Lionel’s Textbook of Model Railroading (Part II)
By Joseph H. Lechner
Last month, we followed the adventures of a young boy who received
set #1585W pulled by a #602 Seaboard switcher. See:
(In 1957, The Lionel Corporation still presumed that trains were
for boys, except when the locomotive happened to be pink.) At
first, he ran his train around an oval of 027 track on the floor;
later, he acquired some accessories and a pair of switches; eventually,
he built a two-train layout on a 4x8 table.
Toy trains were, and continue to be, a major investment. Set
#1585W retailed for $49.95 in 1957. At the federal minimum wage
per hour, it cost some people a week’s pay. Many a cautious
parent “tested the waters” by purchasing an inexpensive
starter set. If a child showed continued interest, and if he demonstrated
the ability to care for valuable mechanical equipment, they moved
up to more elaborate sets. My first train was a used Lionel Scout
at age three. It was still running, and I was still interested,
at age six; so Santa brought a diesel switcher with operating
cars, accessories and switches on a landscaped table.
This lucky boy on the back cover of the 1957 Lionel catalog is
getting his first look at a dazzling 9’ x 14’ layout
in the basement. He looks to be about six years old. Is he the
same kid who received the Seaboard set a year ago? Apparently
so. That’s his #602 in a cabinet underneath the table, along
with the #6017 caboose that came with it and the #252 crossing
gate he received as his first accessory. A new Seaboard and a
new crossing gate are on the layout. Did he wear out the original
ones? The drawer in front holds some of his original 027 track;
he won’t be using it much any more because the new layout
is Super “O”.
Pages 50-51 of the catalog showed Dad what to buy, where to put
it, and how to connect it to create this wonderful model railroad.
Although the purpose of a catalog was to sell Lionel equipment
(and you needed a lot of it to built this layout), the copywriters
transcended mere sales pitches and showed you how to use the equipment
creatively. Each of the six lessons on pages 50-51 provided a
close-up of one scene from the cover illustration.
Scene #1: The Depot
This was a logical place to begin, because every member of the
family could relate to it. Dedicated railfans lurked in grimy
railroad yards, prowled through industrial parks, or hiked to
remote locations on the main line; but everyone was familiar with
the small-town railway station. If you didn’t board a commuter
train at a station like this one, you may have met an arriving
friend there, or at least you drove past it in your Ford Fairlane
en route to the grocery store or a PTA meeting.
Junior’s #133 illuminated station and #71 lamp post from
his 4x8 layout have been re-used here. They have been augmented
by a second lamp post, a #128 newsstand, and a #253 block signal.
This scene would have been familiar to millions of Americans who
commuted by rail to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, or
Los Angeles. Well-lit boarding platforms were a necessity because
the trains ran at all hours from pre-dawn until after midnight.
Newsstands, often cobbled together from sheets of green-painted
plywood, were ubiquitous. Here Dad bought a copy of the morning
paper to read on the train, but he could also get coffee and a
doughnut. Mom was always lamenting that he never took time for
a proper breakfast! Lionel’s newsstand was a whimsical piece
of animation designed by Frank Pettit. When activated, the manager
would move back and forth inside the shed; the newsboy on the
sidewalk would turn to face a prospective customer; and the Dalmatian
circled the fire hydrant. Lionel provided no customers with its
newsstand. You were supposed to imagine yourself in the roles
of magazine purchaser and commuter. #128 came with a pushbutton
that you could use to start the motion. The catalog didn’t
explain how, but you could wire a newsstand so that its occupants
would spring into action when a train arrived. Don Woodwell tells
how in his book Automate Your Model Train Layout.
Block signals like #253 were a common sight at suburban stations.
Their lights turned red to warn engineers not to enter tracks
that were already occupied or where a superior train was scheduled
to arrive. Lionel’s #253 could be wired to an insulated
track section that made the train stop automatically. A bimetallic
strip got hot and acted as a timer. When time was up, the signal
turned green, and power was restored to the insulated track to
permit the train to leave. That is, if you remembered to lock
out your engine’s E-unit; otherwise the train would be left
standing at the station in neutral.
Unfortunately, the block signal in this drawing is pointing the
wrong way. As shown, it directs a train that is moving from left
to right on the rear track to stop in front of the station. If
a locomotive stopped there, its train would be fouling two grade
crossings. Citizens of Lionelville would not be happy about that!
Logically, the signal should be facing to the right and it should
be governing the front track. This would protect the interlocking,
which is described in our next scene.
Scene #2: The Interlocking
Toy train layouts suffered from claustrophobia. It’s hard
to simulate a transportation system that moves freight and passengers
halfway across a continent when your railroad is confined to a
sheet of plywood. In most postwar basements, the Lionel Limited
departed from a #133 station and then never quite lost sight of
Lionel’s 1957 catalog layout provided a surprisingly long
run between station stops. The freight train that is shown departing
the station behind a #2341 Jersey Central Trainmaster is on a
loop of track (call it Loop A) that encloses the depot and the
industrial park. To get out, it must circle this area at least
once. Taking the switch behind the radar antenna will bring it
to the interlocking plant at the left front corner of the layout.
Here it has two routes to choose from. The right-hand route (loop
B) leads up the trestle set, over the yard, through the tunnel,
downgrade to the water tank, and back to the interlocking. The
left-hand route (loop C) stays on level ground as it leads around
the yard, under loop B, past the base of the mountain, behind
the industrial park, and back to the interlocking. Loop C shares
five or six track sections with loop A.
The passenger train, pulled by a #746 Norfolk and Western class
J, has quite a ways to go before it gets to the station. It has
already been around loop B at least once, but must go around again.
When it finishes that, it can take the right-hand track at the
interlocking, enter loop A at the back of the layout, move around
A clockwise, and stop in front of the station.
When #746 departs the station going clockwise, it must go around
loop A; enter loop C behind the culvert loader; and take C all
the way around to the interlocking, where it can enter loop B.
At the position where we see it in the drawing, #746 has already
been around loop B at least once and is beginning its second lap.
If operated as shown in the catalog illustration, a passenger
train could traverse loops A, C, B, B, C and A in that order without
exactly retracing its route. This gives the train a run of at
least 175 feet (that’s over 1½ scale miles!) between
station stops. Of course, you could travel loops B and C any desired
number of times before returning to the station. The interlocking
plant made it seem like a transcontinental run on just 90 square
feet of table.
This interlocking plant was a busy scene because so many routes
intersected there. A pair of turnouts joined loops B and C. Trains
could change from B to C or vice versa in either direction. There
were four distinct routes through the interlocking, and each got
Two Lionel accessories, the #445 switch tower and the #465 sound
dispatching station, protected the interlocking. Their prototypes
served similar functions, so one of them was redundant. Both structures
provided an elevated platform where railroad employees had a clear
view of the track and could operate the controls for turnouts
and signals. #465 was a modern (in 1957) concrete and steel structure,
while #445 represented a turn-of-the-century wooden tower. A real
railroad didn’t need both buildings, but the Lionel models
performed quite different actions. #445 had animated crewpeople
that responded to an approaching train. One man dashed into the
cabin to throw some switches; another hurried downstairs to wave
a lantern at trackside. #465 functioned as a public-address system.
You could speak into a microphone and hear your amplified voice
resounding through the railroad yard. It gave young railroaders
a sense of power to pretend that miniature adults went to work
at their command.
The interlocking scene was even more interesting because the
layout’s main highway passed through it, crossing all three
loops. The outer loop was protected by a #252 crossing gate and
a #140 “banjo” signal.
#140 had a black Stop sign that swung back and forth, alternately
covering and uncovering a red light. The light stayed lit, but
the wagging sign made it appear to flash. I guess somebody in
the marketing department thought the sign and its handle looked
like a banjo. Only Lionel called it a “banjo” signal.
Real railroads called it a “wig-wag”. A few can still
be seen in service in the Midwest and the west coast. Some towns
used wig-wags at street intersections. The red light was on the
sign that wagged back and forth, not behind it.
The #252 crossing gate is backwards. Real railroads installed
them with the base on the right shoulder of the road, so that
the gate completely covered the right lane. Most crossing gates
aren’t long enough to span a two-lane highway. There was
always a second gate on the other side of the tracks to stop cars
that came from the opposite direction.
There is a more serious problem with the #145 gateman. He stands
between loop C and loop A (which isn’t shown in this picture);
nothing protects loop A. Worse, he’s facing backwards. The
man should be facing traffic that’s coming from the rear
of the picture; and his RAILROAD CROSSING sign should be visible
to those drivers. Oh, well. This is a toy train layout (just count
the rails), and the gateman is there more to amuse young viewers
than for highway safety. It would never do to turn his back on
the audience, even if that would have been more realistic. Come
to think of it, I don’t see a single automobile or truck
anywhere on the layout.
Scene #3: The Industrial Park
Passenger trains were fascinating, but toy freight trains outsold
them ten to one. The reason, according to Joshua L. Cowen, was
that you could “do more” with freight. Gondolas and
hopper cars had lots of play value because they could carry real
loads. If you were lucky, the cars could even be unloaded by remote
control at their destinations. That was certainly the case in
the industrial park on Lionel’s 1957 catalog layout.
Coal was the biggest commodity hauled by real railroads, and
Lionel offered plenty of coal handling equipment. My personal
favorite was the #397 coal loader, because there was one like
it along the New York Central near my home. Like thousands of
other communities, our town had a farm supply dealer that sold
coal. The peddler freight would spot a hopper of coal on the unloading
track. There wasn’t a trestle there, just a pit under the
track that was about four feet deep. Its walls were reinforced
with old ties. The hopper would dump coal into the pit; then a
conveyor like #397 would lift the coal out and pile it in great
heaps, far enough from the track that a truck could be driven
up next to it. This was really a coal unloader more than a loader.
Lionel called #397 a coal loader, but it could both load and unload.
You could deliver coal to it with a #3359 dump car. When you turned
#397’s motor on, it sounded like a jack hammer. A cam shook
the red plastic tray to jerk the coal up to the conveyor. The
conveyor belt loaded coal into a waiting hopper, or into the same
dump car that had delivered it.
I always knew better than this. Railroads were built to haul
coal from mines to industries that were far, far away. You were
supposed to load the coal into a hopper; then the hopper took
a long train ride; then a different machine was supposed to unload
it at its destination. It seemed pointless to me to unload something
from a train and then load it right back into the same train.
Evidently a lot of kids thought it was cool, because Lionel sold
a lot of coal loaders and a lot of dump cars.
All the other industries in this scene used the same in/out concept.
The #497 coaling station at the back received a load of coal from
a dump car. Then it hoisted the bucket of coal to an overhead
bin. Eventually it discharged the coal into a waiting freight
car; usually the same dump car that brought it in the first place.
A real railroad would have used a tower like this to service steam
locomotives; but for some strange reason, coal compartments in
Lionel tenders never needed refilling.
The placement of #497 is puzzling, since it is located on a main
line and arriving/departing trains must pass under it. Lionel’s
safety department did the right thing, though: they installed
a telltale to the right of it. In 1957, boxcars still had roofwalks,
and train crews could still climb on top of trains. Telltales
were needed to warn a crewman that the train was approaching an
obstruction with low overhead clearance, such as a bridge or a
tunnel or the occasional coaling station. The telltale was a row
of strings that hung down over the track. As the train passed
beneath, any brakeman standing on top of a car would feel strings
slapping his face and would respond by doing a spread-eagle immediately.
Lionel offered a boxcar, #3424, with a solenoid-activated brakeman
who dived as he passed under a telltale. Telltales always came
in pairs. You needed them on both sides of every obstacle, since
trains could approach it from either direction; but the second
telltale also served as an “all-clear” signal. The
man on #3424 went down at the first telltale and stood up at the
second one. You always hoped that he wouldn’t miss one and
get out of synch. And, yes Bob, there is another telltale on the
left side of #497. It’s not shown in the industrial-park
vignette, but it is visible in the overall view of the layout
on the back cover.
The #362 barrel loader sent wooden barrels up a long ramp, past
a burly attendant who stood at least nine feet tall. You could
load the barrels into any gondola, but this catalog depicts a
#3562 barrel car. It contained a vibrating mechanism similar to
the loader, and it could unload the barrels back into #362. Here
was yet another self-contained in/out industry; but at least in
this case you had to move the car twelve inches from the receiving
position to the unloading position.
The ultimate toy train “industry” was the Lionelville
Culvert Pipe Company. This system consisted of two major accessories,
the #345 culvert unloader and the #342 culvert loader, plus a
fleet of #6342 gondolas (one car came packaged with each accessory).
At other Lionel industries (such as the coaling station/dump car
or the barrel loader/barrel car), the product was shipped from
and delivered to the same accessory. You could load and unload
the same material all day without actually transporting it anywhere.
The culvert twins were different: you could load your gondolas
at #342, haul them to the other end of your basement; unload them
at #345; and send the empties back for more. You could have a
thriving steel industry that would generate thousands of ton-miles
for your railroad, easily justifying the operating department’s
request for some new 2,400 horsepower Fairbanks-Morse diesels.
Ironically, Lionel literature almost always showed the culvert
machines coupled to one another. #345 came with an extra ramp
section for connecting it to #342. Every time #345 picked up a
culvert, it rolled downhill and onto #342. Catalogs always depicted
two gondolas, one under each accessory. When operated together
in this fashion, culverts were transported approximately 10”
from one gondola to the other.
In Lionel’s 1957 dream layout, the train table was a self-contained
economy, and operation was out-and-back. Passenger trains originated
and terminated at the same station. Freight was shipped from and
delivered to the same siding. Trains could run all day on the
main line, but they were going in circles. Toy trains duplicated
many of the interesting functions of real trains, but they never
left your basement. The action was all under the remote control
of an operator, who stood at the front right corner of the layout
with one hand on a ZW and the other hand on switch controllers
or uncoupler buttons. Forty years later, the development of command
control would radically change the way we operate toy trains;
but in 1957 a model railroad had a console that resembled the
cockpit of a jet airplane, the control room of a nuclear power
plant, or the bridge of a space ship.
We’ll discuss that control panel in the conclusion of this
series next month.