|Written by Paul D. Race and Mike Whitcomb for Family Garden Trains(tm)|
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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.
This is also a companion article to our article on Converting Lionel's "Ready to Play" Trains to 45mm.
Why am I writing about Lionel's battery-powered toy Hogwarts Express trains? Because I like having the opportunity to run a classic UK-outline train on my garden railway. If someone was making one to scale that would be even better (especially if it was available in the original green paint job). But so far that hasn't happened, and it isn't likely to at this point.
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.
As far as I could tell, Lionel only made one batch of the "G gauge" Hogwarts Express trains, and it was only available new for a year or so. When it became obvious that it wasn't going to be available again, the prices for used ones became ridiculously high.
I got one fairly cheaply from a source that doesn't usually sell trains. And I have had fun setting it out for kids to run during an open railroad.
"Ready to Play" Emerges - Around 2017, Lionel started making "Ready to Play" trains. These were a lot like their custom "G gauge" trains, but they ran only on 2" track.
Lionel obviously made this move to keep their toy train customers from mixing and matching with toy trains from Ez-Tec, New Bright, Echo, and others. (Actually, that's the same reason they invented "0" gauge over a century ago.) But it did frustrate countless garden railroaders who are used to using these trains to engage young visitors.
When they saw photos of my experiments with the original G gauge sets, such as the photo below, several readers started looking for the original sets, only to discover that they were ridiculously expensive for toy trains.
Converting the "Ready to Play" version to run on 45mm track mostly involves trimming back a lot of plastic that seems to have been put there JUST to keep you from squeezing the wheels closer together. However, it does involve some drilling and use of a hacksaw or Dremel cut-off tool. If you don't need your "Ready to Play" Hogwarts Express to run on 45mm track, and you're not an experienced modeler or kitbasher, you might be better off leaving the thing as it is.
To learn more about Mike's solution, click on the photo to the right.
Compatibility Questions - What if you own the original "G Gauge" set and want additional cars? Do you pay the outrageous prices that folks are asking for them on eBay, or do you buy one of the new sets and hope the cars blend in?
By the way, I'm told by a UK railfan that GWR often ran a "brake car" at both ends of the train. So both cars in an add-on Hogwarts set could plausibly be used, if they would only run on the same track.
The "brake car" in UK usage is similar to the "Combine" in US usage, combining passenger seating with other functions. Unlike my photo above, the correct order would be locomotive, tender, brake car, coach, . . . . .coach, brake car. At the end of the run, the locomotive would turn around on a wye or turntable and attach to the other end of the train for the return trip.
So it's fine to have two brake cars on your train. (This is more useful than sets like the Polar express that include an observation car. Buying a second set of those only gives you one usable coach.)
Coach-to-Coach Comparisons - The fuzzy photos Lionel and their vendors use to advertise the "Ready to Play" set make it look like the passenger cars on that set are smaller than the cars that came with the "G Gauge" set. When I got a chance to pick up an "out-of-the-box" "Ready-to-Play" set cheap, I jumped on it, just to satisfy my own curiousity.
Turns out, the car bodies for both lines use the same molds. Exactly.
The main reason the cars look different in the grainy advertising photos is that the windows of the doors on the end of the newer cars haven't been painted white. That is a problem most folks can "solve" by themselves.
By the way, the non-working couplers on the older set looked better, but they certainly did not work better than the LGB-style couplers on the newer cars. Most garden railroaders are used to swapping out couplers anyway, so converting your train to one setup or the other shouldn't be too hard.
Something you can't tell from the side (and nobody else will, either) is that the newer trucks are slightly wider to accomodate the wider wheel gauge.
If you want to run the newer cars on G gauge track, you will have to regauge the wheels, which involves filing down the bushings that Lionel put there to keep you from squeezing the wheels closer together. But it is easier than regauging the locomotive, in case you wondered.
If you want more information about that process, please click the photo to the right.
Locomotive Comparison - Cosmetically, the Hogwarts Express locomotives are nearly identical. Without a close look, you would never realize that the tender no longer holds the batteries or that both the tender and locomotive are about 1/4" wider.
On reflection, I realized that, even if Lionel hadn't move the batteries to the locomotive, they would have needed new molds just to make the loco and tender run on 2" track.
Since the locomotive is undersized anyway, making it approximately 1/4" wider than the original "G Scale" version doesn't really hurt anything. And moving the batteries over the drivers means that the new set should be able to pull a 3- or 4-car train better than the old set.
I haven't had a chance to A/B that, yet, though.
Audio Comparison - The remote of the original G-gauge version did not have a "Play Sounds" button (the one with the musical note). If you accidentally picked up the wrong remote and hit the "Play Sounds" button, the default "chuff" sound would be replaced by Christmas carols. Which was wierd.
The remote of the "Ready-to-Play" version comes with a "Play Sounds" button. The first set of these I got just played Hagrid's voice saying something like, "You'd better get a move on if you want to catch your train, Harry."
But I just tested another set (same catalog number) that had four or five sound bytes from the first movie, including the kids introducing themselves to each other and the snack witch asking if they want "anything from the trolley."
So I don't know which version you'll get. In both versions, the chuff, whistle, and bell sounds are quite satisfactory.
If that link doesn't work, click here.
Amazon Link - True confession - if you click on an Amazon link from my site and buy the train on THAT VISIT, I get a few dollars. At the moment, Amazon is offering the "Ready-to-Play" Hogwarts Express at a nice discount from list price, plus free shipping. Yes, you might be able to get it cheaper elsewhere. . . . But if you want to check it out, please click here.
To see more "Ready-to-Play" trains on Amazon, or if the link above doesn't work, click here.
ConclusionI realize by delving deep into "toy train world," I have put off some folks who would rather we hung out more on the "scale modeling" end of the spectrum. But I get a lot of feedback from folks who want to start somewhere and don't have a fortune to invest up front (say, before they even know if their grandkids will think it's fun.)
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. And if I can remove any barrier to folks trying to use big trains in their back yards, I am glad to do so.
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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