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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)

Thomas the Tank(r) Shootout

Most North American children today are introduced to trains through Thomas the Tank(r) and Friends. The Rev. Wilbert Vere Awdry wrote and illustrated twenty-six children's books about the diminutive locomotive and his friends on a fictitious island. Then the Britt Alcroft television series brought the stories to life through model trains adapted to look like Awdry's illustrations, running on several set pieces with Large Scale scenery. Our own children saw those bits as part of a PBS series called "Shining Time Station."

Later iterations of the "Thomas and Friends" shows have introduced characters and scenarios that have strayed outside of Awdry's little-kid-friendly world. But the truth is that kids don't care that much about such things - trains are fun, even if the plots are weak or overreaching. And when you're little, big colorful trains with faces are especially fun.

One of the other truths of the world of Thomas is marketing. In addition to several push-toy lines for very small children, the managers of Thomas' likeness have authorized at least two well-known electric train manufacturers to model Thomas and his friends. Bachmann has been making an HO version, which is not sturdy enough to be handled or run by kids, but that's not its purpose. Lionel has been making an O gauge version that can be used by kids down to a certain age. But both have made "Large Scale" versions that run on the 45mm track used by garden trains.

Large Scale, in case you didn't know it, is a term for trains that run on 45mm track (about 1.775"). This track size, called Gauge One a century ago, was reintroduced as "G Gauge" by LGB in the 1970s. Large Scale trains actually come in several scales (that's another story), but they tend to be about twice as large as most O gauge trains. As a result both Thomas-inspired lines we are describing are eye-catching indoors or out. If they're running, little kids can spot them from fifty feet away - hence their appeal on public displays.

Lionel's Large Scale Thomas Engine.  Click for bigger photo.Lionel's Offering

Lionel's Thomas train, introduced in the early 2000s, was built around a 1980's-era Large Scale 0-6-0 motor block that proved reliable in a several other Lionel Large Scale locomotives. (I know the motor block well, because I've owned the other 0-6-0s.)

The motor blocks aren't "pretty." In fact they even show side gearing under the drivers on one side (a technology borrowed from Lionel's O gauge trains). However, they are very reliable. Thomas came with Annie and Clarabel four-wheeled coaches, a power supply, three figures, and a circle of track you can't use outside. The coaches are light enough to fly off the track at the least provocation, but we've remedied that on display railroads by putting rocks in the cars.

James the Red Engine from Lionel. Click for bigger photo.James the Red Engine followed soon after, with Troublesome Trucks, a power supply, and a circle of track you can't use outside. James' adaptation included a two-wheel pilot and a tender. In our experience, the pilot helps James performs slightly better on rough track. Otherwise James and Thomas have identical performance, as they should - sharing the same motor block.

The LGB-style cars that come with the Lionel sets have a tendancy to uncouple. However, people running these trains on display layouts have a hundred ways to link the cars together more effectively than the couplers they come with, from replacing the couplers to simply using black wire-ties.

James the Red Engine pulling one Troublesome Truck over a temporary railroad at Holden Arboretum in 2008.  Click for bigger photo.Unfortunately Lionel never took Large Scale (garden) trains seriously. Perhaps if they had, they could have used the Thomas franchise to reinvigorate their otherwise flagging garden train line. As it is, many garden train clubs have literally "run the wheels" off of the Lionel Thomas and James engines, to the delight of hundreds of thousands of children over the years. A few owners have clocked as much as 2000 hours of running time on a single Thomas before it needed real repair. We've probably clocked more like a couple hundred hours, rotating between two Thomases and one James.

This section might be considered a sort of obituary for the Lionel large scale Thomas line, except that their Thomas set is still listed in their online catalog. If nothing else, Both Thomas and James occasionally turn up on eBay, causing readers to ask if they are a better or worse option than the new Bachmann sets.

Bachmann's Offering

Eventually it became apparent that Lionel would rather keep expanding their O gauge Thomas line than to keep promoting the Large Scale products. Marketing, like nature, abhors a vaccuum, and Bachman stepped in with a Large Scale Thomas and Friends line that seems equally suited to typical family use. Like Lionel, Bachmann included track you can't use outside. But most people who want to run these outside already have solid brass or stainless steel track.

Since I have a backup Thomas, I didn't feel like I really needed another set. Then I saw a set being closed out for a very good price, and I picked it up as a backup to our backup. But I never got it out of the box until recently (June, 2013).

Finally, during a slow period on a recent open railroad, I broke out both sets and compared them. In the photos below, the Lionel product is on the left and the Bachmann product is on the right.

Bachmann and Lionel Thomas engines side by side. Click for bigger photo.


The Bachmann is larger than the Lionel, but not enough to keep you from running both brands on the same display. The average difference is probably in the 10-15% range. My model railroad friends will want to know which one is the "right" scale, of course. But the answer is, "They both are." Not only did Awdry's illustrated trains change proportion and apparent size from one page to the next, but Britt Alcroft used two different scales of trains in their television series. This is one case in which Lionel's slightly smaller implementation is not a flaw, especially if you compare it to the (smaller) first generation of Britt Alcroft's adaptations.

After I had traded the two trains back and forth a few times, I put all four coaches on the same train and switched the locomotives back and forth to compare performance.

Bachmann and Lionel Thomas and Friends coaches side by side. Click for bigger photo.

Level of Detail

Neither of these sets will be confused with a scale model train. Considering that their primary target audience is families with small children, you wouldn't want many fragile details on the trains anyway. The Bachmann set does have a little more detail than the Lionel set, including a step under the cab, real spokes on the drivers, more depth on the coach sides, and three-dimensional noses on Annie and Clarabel. That said, nobody notices such things when the train is moving, and little kids, frankly, don't care, as long as Thomas is smiling (don't use the sad or frowny face on the Lionel Thomas when you are running him for children).

Bachmann and Lionel Thomas and Friends coaches side by side. Click for bigger photo. Bachmann and Lionel Thomas and Friends coaches side by side. Click for bigger photo.


Lionel's Thomas comes with a plastic Sir Topham Hatt and two generic railway workers, based on Britt Alcroft's interpretation. If you buy the Bachmann set, keep an eye out for the Lionel figures on the used market - they're fine with the Bachmann set as well. Just make sure you get the Large Scale versions and not the O scale or HO versions.

The Lionel Thomas also comes with three faces: a happy face, a sad face, and an angry face. People who run this locomotive on display railroads tell me I should always use the happy face - the other two upset visiting children.

By the way, if you have your heart set on having a complete Isle of Sodor railroad, get screen shots of the buildings you want from the Britt Alcroft series, then go to the Pola and Piko Large Scale structure catalogs - most of the stations and railroad buildings were ordered from those suppliers and assembled without significant modifications.

Anyone with a hand-held jig saw and a builder's square can make a Thomas-inspired viaduct from insulation foam.  Click to go to the article.You can make the viaduct yourself from insulation foam if you follow our instructions here.

Photos of Irish storefronts that can you can use to make 'towns' for Thomas to serve. Click to go to article.Incidentally, on a recent trip to Ireland, we photographed many buildings that would look right at home in Sodor. We've also cleaned up and resized several of the photos so you can download them and print them out in Large Scale to use with either set. The title photo shows three that have been printed on weather-proof labels for use outside on a temporary setup. Check out our article Celtic Storefronts for more resources.

Power Requirements

Like all of the Lionel Large Scale locomotives, Thomas and James require much more power than you might expect for such small locomotives. I use a 2.5 amp Aristo power supply to run them, and I have to turn the knob over halfway up to get appropriate speeds. They WILL run on the little power supply that came with them, but that won't support a large track plan.

The Bachmann Thomas, on the other hand, will run fine on a .6 amp HO power supply. On the 2.5 amp Aristo supply, he would creep along even with the thing turned all the way down (I had to turn the slider switch to "off" to get him to stop).

Here's an interesting twist - out of the box, the Bachmann Thomas runs "backwards" from the Lionel Thomas and from most other Large Scale trains, including Bachmann Big Haulers. My sense is that Bachmann is engineering their Thomas and Friends line more like their newer 1:20.3 gear, which tends to follow HO and N directional conventions.

The power difference is not necessarily significant - after all, most folks running Thomas in a display setting will be using aftermarket power supplies (and track) anyway. However, if you mix Bachmann and Lionel Large Scale trains on the same railroad, you'll have to caution operators to pay attention to the trains' direction, and not to accidentally give the Bachmann enough juice to send it flying off the tracks.

Bachmann's body-mounted couplers are higher than Lionel's truck-mounted couplers.  Click for bigger photo.Coupler Heights

One complaint about the Bachmann version is that the couplers sit much higher off the track than those of most Large Scale trains. I'd say that there is nearly a 3/8" difference between the coupler heights on the Bachmann coaches and most other Large Scale trains, including Bachmann Big Haulers. If you don't plan to run other rolling stock with the Bachmann Thomas and Friends trains, you'll never even notice this. If you do need to mix in other cars and locomotives for some reason, you can lower the Bachmann couplers' height with included adapters.

Why would Bachmann change the standard they inherited from LGB and have been using since about 1984? Because, as noted earlier, the technologies providing a basis for the Bachmann Thomas and Friends locomotives are drawn from their newer 1:20.3 line. These pieces have higher couplers for two reasons:

  • 1:20.3 model trains are about 10% larger in scale than the Big Haulers and other model trains built to match the LGB 1:22.5 trains. All other things being equal, the coupler should be higher than their (older) 1:22.5 trains.

  • Many of the new 1:20.3 trains use body-mounted couplers, like real trains use. Most toy and model trains use couplers that are mounted to the "trucks" so they can swivel farther on tight curves. Most truck-mounted couplers actually sit lower than they "should," but nobody notices because "everybody does it." (In fact the truck-mounted couplers on Lionel Large Scale trains tend to sit even lower than the average, which somewhat exaggerates the difference you can see in the photo above.)

    I know that nobody's that interested in making a Thomas-inspired set that realistic, but Bachmann has chosen to make their Thomas and Friends trains mechanically compatible with their premium garden trains.

Incidentally, the coupler height is also compatible with Bachmann's new children's trains, the "Li?l Big Haulers(r)." Perhaps someone at Bachmann decided that customers who bought a Li'l Big Hauler set might add on a Thomas and Friends set or vice versa.

Coach Construction

Here's another difference between Lionel and Bachmann coaches: On the Bachmann coaches (right, below), the wheels are fixed and stick out well below the the car body. On the Lionel coaches, each axle pivots around a screw fastened to the body of the car.

Bachmann and Lionel Thomas and Friends coaches side by side. Click for bigger photo.

In theory, the Lionel approach is supposed to make the cars handle tight curves better, because the couplers from adjacent cars can follow the curve in the track more easily. The Lionel coaches can negotiate S curves better than the Bachmann coaches, but there are tradeoffs. One is that the revolving axles, combined with the lower bodies, make it harder for children to put the Lionel coaches on the track. Another is that lack of pressure on the coupler of the last car allows the last axle to rotate willy-nilly, and cause more derailments than you'd get with a fixed-axle car. Some folks who run Lionel's Annie and Clarabel on display railroads have been known to use a drop of glue or other method to stabilize Clarabel's second axle.

Finally, Bachmann's metal wheels help lower the coaches' center of gravity and help the cars to roll much more freely. (You can put aftermarket metal wheels on Lionel's Annie and Clarabel if you want to, of course. I haven't done this, but I find the metal freight car wheels from HLW fit most Lionel Large Scale equipment.)

By the way, the roofs of both coach sets come off for sticking in "passengers." The Lionel coaches (left below) have seats; the Bachmann coaches don't. But unless you can find little people that will actually fit into the Lionels' seats and stay there, that difference is academic anyway.

Bachmann and Lionel Thomas and Friends coaches side by side. Click for bigger photo.


Here's a factor I can't exactly quantify, since I don't run these all the time. A few friends who do have told me that the Bachmann Thomas locomotive does not hold up as well to longterm use as the Lionel Thomas. In my backyard comparison, they both ran well. My guess is that most families would never notice the difference in normal use.

That said, I have run the Lionel Thomases and James for hours unattended at open railroads and public displays, so I know how reliable they are. I also have enough experience with other Bachmann Large Scale trains to know that the motor construction on their non-Spectrum models is usually "less robust" than the Lionel equivalent.

No matter which brand you are running, if you're doing it for a public display, you should have a backup locomotive. After all, even if the locomotive runs great, there's always the chance of it getting knocked off the track or something.

And whichever set you wind up using, you should know that they both have excellent manufacturer support.

Update For 2018

Click to go to the Lionel Track-Powered Large Scale Train page.In our new Thomas Keeps Rolling article, we describe an addition to the New Boston and Donnels' Creek's kids' railroads: a Percy the Small Engine, made by Bachmann. Due to different scales used, Percy is a tad larger than Thomas, but looks and runs great. Other updates are also included.


I hope you weren't expecting this "shootout" to end in a "duel to the death," because it doesn't. After all, we ARE talking about Thomas and Friends. In fact, it ends in something like a draw.

To me, the Bachmann coaches have a slight edge over the Lionel coaches in appearance and engineering. But the Lionel locomotive seems more robust, in spite of its slightly smaller size. Neither set comes with track that can be used outside or couplers that stay coupled indefinitely, but there are easy solutions to such problems. Both sets do come with big fun.

If you're buying a set for your kids or grandkids, either set will do nicely. If you're buying a set for continuous running on a display railroad, buy two sets. Or three. Or one of each. You get the idea.

In the meantime, enjoy your hobbies, and especially enjoy any time you can spend with your family in the coming season.


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