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

Garden Railroading on a Shoe-String: An introduction to low-cost outdoor railroading.  Click to go to article.This article is part of our series on "Garden Railroading on a Shoe String" which contains links, tips, and tricks, for using low-cost approaches and products to create attractive, reliable railroads in your back yard. A number of readers are using or considering Lionel's battery-powered toy trains, which are off-scale, but they are fairly rugged and run on the same diameter track curves as, say LGB or PIKO starter sets.

One potential obstacle is that the Lionel's newest line of battery-powered toy trains, their "Ready-to-Play," run on 2" track instead of 45mm track (also called "G Gauge," about 1.775") So mixing and matching can get interesting.

Lionel's G Gauge Toy Trains. Click to go to article.Except for some relabeled Scientific Toys/EZ-tec toys, Lionel's first battery-powered trains were built in the 2011-2014 timeframe. They started with a 2-8-2 designed to represent the Polar Express' Berkshire, then added a General-style 4-4-0 locomotive. Both locos were used on trains with many colors and themes, but the Polar Express version remained their best seller as long as that line was going..

Much smaller than scale models, they were still big and rugged enough for kids to run. We enjoyed setting some of them up for the kids to run when we had our open railroads. Best of all, they ran on 45mm track, so we could let the kids run them on the "big railroad." For "shoe-string railroaders," they were a nice entry point to the hobby.

Lionel's more recent line, the "Ready-to-Play" sets, run only on 2"-gauge track. This has left garden railroaders, especially fans of the old 45mm sets wondering if they will be useful at all.

Comparing Lionel's battery-powered Hogwarts Expresses against each other.  Click to go to article.That said, other than track gauge, the coaches from their Polar Express and Hogwarts Express sets are identical, and the locomotives are the same except for changes necessary to run on 2" track.

We have already compared Lionel's Ready-to-Play Hogwarts Express to their now-discontinued G-Scale version here.

Instructions for changing a Lionel Ready-to-Play Hogwarts Express from 2

As it turns out, the chassis of the Hogwarts Express is built in such a way that you can - with some effort and a dremel - convert it to G scale. Mike Whitcomb's conversion made me hopeful that the other "Ready-to-Play" sets might be convertible. In fact, I have the Thomas "Ready-to-Play" set. The coaches would be a piece of cake, and I think the locomotive could be regauged using Mike's example

So when I acquired a Ready-to-Play Polar Express, I was glad to see that the batteries went into the locomotive, not in the tender. This is worth notice, because the older locomotive that ran on 45mm track has a bad habit of climbing out of the rails on curves, especially if you have the nerve to add an extra car to the two-car train. With the batteries in the locomotive, that problem should be significantly reduced.

Having already done a close comparison between the G-gauge and Ready-to-Play Hogwarts Express, I figured I'd do the same for the Polar Express sets. As you'll see, I'm not certain the Ready-to-Play Polar Express is as good a candidate for regauging as the Hogwarts.

First of all, though, it's worth noting that the coaches of the two sets are identical, except for the wheel gauge. I'm sure that they used the same mold for the "shell." BTW, the one on the bottom of the photos is the new one.

The Lionel Ready-to-Play coach compared to the older G-gauge coach.  Click for a bigger photo. The roof of the Lionel Ready-to-Play coach compared to the older G-gauge coach.  Click for a bigger photo.

Lionel's G gauge Polar Express observation car has a little 'hobo ghost' that you can pop up by pushing on a sort of trap door.  This feature is missing on the 'Ready-to-Play' version.  Click for bigger photo.

The observation cars have one key difference - the new set (shown at the bottom in the photos below) does not have the little hobo ghost embedded in the top of the car, nor the footprints leading up to his hiding place.

If you have a RTP set you're leaving in 2" gauge and you want this feature, there's no reason you can't pick up one of the old cars and put the trucks from the new observation car on it.

The Lionel Ready-to-Play observation car compared to the older G-gauge car.  Click for a bigger photo. The Lionel Ready-to-Play observation car roof compared to the older G-gauge car.  Click for a bigger photo.

The bottom of the observation cars showing the difference in the trucks.  The same difference is true on the coach and the tender.  Click for bigger photo.Unfortunately, things become a little more complicated when you turn the cars over. The trucks on the newer "Ready-to-Play" set appear to be glued together, so they don't come apart for tweaking as easily as the trucks on the "Ready-to-Play" Hogwarts coaches.

In addition, the plastic "box" between the wheels is wider. Regauging these trucks might require a little more "finangling" than regauging the Hogwarts set.

People with sharp eyes may notice that the couplers are the same. This is remarkable because the couplers on the Hogwarts Express went from the little weenie non-operational "knuckle" coupler shape to LGB-style hook and loop couplers. Those don't look as realistic, but they are easier to couple, and once they couple, they tend to stay coupled, even on rough track. Unfortunately for children and anyone else who wants to get the train on the track and running quickly, Lionel retained the old non-functional couplers on the new set.

When it comes to the locomotives, the differences seem mostly related to:

  • Moving the batteries out of the tender and into the locomotive,

  • Widening the chassis to accommodate the wider gauge, and

  • Changing the pushbutton to an actual on-off switch.

In addition, the finish on the "Ready-to-Play" locomotive is more matte than shiny. And the rims on the drivers are white instead of black Those changes are not good or bad, just different. I prefer the matte finish, but that's just a matter of taste. Plus it can vary between runs.

The "Ready-to-Play" version is at the bottom of the left photo below, at the top of the right photo. You can tell the diference by the white rims on the drivers. Please click on both photos for a clearer look.

The Lionel Ready-to-Play locomotive compared to the older G-gauge coach. Right side shown.  Click for a bigger photo. The Lionel Ready-to-Play locomotive compared to the older G-gauge coach. Right side shown.  Click for a bigger photo.

Comparing the top of Lionel's Ready-to-Play Polar Express locomotive to the older 'G gauge' version. Click for bigger photo.As you can see, the locomotives look almost identical from the top with two exceptions:

  • The tender no longer opens to insert the batteries - those go into the locomotive now.

  • A sliding off-on switch has replaced the pushbutton on the older locomotive. This supports a new and very useful feature in the "Ready-to-Play" trains - the ability to link each train to its remote when you are starting out, so you can run two of these trains in the same room without the remotes interfering with each other.

As with the coaches, the underside of the locomotives tells a different story.

The bottom of Lionel's Ready-to-Play Polar Express (top) compared to the older 'G gauge' version (bottom).  Click for a bigger photo.Again, the trucks on the new tender are more "tamper-resistant" than the trucks on the old tender. And the "boxes" on the trucks are wider, giving you less room to squeeze the wheels together even if you get that far.

Worse, though, is the fact that the chassis of the new version is wider than the chassis on the old version. When they converted the Hogwarts Express from 45mm to 2" gauge, they basically just added fatter bearings and other spacers to force the wheels another quarter inch apart. (Again, G gauge is 1.775", so there's about a quarter-inch difference between that and 2" gauge.)

On the "Ready-to-Play" "Berkshire," the chassis itself is wider. Again, this gives you less "wiggle room" to reduce the gauge even if you take the thing apart.

You may notice the extra bump on the chassis of the old locomotive, as if there is are two drive gears on that locomotive. I couldn't let that go - what if the old one had more gearing than the new one?

Comparing the inside of Lionel's Ready-to-Play Polar Express locomotive (bottom) to the older 'G gauge' version (top). Click for bigger photo.It doesn't. Taking a peak inside, it seems like they have similar motors and gearing, except that in the newer version (on the bottom in the photo), the motor has dropped down to make room for the batteries.

I also measured the width of the chassis. The chassis of the "Ready-to-Play" version is a full quarter-inch wider than the chassis of the G gauge version - 1 1/2 versus 1 1/4.

The little "boxes" between the pilot wheels and between the training wheels of the "Ready-to-Play" version are also 1/4" wider than the same parts on the G gauge version - 1 1/2 versus 1 1/4.

Is there a quarter inch of "wiggle room" between the wheels and the chassis? Hard to say.

Conversion Possibilities?

If you figure out how to make the "Ready-to-Play" Polar Express locomotive run on 45mm track, please let me know. I could try for myself, but I have too many other projects on my plate.

Frankly, the "Ready-to-Play" version has two big advantages over the G gauge version:

  • Each "Ready-to-Play" train "links" to the remote specifically on startup, so you can run two "Ready-to-Play" trains in the same room, something that was not possible with the older sets. (They do interfere with operation of the old remotes, and vice versa in case you wondered.)

  • With the batteries in the locomotive, the "Ready-to-Play" "Berkshire" should stay on the track much better than the older version.

If the new set could be adapted to run on G gauge track, that would be an improvement over the old set. But at this point, I would recommend that anyone who isn't willing to sacrifice one of these in the name of experimentation just keep it in 2" gauge. I only run these outside for kiddies to play with during open houses, so it would be no great hardship to set up a loop of 2" track on the back deck instead of a loop of 45mm track.

Another possibility did present itself while I had these apart. What if it were possible to scrounge parts from the old one and put on the new one?

Finally, if you DO regauge the locomotive and you don't want to bother regauging the coaches, the old G gauge sets were made in huge numbers and keep coming up broken and cheap at auction sites, flea markets, thrift shops, and train shows. That's how I manage to put three coaches behind my G gauge locomotive instead of just two. I could put four or five, but the poor G gauge Berkshire won't stay on curves if it's pulling too much weight. (If you do purchase a used set, try to get the remote - those cost more on auction sites than the entire train set without the remote.)

Come to think of it, since I have room to set these trains far enough apart to keep the remotes from interfering, I could probably solve my chief problem with the Berkshire simply by adding weight to its front end.


Why spend this much time comparing two toy trains? In today's economy, folks are looking for ways to try out the hobby without a huge initial investment, and "shoe-string" railroading gives them that chance. Outside of the cost of batteries, both the new and old lines of Lionel battery-powered toy trains can provide at least some of that experience, provided a solid, level roadbed is part of the picture.

I also realize that things like Lionel's change of track gauges has been confusing and inconvenient for newbies who want to try those trains. Again, if I can remove any barrier to folks trying to use big trains in their back yards, I am glad to do so.

Please get in touch if you have any feedback, questions, or anything to add to this article. Or if you attempt a 2"-to-45mm conversion with the Polar Express, any diesel set, or any set pulled by the "General"- style 4-4-0 locomotive.

Enjoy your trains, and especially enjoy any time you can spend with your family this season!

Paul Race

Appendix: More About Using Toy Trains Outside

Here are other articles with tips and tricks about running battery-powered toy trains outside.

Garden Railroading on a Shoe-String: An introduction to low-cost outdoor railroading.  Click to go to article.

Garden Railroading on a Shoe String
- Our lead article on "Shoe-String Garden Railroads," with many ideas and links to helpful articles.

Garden Railroading with Toy Trains, including brand descriptions, buying advice, etc. Click to go to article.

Garden Railroading with Toy Trains
- For more information about garden railroading with toy trains, including brand descriptions, buying advice, etc., click on the little picture to the right.

Click for information and tips about budgeting for a 'shoe-string' garden railroad.

Budgeting for a Shoe-String Garden Railroad
- Lists potential expenses most folks don't think about ahead of time, along with ways to reduce or skirt them with planning.

Lionel's G Gauge Toy Trains. Click to go to article.

Lionel's G Gauge Toy Trains
- All about the battery-powered G gauge toy trains Lionel made in the 2011-2015 period. Most are a great choice for a "shoe-string" railroad.

Comparing Lionel's battery-powered Hogwarts Expresses against each other.  Click to go to article.

Comparing Lionel's Hogwarts Express Versions
- Click for a 'hands-on" comparison of Lionel's two battery-powered Hogwarts Express trains. Here's a quick summary: the passenger car molds are the same; the locomotive molds are different.

Instructions for changing a Lionel Ready-to-Play Hogwarts Express from 2

Converting Lionel's "Ready to Play" Trains to 45mm
- Lionel's current line of battery-powered toy trains run on 2" track. But they don't have to.

Evan Morse's Shoestring Railroading Tips. Click to go to article.

Evan Morse's Shoestring Railroading Tips
- Things that work for one Shoestring Railroader, mostly about track.

Reconfiguring a Bachmann 10-wheeler to run without the (lost) remote. Click to go to article.

New Life for a Battery-Powered Bachmann Ten-Wheeler
- Lose the remote? You can use these tips to add directional switching to battery-powered locomotives.

Into the Woods - an elaborate trestle-based railroad in a forest, with instructions GeoCacher's can use to unlock and run a toy train.

Into the Woods
- a Geo-cacher builds an elaborate trestle-based dogbone railroad in a forest, then locks up a Scientific Toys/Ez-Tec train set with clues that fellow geocachers can use to get the train out and run it.

Click to see trains that commemorate your team!

Click to see new and vintage-style Lionel trains.
Click to see new and vintage-style Lionel trains

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