Textbook of Model Railroading (Part III)--Scenes from a Dream
By Joseph H. Lechner
Lionel’s 1957 dream layout was designed to be built
on two 5’ x 9’ plywood panels arranged in an “L” shape.
As a piece of recreation-room furniture, it was stylish and
modern-looking; as a Lionel promotional icon, the table’s
shape held profound symbolic meaning; as a model railroad,
the panels divided the layout into two distinct groups of scenes.
In October’s issue, we examined the left panel, which
featured a small-town depot, an interlocking plant, and an
This month we will look at the right panel, where we find
a mountain scene, a service facility, and the railroad’s
main control panel.
Scene 4: The Mountain
Because they were built on plywood foundations, toy train layouts
tended to be flat. Any real railroad would have been absolutely
delighted by flat terrain, because level track cost less
to construct and was easier to operate. Nevertheless, flat
layouts could get monotonous. Height added interest and drama.
Mountain railroading was more challenging, and also more
dangerous. Climbing mountain grades and going through tunnels
added to the illusion that your train was going somewhere
important and far away.
One of the first accessories that many young Lionel railroaders
acquired was a #110 trestle set. For only $5.95, it allowed
you to raise your track off the table, up to a maximum height
of 5.5” and back down again. This was high enough to
construct an over/under layout where one train could pass over
another. Toy trestle sets worked well if you assembled the
piers correctly and anchored them to the table, but visually
there was something missing. Rails and ties hung in mid-air
between piers with no visible means of support. On a real trestle,
there were heavy wooden beams or steel girders under the ties
to support them.
designer of our dream layout combined multiple tracks, trestles,
bridges and mountains to create an important-looking
scene. It looked like a remote junction where two Class 1 railroads
crossed deep in the Appalachians, rather than merely some toys
arranged on a table top. The composition of this scene reminds
me of a famous photograph by the late great O. Winston Link. “Hawksbill
Creek Swimming Hole” showed some kids swimming at night
in a river. A highway crossed the river on a concrete bridge,
and the Norfolk and Western Railway crossed both on a high
The elevated track in this scene passed over the railroad yard,
crossed the river on a through girder bridge, then plunged
directly into a tunnel. Scoffers have complained that a real
railroad track wouldn’t have gone directly from a bridge
to a tunnel, but they are wrong. I know for a fact that there
was just such an arrangement at Bellows Falls, Vermont. I’m
sure that there were similar situations along the N&W and
the Virginian as those roads twisted through the Appalachian
foothills in search of coal.
Parallel tracks in the foreground, spanned by a #450 signal
bridge, gave the illusion of a high-speed double-track mainline
through the wilderness. Actually, these tracks were part of
the service yard. Just out of this picture to the right, the
rear track led to the icing station and the front track led
to the transfer table. Part of the genius of model railroading
is to make things seem much bigger than they really are. This
layout succeeded brilliantly; a train that had moved less than
24” from the icing station to the signal bridge appeared
to have traveled for miles.
Water enhanced the illusion of distance by creating a barrier.
The parallel tracks at the front of this scene were less than
a foot from the mountain, but the river separated them visually.
Similarly, the stream that ran down the side of the mountain
appeared to divide it into two mountains. It took only a little
imagination to believe that you were standing at the edge of
the Appalachian range.
Tunnels did for track what water did for scenery. A train that
disappeared into a tunnel and re-emerged from the other side
of a mountain seemed to have traveled much farther than a train
that was visible for its entire trip. Historically, tunnels
were important in the world of electric trains for another
reason. Tunnel-travel was a feat that could not be duplicated
with floor toys that had to be pushed by hand or pulled by
a string. Having your train go through a tunnel, untouched
by human hands, proved that it was operating entirely under
its own power by the magic of remote control.
Scene 5: The Locomotive Service Area
While the layout’s left panel housed facilities that
were mainly for the benefit of the railroad’s clientele,
this yard on the right panel held equipment that was mainly
for the railroad’s own use in maintaining its locomotives,
cars and right-of-way.
Locomotives required fuel. Three of the
four engines shown on this layout were diesels. There
was a Jersey Central #2341 Fairbanks-Morse Trainmaster near
the depot, and a Seaboard
#602 NW-2 switcher near the ice station. Lionel’s artist
was inconsistent about the appearance of the third diesel.
In this vignette, it was clearly a Lehigh Valley #625 General
Electric 44-tonner; however, the overall view on the back cover
of the catalog showed a small red industrial switcher. No diesel
matching that description was offered in 1957; however, this
could have been the prototype for the #56 M&StL engine
that Lionel would catalog in 1958.
Lionel’s #415 diesel fueling station simulated two aspects
of locomotive servicing. When it was activated, an attendant
moved toward the locomotive carrying a hose for delivering
diesel fuel. Every youngster could relate to this, because
it was just like getting gasoline for the family car at the
local Texaco station. It was highly significant that #415 included
an attendant. This was the 1950s, when gasoline sold for thirty
cents per gallon, and gas stations were full-service. When
you pulled up to a pump, clean-shaven teenagers in green uniforms
not only pumped your gas, but also checked your oil and cleaned
your windshield while you waited. Naturally, #415 had an animated
attendant, because kids enjoyed the thrill of pushing a button
and making miniature adults go to work. As I write this in
2003, the price of gasoline in my small Midwestern town is
approaching $2 per gallon, and all our gas stations are self-service.
If Lionel were designing a diesel fueling station today, I
suspect they would omit the attendant, because nobody can remember
what one looks like.
#415 also simulated sanding, which benefited diesels and steam
engines alike. Sand would have been kept in the blue tank atop
the orange pole. It was delivered through a hose into a storage
compartment on the locomotive. Sand was sprinkled onto rails
underneath the driving wheels when more traction was required.
The grit helped steel wheels grip steel rails, just as sand
helps your automobile tires negotiate icy roads.
Steam locomotives required fuel too. Some steamers burned fuel
oil, but the #746 Norfolk and Western class J on this layout
burned coal. Railroads built huge, distinctive towers to dispense
coal into tenders. These would have made impressive toy train
accessories, but to my knowledge no tinplate manufacturer offered
a model of one. Ironically, the #497 coal tower worked like
a locomotive coaling facility, but Lionel never showed it being
used to service a locomotive! #497 always seemed to be busy
pouring coal back into the same dump car that had brought it.
This layout had a #497 in the industrial park on the left panel.
Perhaps #746 visited it there.
Steam locomotives also needed prodigious quantities of water.
Virtually every town along a railroad’s path had a water
tower. At some communities, the water tower provided the only
reason for a train to pause; hence “tank town”.
Lionel’s #138 was a faithful model of the wooden water
tanks found at thousands of locations during the steam era.
It contained no actual water, but it did have a spout that
could be lowered by remote control after you carefully positioned
the tender underneath. Lionel’s 1957 dream layout had
such a water tank at the left rear corner. You can see it in
the overall view of the layout; #746 is headed directly toward
would someone place a water tower on a remote corner of the
layout instead of in the service yard? The simple answer
is probably that there wasn’t room for it between the
parallel yard tracks. However, an experienced railroader might
see deeper meaning here. It was always a challenge to stop
a steam locomotive at a water tank with the tender’s
hatch directly under the spout; it was even more challenging
while pulling a heavy train, and still more challenging if
the tank were located on a curve. At some locations, the task
was so daunting that the engineer would have to uncouple the
train and move the locomotive alone. On this layout, after
#746 has stopped for water, her engineer will face the additional
challenge of starting a long, heavy train on a sharp curve
going up a steep grade. Toy trains were more than child’s
play; they demanded careful planning, close attention, and
manual dexterity—some of the reasons they are still fascinating
to us in adulthood.
The service yard on this layout had a #350 transfer table to
move rolling stock from one parallel track to another. That
red gondola under the gantry crane is sitting on a dead-end
spur track; it could only have gotten there by riding the transfer
table. Apparently, the #625 Lehigh Valley diesel is coming
to get the gondola. The artist wants us to imagine that #625
will ride the table to the front track, couple to the gondola,
pull it onto the transfer table, ride back, and push the car
off onto the middle track. Actually, this wasn’t possible.
A #6462 gondola was 10½” long, and Lionel’s
model of the GE 44-tonner was 11¾” long. Engine
and car couldn’t both fit on the 17½” bed
of a #350 transfer table. However, Lionel’s 44-tonner
was much too long for the locomotive it was supposed to represent;
if #625 had been built to true O scale, it and the gondola
would have just fit on the bridge of the transfer table.
Toy train enthusiasts have wondered if there was a prototype
for the #350 accessory. Yes there was, but real railroads didn’t
use it the way Lionel catalogs depicted. Transfer tables were
most often found at factories that built rolling stock. They
were used to move a new car or locomotive out of the erecting
bay to the nearest track. Some railroads used them to move
engines into repair facilities, but turntables were much more
common for this purpose. No real railroad would have used a
transfer table to deliver a freight car to a siding. This would
have been extravagantly expensive. Any real railroad would
have simply built a turnout instead. Ironically, Lionel’s
#350 cost the same as a pair of Super “O” remote
control switches, and substantially less than a pair of 022
Lionel’s #352 icing station is one of my favorite accessories.
It simulated a servicing operation that had been performed
on real railroads for over sixty years. Refrigerated railway
cars made it possible for us to enjoy the great variety of
fresh foods that we have today. Most residents of the northeastern
United States had never tasted an orange until it became feasible
to ship them by rail from Florida or California. Lionel’s
#6352 car was lettered for Pacific Fruit Express, a joint venture
of the Southern Pacific and the Union Pacific that operated
a vast fleet of reefers from coast to coast. Reefers were cooled
by massive blocks of ice that had to be loaded through hatches
in the roof. #352 simulated this action with a blue plastic
man that pushed clear plastic cubes, one at a time, into a
waiting car. When this accessory was introduced by Lionel in
1955, real railroads had already begun using mechanically refrigerated
cars (#6672 from 1954 is a model of one). However, in the 1950s
PFE still operated tens of thousands of ice-cooled cars, and
continued to do so into the 1970s. Thus, the icing station
was by no means obsolete when it first appeared in Lionel catalogs.
In both this vignette and in the drawing on the catalog cover,
#352 is to the left of #415. In the track plan that Lionel
published circa 1960, positions of these two accessories were
reversed. #415 was much deeper front-to-back than #352, and
would have interfered with the upper-level track if it were
installed where these drawings depict it.
Lionel’s #282 gantry crane was a marvel of engineering
and a challenge to operate. The cab swiveled; the cable hook
was raised and lowered by a winch; and an electromagnet picked
up steel objects and dropped them into a waiting gondola. What
five-year-old does not beg to play that 25-cent arcade game
found in every mall, where you maneuver a steel claw and try
to pick up a plush toy animal before time runs out? The gantry
crane did all of this, except that it did not demand a supply
Service crews worked through the night to get locomotives and
cars ready for the next day’s run. Outdoor illumination
was essential to get the work done safely, so floodlights like
Lionel #195 were common sights at railroad facilities. The
example shown here had eight miniature bulbs. If that wasn’t
bright enough, you could buy an extra bank of eight lamps that
would plug into the first set.
Scene 6: The Control Panel
Electric trains appeal to us for many different reasons. Some
of us treasure toy trains because they remind us of family
holidays from years gone by. Others prize a model locomotive
because it represents a real train that was once an important
part of our lives. Some of us use miniature trains to re-create
a page from history. Others use a model railroad to express
an ideal world that may never have existed.
For young boys growing up in the 1950s, part of the appeal
of electric trains was CONTROL. Alternating current, transmitted
through the rails to a locomotive, enabled you to regulate
a train’s speed, direction and horn/whistle. Other electric
circuits made it possible to uncouple cars, load and unload
freight, route trains through switches, and operate a variety
of signals and animated accessories. You couldn’t achieve
a comparable level of control with any other means of propulsion.
A clockwork toy, once you wound it, traveled independently
until it ran down. Battery-powered toys also went their own
way, except for some with hand-held battery packs that were
connected to a wire tether.
Young railroaders of the 1950s preferred to sit at a console
with all the controls arrayed before them. In this way, they
emulated professionals whom they admired and envied. Many of
our heroes sat at great panels covered with buttons, levers,
dials and flashing lights: railway dispatchers, airline pilots,
air traffic controllers, power plant operators, television
broadcast engineers; even space-ship commanders, who were still
science-fiction characters in 1957 but who became real-life
celebrities in the 1960s.
Remote control in the 1950s meant that you could operate a
train without directly touching it. Control was accomplished
using the same electric current that supplied a train’s
energy. Speed was regulated by varying the voltage; direction
was changed by interrupting the current with the help of IVES’ sequential
reversing unit; horns and whistles were sounded by relays that
could detect DC superimposed on the normal AC. Trains were
the only toys that could be operated convincingly in this manner.
The steel rails that supported a train’s weight also
served as conduits for power and control. Transformer-controlled
toy cars, boats or airplanes would have been unrealistic because
they would have had to drag wires behind them. A few hobbyists
flew gas-powered model airplanes by radio control in 1957;
but this technology was expensive and called for expert scratchbuilding
skills. No one in the 1950s could have dreamed that wireless
control of electric trains would become a possibility four
decades in the future.
The control panel in Lionel’s 1957 catalog layout was
designed for solo operation. One person could run everything
from the southwest corner of the table. This showed off remote
control to great advantage, since some of the trains and accessories
were up to thirteen feet away from the operator. In postwar
Lionel Land, mothers and siblings were expected to gather around
the table and respond with awe while Junior pushed buttons
and pulled levers to make things happen as if by magic.
Do you recognize all of the controls on this panel?
The square console at top left operated the #350 transfer table.
Buttons on its left side moved the table forwards and backwards;
the indicator light at top right was lit when the bridge was
correctly aligned with a track; and the button at lower right
energized the track to move the locomotive.
The rectangular control in front of #350C operated the #497
coaling tower. Levers unloaded coal from the dump car, raised
or lowered the bucket, and discharged coal from the storage
A 275 watt ZW transformer was the centerpiece of this control
panel. Its two large outer handles could each control a train.
Each of those circuits included a reverse lever (which simply
interrupted current so that the locomotive’s E-unit would
cycle) and a whistle control. Two inner levers could each operate
one additional train; but no reverse or whistle controls were
provided for them. On this layout, the large handles controlled
the passenger train pulled by #746 and the freight train hauled
by #2341. One of the small levers powered the downgrade on
the outer loop; it was set to a lower voltage than the large
handle to keep #746 at a safe speed. The other small lever
provided fixed voltage for the remote-control turnouts.
Lionel’s ZW was undoubtedly one of the company’s
most enduringly popular designs. It was the top-of-the-line
transformer from 1948 until the end of the postwar era. In
recent years, Lionel LLC has issued a replica of the ZW, which
lacks the internal workings (its power now comes from up to
four separate bricks) but preserves the transformer’s
classic shape. Aside from Santa Fe Warbonnet F3 diesels, the
ZW transformer is Lionel’s most instantly recognizable
icon. LOTS, the Lionel Operating Train Society, adopted the
ZW as it’s club logo.
These catalog drawings didn’t show it, but in a booklet
entitled “How to operate Lionel trains and accessories” (circa
1960), Lionel recommended using a 175 watt TW as an auxiliary
transformer for this layout. The TW’s variable throttle
operated the trolley car, while its fixed-voltage circuits
powered the accessories.
In front of the ZW were eight switch controllers. Their design
was inspired by the mechanical levers that were once used to
operate real turnouts in railroad control towers. Each controller
had two light bulbs that indicated the position of it’s
switch. As delivered, the green lamp was lit when the switch
was set for its through (straight) route; a red lamp glowed
if the switch was set for the diverging (curved) route. It
was easy to reverse colors by interchanging either the bulbs
or the wires.
In front of the switch controllers were two UCS controllers.
Lionel’s UCS track section had an electromagnet that
could open the couplers on most rolling stock built after 1948;
the magnet also actuated operating cars that were equipped
with plungers. UCS tracks also had extra rails that supplied
current to rolling stock equipped with pickup shoes. Depending
on how the rails were energized, this could either uncouple
older rolling stock with wire-wound couplers or unload solenoid-powered
action cars such as the milk car.
If the 1957 catalog depicted a Super “O” layout,
as most enthusiasts believe, then the presence of UCS controllers
in this scene was an artist’s mistake. The familiar black
plastic box with two orange buttons came only with O gauge
and 027 versions of the remote-control track. Uncoupler magnets
and unloading power blades were sold separately for Super “O”,
and each of these items came with its own, single-button controller.
The track plan in “How to operate Lionel trains and accessories” (1960)
called for four uncoupler magnets (all in the service yard)
and three sets of unloading blades. Thus, there should have
been seven 90C pushbuttons on the control panel instead of
two UCS controllers.
The handset at the very front of the control panel operated
the #465 dispatching station. When you pressed the button and
talked into the microphone, your voice was amplified and broadcast
from a speaker hidden inside the station.
To the right of the ZW were six #90C pushbuttons. These were
spring-loaded, momentary-contact switches that energized an
accessory as long as you held the button down. Pushbuttons
came with the #118 newsstand with horn, the #138 water tower,
the #342 and #345 culvert accessories, the #415 diesel fueling
station, and the #3562 barrel car.
In front of the pushbuttons was a row of #364C slide switches,
but the artist was inconsistent concerning their quantity.
Five switches are shown in this vignette; six are visible on
the catalog cover. A #364C operated an accessory continuously
until turned off. Six switches were required for this layout:
one each came with the #128 animated newsstand, the #362 barrel
loader, the #364 log loader, the #397 coal loader, the #464
saw mill, and the #3356 horse car/corral.
The box at the lower right corner of the control panel operated
the #282 gantry crane. Its left lever rotated the cab clockwise
or counterclockwise; the center lever operated the winch to
raise or lower the magnet; the right lever activated the electromagnet,
and could be locked in its ON position.
Lionel’s artist was thoroughly familiar with the products
depicted on this catalog layout. With the exception of uncouplers
already noted, an appropriate controller was shown for every
car or accessory that was supposed to come with one. Every
switch on the control panel can be accounted for, except the
three bat-handle toggle switches at the right front. These
were not made by Lionel, but you could buy them in hardware
stores for about 35 cents apiece. According to a track plan
published in “How to Operate Lionel Trains and Accessories”,
toggles were used to divide the ground-level track into electrical
blocks; four of them were required. All of the yard tracks
were powered by the right handle of the ZW, but you could turn
off some of them so that trains could be parked there.
Signals (such as the #253 block signal and #450 signal bridge)
needed no switches on the control panel. Instead, they were
controlled by #153C track contactors that were activated by
the weight of a passing train. Grade crossing accessories (#145
gateman, #140 banjo signal, #252 crossing gate and #445 switch
tower) were also activated by #145C track contactors.
Finally, a word about the section of curved track that runs
past the control panel. This is our only direct visual evidence
that the dream layout was built with Super “O” track.
In this vignette, the track is shown with a middle rail that
is thinner and less conspicuous than the running rails. Also,
there are regularly-spaced specks along the outer rail that
suggest ties. This is the only drawing in Lionel’s textbook
of model railroading that attempted to show any tie detail.
In six easy lessons, Lionel’s artists and copywriters
showed customers how to create a large model railroad system
by combining ready-made trains, track and accessories. Everything
that you needed to build this dream pike (except for lumber,
hardware and paint) was available from Lionel dealers. Next
month, we’ll examine a bill of materials and estimate
the value of the 1957 catalog layout.