|Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)|
Lionel's® Toy "G" Trains
Not long after we published the first article on Garden Railroading with Toy Trains, two common sources of toy trains - New Bright and Scientific Toys Ez-Tec - all but disappeared from the shelves of department stores that typically carry toy trains at Christmas. I miss the Scientific Toys Ez-tec trains especially - they were relatively solid and reliable. And, in most cases, they were large enough to see in the garden, not being THAT much smaller than, say, an Aristo starter set. What displaced them from the shelves? Similar quality toy trains with the brand name Lionel. These are not to be confused with the "Large Scale" Lionel trains made in the 1980s, which ran on metal track and were solid and (in most cases) large enough to use on a "serious" garden railroad.
When these trains largely displaced New Bright and Scientific Toys from the store shelves, I thought I should review them for our readers, just in case. But I couldn't see paying $100-140 for something that was such an obvious toy. Then, in November, 2010, Big Lots started selling the $90 freight sets" for $40. And Ollies, a similar discounter, got in some of the Polar Express trains for $60. Okay, now they were getting closer to "no-brainer" pricing. I took the plunge.
Notes on Size and Quality
The new Lionel "G gauge" trains are smaller and flimsier than garden trains. They are also battery powered, which has a good and bad side. They can run on inexpensive track, which keeps the cost and perhaps the maintenance down. But you need to keep batteries onhand or buy and use the recommended rechargeable battery and charger.
In terms of scale and quality, I would put the closer to Scientific Toys/Ez-Tec than to New Bright. Like both of those brands (and the original, battery-powered Big Hauler), they run on 45mm plastic track. Like those trains, they also run better on brass track with wide curves, so even folks with "serious" garden trains might consider keeping one of these sets for little visitors to operate. (Just remember that you need to keep batteries onhand, and the fact that they like to derail on turnouts or even uneven track).
The locomotive is roughly patterned after a Pere Marquette 2-8-4 Berkshire-style locomotive, the inspiration for the Polar Express movie locomotive. However, Lionel has removed one pair of wheels and downsized the locomotive in all directions. The photo below shows the Lionel 2-8-2 locomotive next to a scale 2-8-2 locomotive (which is actually a model of a SMALLER locomotive than the Berkshire. The Lionel 2-8-2 is about 2/3 the length, and 3/4 as wide and tall as it "should be" to be considered a "model train." In fact, Lionel labels the train "G gauge," which simply means it runs on track that has the rails 45mm apart, and says nothing about scale whatsoever.
Of course, being way undersized isn't necessarily bad, as long as customers are aware that they are buying a toy train. Probably the main reason I find this disappointing is that that the O gauge version is a much more solid and realistic representation of the original Berkshire.
One of the unnerving things, if you're used to model trains, is how lightweight the locomotive is, even with batteries installed. If nothing else, I'm used to the drivers being made of metal, and the motor weighing something. But in this case, the wheels are all plastic, and lightweight plastic as well.
The photo to the right shows the caboose from the freight set. It's just over 2/3 as wide and tall as it "should be" to be considered a model. (Length isn't as important, since cabooses came in all kinds of lengths.) To save money, the windows are blacked out instead of molded in, but it is reasonably solid for a toy. In fact, I suspect the caboose will outlast the rest of the set.
That said, the overall effect when the train is coupled together is still quite nice. Interestingly enough, the paint job on the Polar Express locomotive is slightly different than the freight engine, but that slight difference helps more than you'd think.
By the way, though it almost looks like the coaches are lit, the windows just contain stickers and a vinyl strip that does a nice job of imitating a lit coach seen at night. As a person who used to get a charge out of running his electric trains in a dark room, this is a bit disappointing, but for running in brightly-lit or medium-lit rooms you wouldn't notice the difference.
CouplersWhile I had both cabooses out, I thought I'd check to see how compatible the couplers were. The Lionel caboose's coupler wasn't nearly as tall as the AristoCraft's coupler. In addition, it doesn't couple and uncouple either, so you have to manually link them up. But it is mounted near the vertical center of the AristoCraft's coupler height, and, when attached manually, DOES hook up. So it is possible that you could pull Large Scale model cars with the toy locomotive or vice versa.
Remote Control and Sound
One nice feature, shared with a few high-end Scientific Toys/Ez-Tec trains, is the remote control. Lionel's controls forward and reverse speed, bell, and whistle. The locomotives also have a "white-noise" chuffing sound (similar to Bachmann Big Haulers) that turns into a "blow down" sound when the train stops, not a bad feature either. They also have an automatic time-out circuit that shuts the train off if the controls haven't been touched for ten minutes - a nice battery-saving feature.
Unlike the remote control on the original Bachmann Big Hauler, when the locomotive gets out of range (about 15 feet in my back yard), it stops and goes into "blow-down" mode. So on a big loop of track, you have to walk around with the train. If kids are operating the train, they don't mind walking around with it anyway. (On the original Bachmann Big Hauler, getting out or range meant that the train would speed up and become a "runaway," so this is better.)
Back to the grand-children - with this train, you can set the train on the tracks and let them operate it without ever having to touch it - usually a good thing.
I opened the freight set and put in the batteries that came in the box. When I turned the train on, nothing happened except that the headlight flashed for a second. So I reloaded the train with batteries I has bought when I bought the train (6 C cells). I didn't reload the AAs in the remote control as they seemed to be working. Now the train ran.
I took the freight set outside and put it on my upper loop, about 180' of fairly level track. It ran fine except where the track was very uneven, and it derailed on one of the turnouts (switches) every time. With alkaline batteries, it still ran a bit slower than I expected, even with the "speed" on the remote control set all the way up. On the other hand, it DID keep running even when it hit dirty track, something my track-powered trains don't always do.
One thing to note is that the "pilot" wheels (the first two), come off the track far more often than they should. If you want to use this outside, consider gluing a couple tiny weights on the pilot truck or replacing the pilot wheels with metal wheels. If I was going to try to use it outside often, I might consider weighting the locomotive a bit, too. It doesn't take much for a locomotive that weighs only a pound or so to come off the track.
The photo below should give you an idea of how this train looks next to popular garden train accessories. The station is a 1:24 model now available from AristoCraft. Compared to the station, the Lionel train is a bit small, but it doesn't look outright silly. If you were starting out with things like wooden bird-houses, etc. that are a bit small anyway, this train would look right at home.
Alternatively, if the buildings and accessories sit away from the train a bit, they can look fine on the same railroad. It's worth noting that for most of Lionel train's "golden era" Lionel catalogs surrounded their trains with realistic scenery. There's no reason you can't do the same thing if you start out with one or more of these.
I subsequently put the train on a temporary loop that I usually use for Thomas during clinics and open houses. It ran fairly smoothly, reflecting the fact that I always have to get this "railroad" quite smooth to run Thomas and James on it for hours without supervision. This does tell me that these trains could be used on a display or temporary garden railroad as long as the track is smooth.
The current (2009-2010) freight sets have some crates that go into the gondola (shown at the right). Several of the other freight trains based on the same 2-8-2 locomotive advertise some accessory that makes those sets "unique," but for the most part they are not that compelling.
On the other hand, the Polar Express set has some "play" features that may not appeal to your kids, including a bell (like the one in the movie, but not really silver), a boy and Conductor figure, and a hobo figure that pops up when you press down on a "trapdoor" on top of the observation car.
Finding AccessoriesLike the coaches, the figures that come with this set are about 1:38, somewhere betwen Large Scale (1:32 and up) and O scale (1:48). That said, most of the figures and accessories made to go with ceramic Christmas villages are also somewhere between Large Scale and O scale. So if you're going to be running your Lionel "G gauge" train indoors, consider shopping for Dept. 56 and Lemax figures and accessories (especially on sale after Christmas). In fact, whereas traditional Christmas villages used to hover around O scale, several of the newer pieces are large enough to look fine with these trains.
In addition, you can always make your own indoor buildings using our Building Product Ideas articles. Or make old-fashioned buildings and accessories using our Tribute to Tinplate articles. In each case, use O scale or larger plans if they are available.
If you want to create some backgrounds in a hurry and you have a color printer, check out our Building Fronts page for indoor trains. The O scale building fronts should look pretty good with your trains. If you would rather go toward large scales, the Large Scale Building Fronts page has buildings in scales from 1:43 to 1:20.3.
StorageHere's something I didn't expect - based on experience with all kinds and brands of trains. Once you get the train out of the box, it's easy to get back in. (The track is a bit trickier - I might recommend just keeping it in a shoebox-sized storage container or some such.) This is more important than it sounds. Often, model and toy train packaging, meant to keep the trains safe for a bumpy journey across the Pacific ocean, etc., is designed in such a way that you either pull the packaging apart getting the train out, or you pull bits off the train. True, these toys don't have many fragile bits, but they come out and go back into the packaging easily, which means that you can actually use the box for storage, something that is a huge hassle with many other brands, including some other Lionel trains.
If I wanted to use these more than once a week, though, I'd still consider coming up with a couple yards of fine bubble-wrap, and one of those clear 58-quart containers. Cut pieces of the bubble-wrap to wrap the train pieces in before you put them in the container, and the rest will fit nicely.
Because these trains aren't made to be used outside, you can't store them outside, either. Keep them someplace safe from temperature extremes. And keep the batteries stored separately so if the kids forget about the train for six months, you won't come back to find something disgusting leaking out of the tender or remote control.
ConclusionHere's an irony. I was not predisposed to like these trains. They are, frankly, nowhere near the quality of ANY Lionel O-gauge trains, or any name-brand Large Scale trains.
But as I ran the freight train through its paces on two different outdoor railroads, getting a sense of what it could and couldn't do, I realized that, no matter how "toylike" it was compared to my model trains, it was still fun to run. Both the passenger (Polar Express) and freight sets should look great around a Christmas tree. And for kids, it will have a lot more play value than 90% of the toys they'll be getting this Christmas.
In fact, when we have our open houses, one of the big attractions for children has always been having a train the kids could run. With these trains, I could afford to set up a railroad anywhere flat and give the kids even more opportunities for fun.
If you're thinking about starting a garden railroad, and you're wondering whether these could be used in a pinch, to keep the kids interested while you're making the bigger choices, the answer is that they can, as long as you store them properly in a way that the kids can still access them easily, and keep spare alkaline batteries onhand.
If you have any comments, corrections, additions, or tips about these trains that you would like to share with our readers, please contact us, and we promise to get back to you.
Appendix: Other Battery-Powered Lionel Trains
Starting in about 2007, Lionel also marketed an old-timey battery set with a 4-4-0 locomotive that they call the "General" style (because that wheel arrangement vastly dominated the Civil War-era trains). The first version had a red and green locomotive, but another version has been issued with a red locomotive. The caboose and the track seem to be the same as the 2-8-2 sets, so I would expect this set to be very compatible with them. That said, it isn't as common, so if you find it new, it is likely to be much more expensive than the 2-8-2 sets.
Lionel first started dabbling in battery-powered "G gauge" trains in the 1990s, by marketing a set that looked like it was made by Scientific Toys. If it was, chances are it's fairly solid for a toy train.
Lionel has released several other versions of the 2-8-2 freight train reviewed above, including one marked for the Christmas Story movie and one marked for Hallmark(r). Most of these trains advertise at least one feature not shared by the other trains, and you may prefer the paint jobs, but the trains themselves are very much the same.
In addition, Lionel briefly marketed a couple battery-powered sets with 4-4-2 locomotives (not to be confused with the relatively nice track-powered 4-4-2 locomotive they made in the 1980s). The locomotive pulled only one car. I haven't had my hands on one, so I don't know how sturdy it might be. I'm told the locomotive by itself is about 16" long, so that's not too bad by toy train standards. The boxcar is undersized, even compared to the locomotive, though.
Links to TrainsTo me, each of these trains is worth owning if you can get it for half price after Christmas. That said, I know many readers will want one before Christmas, so I'm putting a few Amazon links below for your convenience.
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