Copyright 2000 T. Sheil & A. Sheil  All Rights Reserved

Safety: Yule Trains & Yule Trees

How to have a better time with your holiday trains

Trains Under the Tree?

Safety First!

A popular Yule tradition is running electric trains under the Yule Tree, as a decoration. Countless households bring out the old train set for the occasion. After a year in storage, usually in an attic, closet or basement, the trains are given another year's workout. The old train set has endured heat, humidity, and the exigencies of storage since last Yule. Folks expect it to run as usual year after year.

Consider the fact that most of the household Yule sets are pretty old. Most are at least 30 years of age, with many as old as sixty or even seventy-five years old! They have been handed down to another generation as a Yule tradition. Along with adorning the Tree, they've endured the play of children year after year.

Most people expect the trains to run well every year. No thought is given to wear and tear, corrosion or problems of age and un-use. If even half of the families oiled their trains in the last decade, that is a high number. For most, the old train is run right out of storage, with nary a thought of maintenance or safety. Those involved in the train hobby know all too well how these old sets bristle with worn wires, bent track and motors in need of oil.

When you take out your old train set this year, please take a moment to consider safety and maintenance. That old train has seen many a long year stored in a place that could be too damp, too dry, or too tight. After all the Yules, it might be time to do some maintenance. And yes, maybe even replace a few parts too worn to repair.

If you have a train buff nearby, have him come over and take a look at the old set. Ask him to see if the cars and locomotive need oil, if wires need to be replaced, and if the old transformer is safe enough for another year. Ask him to look over the track, and suggest a replacement if necessary. This year is a good year to have your train's safety check!

No train folks nearby? Then do it yourself. Here's what to look for:

Safety under the tree!

There is a tendency for all trains to spark when contact wheels hit a gap in the rails. It is infrequent in newer trains, but common in old ones, especially old O, O27 and Standard Gauge trains. Track is a big part of the problem. Older track does not produce as clean a contact point as newer rails. Sparks can ignite other things. The main danger of running electric trains is a result of sparking!

Here's how to minimize the problem:

  1. If you have a live tree, keep it watered! Water it daily, so it stays moist and fresh. Once it starts drying, as they all do eventually, it's time to stop running trains near it. Trains or not, tree safety is a must. The electric lights in trees produce heat of their own, so - when it starts drying, cut off the electricity! Keep it from drying during the holidays by frequent watering.
  2. The tree skirt should be of a fire-retardant material. Cheap cotton tree skirts are not safe. Trains or not, people often have other lighted decorations on or near the tree skirt. The popular porcelain Yule villages with interior lights are common under-the-Tree ornaments. Where there are lights, there is heat! Find a tree skirt which is fire-retardant!
  3. There are several ways to inhibit sparking. One is to lubricate pickup rollers every year. Replace broken or defective ones. (Some hobby shops will do this for you for a small fee). Your main defense against sparking is in your track. Worn track contributes to the problem. You can replace your old track with newer, better track. This alone will inhibit sparking. Another tactic is to find a fire-retardant material and place it directly beneath track and 1/2 to 1 inch on either side. Trim it to match your track. Gray or tan are good colors, as they also simulate roadbed. Even better are brands of track which have their own roadbed. These will prevent some, if not all, sparks from falling onto the tree skirt.

This is the Year to Replace Your Track

We here at the All Gauge Model Railroading Page are declaring Holiday Season 2000 to be The Year for New Track. Because so many holiday train layouts are built around old track, it's a good time to bring you track up to the times. Here's how to do it! You need a ruler to do this.

A) Determine what kind of track you have.

Does it have two or three rails?

If it has three, it is either O, O27 or Standard Gauge. Measure the distance between the outer rails. If it's 2 1/8", it's Standard Gauge/ If 1 1/4", it's O or O27.

If you have O or O27, measure again. Place track down. Measure the distance from bottom of track to the top of the rail. If it is 7/16 to « inch, it is O27. If 11/16 to 3/4 inch, it is O.

For two-rail track, these are the measurements:

O, O27, HO and N are very common. S, though less common, is hardly rare. TT is most uncommon - but we can show you where to get some! O Gauge 2-rail is uncommon, as compared with the three-rail version. But don't worry if you have it - we have a source for you!

If all you are running is a small circle of trains under the tree - no switches or crossovers - you will have an easy time replacing your track. For more complex layouts, there are still alternatives.

If you are running G, S, HO, TT or N, all trains will run on pretty much any track of the same gauge. (G gauge trains probably do not need track replacement, unless there is heavy corrosion or if it is cheap, non-solid aluminum or silvery metal - G was only introduced here in the last 30 years.)

The best brands of track with roadbed for HO and N are made by Bachmann and Atlas. Both look good, join easily , come apart easily, and have nickel-silver rail. You can find it in hobby shops. Bachmann's E-Z Track is the more common. You will need 12 sections of track for a 36-inch circle. You will also need a terminal, which is a track with two screw-type connectors. There is another brand of roadbed track, LifeLike's Power-Loc, which is neither as attractive nor as convenient. The Bachmann and Atlas products are superior. They come apart as easily as they go together. The switches will accommodate your existing HO and N trains.

For S gauge, try track by American Models and S Helper Service. S Helper makes a roadbed track. American Models' can use the trick with fire-retardant materials. Both are safer than the old Tubular rail, and will accommodate all S gauge trains.

For Standard gauge, there is no replacement other than tubular rail. MTH makes new tubular rail for Standard Gauge.

For O and O27: if you are merely running a circle under the tree, without switches or crossovers, you can use MTH's Real Trax. Real Trax has built-in roadbed, a more secure lockon, and is safer all around. I have accidentally stepped on tubular rail and Real Trax....believe me, Real Trax is safer! The rails meet well, thus reducing sparking. It can handle all Marx, MTH, Williams K-Line and Weaver trains. Real-Trax will handle pre-War O- Gauge American Flyer and all Lionel trains made after 1946. A few old tinplate trains made prior to 1942 may have wheels with wide flanges that do not work on Real-Trax. For them, you need tubular rail. Fortunately, those trains are quite rare.

Older Marx and American Flyer O Trains cannot negotiate modern switches. They have geared road wheels. You can use Marx switches with Real Trax, provided you buy the adapter tracks from MTH (two per switch). These allow O / O27 to mate with the Real Trax system.

Note that Real Trax has the same curve diameter is O: 31 inches. O27 has a 27-inch turning radius. The slightly wider diameter will not adversely affect O27 trains.

For G gauge, Aristocraft makes plastic roadbed which can be placed under G gauge track.  It is very simple to use and has thesame effect as "built-in roadbed."

There is no roadbed-fixed TT track. However, new TT track is available.

ONE Necessity if you change track!

You need to connect track to the power supply. You need a lockon or terminal. Since you are replacing track, replace the old lockons and terminals.

For Standard Gauge, MTH has the lockons.

Real Trax does not accept the lockons used for tubular rail. MTH sells the right lockon. It is self-contained and safer than the older style. Ask for instructions when you buy them.

For American Models and S Helper track, you need a new type lockon-terminal. Ask for one when you buy your track.

Bachmann's track uses terminals. Atlas uses a terminal joiner, a track clip with wire attached. You can buy them when you buy your other track.

A final word: your transformer.

Your transformer is an electrical instrument that takes 120 volt household current and steps it down to the 4 to 20 volt range used by trains. DC transformers also convert AC household current to DC. For 2-rail O, HO, TT, G and N, you need DC. Three-rail O, Standard and S gauges use AC. You can buy a DC transformer when you buy your track. MRC is a good brand. AC transformers are available from MTH, K-Line and Lionel. Older O and S trains require more wattage, so when buying an AC transformer, try to get one that puts out at least 75 watts. (The MTH Z-750 is a good, safe choice for single-train operation.)

Check your current transformer for rust, corrosion, damage and frayed wires. If the household current wire is shot, there is rust on it or it is otherwise damaged, do NOT use it. Replacement is affordable. MRC trannies can be found for under $40, and the Z750 and similar types run for under $70. Old trannies such as the Lionel ZW, KW, RW and 1033 might be worth the cost of repair...especially the ZW. Many American Flyer trannies are also worth the work.

Most Marx trannies had no built-in circuit breaker. Only a few over 100 watts had them. For safety's sake, get a transformer with a circuit breaker AND please read the instructions carefully.


One Exception: Marklin trains generally differ from their American equivalent, both in current (AC or DC) and other particulars. If your train is a Marklin, find a local dealer to help you -

When you pack up your trains:

Pack your trains, track and transformer carefully. Store it carefully, in a place that is neither too dry nor too humid. Don't casually toss everything in a box. Pack the cars and accessories individually, wrapped in soft cloth or in their own boxes. Put track into a small box, with its lockon. Don't let it be crushed. The care you exercise in packing will ensure another year of good running.

Sources for replacement equipment:

Standard Gauge:

MTH - track, lockons, transformers, trains -Mike's Train House

O / O27:

MTH - Real Trax, transformers, lockons, trains - Mike's Train House


American Models - track, transformers, terminals, trains - American Models

S Helper Service - track, transformers, terminals, trains - S Helper Service

HO & N

Bachmann - track, terminal track and transformers, trains - Bachmann Trains

Atlas - track, terminal joiners and transformers, trains - Atlas Model trains

MRC - transformers

G / #1

Aristocraft - track, transformers, trains - Aristocraft


track and transformers, trains -

Marklin - click here

Click here to return to The All Gauge Model Railroading Page - best free model railroading resources on the Net!