Fallen Flags of Garden Railroading: Lionel's Track Powered TrainsThis is a story of lucky successes, dumb moves, and internal disagreements torpedoing what could have been a very good move on the part of America's premier manufacturer of "big rugged trains" (their phrase, not mine). To the extent that the story makes sense at all, it only makes sense in context, so please bear with a little history.
Modern garden railroading started about 1968, when LGB trains started coming into the stores in Europe and North America. People immediately took to the little LGB Stainz tank engine, and loved the idea of putting trains in their garden.
For the first ten years or so, very few folks paid attention to anything like scale or prototype. For one thing, it was very hard to get anything besides LGB, and hardly any Americans who bought LGB were really that concerned about strictly representing, say, an Alpine prototype. After all, many were newcomers to electric trains, period. But even among former indoor modelers, there were a lot of comments like, "I just got so tired of the rivet-counters in HO; garden railroading lets me go out and run trains and not worry about such details." But as more "indoor modelers" began to take notice of Large Scale trains, there was a rising tide of interest in trains that looked like they belonged, say, in the Rockies or Alleghenies, instead of the Alps.
In 1980, American Bob Schuster started Kalamazoo Trains. They were toylike by strict model railroading standards, but they established that there was a market for American-style trains.
In 1983, Schuster started Delton Locomotive Works to focus on building more realistic models. Although people loved Bob's models, they cost a lot to make and that contributed to slow growth, and eventual decline. Nevertheless, it was more proof that the garden railroading hobby was growing in many directions, and beginning to attract scale-conscious railroaders from smaller scales.
In 1985, LGB produced their Mogul (2-6-0), based on a 19th-century North American design, and they started producing cars and accessories to go with it.
Although Large Scale trains were probably not outselling "indoor trains," garden railroading was definitely the fasted growing segment of the model railroad hobby. Bachmann had yet to introduce their "Big Hauler" line, and it looked like the field was wide open.
Lionel's Track-Powered G-Gauge TrainsIn 1987, Lionel toyed with the idea of getting into garden trains (toy being the operative word). According to an article by Australian Large Scaler David Fletcher, they considered buying Delton outright but determined that they would be assuming too much debt. Instead they contracted with Delton to produce the designs and tooling for their first Large Scale train set, the Gold Rush Special.
The 0-6-0T that pulled it was based in part on the design of the Mason Bogie that Delton had produced earlier, with length in the boiler and windows in the cab reduced to cut down on length. The result was a very charming little locomotive that also ran very well (even if it did borrow some of its gearing from Lionel's tinplate engineering). Unfortunately, the side gear and many of the details were far too fragile for handling by children. So, many of these that have come down to us have at least some of the little chrome-colored pieces missing. That said, I have owned several in different paint jobs, and - because of its reliability as a runner - consider it the "flagship" of Lionel's track-powered G-gauge trains.
The train included a short gondola and a foreshortened, but cute drover's caboose. All very charming, and all about 1:24 if you discount the length of the loco and caboose.
"Saving Money" on Track - Unfortunately, the train also included track that looked somewhat like LGB's weather-resistant track, but which would quickly deteriorate if used outside, in spite of Lionel's claim on the box that the train could be used indoors or out. (This was disingenuous, if you ask me, and it led to some disappointed owners.)
Lionel followed this up with an 0-4-0T-drawn passenger train (Thunder Mountain), pulled by a relatively un-detailed 0-4-0T with short, but cute "heavyweight" cars.
As a PRR fan, I simultaneously loved the colors of the Thunder Mountain coaches and cringed over their ridiculously short length.) They could have easily been made half-again as long and still navigated 48" curves.)
The 0-4-0T was also made in a red and silver version pulling a "Santa Fe" freight train, the "Frontier Freight." That probably the least expensive of the three lines. Later, both the 0-4-0T and the 0-6-0T were released in Christmas-themed trains of various colors.
Toys or Trains - From the start, it was obvious to me that Lionel's marketing department had no idea what they were doing. Both boxes said clearly that the trains could be run outside or in. Nothing in the materials cautioned purchasers against using the sheet-metal track outdoors.
And Lionel never did sell track that could be used outdoors. If you wanted to run your Lionel Large Scale trains in the garden you had to become a customer of LGB or Delton, whether you wanted to or not, which meant that Lionel did not have a ghost of a chance of keeping their Large Scale customers "in the fold."
As a user and parent, I will testify that these were fun to run, and the kids had a great deal of fun with them indoors, even if I did have to keep gluing little pieces back onto the 0-6-0T.
Both trains came with brochures that talked all about the value of joining the Junior Engineers club, or whatever it was called. So I filled out the papers for my kids and sent them in. They each got a pin, and a catalog of Lionel Large Scale trains and a "newsletter" with articles about O27 trains. Later they each got a catalog of Lionel O27 trains (with one Large Scale car listed), and a "newsletter" with articles about O27 trains. Later, they got another catalog of Lionel 027 trains and a newsletter with articles about O27 trains.
The newsletter never once mentioned Large Scale trains or garden railroading or anything besides O27 trains. After the third or fourth newsletter arrived, the kids stopped even bothering to open the mail that came to them from Lionel. When even the five-year-old figures out that the company that made her trains has no interest in her or her hobby, something is wrong.
By then, I was actively involved in several garden train forums, and writing the web articles that became the basis for the Family Garden Trains web site. I contacted the editor of the newsletter and offered to supply articles of interest to their young Large Scale customers.
The editor replied that garden railroading was a fad that was doomed to fail shortly, and the best thing I could do for my kids would be to get them into O gauge trains. This was about 1990, and I had spent "real money" trying to get my kids into my favorite hobby.
My kids are adults now, and they still have and love their trains. But they think mostly of Lionel as a company that let them down when they were most interested in trains.
0-6-0T is Still Worth Looking At - We still have the trains, and I have purchased a number of the 0-6-0Ts in various colors besides. They came in Canadian National, in Disney sets, in a red and green Christmas set, in a silver Christmas set, and a few uncataloged versions.
Lionel Large Scale Trains as "Bait and Switch" - The response I got from the newsletter editor, and other interactions I had with Lionel people, convinced me that by the time they introduced their larger engines (below) they were already preparing to "bail" on the garden railroad market. Their idea of success for Large Scale trains seemed to be steering some of the folks who had "fallen for" LGB into the Lionel fold and subsequently into O27. Note: If you're a former Lionel employee and you want to argue that point with me, please contact me and tell me your side of the story.
Carelessness About Scale, Period - During the same period, there were a bunch of scale and gauge arguments going on in the various online forums. To see for myself, once and for all, I ordered boxcars or reefers from all the major brands and measured them to see which ones were truer to scale. Like most of Lionel's O27 stuff, the Lionel reefer is one scale in height, another in width, and another in length. And somewhat lacking in detail. It didn't look bad on the rails - in fact I still own two. But by then, most other manufacturers were making trains that were in a consistent scale in all directions, and Lionel never realized that making Large Scale toys when other people were making scale models was a bad move.
Lionel's "Bigger" Engines - Then Lionel got serious, or at least as serious as they ever got in Large Scale, and introduce two larger engines a 4-4-2 steamer and a "Geep."
The 4-4-2, which I love, is nevertheless an acquired taste. It is loosely based on the Pennsylvania E6 Atlantic, but the whole thing is badly proportioned, nothing like the E6 they made for their indoor trains. It's noisy and draws a lot of power for what it is, but it's a good runner if the track is clean and very smooth.
The biggest problem for an operator like me, is that if it hits rough trackage, it tends to shoot part of its valve gear out across the yard.
Yes, you read that right. If the Lionel Large Scale Atlantic hits rough track, it tends to shoot part of its valve gear out across the yard. The part in question is something like a bent paperclip, so it's not hard to replace if it disappears into a flowerbed, but the locomotive is hardly an engineering triumph. Again, I'm a Pennsy fan, so I gave it every chance, and still own two.
My first Lionel Atlantic was a basket case I got for $50 and fixed up during a time when I was freelancing and not exactly pulling in big bucks. It was painted for Chessie line. I repainted the locomotive for PRR and put a first-generation AristoCraft long tender behind it, which gave it a much more substantial appearance. For a photo of the thing pulling a string of Aristo varnish in 2003 click here. Sorry for the low resolution, but you get the idea.
Speaking of sound, the PRR version came with "Railsounds," which, unfortunately didn't always work well with the AristoCraft pulse-power power supplies I was using successfully with everything else. I got a PRR one and ran it a few times with a standard power supply. It was okay, except for a silly green color that PRR never used. I found the valve gear, reinstalled it, put it back in the box, and sold it - with caveats - to a fellow hobbyist.
BTW, the poor thing also had only 4-wheel pickup, so it wasn't any more fond of dirty track than most 4-wheeled locomotives. That wasn't a problem for me, because track cleaning was never that much of a chore, but other folks have complained.
I admit that I have a "love/hate" relationship with the Lionel Atlantic. It is not low maintenance, but can be fun to run at the front end of a string of AristoCraft or Bachmann coaches. In fact, I bought a couple more of the non-PRR ones in GC, attached them to AristoCraft tenders, and put them at the head of my consist when the one I customized was under the weather. For an example of that, click here.
Fellow hobbyist and constant tinkerer George Schreyer, has published several articles on tweaking them for good operation here. If you ever buy one of these, print George's pages off and keep them in a binder somewhere - you'll need them.
Lionel's Large Scale Geep got a certain amount of complaints from people that the handrails were too thick or some such, but I thought it was an attractive locomotive. It had a reputation for running well.
Thomas and James - Later on, Lionel made a Thomas the Tank Engine and a James the Red Engine train set, both based on the 0-6-0T chassis. Again, they draw more power than you might expect and you can't use the track outside, but the locomotives are both excellent runners.
I bought mine for a garden railroading clinic in 2007. By then these were no longer being made, but they were still available for a fairly reasonable price on eBay. The story of how I acquired mine and how we used them to delight kids during the clinic starts here. Since then, I have used them (and many other trains to delight young visitors at Christmas-themed open railroads on the New Boston and Donnels Creek.
Many garden railway clubs have a set or two of these they set up at train shows or special events. A friend reports that one his club owns has run pretty much eight hours a day all summer long with now issues except an occasional wheel cleaning.
That said, if you don't have these yet and you think you'd like to take the plunge, you might want to compare them to the Bachmann version, which is a little larger, but not necessarily any more reliable. See our article comparing the two for a comparison. Train clubs that have tried both for long-term running still prefer the Lionel, but if you're talking normal household use, you'll probably get just as much use out of the Bachmann.
In fact, the first battery-powered toy train they offered in "G Gauge" was made by Scientific Toys. This one only lasted a couple of years, so you won't see it in the stores, but you will see it offered on eBay as "genuine vintage Lionel."
If you're already a Scientific Toys fan, and you'd like to add one to your collection, there's nothing wrong with that, of course.
The more recent models are better made, but they are still toys. Their best-seller is probably the Polar Express shown below.
Lionel has made many sets with the same faux-Berkshire locomotive. Pennsy and other railroad names mix with "Frosty the Snowman" and "Peanuts" trains.
Of late, Lionel has been calling them "fun scale" or "Ready to Play" because calling them Large Scale or G gauge was just confusing and frustrating buyers. They are not anywhere near the size of anyone's Large Scale trains - in fact they're closer to O scale than anything else. That is, O SCALE, not O Gauge, like Lionel O27 trains, which are undersized in every direction.
I have two working sets and a bunch of odds and ends I've picked up very cheap from people who gave up on trying to keep theirs running on the more-or-less useless plastic track they package with them. Kids love the remote controls, so I stock up on batteries whenever we're going to have an open railroad or young visitors.
I also use other people's track. The track Lionel supplies with these barely holds together on a flat hardwood floor. The photo to the right shows the train running on some of the old Bachmann Big Hauler plastic track, which holds together much better than the plastic Lionel track.
That said, they like to derail on ANYBODY's 48"-diameter track. They run better on 5'-diameter track and much better on larger diameters, as long as the track is very, very smooth. The photo to the right shows them running on 5'-diameter track from HLW and AristoCraft. (This was a kid's train set up at our most recent open railroad for the youngsters to run.) There is an extra coach, courtesy of a Lionel O27 dealer who got it in a box of stuff and had no idea what it was.
In 2018, Lionel is even introducing a "fun scale" Thomas set, so if you understand the limitations of these trains, you can probably expect a lot of fun with that one as well.
In other words, if you can set up a nice loop of real garden railroad track for them to run on, and you have at least one new set of batteries (preferably two), you can entertain a lot of kids. So I'm not disparaging them altogether, just pointing out that they're not garden trains and not in the same category as Lionel's track-powered G-gauge trains.
Why the "Dire Warning"? - Because these sets have flooded the online marketplaces, and every person selling them swears they're highly-desirable, vintage, classic Lionel trains. The locomotives I've described in the opening paragraphs - the 0-6-0T, the 0-4-0T, the Atlantic, the Geep, the Thomas and the James are the only track-powered G gauge locomotives Lionel ever made. Each of them was made in several colors, so you might come across one that - at first glance - doesn't look anything like the photos. But if you come across an all-plastic battery-powered locomotive, and someone is swearing it's "Lionel quality," try not to spend much more than you would on, say, a New Brite train set.
Did Lionel Drop the Ball?
Yes, in more ways than one.
If it sounds like I have a love-hate relationship with Lionel's Large Scale track-powered trains, it's because they squandered their potential by making toy-like trains just as other folks were rolling out realistic, affordable models. And, frankly, by treating their Large Scale customers as second-class citizens. In addition to the interactions described above, I had a number of interactions with their marketing department and other personnel back in the day, and they made it perfectly clear that they had no intention of promoting their own G gauge trains or supporting their own G gauge train customers.
BTW, if anyone from Lionel reads this and wants to send me a rebuttal, I will gladly append it to the bottom of this article.
Desirability - These are not collectors' items - their chief value is in how useful they would be to you. If you come across an 0-6-0T-based locomotive that runs well for a good price (say, under $100), you'll probably be glad you picked it up. Being based on the 0-6-0T chassis, the Thomas and James sets are pretty reliable and sturdy (except for the track).
The freight cars that came with the Gold Rush Special generally go for a very low price if they're separated from the locomotive. They are pretty close to 1:24, and they sit low on the track, which makes them very compatible with Hartland Locomotive Works. In fact, I put HLW metal wheels on ours, which gives them a lower center of gravity and helps them run smoother.
The more modern cars are nice and solid, and they sit high enough to cohabitate with LGB or even AristoCraft cars, though they're short enough lengthwise that some folks might notice. Don't invest as much as you would, say, on an LGB, AristoCraft, or USA Trains equivalent, though - those other brands would be a better investment.
The coaches look just plain silly, but they're fun to run around Christmas trees or the like. BTW, I've seen Santa Fe coaches, but they're very hard to come by. Again, don't spend a fortune on them.
Don't spend a lot of money on the 0-4-0T - you'll usually be better off with other locomotives you can usually get used for the same amount of money.
Again, the 4-4-2 is problematic, designed more like a tinplate train than a model. I probably wouldn't own any if it wasn't loosely based on a Pennsy prototype. Again, there's a whole series of articles on how to improve and maintain them here.
Despite some people's complaints of lack of detail and oversize handrails on the Geep, I think you'd enjoy having one on your railroad - if you can find one in good condition you can afford - they were probably made in the lowest numbers of all the locomotives I profiled.
Avoid spending more on any of the battery-powered sets than you would on any battery-powered toy train.
And please contact me with any questions, corrections, additions, testimonials, etc.
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