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How to build a fleet of toy train engines

Bob Keller shares ideas of what type of engines you can buy for your layout
A few years ago I addressed this topic with a two-pronged approach: a little philosophy that might help you shape your fleet and some practical physical elements to ponder before you plunk down your credit card. Let’s take a quick refresher.

Bob’s Rules for Locomotive Buying are pretty simple:
One: A toy train is not a retirement fund. Never buy a new locomotive as an investment.
Two: Buy a locomotive because you like it.
Three: It’s your railroad, and your world to create – buy and run the locomotives and road names you want to buy and run. As pop singer Rick Nelson sang, “You see, ya can’t please everyone, so ya got to please yourself.”
And a general given: Most modern locomotives operate well, and general performance is comparable in like models from different manufacturers.

Physical considerations:
Do I have enough legroom? The size of the train and the track it runs on does matter, regarding both the physical dimensions of the model and its ability to go through tight curves.

Track curvature and switches: There is a dazzling array of track types on the market today. The days when the question was whether to use O-27 or O-31 profile track are long gone. Today, you have choices among traditional tubular track, solid-rail track like Atlas O gauge track, and track with roadbed, such as MTH RealTrax and Lionel FasTrack. The problem remaining is whether or not trains will run through your curves and switches.

Some larger locomotives don’t like O-31 or tighter curves. Some moderately sized locomotives are now offered for O-36 or wider operation use only. These restrictions, if ignored, may result in derailments or even damage to the model.

Switches, on the other hand, pose two problems. First, the locomotive’s wheels or undercarriage may derail on the diverging line if the curve is too severe. This is the same principle as running through curves. If a model requires O-36 curves, it probably won’t take an O-31 diverging line.

The other matter isn’t so much a problem with the track as the locomotive. If the locomotive has only one power pickup or if its pickup rollers are too close, the unit may hit a dead spot and stop cold.

So, here’s a quick guide to some of the locomotive types that you may be able to find at your local hobby shop or train show. This may help you decide what you are looking for before you buy!
Lionel HHP-8 electric: A wedge-shaped locomotive from today’s railroad world, it has two can-style motors, TrainMaster and RailSounds systems, and operating couplers. Interestingly, while the locomotive and cars are O-36 compatible, the set came with O-48 track, to improve the look of the train on curves. (Reviewed in the May 2011 issue).
Starter sets

Starter sets are a great way to introduce someone to the hobby, and they are also a good way to quickly expand your fleet. Though I have long passed the starter set phase, over the years I have bought a few sets just to get the locomotive or cars.
Atlas O Industrial Rail trolley: This model has a simple, timeless trolley design that features interior and exterior lighting and neck-jarring reverse bumper action for point-to-point running. It has nice detailing and is fun to operate. (Reviewed in the March 2008 issue.)
MTH RailKing’s 0-4-0T is a diminutive locomotive based on a real Baltimore & Ohio prototype that shuttled cargo around the streets of Baltimore. This won’t be pulling a coal train, but it is dandy for spotting cars at a freight station. (Reviewed in the February 2003 issue.)
Small engines

There is a world of small, mini-locomotives, motorized units, and trolley cars that can add fun to your three-rail layout. Generally speaking, curves that are too tight are not their problem. You may have some issues stalling on switches, depending on their pickup roller placement, but these models add fun and variety to a railroad.
MTH RailKing Imperial SD70ACe: A carefully compressed model with tremendous detailing and all the bells and whistles. The SD70ACe operates on traditional O-31 diameter curves, and looks at home on command-equipped or traditional layouts. This model represents the best of modern railroading. (Reviewed in the November 2012 issue.)
Atlas F unit: A scale-sized unit that offers the bells and whistles of Lionel’s TrainMaster and RailSounds systems. Powered by two can-style motors, it can operate on O-36 track. Powered B units are available. More than a classic, this locomotive is a highly detailed scale model. (Reviewed in the July 2011 issue.)
Traditional or scale sized?

These are amazing times for O gauge operators. There have never been this many locomotive types and road names available for three rails – ever. There are plenty of models that will fit in between 1914 and today, and a slightly more limited number for operators interested in the 19th century.
Lionel 2-10-10-2: Measuring roughly 31 inches in length, and requiring O-72 curves, this steam locomotive offers good performance and a catalog of Lionel Legacy features. Obviously, this freight-hauler would require a lot of leg room to be best operated – and appreciated. (Reviewed in the January 2011 issue.)
MTH Red Arrow: While requiring modest O-42 curves, this articulated train runs as a single unit with five sets of trucks to negotiate switches. The whole train measures just over 39 inches and looks best on long straightaways and broad curves. (Reviewed in the October 2010 issue.)
Super-sized engines

These are jumbotronic locomotives that require decent curvatures in the track and a layout with some physical space. You don’t want to run a locomotive that towers over your railroad town and is chasing the caboose of its train. The bright side is that if your layout can’t handle it, maybe there is a club in your area with a layout that can!


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