There is more to running O/O27 trains than you will find in your train set's instructions. Sure, all it takes is a train set to get started. BUT there's more to it than a layout, a transformer, wire and trains.
Motors: O/O27 trains are also known as "electric trains" because they are powered by low-voltage motors. O/O27 runs primarily on AC current. Most motors are pure AC. Some use a DC motor. Thanks to a rectifier, AC track current is converted to DC by an electrical piece inside the engine. The power is still AC and you could not really run the locomotive on DC-powered track. It is important to know if the motor inside the loco is pure AC or a DC can that receives converted electricity. Some accessories such as sound boards and electronic reversing units use the same juice that goes directly to the motor. They are either AC or DC, and your choice depends on the motor itself.
Years ago, it was impossible to use a DC motor in an AC locomotive. Thanks to smaller, cheaper rectifiers, however, the AC can be converted to DC.
The average O/O27 device operates within a range of 6 to 14 volts. It is the job of the transformer to convert 110 - 120 volts from your wall socket to the low voltage needed to run trains.
Accessories, from simple street lamps to complex operating devices, run on AC power. They run in the 8 to 14 volt range.
Track: Depending on what set you buy, the track will be either O or O27. Note the difference! Though they have the same width between the outer rails - 1 1/4" - they differ in height, width and radius. Pure O operates on a 31 inch radius track. That means that the circle is 31 inches across. The standard 31" radius curve track is 10 7/8" long. The standard straight section of track is 10 inches long. O track stands 11/16" from bottom of the ties to top of rail.
O27 uses a 27" radius. Standard curved pieces are 9 1/2" long, and each track section is 8 3/4 inch long. The height of the rail is 7/16" - a full half inch lower than standard O.
O and O27 curves are also available in 42", 54", and 72" radius. The difference is in height and track length.
To use O and O27 together, you need to shim the O27 and you need to crimp O track when connected to O27 via O27 steel pins. (O and O27 pins are not interchangeable). You cannot use O pins in O27 switches or crossovers without doing damage to the track.
Traditional O/O27 track consists of three galvanized-steel rails connected by three metal ties. The rails are hollow. Steel pins fit into the hollow end of the rails, and are used to connect them. Some companies have their own special types of track. Years ago, Lionel made "Super O" track. It had three rails, plus realistic ties and its own special connectors. To connect O with traditional, track, special adapter pins were needed. K-Line's "Super K' and 'Shadow Rail" have realistic ties, but they use conventional rail and pins. They can connect directly to traditional track without adapters. (In effect, Shadow Rail and Super K are conventional track fitted with realistic ties.) MTH's Rite Trax and Real Trax are specialty products which do not use pins. To connect with other types of rail, you need adapters. The same is true of the new Atlas O gauge track.
Neither Super O, MTH real Trax, Rite Trax nor Atlas O is compatible with traditional or other brands of track. You would need to buy special adapters from the respective manufacturer to connect to other rail. This is an important consideration for expanding your personal railroad. Mixing track can incur additional expenses and some engineering problems. For instance, Lionel trains with "Magne Traction" do well on conventional rail. On Atlas O, which is nowhere near as magnetic as conventional rail, Magne Traction does not work. Locos which haul heavy loads and climb grades easily might be subject to slipping on Atlas O.
Find one type of rail and stick to it. Traditional rail is cheapest and easiest to use. Real Trax is easy to use and looks great, but is costly. Super K and Shadow Rail are costly, and if you plan to convert to them from conventional rail, you can do it gradually. (We prefer traditional rail for practical reasons.)
Most locomotives and trains will run on O and O27. Some O trains will not handle O27. Lengthy cars and engines generally can't handle the tighter radius. A recent product, K-Line's O scale smoking caboose with interior, has a hard time with O27 curves and tends to derail on O27 switches - especially K-Line switches.Extra long locos like the Lionel Mohawk steamer cannot make it around O27 curves. In fact, it needs 42" radius curves!
42 inches? But isn't O gauge 31 inches? Yes. However, some very long locomotives require an even wider radius of 42, 54 or even 72 inches. These are made for scale operators who have room for layouts with wider curves. Be aware of the radius! Otherwise, that expensive, large loco you bought will be just a piece of ornamentation because it can't handle your railroad.
Track needs to be cleaned occasionally. Use cleaners meant for O/O27 track. HO and N track used to be made of brass, and are now made of stainless steel or nickel silver. Most O/O27 track is galvanized steel - it is not rust-proof. There are HO/N track cleaners which could cause corrosion. Wipe the top of the rail occasionally with cleaner, then wipe clean.
Transformers and Juice: you think the transformer packed in your train set is ready to handle anything you throw at it. It ought to have the power to run the train, light your passenger cars, toot the horn or whistle and operate your switches and accessories, right? Like the song said, "..it ain't necessarily so!"
That dial or handle on your transformer controls voltage. The more voltage, the faster the train goes. What they conveniently forget or minimize is "wattage." Voltage is the power to accelerate, but wattage is the added juice for other tasks.
Lionel and K-Line train set transformers run about 40 watts these days. That is enough to run a loco, light three passenger cars and/or blow the horn. Depending on the cars' lighting, you might not have enough extra juice to blast the horn. Automatic switches using track power will be sluggish and can cause derailments. 40 watts is about the minimum needed for today's trains.
Some low-end sets have a 20 to 25 watt transformer. While it can power a small locomotive, it can't handle much else. (Marx used to include 25 watt transformers years ago because its trains didn't need extra juice.) 20 to 25 watts won 't work when your loco is hauling a lighted passenger train.
Modern transformers have a resetting circuit breaker which flips off in case of short circuit or overload. It didn't take much to overload k-line's or Lionel's 40 watters. Heavily-laden trains needing a boost of power could easily engage the circuit breaker. (If the circuit breaker engages, wait several seconds. In the K-Line and Lionel transformers, it comes on automatically. In MTH, you have to wait and then hit a reset switch on the power pack.)
30 years ago, the train industry packed better transformers into sets. 75 watts was the low end, in those days. Wattage was normally 75, 80, 90, 100 or higher. That was enough to blast the horn, run accessories and keep the cars lighted brightly.
Not all locos are created equally. MTH Railking locos require more wattage than K-line, old Marx or Lionel. So do the lights in Railking's Madisons. An F3 which hauled effortlessly with the MTH transformer became unreliable with the Lionel 40 watt. And K-Line's bare basic transformer, while not a stellar performer, could at least operate the horn. We also found that the MTH loco's horn would not respond to a Lionel's horn/whistle button, yet trumpeted proudly for MTH and K-line whistle controls.
So what can you do? There's a big market in old transformers, and they run anywhere from $50 to $300 each. Most desirable is the old Lionel ZW, which had high wattage, controls for four trains, and all the bells and whistles. We ran tests of train set transformers and found the MTH 75 watt transformer worthy. It handled a long, lighted passenger train, the horn, and trackside accessories easily.
Plain and simple, today's train sets tend to have bare-bones transformers. The only exception was the MTH 75 watt transformer. Note that none of these had connections for accessories. All of the older transformers did! Your best solution is to buy a better transformer to run trains, and use the train set duds to power accessories.
How did this happen in the first place? Safety laws enacted in the 70s required low-voltage transformers for toys. Train makers took this as an opportunity to cut costs. They provided transformers that were powerful enough to run a small train and maybe - maybe - beep the horn or run nan accessory. Sad to say, decent transformers run over $70, and that's an added expense that doesn't have to be!
Here's how the three top train makers' basic transformers measured up:
MTH 75 watt, with horn/whistle, bell control and reverse button, handled everything well. Includes controller and power pack. Best of the three.
K-Line's basic transformer - no buttons (you have to get a whistle controller separately. One version uses transformer power, the other uses wall power) Enough power to toot the horns of all locos using the transformer-powered whistle controller add-on. The circuit breaker flipped whenever a loco needed a boost of extra power. to handle grades or carry loads around a tight curve. Power pack is built in to controller. Whistle controller is a separate piece - must buy separately!
Lionel's transformer, 40 watts with reverse button and whistle/horn button. It can handle a loco with a light load and engage Lionel and K-line horns, but did not engage MTH horn and could not power MTH loco when hauling several passenger cars. Includes controller and power pack.
MTH was best. K-Line, when equipped with the simple whistle control, outmatched Lionel. Without whistle control, however, K-Line cedes the advantage to Lionel.
Ins and Outs of Locomotives: You would think that costlier, more modern locomotives were superior to older, less complex ones. Think again. An old Marx E7 diesel had no trouble with a line of passenger cars, while Lionel's new RS3 was struggling around curves. The MTH Railking F3 was great powered by the MTH transformer, very good with K-line transformer, and a dud with the Lionel.
Locomotives are not priced for power or features. Frankly, I don't know how their prices are determined. All I know is that in pulling tests, a cheap old Marx E7 bested three up-to-date Lionel locos when it came to handling a grade with a tight curve. And the old K-Line Pacific was able to pull equally well with any transformer, while the Railking F3 did great except with the Lionel 40-watt transformer.
Most train set locos are the "bottom of the line." Sure, they look good and can haul the train with which they are packed. Give them something more, however, and they might disappoint you - or make you very happy. We were surprised with today's tests. The top train pullers were an old Marx E7A, the new Williams F7 and a new Railking F3. Lionel's NJ Transit GP38 did pretty good, but its Seaboard RSC3 needed help around the curve. All started pulling 4 Railking Madison cars, and then we added 3 K-Line Streamliners. The K-Line MP15 diesel did nicely. The Lionel 4-4-2 diecast steam loco found rough going with grades and curves, while the K-line 4-6-2 steamer handled everything brilliantly. Only the Seaboard RSC3 wasn't a train set train. The others are sold individually as well as being components in train sets.
Locos vary greatly, and you have to be picky. Not all locos are created equally. Things that are standard in some are costly-add-ons in others. For instance, the K-Line MP15 and Alco locos packed in pre-2000 sets do not have horns. A special members-only version of the MP15 is sold with a horn, but you won't find that in older sets. And for Alcos, you have to buy an unpowered add-on unit with horn in order to beep-beep-beep. The MTH Railking F3, Williams F7, Lionel Seaboard RSC3 and GP38 all have horns. Marx's locos don't have them. Lionel's 4-4-2 steamer has a whistling tender. So does K-line's 4-6-2 Pacific - the problem is that it won't work without the plug-in whistle controller made only by K-Line.
Along with power, there are matters of speed. control and track handling. Most locomotives can go fast, but can they do well at slow speeds? How well do they respond to control, whether via transformer or one of the new remote systems? And very important: how well does the locomotive handle track with tight curves and grades? The RailkingF3 and Williams F7 did well in all, white K-Line's MP15, Alcos and top-of-the-line F7AB came up short. The K-Line F7 tripped on track which was no challenge for either the Railking or Williams F3.
This brings us to our next subject:
Train Sets: most folks don't realize that the train set is "entry level" for the hobby. In most cases, this is the bargain basement where cheap locos and cars abound. A good entry-level train set should feature the following:
Locomotives with lighting and the ability to reverse. (Some new Lionel "extra cheap" sets have dispensed with the reversing thing)
If a steamer, the ability to smoke and whistle.
Cars with diecast wheels and operating couplers.
An oval of track
A transformer with at least 40 watts.
Lionel freight sets tend to have three cars. The cars have plastic trucks and couplers, plastic bodies and diecast wheels. Decor on the cars is limited to painting lettering on colored plastic. The cars are light.
K-Line freights tend to have 4 or 5 cars. The cars are recasts of old Marx "deluxe" cars. They have plastic trucks and couplers with diecast wheels. The cars generally feature a better degree of painting, but they are slightly smaller the Lionel or Railking cars. The cars are light.
Railking freights generally have 3 cars. Cars feature more painting than Lionel, a few added details, and have diecast trucks, couplers and wheels. The cars are of medium weight.
We contrasted three comparably-priced sets: the Lionel New York Central Flyer. K-Line Keystone King and Rock Island, and the MTH Railking Chessie Construction. We also took into account several train-set locos: MTH Railking F3, Lionel 4-4-2, Lionel GP38, K-Line MP15, K-Line 4-6-2 Pacific and Alco.
Power: best for power are K-Line 4-6-2, Railking F3, MP15
Low Speed: Railking F3, Lionel GP38
Horn: Lionel GP38, Lionel RSC3, Railking F3
Whistle: Lionel 4-4-2
Steamers - K-Line 4-6-2 looks great, Lionel 4-4-2 looks very good
Diesels - Lionel Seaboard RSC3, Lionel NJ Transit GP38, Railking Chessie F3, K-Line's Rock Island MP15 (For non-train-set trains, the 'member's only' Timken MP15 wins in the MP15 class.)
Granted, these were tests we ran this afternoon on our home layout. They were limited. We bring them up to illustrate that cost and brand name aren't an accurate way to determine which loco is best.
Other Parts: things you need but might not know! Like lockons, smoke fluid, wire, etc. Here are basic things everyone ought to have on hand. Extras always help:
Lockons - connectors to the rails - buy a handful because you'll need them as you expand your railroad. The more track you use, the more you need lockons.
Track pins - both steel and fibre/insulated pins. Make sure you buy the kind that go with your track, as O pins don't go with O27, and vice versa. Keep a dozen or more of each on hand. You will need them!
Smoke fluid - buy a bottle. What you get in a train set doesn't last very long!
Lubricants and oils - because of the materials used in making trains, buy only those types meant for the trains you have. Lionel, MTH and others make lubricants for O/O27 trains. DO NOT use WD40 on modern trains. Some lubricants can affect plastic gears, so use the right stuff. You'll' need it!
Half sections - keep half a dozen half-straight track sections around. They come in very handy!
Trucks and wheels - it's handy to keep a couple trucks with couplers and extra wheelsets around. You can buy both the plastic and diecast trucks, complete with couplers and wheels, as well as loose wheelsets. I keep two sets each of plastic and diecast trucks with couplers, and four or five wheelsets. Just in case....
Light bulbs - replacements for lights in locos and accessories - a couple of each type for your trains is useful.
Wire - lots of it, and not necessarily the kind that comes with accessories. 14 to 18 gauge wire - many prefer stranded wire - is available at electronics stores. Buy a roll of it. You will need it for wiring track, switches, accessories and everything else. You might want to get a wire-stripper and some electrical tape, too.
Tools - Pliers: you will need them to pull pins, at the very least. Pliers are a help. Available at any hardware store.
Screwdrivers - small flat a Phillips' head screwdrivers, at any hardware store.
Small hammer - for tapping in track pins and other assorted tasks.
Screws - buy a pack of assorted small screws at the hardware store.
Goo Gone! or other citrus cleaner will keep your track and other goods clean, especially in case of oil spills, accumulated gunk, etc.
Saving money - some items have to be bought from train dealers. you can't avoid it because they are only made for use with trains. Things like smoke fluid, locomotive lubricants, lights, lockons are made for one thing and one thing only. They aren't used for home repair, auto repair, plumbing or carpentry. They are only used with trains.
Other items can be found in almost any hardware store. For instance, tools. You don't need special track pliers to pull pins from track. You don't need special wire. Rarely do trains require odd screws that can't be found in a good hardware store. Sure, train manufacturers make special tools sets, sell specific screws and promote their own brands of wire. They are businesses and they want to provide convenience and make that extra dollar. However, brand name stuff costs a lot more that standard hardware, so don't be afraid to buy wire, screws and tools at the low hardware store prices.
Another thing: special gravel for ballast and loads is available from train stores. However, you can find equally good gravel, much cheaper, at a tropical fish supply.
When Trains Don't Run - common causes: for newcomers, it can be frustrating. In 90% of all cases of trains not running, there is a short somewhere. Either something is arcing the rails, or the wheels on one or more cars are not properly on tracks.
Another cause is bare wire touching - especially on terminals or lockons. And then there's folks who forget to plug in the transformer, plug transformer to controller, or skip the lockon.
The train won't start again until the circuit breaker has reset - this takes 5 to 10 seconds. If there is still a short, it will set again. Should your transformer come back on and then flip off, check for shorts! Other causes - a loco pulling too much weight, too much grade, too tight curves. Try running the loco alone if that happens, then add cars gradually.
Facts about hobby shops, mail order and other suppliers:
When you buy direct from the manufacturer, you usually pay the full retail price. The only exception might be a closeout of an old product line. Manufacturers do this for shopkeepers who carry their products. The manufacturer could afford to sell items cheap, but that would take sales away from shopkeepers. The shop owners would say, "Why bother carrying this brand when the manufacturer is selling it direct at a price I can't match?" And they would stop carrying that brand. Why handle a product when people can and will buy it cheaper from the manufacturer?
Thus, unless you absolutely have to, you should try to buy from a legitimate vendor. Vendors frequently offer a discounted price on some items, so you pay less than buying direct from the manufacturer.
Local hobby shops vary. Some specialize in trains, and some specialize in the kind of trains you want. If you're into O/O27, you might not find all your needs met in a shop that specializes in HO or N scale. Many shops have a LOT of their preferred scale, and might carry a smaller selection of other scales just for the extra sales. Try to find one that handles your specialty. You know that if they specialize, they know the product and the ins and outs. You can go there for advice and solutions to problems. Many who specialize in O/O27 also do repairs for a reasonable fee.
Mail order has been around for a while, and you can find sales there. Prices are usually lower, but you don't have the luxury of actually seeing the product and getting the facts. (On more than one occasion, a shop owner has steered me away from a questionable product and/or shown me something good that I might have missed otherwise.) Mail order shops vary, too. You have to look at everything - not just the list price. There are added fees like shipping and sales tax. If something needs fixing, you can't just go to the local shop - you have to mail it back and go through the long wait.
Then there's a case like mine: I had a great hobby shop only a few minutes from the house. They had everything. We moved to another state. I had visited the nearest shop here and found that they didn't have a full selection of O/O27. They didn't even have half sections of track, loose O27 straights or a few other essentials. BUT my old shop does mail order, so one phone call is all it takes. The lesson: if you have a local shop you like and you move, you can always order by phone. While I miss the convenience of getting my stuff on the spot, I can get it from my old source within a few days.
If you're doing O/O27, you want a shop that keeps a full inventory of track, lockons, accessories, light bulbs, smoke fluid, and of course, trains. Even if you buy mostly via mail order, it helps to have a local source.
Books: you can go nuts buying books about the hobby. Let's be real: between Greenberg and Kalmbach, there are enough O/O27 books to make a small library. That's too much reading. Are we a book club or are we going to run trains?
The instructions and manuals packed with train sets have only enough information for you to put the track together, wore up your transformer and run that set of trains. I know that Lionel and K-Line include very good, basic instructions in each set. A ten-year-old with average reading and mechanical skills can have a new set up and running in under half an hour. Those manuals do not do much else. They are basic training at its most basic.
Granted, most items include instructions for setting them up and using them. Lionel and K-line are great at packing good instructions with every switch, signal and operating accessory. Again, these are pretty basic. Wiring a full layout has a few nuances that go beyond basic knowledge.
What you need is good, solid information on layouts, wiring, operating, maintaining, and other basic skills. Sounds heavy? It is not! Some thoughtful O/O27 experts have prepared manuals just for folks with little or no knowledge. Lionel used to sell manuals that included wiring and operating instructions as well as an assortment of layout plans. Today, good books are available from Greenberg, Kalmbach, Carsten and K-Line.
One thing: the manual HAS to be for O/O27 and only O/O27! S gauge is two-rail AC, and HO, N Z and G scale run on DC and use track which differs significantly. DC wiring and trackwork is another bird entirely! You need to know how to wire AC three-rail track. The nice thing is that O/O27 is simpler than other scales.
Check with your local hobby shop, or call the local O/O27 club for suggestions. Greenberg, K-line and Kalmbach produce a slew of good O/O27 books. In the beginning, stay away from service manuals. They are for experienced people who repair trains. A good, basic guidebook is all you need.
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