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LEGO Trains

June 27, 2011

Recently, I became too busy with the effects of entering the “real world” after graduation to have any time to work on building model trains. But I still needed to get a “train fix” every now and then (or pretty regularly, to be honest). What was I to do?

I designed this poster to mimic a classic Lionel Trains poster from the 1950s. The two trains are (left to right) the 7939 Cargo Train and the 7938 Passenger train, both released in 2010.

The simple joys of Lego Trains have come to the rescue! The brick-built cousins of Lionel Trains, Lego trains are model trains that one doesn’t have to think about too hard, and don’t need a model workshop to design and build. More importantly, being a durable toy, they are portable so that they can go wherever I do in my search for work, no matter how rough the trip is. If a few details fall off, they can be put back in place without an X-acto knife, spare plastic and wood, super glue, paint, and a few spare hours.

Despite their drawbacks in realism (people really aren’t that square-edged and shiny, are they?) they have features beyond portability that make them perfect for my train hobby right now.

1) Power Functions

When I pulled my old Lego train out of storage a few years ago, I was going to take it to college with me so that I could have a train my friends could run (and inevitably crash) without me fainting away or battling them for the controls. When I started researching to get some more track for it, I was dismayed to find that the 9 volt train system of which it had been a part had been discontinued by Lego due to new toy regulations. The 9v trains operated just like any other model train, from track power provided by a throttle that plugged into the wall. The new regulations prevented toys for the Lego target age group (6-12 years old) to operate by plugging into the wall. The only new tracks available were plastic, and the battery-powered system they had used for the trains at the time, called RC Train, did not get great reviews from the “serious Lego model railroader” community. I packed it away again and moved on to other ideas.

My disenchantment with my normal model trains as time for working on them dwindled led me to again consider my Lego train. Now a new battery system called Power Functions had come along, and had some amazing features, including infrared train control that allowed multiple trains to be independently controlled on the same track, along with the ability to turn the lights on and off, which sounded to me like model railroading’s Digital Command Control (DCC) system. It was what my HO scale trains had been needing to make them more social, but was an expensive system to implement, and some of my locomotives are worth less than the $25 DCC chip that would have to be installed in them, or old enough that it would be impossible to wire them correctly. Power Functions (PF) was the answer, as my friends could run trains while I was, and being Lego they could crash them without harm. For me, being interested in realistic model railroad operations, I was looking at the possibility of running a railroad realistically by “controlling the trains, not the track.”

So, I made the plunge and bought a 7939 Cargo Train when Lego.com had its Black Friday sale at Thanksgiving. And I haven’t regretted it. My friends loved it and the old 9v train joined it for multiple-train operation (and destruction).

2) Newness

Lego trains have served as a kind of “hobby reboot.” My model railroading skills had reached the point where I was scratchbuilding narrow gauge HO scale equipment. Running low on free time and space made me feel stagnant.  I wanted to be running trains or building trains, not just reading about what other modelers were building. With Lego trains, I’m 10 years old again, buying pre-designed kits and learning new ways of building. Learning a new skill can be just as enjoyable as the application of it. And, more Legos are easy to come by, being only as far away as the nearest toy aisle. When I sell my old HO scale layouts later in the summer, I’m sure part of the proceeds will go to more track for the Lego trains.

3) Size

Speaking of track, Lego trains are large enough that the track can very easily encircle the walls of an entire room. There is something very satisfying about seeing the sofa transformed into a mountain range the train skirts the base of, before disappearing into the jungle of potted plants in the corner, only to emerge again from the tunnel under the chair and throttle up for the long straight through the prairie rug. Being about the size of Lionel O-gauge trains, Lego trains have a heft that makes them feel sturdy in your hands. The larger size also makes them cat-proof, an important feature with my parents’ new cat. And when she does gingerly whack one, nothing irreparable happens.

4) Design

There is just something about Legos that appeals to designers. You could argue it’s the pleasing colors, the ability for customization, the inherent creativity, but I think it’s something else. We can sense that they are well-designed objects that a professional designer created. Legos push our design buttons the same way a well designed chair or teakettle does. Not to mention that their instruction booklets and graphic design are amazing to look at, as well.

5) Fun

Realistic model railroading can get too serious sometimes. Lego trains are anything but. I can have pirates and spacemen sharing drinks in the lounge car, and no one is going to call me out on it. I can mix steam and diesel, American and European prototype, and the fact that its all Lego holds it together. The train can be held up by aliens, and the Alien Defense Unit troopers can call in the folks at Hogwarts for help. It’s all fun and hilarious, and can be created in a few minutes.

My dapper Lego doppleganger prepares for adventure on the high iron. All Aboard!

My Lego collection is currently small by most Adult Fan of Lego (AFOL) standards, but with the impending sale of my childhood HO scale layouts, plenty more track is a possibility, along with some headlights for the Cargo Train. And, maybe I can manage the current train station set that’s at Toys’R’Us with the last of my graduation money…

In the future, when I have the space and time and stable lifestyle to start building in HO scale again, I’m sure every time I need a break the Lego trains will go rolling down the tracks. And for now, they’re the best trains I own.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Gene permalink
    December 30, 2012 7:26 pm

    I am also impressed with the quality of Lego trains. My nephew received a set for Christmas and I was wondering if the set could be run on standard O-Gauge track from Lionel or anyone else. I haven’t had time to test it myself as my nephew and I live in different parts of the country but just on visual inspection his cars seem to approximate O-Gauge although the wheels are a bit thin. But as to the power concerns – shame on Lego for caving to the litigators and only supplying battery power.

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