|Written by Paul D. Race and Mike Whitcomb for Family Garden Trains(tm)|
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.
In this article, we outline a method for converting Lionel's current line of battery-powered toy trains so that they will run on "G gauge" (45mm) track, the kind most garden railroaders use.
Lionel's current (2019+) line of battery-powered toy trains run on 2" track, which keeps the 30,000 or so families with garden trains from running these "Ready to Play" trains on their G gauge railroads (45mm track, about 1.775").
I'm sure Lionel made that choice because their earlier line of battery-powered toy trains were all too compatible with G gauge toy trains from New Bright, Scientific Toys/Eztec, and similar companies. This way, if your first bigger-than-027 train is a "Ready to Play," you cannot currently expand your railroad empire with anyone else's product, so you'll have to shop the "Ready to Play" trains indefinitely.
Does that sound a little silly? Not if you remember that Lionel invented O gauge for exactly the same reason.
But all is not lost - at least some of the "Ready to Play" steam trains can be coerced into running on 45mm track if you have a dremel and a few ordinary hand tools.
But before we go into that, here's a quick run-down of the trains Lionel made that will run on G gauge (45mm) track.
Trains You Don't Need to Convert - Although these are all discontinued, they still pop up from time to time, especially on used markets like eBay.
What Are "Ready to Play" Trains?Starting about 2018, Lionel began releasing battery-powered toy trains in a new format. The "Ready to Play" trains are smaller than the earlier battery-powered line, so they're even more toylike. But they run on wider track - 2" (compared to G gauge, which is about 1.775").
They are solid enough, and built to be handled by children. If you don't have a train yet, and you just want to buy something for the kids to play with, they're a pretty good deal. Especially for certain pieces, like the Hogwarts Express.
As an example, the original G gauge battery version (7-11808, below left) was only made for a short time . Today, used sets are going for 2-4 times what the sets cost new.
The "Ready to Play" version (above right) was available in some stores for $50 after Christmas, 2019. It's still available for about $60 on sites like Amazon.
I have the Thomas "Ready to Play," which I got on sale for visiting kids to play with during our "open railroads." It was more solid than I expected, much better than other brands' battery-powered toy trains. But I have to confess that I was disappointed when I realized I couldn't run it on anything but the chintzy track that comes with the thing. Turning it over, I saw that it is engineered with molded-in spacers to keep you from squeezing the wheels in to make it go on 1.775" (45mm) track.
But our friend Mike Whitcomb, who received a "Ready to Play" Hogwarts Express, didn't let a little extra plastic (or steel) keep him from squeezing those wheels in so he could run the train on his extensive Euro-themed outdoor railroad. Mike's technique should be applicable (with minor modifications) to any of the steam-drawn trains in this class.
Caveat: This article is targeted toward people used to disassembling and working on model trains. Although this isn't a difficult conversion by model railroading standards, it does require tools, experience, and time. Frankly, if the only train you have is a "Ready to Play" set, and you lack any good reason for converting it to G gauge, you're better off leaving it set up for 2" track.
Whatever you do, don't buy one of these and imagine you'll be able to have it running on your G gauge track in one evening with no problems. Mike didn't report any major problems, but I always encounter an unexpected "gotcha." Chances are you will, too.
Also, I haven't had my hands on the little diesel sets yet, so I don't know how much, if any of this content will apply to them. If you try something like this, please let me know what you find.
If nothing else, read this article carefully and be certain you understand it from beginning to end before you get started. I know, I may sound paranoid, but folks who have misread or failed to follow the instructions in other "how to" articles have sometimes blamed me when things didn't work out the way they expected.
I'll gladly advise anyone who encounters a snag, but I'm not responsible if something goes sideways for you.
Visual CompatiblityPaul speaking: Before I had the two sets side by side, I thought the new "Ready-to-Play" set looked smaller and cheaper than the "G gauge" set I owned. When I had a chance to compare them in person I realized that the passenger car bodies use the same exact mold, and that the changes to the locomotive mold are virtually imperceptible from more than a few inches away.
So there's no reason you can't, say, add cars from the new set to the old one. One friend in England has an assortment that he is planning on "slicing and dicing" to make the cars longer. Again, since the shells are the same, that's not a problem either. That said, converting the old "G gauge" cars to 2" gauge might be a little more complicated than going the other way.
Click on the little picture to see photos of my comparison.
Drive Wheel Adjustments
When you remove the bottom cover of the locomotive, you see that the "bearings" are really rectangular plastic bushings that sit in the edge of the frame. Click on the photo below to see a "blowup."
The bushings aren't glued in; they slide right out.
Three obstacles keep you from just shoving the wheels closer together.
The fourth obstacle is that once you've slid the wheels in, the axles stick out too far for the connecting rod to get over it.
All of these obstacles will be addressed in detail in the following sections.
Mike's photo at the right shows the extra bits that need to be removed so you can slide the wheels closer to the frame.
In a sense, Lionel has deliberately molded "spacers" into the design - spacers you can remove.
You can use a flat file to file down the big round bit on the inside of the drivers. Alternatively, a dremel would work.
On the bushings, you want to remove only the small round protrusion on the side facing the driver. The large round bit stays.
Try to keep the remaining plastic smooth, so the wheel can turn smoothly up against the bushing (if tight curves force it there).
Once the extra plastic "spacers" are gone, the bushing can snug up nicely against the drive wheel. But you can't squeeze the wheels in quite yet.
The "hub" of the drive wheels is solid plastic. Choose a drill bit that is the just a tiny bit smaller than the axle and drill the axle hole until you can see daylight through it. (See below left.)
Caution: Don't drill all the way through with a wide bit or the wheels will slop around on the axle.
The wheel should still be snug on the axle when you're finished. Now you should be able to push the wheel inward. One way to do it evenly is to put a nut in a nut driver, brace the other end of the axle on your work surface and push it in. (See above right.)
Here's where you need a dremel with a cutoff blade. You could use a hacksaw with a very good blade, but you have to be very careful not to nick the face of the driver in the process.
Check and Doublecheck While ReassemblingDrop the assembly back into the frame, making sure the bushings/bearings are all sitting in place properly. Once the gear is engaged you can't turn the wheels, but you can visually inspect and make certain it looks like there is enough clearance for them all to turn smoothly.
There's no reason, you can't start the locomotive while it's upside down and observe the movement. Once you're sure it's going to be smooth, you can lubricate (optional) and close it up.
Optional - Lubrication - The bushings/bearings are supposed to be lubricated from the factory. But if you can't tell that they have, I would be inclined to consider dabbing just a tiny bit of Labelle #108 (light weight oil) or #107 (medium weight) where the axle goes into the bearing.
Labelle recommends the #107 for larger trains, but a local friend has been using #108 on his Large Scale trains for a long time with no problems. Come to think of it, I often run trains in cold weather, so maybe #108 would be better for me to use in this sort of application.
Both lubricants are synthetics that are safe on plastics. I'm also told they don't attract dirt as much as petroleum-based lubricants, though I haven't seen any absolute proof of that.
If the gears don't seem to have any lubrication to speak of, I would consider dabbing a tiny bit of Labelle #160 grease on the gears. Run the train (upside down) a minute, and you should see the grease working its way through the mechanism. You might need one more tiny dab of grease to be confident it is getting everywhere it should.
BTW, Labelle #160 grease includes the chemical component of Teflon, so it's considered to be better long-term than similar products from other companies.
Do not get grease or oil anywhere it shouldn't be, and wipe away any excess.
You can get a combo pack with #106 and #107 from Amazon here.
A combo pack with #106 and #108 is available here
Then screw the bottom plate back in place.
Adjust Pilot and Tender WheelsIf your "Ready to Play" train has an 8-wheeled tender, you may need to follow the instructions in the next section.
Also, I haven't seen the "General" (4-4-0 "American") in this line yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if its pilot wheels need tweaked as in the following section.
In our example, regauging the pilot and tender wheels on the Hogwarts locomotive is relatively easy, since there aren't any spacers. They only need to be popped out, squeezed into gauge, and popped back in. If you need extra pressure, you can always use the nut driver you used on the drive wheels.
Try to have about the same amount of axle sticking out of each wheel when you're finished, so the wheelset sits "centered" in the truck when it's reassembled.
Adjust Car Wheels
The passenger cars on the Thomas "Ready To Play" train should be easy to regauge. There are no spacers, so you might could just force the wheels inward until they fit on 45mm track properly. Some of the other other cars may work as easily.
However the passenger car wheels on the Hogwarts train and some of the others have spacers built into the bearings/bushings.
The axles are not supported by the truck frames - rather by a square box that sits inside the wheels. One good point of this is that you don't have to worry about shortening the axles themselves once you adjust the wheel gauge.
The following photo shows what the truck parts look like with the bottom plate removed.
As the following photo shows, trim the extra plastic back until the wheels can be pushed inward far enough to fit on 45mm track. Don't cut so far back that the bearing/bushing doesn't fit snugly into the frame.
Once you have the wheels adjusted and the bushings back into the frame, you might want to lubricate them too.
Screw the cover back on. Don't overtighten the screws - they strip out more easily than you might think.
Then test the car by pushing it lightly around tight curves, any s-curves, or anything else your railroad can throw at it.
When you're satisfied, test the whole train!
ConclusionI realize we've used one example to represent an entire class of toy trains, and you may encounter something slightly different. However we have tried to give you enough information to be able to sort out anything unexpected.
Paul speaking: While we're on the subject of Hogwarts, I'll add two links to related articles: In October, 2019, Shelia, daughter Emily, and I spent a week in Orlando, mostly visiting the parts of Universal Studios park that weren't there the last time we went. Especially the "Wizarding World" parts, and most specifically, the Hogwarts Express trains and stations.
I took lots of notes and photos that I used for an article about the Hogwarts Express, including the real-world train that inspired it and some of the models that it has inspired in turn. To see the article, please click on the little picture.
And for readers who noticed the castle in my "open railroad" photograph above, here's an explanation of how we tried to create an appropriate setting for the Hogwarts express by repurposing old toy castles. Click on the picture to see that article.
Please get in touch if you have any feedback, questions, or anything to add to this article. Or if you attempt this with a diesel set.
Enjoy your trains, and especially enjoy any time you can spend with your family this season!
Appendix: More About Using Toy Trains Outside
Here are other articles with tips and tricks about running battery-powered toy trains outside.
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