Toy Train Mistakes

It is said that wise men learn from other's mistakes. With that in mind, I have decided to list some of the mistakes I have made while working with my trains. Some of these may seem humorous while others are just stupid. Remember "if I can do it, you can do it too!" If you have a mistake you'd like to share send me an e-mail by clicking on my name at the bottom of this page. Or post it on the General Topics Discussion Board.

When I first started collecting trains I cleaned the rust off a Lionel # 5 locomotive and also removed most of gun bluing from the boiler. Another local collector put a maroon painted engine in an ultrasonic cleaner, and took out a pink engine. A few years ago I bought a Rock Island Alco engine that had been wiped down with 409 cleaner resulting in nice pink stripes. The owner had thought to increase the value of his trains before I looked at them. Instead he ruined the engine. Lesson: Always check the cleaners in an inconspicuous spot. Here's a page about Cleaning Toy Trains.

While repairing a smoke unit in a Lionel engine that had been stuffed with smoke pills, I used a candle to liquefy the accumulated deposits. A few minutes later, I realized it was quite hot in my train room. I looked up and noticed the candle had ignited a rag. I jumped up, and swept the rag off the desk and into the garbage can. BIGGER mistake. I had just unwrapped some trains and put the newspaper in the garbage. Now the fire was burning faster. I grabbed the burning rag and ran for the bathtub, dropping flaming pieces of rag on the carpet all the way. I managed to get the resulting fires out with out burning down the house, and the hair eventually grew back on my arm. Lesson: Never use candles when working, use a heat gun or a cigarette lighter.

While working on Miles Butlers high rail layout I knocked myself unconscious on the edge of the layout by standing up under the layout. I had swung myself out from under the layout (I thought!), and in one fluid motion my head completed its arc of motion on a corner extension. Lesson: crawl out, then stand up, Don't be in such a hurry. Pictures of Miles dream layout can be seen here.

Another local collector had a derailment on the back of his layout so he climbed up on the layout to re-rail the train. Immediately after standing up a ceiling fan hit him in the head, and threw him off the layout. He could have been KILLED. Luckily he only had a major headache and he received a few stitches at the emergency room to remind him of his mistake. Lesson: Don't be in such a hurry, look around.

Speaking of standing on layouts. When I go to my father's he usually has me climb up on the layout to get to the trains on the shelves or re-rail a train. He usually offers advice on what I'm doing. Comments like "move it over so its in a straight line" and others. One of his favorite comments used to be "don't touch the ceiling, you're leaving finger prints." You see, I use the ceiling for balance. With all the buildings and figures on the layout, it is quite difficult to move around without stepping on anything, and if I were to fall down, I would certainly crush something, and probably injure myself in the process. You'll notice that I said it used to be one of his favorite comments. One day I stepped on one of the little people. He makes me take my shoes off before climbing up on the layout so I wont leave footprints. Not only did I break the figure, but I put a nice puncture in my foot. Lesson: If you must climb on your layout, leave paths on the layout for walking. These can be roads. In the very least leave cleared areas to stand in.

One evening I was at friend's house looking at his American Flyer S gauge layout. He was showing me how well his engines ran in his switching yard, when one stopped. He asked me to give it a push. I leaned over and gave it a push. When I stood back up my shirt got caught on a flat car, and pulled a string of them onto the floor. The result was three broken trailers and one broken flatcar. Lesson: Buy O gauge trains, they run better. Seriously, use a stick to push engines on the layout. I have a cheap walking cane from the drugstore (I think it cost $4.95) that I use. It has a rubber tip on one end, and the molded plastic handgrip on the other end is great for hooking and pulling trains.

On Mile's layout there is an uncoupler section on one of the raised areas of the layout. It works quite well. You push a button on the control panel and the coupler opens. Then it gets exiting. The car, all by itself, disappears. The first time this happened, we couldn't figure out where the car went. I thought Miles had moved it. When we finally found the car it was riding around the layout in front of one trains on the lower level. It turns out the uncoupler is on a grade and the car rolls away down the grade through a yard and out onto the mainline. Lesson: Put uncouplers in level areas only.

Here's another fire story. Lionel made a burning switch tower a few years ago. It has blinking lights, a smoke generator, and two men- one screaming for help, and one fetching water. It's a nice little accessory. In the late forties, Marx made a radio control switch tower. While working on a local collector's layout, he asked me to hook it up so the light would work. I put wires on it and ran them through the table. I then crawled under the layout and hooked the wires to the harness. I asked him if it was on. He said no, so I checked the connection and decided the bulb was burned out. I crawled out from the layout to find flames coming out of the switch tower. It turns out the tower had no bulb. It did have a few feet of resistance wire and a bunch of dirt (ashes) inside. Luckily I was able to put the fire out without damaging anything except the switch tower. Lesson: Check everything for operation before you install it on the layout.

Here's a horror story. A few years ago I bought a bunch of trains. Included was a like new 2330 GG1. After I got them home, I was unpacking them and I lifted the GG1 out of the big steamer trunk the seller had included. The GG1's box had been opened on both ends. While I was opening one end, the other end opened and the engine dropped out onto my foot. Luckily the inner cardboard wrapper went with it so the engine was not damaged, and after a few days my foot stopped hurting. Lesson: open boxes flat on a table.

I think that most of the damage toy trains suffer is from poor packing and storage. Many times I have seen nice looking trains with scratched up roofs. This is because the owners put the trains into a box, and then throw the track in on top. Years ago I looked at a boxed GG1 Congressional set that had been stored in a steamer trunk that was exposed to daily watering from landscaping sprinklers. Need I say that the set was not in the same shape it was when packed away? Lesson: pack your trains carefully. These next three blunders were sent in by Jim Schuler.

A dealer I knew wanted to clean up some Lionel diecast standard gauge drivers. He put them into his rock tumbler with some sand overnight. In the morning, all he had left was some really shiny stamped metal rims. Lesson here? Don't put some relatively soft metal in you rock tumbler, and certainly not diecast pieces. Or at least monitor the abrasives/time ratio.

Bubble wrap is a wonderful thing and protects our trains marvelously. Unfortunately, the esters in the plastic can react with paint and plastic if trains are stored directly against it for a long period of time. I've a few pieces with little circles in the paint from the bubbles. The lesson here is to wrap them in tissue paper before bubble wrap. I've also seen newspaper adhere to trains, so if my method is used, it is important to store the trains in a cool, dry place. This way paint doesn't soften and adhere to the paper or the paper doesn't get soft (from moisture), and adhere to the train.

When I was about 30 years younger, I had built a medium size Lionel layout. It had an elevated section and where it ended was a 45 degree curve (and a 3 ft. drop to the concrete floor). Due to the age/cleanliness of the track, trains would occasionally stall on the elevated section. I would usually shut the controls down, walk around the layout, give the engine a nudge, return to the controls and restart the train. Well ..... one day, I just couldn't get it to start, left the controls on and walked around the layout. Needless, to say, this time the train ran and so did I. I raced around the layout to the controls, in an effort to turn the train off, just in time to see my 1662 switcher hit the curve and roll to the floor. Murphy's law here ... you ain't going to beat the train, so try not to do anything stupid like this. Get some help, unless you like broken trains. Or at least, don't put curves at the bottom of your elevated section. Jim, Thanks for sharing these with us- Terry.

I will add additional mistakes as they are sent in. You can share your experiences by sending them to me in an email.

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