Guide for Setting Up Lionel Model Train Sets

By: Kanooga


Getting started is one of the most exciting phases in the model train hobby. Should your train set take over the whole house or settle for just one room? If you opted for the whole house, please speak with your wife before swinging the sledge hammer.

It is good to dream big, but patience is often required before dreams become reality. Most of us have to deal with the reality of limited amounts of space, money and time. Adapting to these realities will help you make your first decisions, where to put your set and how much space to devote to it.

Another decision is selecting a brand train sets. Should you purchase a Lionel model train set or go with another brand? Lionel is by far the leading brand, but other brands such as Bachmann, Athearn, Hornby and others have been around a long time too and have many happy customers. If you are not sure, Lionel is a safe place to start.

So do we have some momentum going yet? The next decision is choosing between complete train sets or individual components. Most beginner hobbyists start with complete train sets while the more serious railroaders opt for buying individual components. Complete sets are cheaper and save you time with shopping. Buying components costs more and requires you to gather more information before buying. Whether you choose to go with sets or components, it is recommended to play it safe by purchasing well-known brand, such as a Lionel model train. You might save a few dollars with a lesser known brand but you might not get the quality you want.

Once you have all of your components, start by spreading them around on the table that will be used for the layout. Be sure you have all the pieces; if not, contact the hobby store for directions. Most train set kits contain an engine, cars, track, and a power pack. Directions for assembly and wiring are included in the package.

You will need the right surface for your model train track. Carpeting doesn’t work well. A simple wood surface works the best. The recommended minimum layout size is 5’ x 8’ as this will provide enough space to curve the track. Smooth wood works best but if there are knots you can generally curve your track around them.

Covering the board with a green felt helps hold scenery and track in place during set-up and ongoing improvements. The green felt also provides a grassy look to any board that isn’t specifically set up with scenes. Additionally, green felt might cover up imperfections in the wood.

Lay out some pieces of track on the table. Look at the ends to verify which ends fit together. Be sure that the “rail joiners” are not broken or damaged. These metal pieces (or ends) have a dual purpose: they allow electricity to move throughout the track and ensure that the rails align properly. Connecting the tracks correctly helps keep the tracks in place and could prevent some derailments. Move the pieces around until you have a set-up that you like. Fasten the track to the board with track pins.

Next, you will need to wire the track. One rail is the positive side and the other rail is the negative side. These two rails combine to provide all the needed electricity for your train sets and scenery. Pay attention when connecting your tracks to ensure that you don’t mix the polarity. Connect one end of the wires to the track (or use prewired joiners). The other end will connect to the power-pack. Be sure that the power pack is unplugged before connecting any wires.

Once the wiring is complete, place your Lionel model train engine on the track and connect several cars. Be sure the wheels are aligned correctly on the track. Plug in the power-pack and advance the throttle slowly. If the train goes forward, you hooked up the wiring correctly. If the train goes backward, unplug the power-pack, switch the wires, and restart the train.

Run your train to ensure that all your connections are properly set up. Test the train by running it at different speeds; in some cases, you may have to increase the radius of the curve to prevent derailments. Before you fasten tracks down, be sure the layout is the way you want it.

Now you are ready to enjoy your train set. As you gain experience, you can add tracks, curves, hills, and interlocking train sets. Reversing sections of tracks is helpful for backing up and disconnecting train cars. Have fun!

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Joe Kanooga is a father of two kids, a successful business owner and the author of numerous articles about train sets. Click here to download our free Lionel model train guidebook filled with hobby tips, ideas and information.

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