In case of link malfunction above, go here.
IS LIONEL ON THE "FASTRACK" TO SUCCESS?
By Bill Laughlin
Is Lionel on the "Fastrack" to recovering its leadership
position in the O-Gauge world? For you "Lionel-only"
loyalists, please bear with me for a moment or two, and let's
explore the path the company has taken since the start of the
Richard Kughn announced his retirement from head of the company
and sold it to a conglomerate called Wellspring Associates. He
retained a minority background role, but is out of the day-to-day
operations. At that time, MTH was starting to give Lionel some
serious competition, but the Lion still retained a firm edge in
three areas: sounds, wireless control, and stateside manufacturing.
Nearly ten years later, almost all of that competitive lead is
gone. Oh, you could argue that TMCC has successfully penetrated
the manufacturer's community, in that most of them offer a TMCC
option for many of the new engines being made, and you would be
right. But the percentage of wireless-control users has barely
changed, plus we now have a system---MTH's "DCS"---
based on the very successful DCC system used in HO, N and G that
not only runs all TMCC engines but offers many, many other advantages
as well. Time will tell whether Lionel will stay with its hardware-based
system, which by design limits future capabilities, or designs
a "TMCC-II" system from scratch. Sound: the new PS 2.0
systems, while maybe qualitatively not quite the equal of the
latest "Railsounds" system, have improved tremendously
since the early QSI days. The American manufacturing base is gone,
hence no real rationale for the continued top-level pricing structure.
Truly everyone now, maybe Weaver excepted, is on that "level
(Asian) playing field."
Reviewing most of the advances in the Lionel-Wellspring era,
we see a pattern of "me-too" rather than "me-first".
Consider who had the first fan-driven smoke units (MTH), who
put smoke units into diesels first (MTH), who jumped into detailed,
scale-proportioned cabooses first (K-Line, Atlas), who started
putting detailed interiors into metal passenger cars first (K-line),
and who was the first to offer a competitive "scale"
trackage system alternative to Gargraves (Atlas). More on track
We can look critically at "me-first" failures in the
Wellspring era, as well: failure to produce the economy "Scout"
version of TMCC for starter sets (1996); failure to bring the
cutting-edge "Yard Boss" transformer into production
(1997); failure to make good on the highly-touted "Odyssey"
AC motor (1998); problems in producing the high-dollar accessory
"Backshop" (2000). There ARE some good things that have
happened: take the new truck sets and couplers (long overdue)
and the new dairy reefers as examples. But by this point, in 2003,
these are not really seen as tremendous advances in the context
of competition from the likes of K-Line and Atlas.
Honestly, I don't know what the thinking is in Lionel's marketing/new
ideas department! In terms of this new "Fastrack", just
what new niche in the marketplace are they addressing? Let's look
specifically at all the track systems out there, presently---and
there are quite a few. In "scale" trackage, you have
Gargraves, MTH's "Scaletrax", and Atlas---and Lionel's
Super-O, if you can find it. In the toy track world, you find
O27 (both from Lionel and K-Line), Standard O (Lionel, K-Line,
Williams), K-Line's "SuperSnap" (O with scale ties and
black center rail), and MTH's "Realtrax". The new Lionel
"Fastrack" most closely resembles the latter.
Is "Realtrax" such a runaway success that Lionel felt
compelled to do another "me-too"? It appears from the
new Lionel catalog that they intend to put this track in most,
if not all, Lionel starter sets. What will become of the venerable,
tried-and-true O27? Who knows? If you count the above track systems
currently in production, the "score" is 4 scale and
7 toy. "Fastrack" makes that 8, now, in the toy track
world! And, unlike other track systems, there are NO ADAPTERS
being made at the track's debut, so it's "Fastrack"
or the highway---take your pick.
I'm sure that the Lionel purists are scratching their collective
heads and wondering why Super-O wasn't resurrected (see Mike Spanier's
terrific history article on our website http://tcamembers.org/articles/operating/supero/index.html).
It would have made a lot of postwar collectors happy, added another
trackage system to the scale world, and made a heckuva lot more
sense than this.
Lionel made one other failed attempt besides Super-O to break
out of the "toy-track-only" frame of mind: "Tru-Track"
in the early 70's. The timing wasn't right then, and the timing
of "Fastrack" today doesn't seem very good to this observer.
It's a shame that all of those high-dollar premium Lionel Y6b's
and JLC Challengers cannot run on a truly first-class, scale,
"in-house" trackage system. Guess that market is still
going to be owned by Atlas.