Tinplate FAQ Part 2

Archive-name: model-railroad-faq/tinplate/part2
Posting-Frequency: monthly
Last-modified: 01-05-02
URL: http://www.spikesys.com/Modelrr/faq2.html


Part 2 of 4, Equipment

This is a listing of frequently asked questions and general information concerning the collection, operation and repair of collectable model railroad equipment. For more info on this FAQ see part 1. Additions and corrections are always welcome. E-mail to:

(Christopher D. Coleman)
TCA #88-26999
LRRC #0032070

This FAQ contains the following topics:

Part 1, Information

Part 2, Equipment

Part 3, Maintenance

Part 4, The Hobby


How are coupling and uncoupling done?
Coupler designs and methods can be considered an entire field of study on its own. The earliest systems used variations on the simple loop and hook system. The problem was that the cars had to be lifted off the track to be coupled. Following this most companies turned to complex and sometimes unreliable latch couplers. This usually involved a barbed latch and receptacle for a latch on each coupler. The cars could be separated by disengaging both latches at once, which usually proved difficult. After WWII major makers switched to the prototypical knuckle coupler. The prototype uses a pin above the coupler head which, when lowered, locks into the rear of the knuckle inside the coupler head.
                  #                   knuckle pin
           **  #   O        **  ####O   knuckle
           ** ### **        **     **
           *********        *********  coupler head
             **O**            **O**   locking pin
              ***              ***   drawbar
              ***              ***
             OPEN             CLOSED

The Lionel version, introduced in 1945, used a spring loaded plunger in a cylinder within the knuckle head locking the rear of the knuckle. The plunger is surrounded by a solenoid powered by a sliding shoe contact. The sliding shoe contacts with a fourth rail in special track sections, which when powered will energize the solenoid pulling the plunger to release the knuckle. In the early 1950's a revised knuckle replaced the previous design with one which used a spring loaded pin beneath the coupler head. This worked the same way as the prototype, except inverted. This design, with a few changes, is still used and is the standard on O gauge systems of many makes.

Flyer's, introduced in the early 50's, uses a bar inside the head to lock the knuckle from the above, like the prototype, but the bar extends through the head to a weight on the bottom. When the weight is lifted the knuckle is released. A special track section with a coil powered lifting runner was used to lift the weight.

Marx continued to use their unique V shaped couplers well into the 1960's when they switched to a non-operating knuckle coupler which was smaller than and incompatible with Lionel's. Their V type couplers had a downward barb on the left branch of the V and a hole on the right. When the couplers engaged, both tilt slightly such that the barb from each V pops into the hole of the other. By manually tilting either V one could disengage both barbs from both holes and release the cars. These couplers were simple and economically made of a single piece of stamped steel, an important consideration for thrifty Marx. They were reasonably reliable and were later produced in plastic versions.

How do Lionel UCS track sections work?
The UCS (universal control section) and its predecessor the RCS (remote control section) and their O-27 cousins are simply constructed, but operationally difficult to understand. The different rails and the electromagnet operate in different ways for different functions. As shown below, the section controllers use strips of copper contacted in certain ways such that the desired circuit is made. Either the three *s are connected or the two #s and the two @s. The controller uses four wires. Two are connected to the rails as supply and ground and the other two lead to the control rails and electromagnet. Therefore only the two control wires need be strung to your track while the others may be connected directly to the transformer.

Uncoupling requires either the use of an electromagnet on a plunger activated version or the energizing of a knuckle electromagnet connected to ground and to a sliding shoe. The uncouple button connects both control rails and the track electromagnet to the power rail. This has the result of uncoupling all types of couplers, if properly positioned.

Earlier operating cars are supplied both ground and power leads through a pair of sliding shoes, one in each truck. When the Unload button is pressed, one rail is connected to ground and the other to the power rail, thus powering the car. Later cars used a large spring loaded plunger in the center of the car to supply the action, which must be manually reset after operation. The Uncouple electromagnet must be used for these.

                             UNCOUPLE             UNLOAD
     near rail                supply              ground
     far rail                 supply              supply

     left rails               supply              ground
     right rails              supply              supply
     electromagnet              on                  off

     6019 (O-27)
     left front rail          supply              ground
     right rear rail          supply              ground
     electromagnet              on                  off

     electromagnet              on                  off

                UNCOUPLE    UNLOAD

            |  *-----------+-------@  |
            |  *----------+|-------@  |
            |  *---------+||-------#  |   front view
            |  ---------+|||-------#  |

                  RCS CONTROLLER

                            top views

       ================================================== ground rail
         -------------------------+--------------------   outer control rail
       ===========================|==+=================== power rail
         ----------------------+--|--|-----------------   inner control rail
       =====================+==|==|==|=================== ground rail
                          \ O  O  O  O /                  screw terminals
                            |  |  |  |___4
                            |  |  |______3
                            |  |_________2

                          RCS TRACK SECTION

          =============================================== ground rail
     left   ----------------+  /~~~\   -+--------------   right control rail
          ==================| (  O  ),+=|================ power rail
     left   ----------------+\ \/__//  /+--------------   right control rail
          =================+==\/===/==/================== ground rail
                          \ O  O  O  O /                  screw terminals
                            |  |  |  |___4
                            |  |  |______3
                            |  |_________2

                           UCS TRACK SECTION

          =============================================== ground rail
                            __--~~~--__  +-------------   right rear control
          ==================     O     =/=+============== power rail
            --------------+ ~~--/__--~~/  |               left front control
          ===============+=\===/======/===|============== ground rail
                         |  \ /      |    |
                         |   |       |    |__4
                         |   |       |_______3
                         |   |_______________2

                          6019 TRACK SECTION

          =============================================== ground rail
          ==================     O     ==+=============== power rail
                            ~~--/__--~~  |
          =====================/=========|=============== ground rail
                              /          |
                             |           |____4

                         OTHER O-27 SECTIONS

Hey, one coupler opens when I try to unload my car!
The 3462 Automatic Milk Car, the log dump car of the same vintage has coil couplers and these are SUPPOSED to uncouple (which one depends on the orientation of the car) when the car is unloaded. The reason is that the sliding shoes provide power to both the car mechanism (one positive, one negative) and to the coupler coils (both positive, grounding through the truck frame). So, whichever truck is contacting the positive control rail when UNLOAD is pressed gets uncoupled. UNCOUPLE gives positive to both control rails, hence activating both couplers, but not the car mechanism. This also explains why the truck can get hot, as where the coupler coil is on whenever the activator coil is on.

To get around this you'd have to cut the wire from the offending coupler to the sliding shoe and always run the car in the same orientation (which would be mandated by the position of the platform). The coil could be reactivated and work "properly" by connecting it to the sliding shoe on the opposite end of the car. This ailment was resolved by the adoption of mechanical couplers.


What can I get in the way of power for my trains?
A basic review of higher wattage available power:


MultiVolt (no circuit breaker) TrainMaster (circuit breaker) MultiControl (Circuit breaker, Whistle and Direction) (may also say TrainMaster) Solid State (circuit breaker, whistle/horn, direction, power switch) Misc (direction only)


MTH (all include direction and function controls)


No particular problems have been experienced with these transformers unless so noted above.

Most Lionel transformers made after 1939 are designated "TrainMaster" and have circuit breakers. Previous to this they were called "Multivolt" and had no circuit breaker. Because of this, caution should be used with Multivolt transformers.

Does it matter that I use only Lionel transformers on Lionel trains?
Essentially all trains using universal motors will run on all transformers. They will also run on DC, but the normal current draw is beyond what most DC transformers will produce. Trains using DC can motors will run on AC only if they are equipped with a rectifier to convert AC to DC. The newer offerings do but some cheap Lionel from the 1970's does not. Compatibility between brands is not a problem.
What's the difference between WATTs and VAs?
VA is short for Volt-Amp, or the total power lost in a circuit. In a nutshell, Watts (Volt-Amp Resistive) tell how much power is lost to heat (resistance) and VARs (Volt-Amp Reactive) tell how much is lost to stray magnetic and electric fields (inductance and capacitance). VAs are defined as:
                /     2       2
        (VA) =\/ (Watt) + (VAR)
or the RMS (root mean square) value of power. Thus, since VAs express more forms of power consumption (both thermal and magnetic), the power value expressed in them is slightly different than in WATTs, but is a better measure of power consumed.
Can broken transformers be fixed?
As to repairing your transformer, if the wiper or a connecting wire is damaged I would try to repair it, but if the main coil is burned out it is not really worth the trouble, at least on smaller transformers. (There are places to have transformers and motors rewound.) In my experience a simple dial-on-a-box Lionel transformer will run $15 to $30, and a nicer one with whistle and direction controls $40 to $60. The dollar a Watt, or VA, usually holds true for 1950 or newer. This depends greatly on who's selling it and how much money they want to make on it.
Can more than one transformer be used together? (AC)
Connecting Transformers in series is bad news. Don't try it. For transformers to share a common ground is no problem, as long as their other poles don't touch. Now, it is often necessary to connect the poles of two transformers if the load is too great for a single transformer or when a roller crosses the boundary between insulated track blocks powered by different transformers. To do this the two transformers must be placed in phase. To test the phasing connect the two commons together and connect a wire to one control terminal. Adjust the two to the same voltage level, say 6V. Momentarily touch the wire to the other transformer's control terminal. If a spark occurs they are out of phase so you must reverse the wall plug of one. If there is no spark they are in phase.
Why did they stop making powerful transformers?
Initially it was due to lack of demand during the 1960's when just selling trains was a challenge. In 1973 the Consumer Products Safety Commission cracked down on General Mills on transformer design. They felt for some reason that the ZWs and others were "Electrocution hazards waiting to happen". They came up with lots of new rules and regulations making the manufacture of these transformers near to impossible and financially unrealizable. To add to this Underwriters Laboratory, which approves products as "safe" for insurance purposes, recently would not approve a redesigned ZW II transformer from LTI. Apparently heat dissipation problems occurred with the large coil. As a replacement Lionel developed the "TrainMaster" system profiled later in this section. Neil Young, the popular singer and Lionel collector, has been contributing greatly to this project.
What is Lionel's Trainmaster System?
The "TrainMaster System" (TMS), introduced in late 1994, is made up of several separate units each inside their own plastic housing. The system allows remote control of track voltage for vintage or non TMS equipped locomotives, indirect control of vintage or non TMS equipped accessories and switches, and direct control of TMS equipped locomotives and accessories. Billed since 1999 as TrainMaster Command Control (TMCC), it seems to be proprietary and not compatable with other systems, like DCC used by scale model railroaders on their DC layouts or DCS by MTH trains.

PowerHouse (PH-1), introduced in 1994, is the 135 watt step down transformer. It has one cord to the wall outlet and one to a 1/4" miniplug (headphone type). It includes a power switch and a manual reset circuit breaker. It can be replaced with most any standard AC transformer with a circuit breaker (set at 7-9 amps) and a 21 volt or more max output. An available adapter cord with a 7 amp in-line fuse can connect it to PM-1. Starting in 1999 a larger 190 Watt unit was made available in addition to the 135 Watt unit. An 80 Watt unit began selling as part of the standaline 80 Watt tranformer set in 1999 and is not available separately.

PowerMaster (PM-1), introduced in 1994 (6-12897, 6-12867 starting in 1997), is the track voltage level control unit. It has a female jack to connect with PH-1 and two lugs for track connection wires. PM-1 has no controls of its own but is controlled by radio frequency by the CAB-1 unit. One unit is needed for each insulated block of track you wish to control independently. Each PM-1 requires an independent power source, for example a KW can supply two. The PM-1 unit is intended for use with non command control equipped locomotives that cannot be controlled by the Command Base.

Command Base, introduced in 1996 (6-12911). It receives RF signals from CAB-1 and transmits encoded digital commands through the electrical system to specially equipped locomotives, to SC-1 units (described later) and accessories or cars with built in TMCC support. It can be used on track without varying track voltage, thus lighted rolling stock stays lighted even when the train is stopped. The unit only sends signals and does not provide power. Power is controlled by another means (a PM-1 or conventional transformer). Only one Command Base is required for a layout. Command Base requires it's own power supply which is provided.

Switch and Accessory Controller SC-1 (6-12914, 6-12868 starting in 1997), introduced in 1996, is controlled by the digital commands relayed from CAB-1 by Command Base. SC-1 has screw terminal on it for the control of four switches and two on-off style accessories. Switches and accessories cannot mix and match on one another's terminals. Not all accessories are compatable with SC-1 as they could overload and damage it. In 1999 the SC-2 (6-22980) replaced the SC-1. The SC-2 is more flexible and durable than the SC-1, including fuses and a 15 amp rating. It can control any combination of 6 accessories or switches or 12 accessories only (apparently there are 6 three terminal outputs and you can use each for one switch or two accessories.) It can handle enough power to control small sections of track like sidings.

CAB-1 is the remote controller which contains all controls and sends signals to PM-1 and/or Command Base. It operates on radio frequencies similar to those of RC cars using a telescoping antenna. It requires a single 9 Volt battery and has a 1/4" jack in the top for connecting The Big Red Button (detailed later). There are 26 controls on it. It contains a large red throttle knob, a numeric keypad, and buttons for direction, bell, whistle/horn, boost (accelerates while the button is pressed, then resumes previous speed), brake (overrides the available momentum setting), front coupler, rear coupler, aux 1 and aux 2. There is a small red button labeled "halt" which is an emergency stop for the whole system.

There are buttons across the top labeled SW, ACC, RTE, TR, and ENG which set the mode to the transmitter. TR is pressed followed by 1 through 9 or 0 for 10 on the keypad to designate which PM-1 (and thus which track block) is to be controlled. In this mode whistle/horn, bell, direction, boost and brake are options. ENG followed by number 01 through 99 or 00 for 100 selects which digital receiver equipped locomotive you wish to control through the Command Base. All the TR commands plus front and rear coupler are available, except here they control only a single engine no matter where it is, (rather than any engine in a particular block). Similarly SW and 01 through 99 or 00 for 100 selects a switch controller in an SC-1 and ACC and 01 through 49 or 00 for 50 selects an accessory controller on a SC-1. Presumably aux 1 (straight or on) and aux 1 (diverging or off) control switches and accessories when in SW or ACC modes.

So with a single CAB-1 you can control 10 track blocks (using 10 PM-1's), 100 digital receiver equipped locomotives (using a single Command Base), 100 switches and 50 accessories (using 25 SC-1's in conjunction with the same Command Base).

A few details are still fuzzy, such as how to set which digital receiving locomotive, which PM-1 and which SC-1 corresponds to which number on CAB-1; the function of the RTE button; how to set the available momentum (simulates train weight by dragging out responses to commands) and stall (sets the minimum voltage to a particular unit to a level where the unit just stalls so the e-unit will not cycle and to make starts and stops smooth).

Also available is "The Big Red Button", a large, red pressure sensitive pad which plugs into the CAB-1 jack to operate whichever function was last executed on the CAB-1.

The Idea of the system is to have a PH-1 and PM-1 pair connected to each block of track to control the voltage level for conventional locomotives. If all your locos are digital receiver equipped, a PM-1 would not be required, but would still be a good idea. This way you can set locomotive 1 to, say, 70% throttle and leave it there if you have your straightaway blocks set to 20 volts and your curved blocks set to 12 volts (kind of like setting speed limits). Although you only need one CAB-1, you can have more than one for division of responsibilities between engineers.

A few quirks have existed with the system. For one the RF frequency is the same as CB Channel 23, so you may experience rogue commands near main highways. Also compatibility with other command control systems is limited. MTH whistles/horns are reported to blow continuously when connected to any part of the system and QSI control units are reported to be totally confused by it. New QSI offerings are compatible with TrainMaster, but no conversion is available for older ones. A workaround for MTH locomotive has been found, involving setting the stall speed. Contact a Lionel Authorized Dealer for details. On the whole it is an excellent system with a few bad spots.

Other independent power control units (not utilizing the remote control features of the TrainMaster System) are available. In 1997 the PowerStation controller was introduced. It is shipped with a 135 watt Powerhouse unit. It has a single controller and includes direction, whistle and bell buttons (6-12938). In late 2000 the power station was phased out and an 80 watt unit was phased in. It uses an included 80 watt PowerStation which is not available for separate sale.

Starting in 1998 a redesigned ZW (not to be confused with the ill fated ZWII) was introduced. Rather than having an internal coil like the original ZW and ZWII, it is essentially a control box into which multiple TrainMaster System PowerHouse units can be connected. Two 135 Watt PH-1s were provided with the unit (6-22982) but were replaced with two 190 Watt PowerHouses in 1999 (6-32930). In 2000 the dual 135 watt unit was reintroduced in addition to the dual 190 watt unit (6-14124). Like the original it features four separate controllers, two intended for trains and two intended for accessories. Also the whistle and direction controller is there, but a new bell controller for railsounds has been added.

DC? AC? What do I need? Aren't the motors "Universal"?
As a rule of thumb tinplate trains run on AC. Although the motors (universal or rectified can) and e-units will run on DC, there are two problems with using it. First, any loco with a horn or whistle uses DC added to the AC current to trigger the horn or whistle. Using DC power will confuse such locos. Second, most DC power packs are designed for use with lower draw HO or N scale trains or the smallest O gauge trains which have a low current draw. They will usually not have the power to operate universal motors.

The very cheapest tinplate sets use DC power packs and unrectified DC motors in the locomotives and rely on reversing polarity to change direction (like N, HO and G scale trains do). Better locos use DC motors but rectify AC current before the motor and use an e-unit to control direction. This is more expensive, but provides compatability with the better locos and with whistles. The better locos use universal motors with e-units.

If you have a set that you have to throw a switch to reverse it, you are already using DC and cannot use AC. If you have a loco with an e-unit (power cycle to change direction), no horn or whistle and it runs on can motors, you should be able to use DC, but remember there is no future in it if you upgrade to better locomotives. See the MOTOR DESIGN section for details.

What is MTH's Digital Command System?
MTH's Digital Command System (DCS) is a competitor to Lionel's TrainMaster System. It allows track control for conventional locomotives, indirect control of accessories and switches and direct control of Proto-Sounds 2.0 locomotives. It can control Lionel TMCC locomotives with the addition of a TMCC CommandBase to the DCS system. This is a feature Lionel has not recipricated yet.

Unlike TMCC, DCS does not use individual power packs but relies on their line of standalone and two piece transformers to provide power. Lionel units could likely be used for the DCS system and MTH units for the TMCC system.

The Track Interface Unit (TIU) (50-1003) is the heart of the system and compares with the PowerMaster and CommandBase combination from the TMCC system. Unlike those, it can control four track blocks and requires four power inputs. From the TIU, interface cables can connect up to five AIUs, one Lionel CommandBase and an Internet connected PC for download of updates software.

The DCS Remote Control unit (50-1002) is the hand held unit that sends commands to the TIU. It has an LCD screen which Lionel's CAB-1 lacks, but does not have Lionel's rotary speed control knob.

The Accessory Interface Unit (AIU) (50-1004) can be cascaded with up to four other AIUs from the TIU.

The DCS system has come out more recently than the TMCC system, but seems to be as robust. I will not presume to recommend one system over the other here. More information on this system will be included in a future revision of this FAQ.


What is the difference between gauge and scale?
Scale is the relation or ratio of sizes between a model and a prototype. For X:Y a dimension of X units on the model corresponds to Y units on the prototype. For example, if a real boxcar is 500" long and you want your model in 1:100 scale, then the model should be 100 times smaller, 500"/100, or 5" long. Conversely if your model boy is 1" tall and in 1:50 scale, then if he were real he would be 1"X50 or 50" tall. Over the years many scales have been defined, but the primary ones collected are:
     G [see below]  1:20.3 (1:24 for Bachmann)
     II (two)       1:22.5
     Standard/Wide: none defined but would be about 1:27
     I (one)        1:32 (1:29 for Aristo-Craft)
     O (oh or zero) 1:48 in North America
                    1:45 or 1:43.5 Europe
     S              1:64
Gauge is the distance between the inside faces of the outermost railheads. The prototype standard gauge in most of the world is 4'8.5". Early scale ratios were derived by comparing the real gauge to the model gauge but GAUGE DOES NOT DEFINE SCALE NOR VICE VERSA. Popular scale definitions and gauge definitions are often slightly different from what would be derived. This is a result of history and is just the way it is in the hobby. Also one may wish to model a narrower prototype gauge which would require a smaller model gauge in the same scale. Defined gauges used in tinplate trains are shown below.
     Standard: 2-1/8"
     Wide:     2"
     G         45mm (1.77")
     O std     1-1/4"
     S std     7/8"
G gauge still confuses me!
G gauge was originally defined by LGB as a GAUGE not a scale and being 45mm. LGB created the name although the gauge was used previously as I scale standard gauge and III scale narrow gauge. LGB models mostly European metric gauge (between American standard and narrow gauges) so it should theoretically be called II scale. As time progressed other makers produced trains in the same gauge for compatibility of track, but of different gauge prototype. Standard gauge, American and European narrow gauge models have been produced for G track. As a result the scale ratio changes. Models of standard gauge are I scale and of European narrow gauge are III scale. US 36" narrow gauge falls between established scales at about 1:20.3 and so is usually referred to as "G Scale" in the US although this is not always accepted. Standards for G are still being created and remain largely misunderstood right now.

It is common practice in tinplate to refer to a scale, say O scale as O gauge. This is incorrect terminology but is the normal practice. When someone talks of O gauge in a tinplate context you can assume it is O scale modeled on prototype standard gauge. G is the exception whereas it is usually modeled on a narrow gauge.

Usually when the word scale is used in Tinplate terminology it is referring to 'Scale' model railroading. For example O scale refers to 2 rail exact scale modeling in O (as is predominant in HO and N). O gauge, on the other hand, refers to the 'tinplate' side of the hobby. Again this is not proper terminology, but is common practice.

What kinds of track systems are available?
Different types of track systems in a given gauge are usually separated by their curve radius. This has be defined as the distance from rail to rail of a complete circle of curved sections. Which rail or part of the rail is not always the same, but is usually the outermost rail.

G-gauge track systems are not covered here. Refer to USA Trains, Aristo-Craft or LGB.

General Systems
O: The standard type of O gauge trackage. Usually with three black ties per section. 31" curve diameter is common but O-72 and O-54 with 72" (five ties) and 54" curve diameters are also readily available. Single straights normally are 10" long, past production by American Flyer and others, current production by Lionel and MTH.

O-27: A lighter duty trackage style also usually with three ties per section. Usually 27" curve diameter with 42" and 54" (O-42, O-54 light) available. Straight single sections are 8-3/4" long. Although O-27 technically refers only to 27" diameter track it is commonly used to designate all radii of this lighter duty track style, current production by Lionel.

S Gauge: Metal ties, two nickel-silver rails, tubular with flat pin connectors, special sections available, produced by American Flyer postwar.

Standard Gauge/Wide Gauge: Metal ties, three nickel-silver rails, tubular with pin connectors, special sections available, produced by Lionel, Ives, American Flyer and others prewar.

Make-Specific Systems
Super O: Made by Lionel 1957 to 1966. Featured realistic molded plastic ties and plates. 36" curve diameter. Sections snap together. Hard to find today. The flat center rail is frequently accused of 'eating' rollers. Most Super-O users disagree, though the center rail connectors do tend to work lose enough to catch sliding center rail contacts. A modified Super O is being worked up as a new track system for Lionel.

Tru-Trak: Made by Lionel about 1976 and was similar to K-Line O. It was around 30" diameter and very little was produced.

Super K: by K-Line; Available in S, O (30", 42" and 72") and O-27; plastic ties and built in balast, three nickel-silver tubular rails, pin connectors, special sections available, current production.

Gar-Graves: Available in O, S, G and Standard. Comes in 3' sections to be custom bent to layout specs (tricky to bend without kinks); Wood ties; blackened center rail and nickel-silver outer rails or all three stainless steel, tubular with pin connectors, current production.

Sectional Gar-Graves: O Gauge available in 32" 42", 54", 63" and 72" diameter (8 sections per circle), 80", 89", 96" and 106" diameter (12 sections per circle) and 138" (16 sections per circle); S Gauge available in 42", 54", 63" and 72" diameter (8 sections per circle); G Gauge available in 72", 80", 89", 96", 106" and 138" diameter; plastic ties, blackened center tubular rail or stainless steel tubular rail, pin connectors, special sections available, current production.

RealTrax: by MTH; O gauge available in 31" diameter (8 sections per circle), 42" and 54" (12 sections per circle), and 72" (16 sections per circle); plastic ties and built-in balast, blackened center solid rail and nickel-silver outer solid rails, snap together with slot-car style contacts, special sections available, current production.

ScaleTrax: by MTH; O gauge available in 31" diameter (8 sections per circle), 54", 72" and 80" (16 sections per circle); from MTH; plastic ties, blackened center solid rail and nickel-silver outer solid rails, snap together with slot-car style contacts, special sections available, current production.

21st Century Track System: by Atlas O; O gauge available in 36", 45" (in '99), 54" and 72" diameters; plastic ties, blackened center rail and nickel-silver outer rails, solid with slip-on connectors, special sections available, current production.

Misc. Systems
K-line S: Includes Flyer type straights and curves as well as 3 foot straights and wide radius curves. Pins are slightly wider than Flyer and require some filing to mate properly

American Models S: currently produces track switches.

Antique Trains Standard: Essentially identical to original Prewar.

1 lantern Lane
Turnersville, NJ 08012
Why are three rails often used?
The principal problem with two rail track is that the two rails contain opposite polarity voltage. When the track loops back on itself the opposite rails will meet and a short will occur:
                      \                                  \
      _________________\______________________________    \
         A         \    \                 A           \    \
                    \    \                             \    \
                    B\    \A                            |    |
                      \    \                            |    |
                       \    \                         A/    /B
                        \    \___________A____________/    /
                         \                                /
In three rail the outer two rails carry the same polarity with the inner rail opposite. Shorting is not a problem:
      ___B_________\_____________________B_____________  \
      ___________\__\________________________________  \  \
         A     \  \  \                   A           \  \  \
                \  \  \                               \  \  \
                A\ B\  \A                              |  |  |
                  \  \  \                              |  |  |
                   \  \  \                           A/  /B /A
                    \  \  \_______A__________________/  /  /
                     \  \_________B____________________/  /
This allows the construction of much more complicated layouts without electrical shorts. It also allows the insulation of one outer rail for the purposes of powering signaling accessories without disrupting current flow to the train and without the use of clumsy pressure plates.
Where can I get Hi-Rail track supplies for tinplate?
Ross Custom Switches
PO Box 110
North Stonington, CT 06359
URL: http://www.rossswitches.com/

Gar-Graves Trackage Corporation
Department O, RR #1
PO Box 255-A
North Rose, NY 14516
Phone: 315-483-6577
Fax: 315-483-1415
URL: http://www.gargraves.com

Rydin Industries Inc
28W215 Warrenville Road
Warrenville, IL 60555

Curtis Custom Switches

How can I make my three tie track look more realistic?
The time honored way is to use balsa wood and stain and make them by hand. The more modern approaches include rubber tie inserts from:

Moondog Express
located at Mikes Trains and Hobbies
(see parts supplier listing)(reported to be out of business)
Phone: (800) 772-4407

Snap in plastic roadbed is available from:

Dutch Country Hobby Products
PO Box 209
Terre Hill, PA 17581

Woodland Scenics
PO Box 98
Linn Creek, MO 65052
Phone: (573) 346-5555
Fax: (573) 346-3768
URL: http://www.woodlandscenics.com/

"Track-Bed System"
Tinplate and Scale Models
110 S. Seventh St., Dept 115
North Wales, PA 19454-2817

Hobby Inovations
Rt 3 Box 226
Mountain City, TN 37683 Phone: 423-727-8000

"Molded Rubber Roadbed"
Rick Johnson
19333 Sturgrass Drive
Torrance, CA 90503
Phone: 310-371-3887

Lionel Trains
Address in MANUFACTURERS section

What track systems are compatible?
Adapter pins are available to connect Gargraves to O or O-27 trackage. O and O-27 pins are different sizes and I have heard of no adapter between them. They can be coaxed together, but the difference in track height causes additional problems. Adapters were also made for Super-O to O or O-27. They are hard to find and a Gargraves adapter can be used for the outer rails if it is flattened a bit, but originals must be used for the center rail. K-Line O uses O-27 pins. From Gargraves to Super-O you can make one by filing a Gargraves connector narrower on one side to fit into Super-O. MTH molded systems and Atlas O are sufficiently different so they are not adaptable without a special section designed for the purpose.

TOO MANY such connections IS BAD! They are usually not smooth and can cause wheel wear and derailments, especially on curves and trestles.

As to clearances for engines and rolling stock, anything will run on a larger track curvature than specified, but not always a smaller one. Rail height is rarely a problem. The semi-scale locomotives and cars are the most restrictive on curves and switches. Most other "compressed" equipment labeled as either O or O-27 will run on O-27 or larger diameter, but there are exceptions. The classifications of O and O-27 in the Lionel catalogs has little to do with what track is right for a piece. Instead they are used to define different price levels in the line. For example the O-27 2020 steam turbine and the O 671 steam turbine are identical other than the number. The 671 just came with fancier sets. For more details on switch clearances see the SWITCHES section.

What track system is right for me?
Most starter sets come with O-27 track as a purely economical measure. It is expected that you will buy better track if you more than double the size of your layout. Here's some deciding factors:
O-27 - The physically weakest of the systems. Stepping on a section will seriously damage it. About 50 pounds of pressure will throw it out of alignment.
O - Much stronger, takes a lickin and keeps on trackin. Joints do not wear as fast as O-27.
Super-O - Pretty strong, but does not tolerate constant disassembly and reassembly well. Snap together fingers and pins are more likely to snap. Harder to find.
GarGraves Flex - Moderately strong. Ties will crack and rail will fold under 100 pounds or so. Rails are attached to ties by tension of the rail against the pocket in the tie. Can only be bent once.
GarGraves Sectional - Stronger than bendable GarGraves.
21st Century Track System - unknown, too new
RealTrax - Unknown, too new.
ScaleTrax - Unknown, too new.
O-27 - Low. More realistic than O. Since 1971 has had brown ties rather than black. More realistic rail height. Will accept only flat additional ties. Curves range from absurdly tight to plausible.
O - Low. Least realistic, large, wide black ties and very tall rail. Will accept more 'squarish' additional ties than O-27. Curves range from absurdly tight to plausible.
Super-O - Excellent. Very realistic plastic molded details including spike heads and tie plates, but ties are unrealistically sloped. Flat copper center rail is less visible. No need for additional ties. Curves are semi-absurd tightness.
GarGraves Flex - Excellent. Quite realistic, stained real wood ties. Blackened center rail is much less visible. Lacking tie detail. Curves can be to scale.
Gargraves Sectional - Excellent. Quite realistic, molded ties. Blackened center rail is much less visible. Tie detail.
Super K - Moderate. Molded ballast limits landscaping options, but ties are vast improvement.
21st Century Track System - Excellent. Very realistic plastic molded details including spike heads and tie plates. More cost effective than GarGraves sectional but less variety. Molded ties.
RealTrax - Moderate. Molded ballast limits landscaping options, but ties are vast improvement. Molded ties.
ScaleTrax - Excellent. Ties are a bit far apart. Excellent rail profile. Molded ties.
O-27 - Cheap. About a buck per new section.
O - Inexpensive. About $1.50 per section.
Super-O - Expensive. Has not been produced for many years and pieces are collectable.
Gargraves Flex - Intermediate. About $4 for 3' section.
Gargraves Sectional - Expensive. $5-10 per section.
Super K - Moderately inexpensive. $2-4 per section.
21st Century Track System - Intermediate. $3-5 per section.
RealTrax - Intermediate. $3.50-5.00 per section.
ScaleTrax - Unknown.
O-27 - Moderately Large. Variety of curve diameters and all forms of special track sections.
O - Moderately Large. Variety of curve diameters and most forms of special track sections.
Super-O - Limited. Single curve diameter and moderate number of special track sections.
GarGraves Flex - Large. Curves down to 36" are possible. Switches and many special sections available.
GarGraves Sectional - Large. Wide variety of curve diameters and most forms of special track sections.
Super K - Moderately Small. Few special sections and moderate diameters.
21st Century Track System - Intermediate. Variety of curve diameters and most forms of special track sections.
RealTrax - Intermediate. Variety of curve diameters and most forms of special track sections.
ScaleTrax - Intermediate. Variety of curve diameters and most forms of special track sections.
Equipment Compatibility
O-27 - 27" curves and switches will not accomodate larger "O Scale" equipment. Older Marx is incompatible with Lionel switches and vice versa. Switch clearance issues.
O - 31" curves and switches will not accomodate larger "O Scale" equipment. Older Marx is incompatible with Lionel switches and vice versa.
Super-O - Will accomodate up to medium-large equipment. Switch clearance issues.
GarGraves Flex - Can accomodate nearly any equipment.
GarGraves Sectional - Can accomodate nearly any equipment.
21st Century Track System - Can accomodate nearly any equipment.
Super K - Unknown, likely comparable to O
21st Century Track System - Unknown.
RealTrax - Unknown.
ScaleTrax - Unknown.
Kid Play Value
O-27 - Good. Easily changed into varied and complex layouts.
O - Excellent. Easily changed into varied and complex layouts. Strong.
Super-O - Moderate. Less flexibility in design, less resistance to play.
GarGraves Flex - Low. Easily crimped.
GarGraves Sectional - Moderately Low. Harder to connect than other systems.
Super K - Excellent. Similar to that of O.
21st Century Track System - Excellent. Easily changed into varied and complex layouts. Seems strong.
RealTrax - Excellent. Easily changed into varied and complex layouts. Seems strong.
ScaleTrax - Moderate. More intended for permanent installation.
How many sections does it take to make a circle?
   O-27 Style
     O-27 - 8 per circle
     O-42 - 12 per circle
     O-54 - 16 per circle
   O-31 Style
     O-31 - 8 per circle
     O-54 - 16 per circle
     O-72 - 16 per circle
   Super O
     12 per circle


How do those Lionel "non-derailing" switches work?
Lionel switches equipped with the non derailing feature (three rail) have an insulated rail at the end of each track on the split end of the switch. The switch operates by means of two electromagnetic coils wired oppositely, surrounding a plunger. The plunger is mechanically connected to the moving mechanism of the switch. One coil supply is permanently connected to the center power rail, except in the #022 O gauge switch where a constant power plug can replace it. The other supply of each coil is connected to the controller, where either can be connected through the third controller wire to ground. That will energize that coil and move the plunger in that direction. In non-derailing the insulated rails are also connected to the appropriate coil to clear trains coming from that direction. When the train axles bridge that rail to the ground rail, the switch will move to pass it automatically and thus avoid derailments in an open switch. Since the insulated rail is at the end of the switch, an insulated track pin is needed to prevent a permanent connection to ground. The length of the insulated rail can be increased by connecting an insulated rail track to the switch insulated rail. One problem is that when power is supplied and a train is stopped on the switch, the coil will remain energized as long as the rail is bridged. The #022 switch avoids this with a series of contacts inside that deactivate the coil when it is already in the proper direction.
What about Marx switches?
Marx switches are wired to the opposite polarity so the permanent connection is to ground and the switched supply is the power connection. This makes the insulated rail method impossible, but it also makes the use of constant supply voltage possible without the need of special plugs. Otherwise the switch design is the same.
I'm having power conduction trouble beyond my non derailing switches.
99 times out of 100 power conduction problems are in the center rail which has nothing to do with the non-derailing feature. On the 1122 the non derailing insulated rails are surrounded by non-insulated rails providing two connections to each connected track. With two rails to each track this usually is not a problem. _BUT_ on the 1122E the insulated rails are NOT so surrounded!!! They are the two closest rails in the Y part of the switch.
        --------------===    -----------
        -----------\   \    \----------  <--this one
                     \   \    \
                       \   \    \  <--this one
They must have insulating pins at their ends to insulate them from the track ground or else they will be energized ALL THE TIME. This will eventually burn up your switch machine and also drain power from the locomotive.

If this in not the problem there may be an internal contact problem. Because of the arrangement of the insulated rails on your switch, there is only one outer rail connected into each track on the split end of the switch. This makes the probability of a bad connection through the base plate more likely than on the regular 1122. The three center rails are connected through a buss bar separated from the base plate by a paper insulator. The insulator can fail and cause a short (rare) and more likely the connection to the rail may have worked loose.

A simple test to find a bad connection is to take a foot of wire and touching it to each rail on either side of the switch while the train is running through the "slow" section. By doing this to each switch and observing if the loco speeds up, you can tell which rail is at fault on which switch.

Of course the fail-proof solution to a bad connection is to add another transformer connection to the other side of the switches.

Are different brand switches compatible?
Essentially all switches with a long pivoting rail are compatible. Older style switches are of this type.
       ----------------------          ------------*---------
       -----************-----          ------   *    *  -----
                                                 *    *
       -----************-----          ------\    *    *-----
              \    \    \                     \    \    \
               \    \    \                     \    \    \
The entire center two rails within the switch rotates around a central pivot. This creates a solid path through the switch for the wheel flange.

The newer type moves only half of each of the two sections.

       ----------------------           -----***-------------
             *****___                           **___
       -------       \ ------           ------       \ ------
                      \                      ***      \
       ------*****----- -----           -----\  **----- -----  {
              \    \    \                     \    \    \       |
               \ (  \    \                     \ (  \    \      |
                                                      switch point
At the switch point where the two inner side rails meet there is a flat spot without a rail that allows flanges from both directions to pass through. The result is that the wheel flanges tend to work out momentarily and catch the rail when it starts again. To solve this problem a flange catch "(" is installed on the other rail to hold that wheel and hence the whole axle on the tracks and resist that drift. This works well enough for Lionel and Flyer, but most Marx loco wheels have their gearing extend all the way to the edge of the wheel flange. As a result the gear teeth catch the flange catch causing a derailment. This also occurs on Lionel control rails on RCS, UCS and other sections.

Marx switches of this type do not have the flange catches. Their loco wheels have fatter (and less prototypical) wheel flanges with a less steep angle which eliminates the catching of thinner Lionel flanges. Lionel's flange catchers are the same solution used on real railroads as is the entire later switch design (relatively).

End of the Tinplate Train FAQ, Part 2 of 4
On to part 3 of 4