27 March 2019
Finding out that there is more to Lego than just those little rectangular bricks.
Building trains brick by brick, with LEGO
Are you an AFOL? Do you prefer SNOT? If you’re into toy trains and you know what I’m talking about, then you’ll know that Lego trains are one of the train world’s best kept secrets.
Like real trains, Lego trains are somewhat of an enigma. For the Lego fan, there are so many competing themes to choose from, with trains being a subset of Lego City and a compromise between City and Technics. In other words, only a small percentage of Lego builders will be train orientated. On the other hand, if you are a train collector foremost, Lego will be off the radar because it is too interpretive; model collectors want realism, not impressionism. Seeing such familiar shapes formed out of blocks just doesn’t cut it.
Despite having a lower profile than other themes, trains have featured with Lego since 1966. And what a flexible toy train system it has been; it’s not surprising Lego trains have an obsessive following, despite supply being notoriously fickle. Having said that, when asked which train set is most suitable for a child, Lego trains have to be at top of the heap, if only because the track which comes with conventional OO gauge trains is so flimsy and fussy, it is inevitably going to get bent or stop working.
Even as an unpowered push along toy, Lego trains have fantastic play value. Like classic O gauge Hornby tinplate and clockwork, four wheeled wagons and coaches are so tactile. Approximately O gauge size, Lego adds opening doors, magnetic couplings and endless track options to the basic train set.
Ironically, because Lego trains are so flexible, they create a different problem, being all the more likely to get irretrievably scattered when they become subsumed into a large box of similar Lego. All in all, Lego trains are challenging for the enthusiast, and totally bewildering for everyone else.
Lego trains timeline
Lego trains break down into four broad types, starting with push along on blue rails. This soon morphed into a battery operated 4.5 volt system with batteries being pulled along in a separate vehicle. The next system was 12 volt using additional centre pickup rails and a mains transformer/controller. This period known as the ‘blue era’ runs from 1966 till 1979. From 1980 till 1990 the track changed to two shades of grey. This period is considered a golden age because of the large number or automated accessories that were available to work with the trains.
The next phase from 1991 saw the introduction of 9V trains which were not backwards compatible. They did however use very nicely made (but expensive) conventional metal track with integral plastic Lego sleeper bases. In 2006 Lego trains changed again to a radio controlled system which was not popular, and was again superseded and improved in 2010 with the current system known as ‘Power Functions’. In short, they are back to battery power, but this time using remote control.
Living with Lego trains
One alarming thing about Lego trains, when you’re used to more conventional ranges like Hornby, is how your precious train can deconstruct into a meaningless pile of bricks almost before your eyes. This militates against Lego being collectable unless it is sealed, boxed and complete, or the models are left intact after construction. On the other hand, spending two days looking for particular bricks in a huge pile certainly adds to the play value!
Because of the on/off nature of Lego trains, the company is building a classic collectable product range. The upside of this is, if you can afford to buy two sets each time, the second unopened set will cover the cost of both sets when you sell it after it becomes discontinued. Popular discontinued sets are regularly advertised for around seven times their original price, so Lego trains are very popular with speculators.
Adding to the mystique, along with short production windows, many models are not available in shops and have to be ordered direct through Lego’s Shop at Home service.
Emerald Night set
Set 10194 ‘Emerald Night’ was released between 2009 and 2012. This is probably the most sophisticated Lego train ever, and is based on the legendary A3 pacific ‘Flying Scotsman’. The set comes with just one coach which was not available separately, so anyone running a rake of these coaches will have gone to considerable lengths. The carriage livery is reminiscent of the Pullman colour scheme and accepts Minifigs through the removable roof.
Many commentators mention that there are hidden model details which are covered during assembly, so only the builder will know they are there. The model has been designed to be motorised separately, and is the first to feature working valve gear using plastic coupling rods. The loco wheels were also specially made for this model.
Hogwarts Express set
The Harry Potter theme has been a stalwart in the Lego range since 2001. Lego joins Hornby, Bachmann and Lionel in putting their unique spin on the Hogwarts Express. The representation of the loco is not one of Lego’s best efforts, although the coach looks like fun. What all these sets are crying out for is a Lego representation of the iconic Glenfinnan Viaduct. You can read more here: https://www.collectors-club-of-great-britain.co.uk/articles//harry-potter-and-the-hogwarts-express
The Metroliner is one of the most sought after among Lego train collectors. The first version (4558) came out in 1991 and the second (10001) in 2001. Since Lego discontinued the 9 volt train format in 2007, extra track and spare motors have become increasingly rare and expensive.
Santa Fe Super Chief
With its striking lines and colour scheme, the Santa Fe diesel has to be one of the most iconic Lego trains ever. Designed by enthusiast James Mathis, the Super Chief was the first diesel-powered, all-Pullman sleeping car train in America. It became known as ‘The Train of the Stars’ because of the celebrities it carried between Chicago, Illinois and Los Angeles. Santa Fe’s classic Warbonnet paint scheme works brilliantly in Lego.
Owner input required
Of course, one of the reasons why Lego is the world’s most successful toy is that it allows, even demands, individual input and creativity from the user. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the train range. Requiring specialist parts such as wheels, rails, bogies, doors, windows and couplings, the company has been almost wilful with its bewildering variety of train products, seemingly introduced and discontinued at whim. As Lego quaintly put it in their Trains Ideas Book of 1981; ‘You may not have all the pieces used in the various model suggestions. Do not let that stop you. If you use your imagination you will almost always be able to build the models in a slightly different way by using the bricks you already have.’
In case you’re still wondering, AFOL stands for Adult Fan of Lego, SNOT is an advanced building technique so models end up with Studs Not On Top, and this article has been entirely MOC...