.
This article will cover a lot of ground, but it should be especially helpful to:
Why "Old-Timey"? - With the exception of Lionel's toy-like trains, all of the other Large Scale brands, past and current, put two "old-timey" cars in their passenger sets. Railfans call the wooden cars they represent "varnish," and such cars were used from the birth of the railroads well into the 1920s (though by the 1930s, they were mostly used for excursion trains or short lines, and almost none outlived the Depression).
Eventually "varnish" was replaced by "heavyweight" cars and then by streamliners. And both kinds of cars have been modeled extensively. However, no US-style Large Scale starter set has ever included either (again, we're discounting Lionel's entries).
Why Expand a Passenger Set? - Not only is a longer train more fun to watch on a big railroad, but all of the "varnish" you can buy in Large Scale is too short; in some cases, it's ridiculously short. Adding more cars to your train helps camouflage that.
Possible "Snags" - When you're trying to find additional cars to go with a 2-car passenger set you already own, you may run into some snags:
Kinds of "Passenger Cars"
Before I get into brands and the new-or-used choices, I'd like to review the kinds of passenger cars you're likely to find in US-inspired Large Scale train sets.
To help you visualize, I've also included thumb-nail examples of each car type from the four brands you're most likely to encounter in this context: Bachmann, LGB, PIKO, and AristoCraft. Clicking each thumbnail will give you a much larger picture of the car.
Please note that AristoCraft is out of business and Bachmann stopped making most of these cars years ago, but you will still see them on eBay and elsewhere. Tips on buying these used are provided further down.
What About Sleepers, Diners, etc.? Folks used to modeling mainline railroads will ask, where are the sleepers and dining cars? In the Large Scale train sets that model "old-timey" or Narrow Gauge trains, they are missing altogether. If you are looking for those cars, you're going to be looking at 20th-century-inspired cars like "heavyweights" and "streamliners," and those NEVER come in sets.
What About Other Manufacturers?"Fallen Flag" companies like Kalamazoo, Delton, and Hartland Locomotive works (HLW) also made passenger car lines, many of which still turn up today. But they may not be your "first choice" if you're just starting out. They're all discontinued, some for decades, so coming up with a whole set you like might be problematic.
Actually, I love Delton and HLW products, but I've spent a very long time trying to track down particular pieces, and you might never find the ones you want, if you can't get them on the first "go."
Buying New (or at Least from Companies that are Still in Business)Only one company is currently making passenger sets that resemble any of the varnish that ran on real US railroads - PIKO. If you don't have any trains at all and you want to start with a passenger set, they may be your best bet. They are solid and have excellent customer support. Just know that PIKO trains tend to be a little smaller in scale than the other makes we mention, so if you get started with PIKO, you may find yourself staying with PIKO (nothing wrong with that, of course).
LGB does not make a train set that includes the LGB passenger cars shown above. They have made toylike sets like the one shown at the right. And a couple other "shorty lines." If you can track one down, you'll find it's reliable and cute as a bunny, but these aren't the sort of trains we're focusing on in this article.
That said, LGB still manufactures the more realistic cars we showed in the tables above. So if you get started with a train of these, there's a good chance you'll be able to keep buying pieces for it in the future.
Why "In Business" Doesn't Mean "In Stock"Model train manufacturers make things in batches. Early each year, they take orders from their biggest customers (store chains, distributors, etc.). Based on that interest, they order a fixed number of each model or train set from the factory with the intention of delivering them to the stores that summer or fall in time for Christmas sales.
Sometimes the demand is so great, they make them again the next year and the next. In Large Scale, D&RGW is a constant because of the constant demand.
But sometimes, product moves slower or in less volume than expected. And it's never reordered, at least until the last item is off the last shelf in the country. So, for many less popular railroads, when it's gone, it's gone. In the case of PIKO, who hasn't built up the backlog of stock, even popular railroads, like PRR, can be discontinued after a few years.
So if you are shopping for a passenger set for a road that isn't as popular as, say, D&RGW, try to get any extra cars you want at the same time. They may be totally unavailable in a year.
"Out of Business" May be Worse
The same dynamic affects the out-of-business brands even more. For example, many of Bachmann's train sets included the only passenger cars they ever made for that line. Usually a combine and an observation car. (It's possible to turn Bachmann observation cars into coaches by replacing the gate fixture with ordinary handrails, so that doesn't mean all bets are off, but it might mean that you might have to buy another whole set just to get one more car you need.)
Bachmann did make extra cars for some sets. Pennsy, D&RG, and D&RGW probably got the biggest variety of add-on cars, and those still turn up from time to time on eBay (as of October, 2021). B&O got an add-on full baggage car, but not an add-on coach (to my knowledge). Tweetsie got an add-on coach, but not an add-on full baggage car, etc. That said, most add-on cars are hard to find, too . . .
AristoCraft also had their favorite lines, as did the smaller companies mentioned above (Kalamazoo, Delton, and HLW).
So if you're looking at any of those lines, consider seeing what's available or likely to be available before you "take the plunge."
What About Mixing and Matching?You may be able to "mix and match" different brands in different trains, depending on how your railroad is laid out, but you won't want to mix and match different brands in the same train.
Every product mentioned so far makes different accommodations to meet the needs of outdoor hobbyists running trains on 48" curves.
Shopping for LGBThough LGB is still in business (after several bizarre twists), they still manufacture in batches, and some products that their retailers usually keep in stock may be hard to find between batches.
So, even if you're planning on shopping new, you might want to poke around auction sites, etc, to see how much product in your favorite line is generally available used - just in case.
Construction - LGB varnish is very solid and reliable. They are second only to Bachmann in length, so a train of those is generally more believable than a train of shorter cars from other companies. They have a cleaner, more detailed look than most (but not all) of the Bachmann cars.
They do come with plastic wheels, which increase drag and gum up your track in hot weather, but those can be upgraded with metal wheels, or even with ball-bearing wheelsets.
Unusual Options - One surprising variation you might see in the used market are the LGB "closed vestibule" coaches. Instead of open platforms at each end, there are doors over each set of steps and a pretend "diaphragm" that - on the real trains - made it safer to go between cars when the train was running. Many railroads adopted this safety accommodation in the late days of varnish. (All heavyweights and streamliners incorporate closed vestibules.) These haven't been available for years (as of Oct., 2021), but they still turn up used. (I have only seen them in D&RGW yellow. If they made these in PRR colors, I'd probably be first in line.)
Unusual Features - One interesting "feature" is that many LGB coaches have plugins on the end to hook the coaches into the locomotive for lighting. If you have an appropriate LGB locomotive, you just need the right connecting wires to have each coach lit. There are workarounds, of course.
Possible "Cons" - Outside of cost and the stock plastic wheels, these are very minor in LGB's case. For example, LGB coaches have some of the windows molded "open," which resulted in a pair I kept in a less-than-airtight garage hosting mouse nests, apparently for very skinny mice. Better than wasp nests, I suppose.
Another potential downside is the plastic railings. On other brands like Bachmann and AristoCraft, plastic railings and handrails turn brittle with age and longtime UV exposure. I haven't had experience with the railings of LGB failing, but be sure to check them out if you buy a used one, and keep them all out of sunlight when you're not running them.
"Pros" - LGB's reputation for quality, including sturdiness, and quality assembly and paint jobs is well-deserved (though AristoCraft's cars exceed the level of detail.)
I shouldn't have to state this, but it helps to have the company still in business so there's at least some customer support, and the possibility of a future reissue of a line you're invested in.
LGB coaches seem very sturdy; they hold up well to use and most accidents. So if you buy new and take care of them, they should last a lifetime or two. And you can often find good product in the used market. Just make certain you get good clear photos of all six sides before you commit.
Shopping for PIKOBecause PIKO coaches haven't been out long, there is very little on the used market, but you may find your favorite RR in the new lines. Paint and graphic quality is very good, and they come with interiors. They're also very sturdy, and a string of them will look good on your railroad, as long as you don't get any "rivet counters."
Possible "Cons" - because these are fairly new, there is a very limited number of road names, and some roads have only two car styles. They're also "shorties," so they're "cute as a bunny," but won't impress folks who want a more realistic railroad.
Like most of the cars on this page, they come with plastic railing, which may be the first "weak spot" of any car used outside for a very long time.
For me the biggest "con" is that they come with plastic wheels and no lighting. If you want lighting, you have to buy metal wheels and a lighting kit, both sold separately. That said, some manufacturers don't even offer those options, so it's something at least.
Pros - Sturdy, great paint and graphics, relatively inexpensive, look fine on tight curves. Also, like LGB, the company is still in business, so customer support is available.
Shopping for BachmannBachmann made the least expensive passenger trains of anybody on this list - by far. But they also made the greatest variety, so if you're modeling a less popular railroad, you stand a better chance of getting what you need.
Bachmann varnish is also the closest to a realistic length of any car on this list. Designed when LGB was almost the only other player in town, they're as long as they could reasonably be and still go around 48" curves.
Sadly, although Bachmann is still in business, their passenger cars have all been discontinued. (A single car is occasionally advertised in their online site). So everything I say about these will relate to shopping for them on the second-hand market. To be honest, I have plenty of experience with that, having acquired several sets for my clinics and display railroads. In the process, I've encountered several rare sets, so you may find some of my comments unbelievable, but they're based on cars I have owned or at least had my hands on.
Construction - Bachmann cars feel a little flimsy compared to the others on this list, and some of them were made as cheaply as possible. Nevertheless, I have never had a Bachmann passenger car shell break, and the shell is the same on all of them. So even if you start out with a cheapy, you can usually upgrade it.
Couplers - Bachmann knuckle couplers are uneven in quality. I have had some sets that are extremely reliable and some that come uncoupled for no reason at all every other time around the track. Since most folks don't do switching operations with their passenger cars anyway, folks have been known to pin the couplers into closed position. It takes a little longer to hook a train together, but it stays together. I also have found Bachmann's LGB-style couplers to be a little fragile, but once coupled, they tend to stay coupled. And a friend with even more trains than I do has replaced all his Bachmann couplers with Kaydee. So there are options.
Wheelsets - Starting with plastic wheels, Bachmann eventually went to wheels that were plastic but had a metal rim, a big improvement over plastic wheels. Then they seem to have gone to all-metal wheels, which give the cars more stability and reduces derailments (as long as they are in gauge, another issue with Bachmann.)
Pay attention when you're shopping. But if you have your heart set on a set with plastic wheels, you should know it's easy to buy replacements and upgrade that - just remember to count it into the total cost of ownership.
Bachmann Paint Jobs - All Bachmann "paint jobs" are very clean, though there are quality differences worth noting.
Lighting - This has been handled three ways.
Upgrade Options - Though many sets were issued with at least some upgraded options, most lines were produced in only one version, so you get what you get. But upgrades are still possible, at least until Bachmann's parts department runs out of stock. So if you come across a set in your favorite colors with minimal options, you may still have a good start on your passenger train.
If you find the cars you need and the shells are in good shape, you can add (battery) lighting kits and metal handrails (as of Oct. 2021). If your set comes with plastic wheels, you can replace them with metal wheels from LGB, AristoCraft, or other Bachmann sets. (Plus several others that I won't list because they made more than one size of wheel and it gets confusing.)
Observation Car to Coach "Hack" - Most Bachmann sets that were produced in only one version include a combine and an "observation car." And you can really only justify using one of each in any single passenger train.
But the "good news" part of this is that Bachmann's "observation cars" are really only coaches with a fancy gate assembly on the rear end. If you want to add a coach to a train you already have, there's nothing to stop you from getting an observation car, pulling the fancy gate off one end, and putting standard handrails there.
You may be tempted to buy a second set just to get the observation car. I wouldn't ordinarily, but if the loco on the second set is working, that will give you a backup. And you can always put the loco and combine from the second set to work as a freight train (substituting the combine for a caboose.) That said, if you see someone selling just the observation car for a reasonable price, don't let the gate scare you off.
Possible "Cons" - Not quite as solid as the other brands listed here. Occasionally glitchy knuckle couplers. Some sets come with no lighting and plastic wheels. Many sets have only two cars, and none you can buy separately. Many cars come with at least one wheelset out of gauge.
One big "con" is the ability of the plastic handrails to completely disintegrate after exposure to the sun. (Again, as of this writing you can still buy metal handrails, so it's not a "death blow" to the car.)
One other thing that I've never heard anyone else complain about - varnish coaches had a cable and turnbuckle system under the floor that maintenance people could adjust to keep the car from sagging in the middle. On the Bachmann varnish, this is represented by flimsy plastic standoffs and a thin plastic "cable" running between them. If you are not careful how you pick the cars up, you can break this easily, even on brand new cars. Again, nobody else seems to complain about it, but that's an area for improvement if these are ever reintroduced.
Possible Pros - Many road names are available. All "paint jobs" are clean, though some are fancier than others. Upgrade options are available. Replacement and upgrade parts are currently available, both from Bachmann's parts department and from "junkers" you find at train shows. If you choose to go this route, I do recommend you track down the parts you need earlier rather than later - some parts are already becoming hard to find.
Shopping for AristoCraftAristoCraft made the most highly detailed cars on this page, by far.
Unfortunately, they chose to model them after a single prototype that was far, far shorter than 99% of the varnish that ran on US railroads. Every time a hobbyist would complain, they would trot out the same haggard photo of the one decrepit "Sierra" coach that they took the measurements from. But coaches that short weren't used on PRR, B&O, NYC, L&N, UP, SP, or virtually any other railroad whose name you would recognize just by the initials.
That said, they were highly detailed, and the interior details of the lighted coaches are unusurpassed in varnish of any scale. Now I'm going to break down the key differences between their "starter" and "upgrade" sets.
Unlighted Coaches These chiefly came in train sets. The "curtains" that were silkscreened into the windowframes appear closed and there is no interior. There is also no reasonable provision for adding lighting or interiors, although some brave souls have done just that. As I recall, these may have plastic or metal wheels, but that's an easy upgrade.
In my experience, many of the unlighted coaches have flimsy plastic handrails that are susceptible to turning brittle if they're exposed to too much sunlight. So that's a consideration.
In at least one case, the sprayed-on paint job on the unlighted coaches is better than the molded-in color of the lighted version.
That said, if you're running ONLY in the daytime, you should be reasonably happy with the unlighted version.
Lighted Coaches - These came most often in individual boxes. The "curtains" appear open, and there are highly detailed interiors with separate "lamps" mounted on the sides of the cars. Lighting is through track power, through sprung carbon rods pressing against the inside of the wheels (when the carbon runs out, they sound like your car's brakes going out, though).
I took the photo to the right for another article to show how well/badly various plastic figures fit inside. But you can see that the seats have armrests and the lighting comes from little "lamps" mounted prototypically to the sides of the coach.
Couplers - The AristoCraft knuckle couplers are the most reliable knuckle couplers ever packaged with Large Scale coaches. They are double-sprung, putting pressure on the coupler to stay closed when it is closed. When I had mostly Aristo and was mixing in cars from other companies, I was putting Aristo couplers on cars from other brands.
That said, Aristo couplers don't couple automatically with other brands, so if you mix and match brands, you'll find yourself manually forcing the couplers together by closing them both, putting one knuckle on top of the other and squeezing until they sit together. Then doing it again, because at least one of the couplers will uncouple the first time you do this.
Of course, keeping passenger trains coupled once they're on the track is much more important that the ability to hook and unhook them quickly. And if you have an all-Aristo passenger train, you have both.
Paint Jobs and Details - Most Aristo passenger cars have the color molded in, which to me makes them look more "plastic" than the few that have been spray painted before assembly. The lettering and any graphics seem to be silkscreened on, and they are very crisp. Beyond that, there's a great deal of detail on the outside. This includes some little metal trim pieces between the windows that can come loose if the cars are stored in hot damp places. So when you get a car out to run, take a look to make certain you're not leaving some irreplaceable bit in the packaging.
Closed Vestibules - Except for one discontinued line of LGB coaches, this is the only varnish set described in this article that has "closed vestibules" instead of open platforms. The doors over the steps can open, providing an additional level of detail. If you're modeling a mid-19th century railroad, open platforms are fine. But by the early 1900s, most railroads were putting closed vestibules on their passenger cars, so fewer people would die trying to get from one car to the next on moving trains. So if you're modeling 1900-1935 (when most varnish was retired), you'll notice that closed vestibules are more appropriate.
Ironically, this means that - unlike Bachmann - you can't convert an AristoCraft observation car to another coach. Aristo's observation cars look great, but there's no reasonable way to get a vestibule on the "open" end of the car.
Loose Window Tip - Aristo's windows are glued into place with something that doesn't age well, maybe cyanoacrylate ("Superglue"). So when they get bounced around in shipping, the windows can come loose. Usually they stay inside the shell and it's no trouble at all to glue them back in place. But it has caused a number of complaints on behalf of eBay customers who see a "ready-to-run" coach in the photos and get one that seems to have "some assembly required."
Possible "Cons" - Unrealistic car length, which you can somewhat compensate for by running more cars in your train. Also, the plastic handrails on some of the unlighted cars can turn brittle if they're exposed to too much sunlight.
Possible "Pros" - Very sturdy construction, and very high level of detail inside and out.
ConclusionOf course, the notes above reflect only one person's experience, and other folks will have different opinions. For example, some of my opinions about car length probably stem from having once been an "indoor railroader" with scale-length coaches. Folks new to trains might not be bothered at all.
In addition, I've been in the hobby long enough to see pieces wear out, so I know where their weak spots are. Folks who've only been in the hobby a short time, or who have so many trains to "rotate" that they never put much wear on any of them may not share my opinions about the longterm viability of, say, plastic handrails or underbody cables.
So, yes, like nearly everything else I post, "your mileage will vary."
But I thought it would be helpful for newbies to have at least a clue when they start looking.
Here's a brief recap.
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