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Model Engines Under the Wire:
MTH 20-5601 New Haven E-33 Under Wire
MTH New Haven EP-5 Under Wire
Lionel 3250 1950’s vintage EP-5 Under Wire in Terminal
Lionel 1990’s vintage Lionel 6-18304/5 Lackawanna MU Cars Under Wire at Terminal

Building an Operating Overhead Catenary System for “O” Gauge Model Railroads

By Thomas P. Leyden TCA 69-2809/ TTOS 3479/LOTS 4618                                   Summer-Fall 2014
©Thomas P. Leyden 2014. Used by permissiion of author.


For nearly seventy years I have had an avid interest in model trains. I was always particularly interested in the electric profile engines such as the Pennsylvania Railroad GG-1, the EP series of the New Haven and the Multiple Unit Cars (MU) of the DL&W (Lackawanna) Railroad. The latter took me to high school every day from Summit to South Orange, New Jersey. However, although Lionel made a non-scale version of the GG-1 in the late 40’s, no one made an affordable catenary system to go with it. Most of what was available was “over the top” expensive for a large layout.

As my layout developed to its current size (20 feet by 30 feet) and my craving for a working overhead catenary system took center stage I found the need to design, engineer and build my own semi-prototypical system. I had already built my first very rudimentary but working overhead catenary system in 1974.

When I retired in 1994 and began the design and construction of my new layout in a finished air conditioned attic, I had to take down the original system and decided to upgrade to the system described in this document. Not scale, but close enough.

The layout is big but I had time on my hands and a major league desire to “make it happen.” There was lots of trial and error involved. No one had a “how-to” book so I had to figure it out for myself. There were lots of trips to the hardware store to figure out what size spring to use to provide the necessary tension in the wires. Early on I decided to go with a single wire approach. Prototypical double wire with the ensuing soldering of endless “hangers” was more than I was interested in undertaking for my 450 linear foot right of way. After several not-so-pretty attempts at “hanging” the wire, I decided to go with what I call the “machine screw/tube” method where simple machine screws and small brass tubing (1/16”) are used. This allows the wire to be passed freely through the tube thereby allowing for a flawless tensioning of long runs of wire.

All in all it took nearly a year to build the infrastructure and hang the wire. At first, I had only my Lionel 3250 New Haven EP-5 to work with. I had already taken the third rail roller pickups off and rewired it for overhead power in 1974. Then the fun came. When I started it up for the first time the pantographs sparked like the real thing and the operation was practically flawless. After adjusting some of the “hangers” at switches because the pantographs would occasionally snag, the operation was declared a success.

Next came purchases of scale GG-1’s/Scale New Haven EP-5/New Haven E-33/New Haven EF3b/Lackawanna MU cars (just like I rode in in High School) /a second 3250 EP-5/Williams E-60/rewired Lionel 520. As the new engines were added I learned that each had their own arc as they swiped the wire. Minor adjustment of support locations had to be made to make use of the “learnings” obtained from watching the new engines do their individual “thing.” Now we have lots of fun and lots of sparks.

The toughest parts of the design/engineering were the crossovers and bridges. I’ve tried my best to describe the “how to” based on lots of trial and error and snagged pantographs.

For video highlights of the operating overhead catenary system, please visit my website:

Bill of Materials

  • 24 gauge bare copper wire (length to suit your needs). I got mine 40+ years ago from a wire customer I was calling on. I got 1000 feet at the time and probably have 200 feet left.
  • 1" x 1” x 8’ wood trim – available at lumber yard
  • Plastruct “H” columns (#H-12 [3/8”x 3/8”]) PLASTRUCT Scale Structural Shapes - 3-8" H Column ABS (H-12:)

  • ¼” x ¼” basswood sticks – available from National Balsa in various lengths
  • 4-40 machine screws
  • 4-40 hex nuts for machine screws (2 for each machine screw) -- both screws and nuts are available from local hardware store
  • Small Screws for mounting basswood sticks to “H” columns:

  • 1/16” round copper tubing … tubing sized for wire used:

    K&S 8125 Brass Tube, 1/16" x 12" (3-Pack)

  • brass rod - ????????
  • Small springs to hold wire tension. [Handyman Springs Part # SP-9602 dimensions in photo]:

    • Brass Black:

    • Screw Eyes:

    • Paint – Flat Black and Medium Grey

Continues: Building the Catenary System

Second Decade.
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