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Tune up your modern-style starter set for the holidays

Priming the Polar Express set for Christmas
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Lionel no. 31960 The Polar Express and other holiday train sets that come with trains, track, and a transformer are ideal for creating a display under the Christmas tree.
Jim Forbes
Around my house, all the holiday decorations that adorn our walls are clearly the result of my wife’s dedicated efforts. Wisely, she doesn’t trust me to trim the tree with her prized Hallmark Keepsake ornaments. She does, however, ask that I do exactly two things to initiate the hanging of the greens.

Maneuvering our artificial tree out of storage (in my train room closet) is a job I typically prefer to handle. But for the second task, my son Theo is always there to assist in assembling his Lionel no. 31960 The Polar Express train set under the tree.

In little more than 15 minutes, Theo and I can assemble a loop of O gauge track and start trains running. It’s sometimes astounding to think that even in the short span we’re working to build our holiday display, we’re also laying the groundwork for a life-long appreciation of the toy train hobby. Granted, the experience wouldn’t be as positive if the process hadn’t gone smoothly.

To help keep the tradition enjoyable, we’ve got a few steps that we follow each year. Following these suggestions won’t ensure that the trains will run without issue, but it’s far less likely that problems will occur in the wee small hours of Christmas morning.

Before Theo and I begin to assemble the set, I always lay down a 4 x 4-foot sheet of ¼-inch-thick plywood to serve as a solid surface for both the Christmas tree and the loop of track.

While a flat and level surface keeps our tree from leaning, I’ve also found that trains perform more reliably if they don’t have to contend with undulating track grades or an unsteady roadbed.

Now we’re ready for the train set!
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Jim Forbes
Start with clean track. Theo and I store our clean track sections in a box, but still make it a habit of wiping down the rails with an old sock moistened with Goo Gone. It’s best to build your display using clean track, as the continual operation of a locomotive fitted with traction tires leaves a grimy residue of rubber and dirt that can inhibit operation.
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Jim Forbes
Transformer inspection. Even though our tree is artificial, I’m still cautious about installing an electric train under something that’s so easily combustible. To allay my fears, I inspect the set transformer for any signs of damage to the case, cord, or plug. I also prefer to insert the plug into a surge-protected power strip with an illuminated on/off switch that I can see when I enter or exit the room.
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Jim Forbes
Lube and prep the locomotive. Preparing the locomotive for operation is the part I enjoyed most as a kid, so I let my son handle this task. Since the Labelle Industries (walthers.com) no. 107 multi-purpose oil comes in a small bottle with a needle-thin applicator, I don’t worry about Theo adding too much to the running gear.

However, I do monitor how much smoke fluid he adds. Add any more than four or five drops and you’ll likely end up overfilling the reservoir, resulting in a trail of fluid around your track. For the same reason, I always run out the smoke before storing the locomotive at the end of the season.
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Jim Forbes
Car tune-up. The passenger cars included in The Polar Express set are equipped with trucks designed for remote uncoupling. Although the overall quality of these cars is top-notch, the coupler design has an inherent weakness that can lead to cars inadvertently detaching from each other. To prevent this, I install a small rubber band around each coupler shaft that fixes the mechanism shut.
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Jim Forbes
Damage control. Sometimes, even without the cars uncoupling, there will be unintentional derailments and some may result in damage to plastic parts. Fortunately, most starter sets include a comprehensive manual that outlines how to maintain the set and secure replacement parts through local hobby shops, Internet sources, or a customer service phone number.
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Jim Forbes
A place for add-on parts. Speaking of parts, I know my son’s favorite feature of his set is the assortment of action figures. As suggested in the manual, Theo loves installing them in various locations about the train. Unfortunately, the dogs of the house find them rather interesting too.

To avoid any emergency vet bills, I have Theo place the figures in a snack-sized plastic storage bag when he parks the train for the night and after we store it at the end of the holiday fun.

Save the box. Although I seldom save the original boxes for my modern-era trains, I do make an exception with the boxes for my locomotives and train sets. An original box can bolster the resale value of a product, but my real intent is to retain a secure place to store trains when they’re not in use.

Train sets are often packed into form-fitting slots designed to hold specific trains, track, and transformers secure throughout shipping. If you opt to recycle or resell the box, your next best bet is a watertight plastic storage tub with a lid

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10 layout mistakes

10 layout mistakes

Tips on what to avoid.

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