Toy trains carry memories of Christmas seasons past

Dave Souza

Joshua Lionel Cowen, the original owner of Lionel trains, had a big idea. He began building toy trains at the turn of the 20th century. The first trains were made of tinplate steel, a name that is associated with the first trains built during the era from 1900 to the beginning of World War II.

His business grew and fell with the economy until World War II shut down all production for the war effort. When the war ended, GIs coming home wanted more from life then their parents had. After all, they survived fighting their way to Berlin or across the Pacific to Tokyo. Along with getting married, buying a house and living the American Dream, many of these guys wanted a Lionel train set. Right after the war, Lionel responded with the best trains they had built to date.

All the Lionel trains produced after the war from 1945 to 1969 are classified as post-war trains to operators and collectors. This was one of the biggest selling periods for the Lionel Company. They issued large annual catalogs with hundreds of items from train sets to extra cars, track and accessories to build what they like to refer to as your own railroad empire. You could buy cars that shot rockets, dumped coal and even look like they carried gold bullion. Actions cars like a cattle car that unloaded cattle into a pen then back into car and accessories like a gantry crane with an electromagnet that could remotely unload a car were big hits with the train-buying public. The sets were sold with a circle of track, but it wouldn’t take long before more tracks were purchased and the rail line would be extended. While the company still had its ups and downs with the economy, it always sold plenty of train sets for the holidays.

The trains from the post-war period are also one of the biggest eras for train collectors. Top models like the F3 diesel, plus the Trainmaster and GP-9, the GG-1 electric, steam engines like the Hudson and the Pennsylvania Turbine in pristine condition with an original box command four and sometimes five figures in auctions.

Many of those kids of the late 1940s to the mid-1960s are still playing with post-war trains today. These old trains are still pretty dependable and many fill shelves for display and run on layouts. These trains are not collector grade anymore, but that doesn’t take away the fact that they are still working at up to 60 years old and are still plenty of fun to run around the track.

While collectors buy and show off their post-war collections, many of the newer trains from the modern era — 1970 into the 2000s — are also very popular. The newer trains have better controls, realistic sound and better detail compared to the post-war trains. They also carry a bigger price. A basic traditional size train set now starts around $200. People buy these sets for themselves or for their kids, and some collectors buy them and put them away hoping they have a set that may show big cash return one day.

In the past few years, Lionel began producing two catalogs a year, plus an additional train set and Christmas train catalogs. And by the way, if the difference between men and boys is the price of their toys, then the Lionel catalog is proof. A semi-scale switch engine, which is what Lionel calls traditional size, cost as little as $109. Move up to the full scale, which the company calls its standard line, and the prices of cars and engines go up. A single scale boxcar starts at about 60 bucks. A scale diesel can start at $400, and steam engines at $800. Lionel has just introduced a very large steam engine with features not available on any other O scale engine. It also caries a list price of $2,250. If you think that price point is a bit much, try to find a copy of that engine anywhere. Most are reserved for collectors and operators before they leave the warehouse.

Today the humble little train set that circles the tree can be an inexpensive starter set or a top-of-the-line Lionel train on its own layout. It just depends on the pocketbook of the owner.

This Christmas I’m running two loops of tracks on a 4-by-8 table with a freight train going in one direction and a Polar Express from the famous kids book going in the other. The layout just keeps getting bigger all the time. It’s complete with a snow-covered mountain, evergreen trees and a Christmas village, including a skating rink. When my grandchildren visit, they love to run the trains and blow that annoying whistle constantly. These trains are the traditional models, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the kids. My scale cars and engines are in a safe place away from the kids.

After 109 years, Lionel still has a large, loyal following. Trains with top-of-the-line electronics and new operating systems that don’t tie you down to a transformer have made running these trains more enjoyable. When Christmas is celebrated, a Lionel train will always have a place near or around the tree in the homes of many families.

The Herald News