Dr. Toy Talks about Lionel Trains On Track from the Past to Future©
Childhood memories growing up in New York City in the ’40s include, the boy next door who, reluctantly, and occasionally, allowed me to control the switch on his prized Lionel train locomotive that pulled cars on the track layout he put together so carefully. It seemed like magic to play with his toy train, for when I watched the little train go round it evoked memories of treasured trips taken on a real train, the Pennsylvania RR, from New York City to Baltimore. Trains have always held magic for me, and for most kids and adults, and that magic has continued steadily over many decades. I’ve followed Lionel trains enthusiastically ever since, and even more closely since 1966, when I first became involved in the toy industry.
Brad Bunnin, San Francisco Bay Area attorney and avid collector, shared his love for Lionel, “Lionel trains were built to last forever. I have one thrift shop find, a locomotive from the late ’20s that still operates perfectly. Just after World War II, when Lionel could build trains again, my parents bought me and my much younger brother a treasured set. My brother wanted to see what happened when he pushed a pencil down the smokestack. Sadly, it brought our beloved locomotive to a sudden and permanent stop.”
But, Brad added, “A friend gave me a Lionel set identical with the one that met its untimely end, so I don't have to rely only on memories anymore!” And, he added, “Now I am completing a layout to impress my five-year-old grandson who I know will enjoy discovering trains as much as I did.”
Jim Dugan, my friend and editor in New Jersey, shared he had, “a Lionel set in the garage that I have not set up in years. I bought it almost fifty years ago when our kids were young. I rigged up a platform in the basement, which is now covered with tools and other stuff.” He wonders if the grandkids would like to see it running again. I wrote back to him to say, “Of course! Who does not find the sounds, and sights of the Lionel train set one of the great childhood experiences?”
Jerry Calabrese, CEO of Lionel said, “Lionel is 113 years old and is an iconic American company. We’ve always been known for our traditional model train sets, and we continue to dominate the space in that market. Lionel fans span all age ranges, from hobbyist collectors to those who simply enjoy setting up their train sets around the Christmas tree. While we’ve gone through many changes in our history, we always want to make sure we’re staying true to our traditions, and our fans.
“Society’s love for trains has endured through time”. He added, “And model trains have always held a special meaning for families and children. They’re not only fun to play with, but they make a wholesome hobby as well. Nowadays, children continue to enjoy setting up the tracks, and running their toy train sets. At Lionel, we couldn’t be happier to see that model trains have made a lasting impression in the toy world.”
In my book, Toys for a Lifetime, I wrote, “Lionel trains will provide hours of fun for any young engineer. The realistic detailing encourages children to create a layout to go with the train, hence developing confidence…” My research into Lionel’s history included that, “In 1900, Joshua Lionel Cowen founded the Lionel Manufacturing Company close to New York’s City Hall. He produced the first Electric Express as a display to attract more visitors to stores by making window shopping exciting. When Robert Ingersoll, a toy and novelty retailer, put the train in his window he lured people into his store…But, his customers did not want his merchandise, they wanted his train.
“Since then Lionel has gone on to produce more than one million engines, cabooses, and other railroad cars a year. Traditionally found circling the Christmas tree, trains have become an engrossing year round pastime for numerous fans and collectors. When it existed many enthusiasts made the pilgrimage to Chesterfield, Michigan to view the eight-train, 560 foot layout built by company volunteers.”
But, I learned that when Lionel closed the Visitor's Center in Michigan, a group of volunteers from the Railroad Museum of Long Island asked to have it, and Lionel donated it to the Museum. The layout was disassembled, and the pieces trucked to Long Island, which was no small task. The RMLI refurbished a building in Riverhead, NY, and carefully, laboriously restored the layout to “better than new” condition. The construction work on the building, and the remaking of the layout took two years before it was ready in April 2011, for the “Grand Re-Opening.” The Railroad Museum of Long Island is a thriving entity with two locations on Long Island. The members preserve real trains as well as involve themselves with toy trains. For more information visit www.rmli.us.
Over the years Lionel’s innovations continued. I remember seeing in the Lionel showroom during the New York City Toy Fair 15 years ago a miniature camera embedded in the engineer’s cab that projected scenes on a TV from the model as it went around the track. Trains have always held a special fascination, but the train hobby also many social, educational benefits, and engaging technical opportunities.
CEO Calabrese said, “We’re always working on new initiatives that resonate with our brand. Newer generations are used to interacting with changing technologies, and companies are working to adapt to this audience. Lionel is no exception. While our model train sets remain our primary focus, we’re creating new ways to engage with them.“
He added, “Over time, we’ve adapted our model train control systems to modern technology—with our newest being our remote control Lion Chief system. Just recently, we also released a layout control app that allows users to control their train sets using the iPad. Plus, we’re moving into the video gaming industry as well. We launched a new iPad game called ‘Lionel Battle Train’ that brings our model trains into the virtual world in a fun, action-packed environment. As with all of these innovations, we’re adapting to the play patterns of today.”
Looking to the future, Calabrese shared that, “Finding the harmony between our nostalgic, loyal fan-base and younger, tech-savvy groups is of paramount importance to us. For Lionel, it’s all about engagement. We want to make sure Lionel offers something for everyone. Moving forward, you can expect to see Lionel continue to engage with our audiences using every relevant channel and application.”
Ed Boyle, Special Projects Editor for O Gauge Railroading Magazine (OGR), said, ”The 3-Rail Forum is part of the busiest digital gathering place among the hobbyists with over 5,000,000 separate hits a month. Looking at it provides what’s going on in O gauge model trains, electronically, operationally, in the collecting world, plus layout building and lots of strong opinions about everything O gauge. It is a lively place to be for hobbyists to provide information to fellow hobbyists and generally for “O gaugers” to air views about everything with O gauge model trains. See www.ogaugerr.com.
Al Kolis, President Elect and Special Events Manager, Lionel Collectors Club of America, contributed information about the club, which is a national, not-for-profit, volunteer organization that was formed in 1970 by Jim Gates of Perry, IA, along with 83 other charter members. The club has grown over the years, and now has approximately 7,500 members from all around the world. The purpose of the club is to “promote and foster interest, research, education, and enjoyment of Lionel trains from 1900 to the present, and of all toy trains.”
Current LCCA President, Dennis DeVito, has established a club goal of reaching out and having direct contact with at least 2,300 LCCA members and their families this year with the Special Events Program. President DeVito and the entire LCCA Board of Directors have committed resources to this family oriented Special Events Program in an effort to expand the club by recruiting new members, retaining current members, and promoting the hobby. They are constantly reaching out and trying to attract new and younger people who may have never experienced the magic of Lionel trains. They also manage several LCCA Special Events scheduled in various cities all around the country. For more information go to ”Special Events” on the organization’s website www.lcca.org.
Duncan Mara, a Make-A-Wish Child, was designated the “Engineer for the Day” during a LCCA Special Event. He has used model trains since he was 6 years old. He owns two Lionel sets; the North Pole Central and the SP&S Oil Train, as well as various HO scale models. He says, “He enjoys smelling the smoke as he runs the trains and likes the whistle and the sound of the wheels along the track.”
Both Al Kolis and Ed Boyle responded to our questions. They each offered their views about many aspects of being a train enthusiast and about the value of the hobby for everyone who is interested in any aspect of trains.
Why is the Lionel train so special?
Lionel is an American Iconic brand name that elicits positive, nostalgic feelings. Lionel has been making trains since 1900. So, every generation since 1900 has had some exposure, and possibly experience with Lionel trains, especially around the end of the year, and happy holiday season.
Other iconic brands of products (other than Lionel trains) may have been around a long time, but they don’t elicit the same family values and positive feelings.
Lionel has established a reputation for being the premier toy train manufacturer and known for producing high quality and very desirable train products. For some, it may remind them of their childhood experiences, when their lives were simpler, uncomplicated, and happy times (i.e., goodness and innocence).
Many report that the sense of smell is the strongest, and most memorable sense. For some of the ozone smell of Lionel trains, and the smell of Lionel’s smoke puffing out of a steam locomotive, stirs strong emotions back to childhood. For some, it may be connected to the holiday season, as the train played a significant role in their family’s traditions.
Lionel has been known for its innovative product development. Over the years, some of the operating Lionel train accessories were the most innovative, and technologically advanced products in the toy train market. Even though they had advanced technology, they were still fun, and easy to operate.
Lionel continues to evolve and develop new products, and new technologies to enhance the toy train operating experience today. Lionel’s product offerings support the entire toy and hobby market from the entry family level starter set crowd, as well as the long time operator, and collector who have the most sophisticated and technically advanced products.
Why are trains still important?
Lionel toy trains are fun! There are so many different aspects to toy trains that it really depends upon a person’s personal perspective, experience and interests. That is what makes this hobby so great.
There is no wrong way for people to enjoy them. Some people have family members who have worked for the railroads, and have strong personal connections with the real trains. Some people played with Lionel trains as children, so now as adults they have an opportunity to purchase items they did not have as a child.
Some people like to collect trains, others like to operate. Some people like certain gauges (HO, O-Gauge, N Gauge, etc.). Some people like different eras (’40s, ’50s, present day, etc.), steam vs. diesel engines; some people collect variations, specific road names; and others enjoy operating accessories. Some people like to play with their trains as toys, and others are serious modelers, and like to replicate the real trains. Some people like to run their trains at prototypical speeds (to replicate real trains) and others like to run them fast, like toys. Again, there is something for everyone to enjoy and have fun with.
For Al, as a child growing up in the 1960s, he played with Lionel trains during the Christmas holiday season. He actually played with his trains. They were toys, not collectible items. He put his Lincoln logs on the track to see how many it would take to stop or derail the train.
But, when his parents put the trains away in storage back in 1969, he did not get back to them until 1992. When he and his wife Gina were expecting their first child, he asked his dad what happened to his Lionel trains. Subsequently his father retrieved the treasured trains, and gave Al his old Lionel Green Southern F3 set, and a Berkshire 736 Steam locomotive set.
After sitting in the attic for 23 years, they still ran perfectly. His father and Al then built two 4’ by 8’ train tables. One week later, on his wife’s birthday, and the day of their baby shower, his father Alfonse died of a massive heart attack. The layout has become a memorial to honor his father, and to connect his sons Alfonse II and Vincent to their grandfather. Al has since expanded the layout to over 300 square feet on 3 different levels. His sons have grown up playing with their Lionel trains, and that hobby bonded them even closer together as a family.
A whole new generation of children has grown up being introduced to Thomas the Train and Friends, trains in the Harry Potter movie series, and to other trains. Trains are still very relevant to young children, and their parents, and grandparents.
Al and his sons have attended many of the “World’s Greatest Hobby on Tour Train Shows” in various cities all around the country. Typically about 20,000-40,000 people attend the two-day weekend shows. The trains are of great interest to young families and children. It is a “stroller crowd” along with other generations of train enthusiasts. Based upon the attendance and response at these shows, Al feels, “the train hobby is alive, well and vibrant.”
Ed responded, “Because the operation of toy trains in public displays, and in private settings provides a great deal of pleasure for relatively large numbers of boys from 3 to 9, and increasing numbers of girls in the same age group. He added, “They also elicit positive responses from the parents and grandparents of these young people who are watching the trains.”
Nostalgia by older folks partly accounts for this, but the new digital control systems, and capabilities of today's toy trains are also a major factor. More and more young girls are also participating in the operation of toy trains. While girls are still a minority of users, they are clearly attracted to the wireless remote control systems that have become easier and more fun to use as the technology has evolved. Many young women are now more technically savvy, and are taking full advantage of this societal change.
There are far more things for children to do now than in the 1950s, The modern “boomlet” in the toy train hobby occurred from the late 1990s into the early 21st Century. It’s also one of a large spectrum of activities available to kids who use hand held devices for everything.
Trains are important because they are truly interactive, and require positive and proactive responses from the children and adults who run them. They are not just the passive participation found in many video games, and personal digital communication devices.
Ed added another factor to consider is, “The activities of adult hobbyists who come back into the train hobby after marriage, career, and children to seek pleasure and relaxation in a miniature world they can control, as opposed to the many aspects of, frustrations, and limitations of modern life that they cannot influence.”
Trains are learning opportunities for knowledge about electronics, wiring, carpentry, and in addition, organization and planning when it comes to designing and building layouts. Even history comes into play as hobbyists learn more about the actual trains they are imitating. The hobby is meant to be interesting and fun, but by the very nature of the activities that surround it, the toy train hobby has a significant educational component.
What does playing with a train do for the child?
Al says,”It depends upon which age group of children you are talking about. I believe the younger children like to play with their trains as toys. The older teenagers like to build and model their layouts, more like a hobby.”
Al’s children grew up with Lionel trains and operated the Lionel ZW transformer since they were two years old. He thinks they are smarter than he was at that age. They are exposed to so much more at a younger age. His sons have learned to use a saw, drill, and build things with their hands. They have an idea in their head, and then they make it a reality on the layout.
After September 11, his oldest son, Alfonse, took two empty Lionel Engine cartons, painted them, stood them up and made them into a memorial to honor the people who died on September 11, 2001, in the World Trade Center buildings.
Lionel’s new and innovative products kept his sons Alfonse and Vincent’s active interest in trains when they were younger. Now, they are in college. While they were young they played as a family. The layout is not a walk around layout, but rather a walk-on layout. His sons would walk on the top of the layout, sit down and play with their trains. It was a constantly evolving layout, as one day it was decorated with Star War toys, the next day toy army men, the next day die cast cars, and then it would become a construction site with a lot of die cast construction equipment. It was constantly changing themes and play experiences.
Ed added, “For some children who play with trains it awakens a sense of curiosity about the world around them. They delight in being able to control a small part of that world. Others are just having fun for a while, and lose interest as they gravitate to other things. However, for a small group of children exposed to the hobby, the fascination with trains becomes a lifelong interest and passion.”
What does the train do for parents and grandparents?
Lionel trains provide an activity for families to bond closer together as a family. It may establish new holiday season traditions, with simple layouts with a single loop of track underneath a Christmas tree or to building a permanent year-long layout.
Everyone can be involved. It is not a parent watching a child play a sport from the sidelines. Building a layout is something the entire family can be involved with. Moms, dads, boys and girls, grandparents, can all get involved with the many aspects of operating a Lionel toy train and creating the layout, accessories, and many other activities including reading books about trains and much more. There are a lot of valuable lessons and skills gained along the way, from carpentry, to electricity, to building toy buildings, and scenery. It is a hobby that has both an engineering, creative, and artistic component to it.
Al felt that his “kids’ imaginations developed. They had the opportunity to build with their own hands what they dreamed about. They took concepts created in their minds, and turned them into reality. For example, my sons took blue aluminum wrapping paper and constructed a waterfall on their layout.”
Al enjoys running his Lionel trains on his 300 square foot layout in his home. He loves to run them fast, and watch them articulate when they go through a turn. He loves the scent of the Lionel smoke puffing in the room. This smells connect him with his childhood memories.
He shared, “Whenever I had a bad day at the office, I would go down into my train room and run my trains. It was very relaxing for me. I bet it reduced my blood pressure 20 points.”
For some people, aquariums are relaxing and therapeutic, but for Al, Ed and many other enthusiasts running Lionel trains is relaxing and therapeutic. When his sons were younger, Al would get the new Lionel catalog, and circle the items they wanted. He would buy products that appealed to his sons. He became involved with the LCCA, the Lionel Collector Club of America. His youngest son Vincent is now the Junior Member Coordinator for the club. The LCCA has a very strong, and close working relationship with Lionel. Lionel toy trains and their animated operating accessories have provided his wife and sons with countless hours of entertainment and fun.
His sons have seen a lot of this country because they attended various LCCA conventions in cities, which included seeing the Pacific Ocean, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Liberty Bell, Niagara Falls, and Dealey Plaza in Dallas. The trips and friendships are part of life long memories and experiences that are priceless to Al, Ed, and many others.
Ed feels, “In some cases trains allow both parents and grandparents to work together on a hobby of mutual interest that involves two and three generations of the same family. It becomes an ultimate ‘kinetic’ family value.” Witness the many cases of families putting up temporary holiday layouts that have become deeply embedded as part of family tradition.
If there is not mutual interest between generations, it still lets parents be supportive of a wholesome hobby that has many positive attributes for their children. He added, “Encouraging your children in an endeavor that they like is a good thing for any parent to do.”
What is the value of trains for the collector?
Again, there are many personal reasons why collectors collect Lionel trains and how they go about collecting. Al thinks, “Collecting Lionel trains is fun for them as adults.” For most, he assumes they had Lionel trains as a child. Now that they are an adult, they can possibly afford to purchase the items they dreamed about owning when they looked at the old Lionel catalogs as children. It may be fulfilling childhood dream. For others it may be for investment purposes. Some people buy and sell trains to upgrade the quality of their collection.
For others, it may be the thrill of the hunt, or looking for the rare find and negotiating a good deal. Believe it or not, some people even like to collect “old Lionel empty boxes.” Some people collect Lionel paper such as instruction sheets from years ago. Some people collect certain eras, certain manufacturers. Some people collect certain types of cars (maybe cabooses), some people like production factory errors or variations. Al knows of someone who when buying an old Lionel train sealed in a box, had it X-rayed to make sure it was inside the still sealed, original, and un-opened box. Again, collecting is a personal choice, and a personal expression. There is no wrong way to collect toy trains.
He thinks, “The hobby is evolving and that many of the serious collectors are also operators. They build huge layouts and operate their trains.” He is certain that showing their collections and layouts to others who appreciate them is a big part of the enjoyment and sense of accomplishment of the hobby. He loves and gets a kick from “sharing his layout with a group of kids or families who visit his train room and play with the family’s Lionel trains.”
Ed is enthusiastic about the fact that to him Lionel trains “are the gold standard for any O gauge collector. Other brands have their fans, but Lionel trains are far and away the most collectible.”
Older Lionel trains have the reputation, mystique, and perception of quality that other toy train brands can't touch. They also have a 113 year history that is fascinating for a collector to explore. Ed says, “Often it is as much fun to track down the history of a particular piece of Lionel as to own the train itself.”
Collectors are motivated by the thrill of the hunt to find that rare Lionel train they do not yet possess. Then there is “the satisfaction of finally owning a prized piece of Lionel that may have been sought for months or even years.”
Financial appreciation was a strong motive to collect Lionel, but the shifting tastes of the marketplace, which has been driven by the changing demographics of collector communities, the rise of the 3-rail operator, and the technical advances in new trains has made this much less of a factor. For example, the market for Post World War II Lionel trains is sharply divided into two major classes. Post War Lionel in pristine condition, with all the original packaging that was made in small quantities still commands large dollars on the collector market.
However, Ed adds, “This is a very vertical marketplace dominated by an affluent group of aging collectors with strong attachments to Lionel trains made during the ‘Golden Age’ from 1945 to 1969, when the original Lionel Corporation went out of business and successor Lionel companies took over operations.”
Most Post War Lionel trains have lost value because they were made in large quantities, are not in pristine condition, and technically do not offer the capabilities, and improved decorative appearance of today's Lionel trains.
What are the most exciting changes about Lionel trains since you were a boy?
Al is impressed by the “many technological and imaginative advances Lionel and the other toy train manufactures have developed over the years. Lionel and its competition have developed hand-held remote controlled operating systems.”
Rather than operate a fixed location, traditional transformer, many use a “walk around hand held remote control unit. The details and the digitally recorded sounds are significantly better than the simple air whistles and smoking steam locomotives of yesteryear.” The details on the new trains are so much more realistic. The motors are able to move in more prototypical speeds.
Lionel still offers the entry level priced, toy train starter sets, but they have the full spectrum of products with the high end products as well. Recently, Lionel introduced its new hand held remote control Lion Chief System (LCS) in select starter sets. In an effort to expand the hobby to the new, more tech savvy generation, these remote control units are intended to enhance the toy train operating experience with the entry level priced starter sets.
Lionel recently announced the introduction of its new high-end LCS operating system. This system, when connected to its Legacy command control system, will allow people to run their trains and control their entire layout (switches, accessories, etc.) all from the touch of an I-pad or I-phone. Lionel and others have developed new operating accessories that are very entertaining and fun to watch and operate.
Can you imagine running trains through your I-phone or I-pad? Al thinks this will be a great way to introduce the more tech savvy and mainstream people into the hobby. He has trains running on his layout with small video cameras inside of them. Guests are able to watch a nearby TV and see what the engineer on the toy train would see. People of all ages love it!
Al created a miniature Lionel train store with three small trains running on layouts inside of it. There are many new operating accessories that appeal to various other interests and themes including circus, construction, rocket launchers, nuclear plants, etc. and there is an unlimited potential in the expanding world of trains.
Ed shared that, “One of the most exciting changes is that I can now afford many of the more desirable Lionel trains that were out of my reach as a boy. The iconic Santa Fe Warbonnet 2343 AA diesels from 1951 are a perfect example.” Ed has bought several modern versions of these diesels because of “their superior decoration, mechanical reliability as new trains, and their TMCC and Legacy command control systems, which add to the realism of operation and make the trains so much fun to run.”
Today, with command control operation, engineers of all ages can run two different rains on the same track at the same time with little fear of collisions because both locomotives are individually identified by the wireless controller, and can be run separately on the same track.
A very exciting change has been the rise of the dominance of operators in the 3-Rail O gauge hobby as opposed to collectors. O Gauge Railroading has helped the trend with articles on operating trains, evaluating new offerings, “how to” articles on maintaining trains, building layouts, and doing scenery.
OGR readers are encouraged in their interests by extensive photo coverage of realistic 3-Rail, hi-rail layouts and attractive toy train pikes, which serve as examples of what can be done even by hobbyists of “average” abilities. Digital photography has raised the bar on images of layouts that are now more breathtaking than ever. The explosion of 3-rail information on the Internet is also an exciting development. This is demonstrated by the large number of people who access the O Gauge Railroading website, www.ogaugerr.com.
Social media is also playing a part in promoting the hobby. Lionel, LCCA, and OGR among others have Facebook pages, utilize Twitter, You Tube, and other social networking channels to share the latest information about the expanding hobby.
The large number of choices in the Lionel line, their beautiful level of decoration due to modern manufacturing and painting techniques, and the advent of the new, simplified, Lion Chief and Lion Chief + command control systems, which children and adults find so easy and “natural” to use because according to Ed, “We are so accustomed to the hand held devices running everything we use these days, that they have added to my excitement and enjoyment of toy trains.”
Technology for the sake of new technology is useless. Al thinks, “all these new technologies have enhanced the experience and play value of Lionel trains.” He believes that innovations will continue to spread the magic of Lionel trains well into the next century.
Everyone involved in the world of trains agrees with Al that Lionel is “very much on the fast track to the future today, and moving full steam ahead.”
Stevanne Auerbach, PhD/Dr. Toy, has always loved real and toy trains. She wrote about Lionel in Toys for a Lifetime and in The Toy Chest. She has visited collectors, attended train expos, model train exhibitions, and the train hall at the Nuremberg Toy Fair, and she featured model trains in the San Francisco International Toy Museum. She has visited train museums, and traveled on steam trains, and other kinds of trains, with her train-loving grandson. She recommends trains in her book, Dr. Toy's Smart Play/Smart Toys: How to Raise a Child with a High P.Q. (Play Quotient). For more information visit Dr. Toy's Guide–www.drtoy.com, and download her new App, Dr. Toy's Best Gift Guide. Read Dr. Toy’s other articles on play and toys on The Huffington Post.
© 2013 Stevanne Auerbach, PhD, San Francisco, CA