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My pastor and his kids(4,2,and1) visited me and I was in the train room. They would like to get into model railroading and asked me for advice about a starter set for them. I'm concerned about the quality of some of what's out there. Also, why do the train companies make things like NYC steam freights out of the 50s  or Santa Fe F-3 passenger sets for kids born after Barak Obama took office? I'd like to get something like a BNSF, KCS, or NS modern engine pulling a few stack cars or modern boxcars or flat or gondola cars, because kids like to play with the loads. I  think they could handle either conventional or command(the kids might learn command on a cell phone quicker than I can!).I've heard that you can get by with hooking up just 2 wires to a loop of the brands of "Fast Track" ; is that correct? I bought my own grandkids a  K-Line starter set, Williams engines, and a MTH Rail King Dash-8. I'm concerned about the plastic gearing Lionel uses in some of their Lion Chief engines. My layout has Gargraves track, so I know little about the new track. I could sure use some help.

Original Post

"I've heard that you can get by with hooking up just 2 wires to a loop of the brands of "Fast Track" ; is that correct?"

Correct.  Lionchief is essentially command control. Fixed voltage.  Operable by the enclosed handheld remote in the set or the Bluetooth Lionel app (free in whichever store you use). The app, as you may know, requires a tablet or smartphone to operate.  For very young children, the handheld remote makes more sense, IMO. LionChief locos from sets are compatible with for side by side operation of any new Lionel Lionchief, LionChief +, Legacy loco since these are all operable using the app or the Universal Remote (about $40) and fixed voltage (wall wart included with the set).  You may need more power (larger wall wart or transformer) for operating more than one train.  Can operate two locos or more independently on separate or larger loops if they aren't identical LionChief locos (identical locos will both respond to one remote at the same time).  This is the beauty of the LionChief system in that it is relatively inexpensive as a way to get command control.

Fastrack is Lionel's contribution to starter sets and nice carpet layouts as it protects the floor from any lubricant or debris.  Not inexpensive, some find it noisy, but it's very adaptable and robust.  Some folks use it for permanent layouts instead of tubular or Gargraves/Ross as it has built in roadbed.

I wouldn't worry about the plastic gears.  LionChief locos in sets are not meant to last forever, true, but it's not the plastic gearing. Somewhere between the old Scout locos and something more robust like the Lionel standard O gauge locos of the 1950s in durability.  But they can be fixed relatively inexpensively and are sufficiently inexpensive that younger children can be allowed to play with them.

These kids are very young and might be best off with some Brio (wooden trains) or other similar trains to start, or Lionel's battery powered Ready to Play sets which can be had for as little as $70 at many hobby shops and Amazon (no household current to worry about).

One LionChief option that lots of smaller children enjoy is Thomas, and those sets can be had for as little as $150 or so from some sources at certain times of the year. I've bought some as inexpensively as $100 just after Christmas.  That might interest toddlers and slightly older children more than prototypical accuracy.


Last edited by Landsteiner

You will want to avoid Lionchief Diesels. Lionchief Plus are a significant improvement. The non Plus engines besides having questionable construction come with tiny motors, some only have one of those, and others come with even cheaper motors between the truck frames. Lionchief Plus have larger motors used in 90% of all other Diesels on the market and metal gears. 

MTH Railking and Williams engines are well built but now MTH has an uncertain future. Williams would be trouble free but are only conventional and don't come with track and transformer.


Last edited by Norton

The starter set can be a good "around the tree" thing for a child and his or her family.  I have found them to be good, reliable, and fun- for what they are.  They are not a "hobby", just an introduction.  But they ARE a start, and for around $ 260 a good value.  After all, they are running on a flat surface for a few minutes each day, for maybe three weeks a year.

Beware though- the "play value" of these sets INCLUDES the smoke, bells, whistles, and crew talk of these engines.  In every case, the parents (my kids and in-laws) have turned these features off, for their (adults) own peace and quiet.  Surprise!!  The kids play with them for just a few minutes, and (IMO) since the thing just goes around an around, it has none of the features that attract a child.  And (I think) that is one reason that Lionel and others use steam engines in a lot of or most starter sets.

When the child begins to like it, it's time to take him or her train-watching.  Educate the child on the history, maybe (later) buy him or her a diesel.  There are retailers that break up Starter Sets, selling off the engines separately at low prices.  But- to buy a "GP"-style diesel similar to that used by today's railroads will cost 2/3 or so of a full starter set, and an LC+ will cost more than a diesel Starter Set.  You might just buy another (diesel) Starter Set - then you have twice as many engines, track and cars, plus a backup power supply.

Face it- trains are not a big thing in most peoples' lives, and chances are the child does not pay enough attention to the trains at the crossing to even see that steam engines no longer exist.  

Joshua Cowen was a genius- he understood play value. It made his company successful- first his air whistle and smoke.  Later- missile launchers, helicopter cars, rotating beacons and giraffes sticking their heads our of boxcars.  REAL trains in the 1950's did not have But Lionel trains did.  And only because of "play value".  And, don't turn off the smoke, sound and "bells and whistles". 


Last edited by Mike Wyatt
@Mike Santa posted:

I  think they could handle either conventional or command(the kids might learn command on a cell phone quicker than I can!).

I'm concerned about the plastic gearing Lionel uses in some of their Lion Chief engines. My layout has Gargraves track, so I know little about the new track. I could sure use some help.

I think you also have to take into account the kids themselves. Your comment, "...the kids like to play with the loads" is spot on. My 11 year old grandson has a history of playing with with trains with the power off! His favorite piece is the hand-cranked post-war 461 platform with truck and trailer. And when I go up to the train room, I still find Minecraft zombies and creepers duking it out with the Polar express Engineer and conductor, all on a flat car!

I know my response does not directly address your questions, but if you do find a starter set with some manual accessories, consider that as well. Or at least consider adding some manual accessories to whatever set you find.


Mike, as a long time buyer and operator of starter sets, I can offer some comments.

Plastic Gears: The main issue here is consumer maintenance and the recent composition of the plastic. I have modern era Lionel locos with plastic gears (as well as K-Line) some now years old, and the gears are fine. I also have MPC era engines (now over 50 years old) with plastic gears and have had no issues: They still run just fine. Keep the gears lubricated with a plastic safe lubricant and NEVER set an engine directly down on the floor or carpeting: That's a sure fire way for the gears to get grit, dirt and fibers into them.

I've read some comments here about plastic gears cracking. My most recent Lionel engines are pre-LionChief, and I've had zero issues with gears breaking. I'm guessing it is a change in the plastic composition. I have MPC era Lionel cars with plastic trucks and the couplers still spring open on their own. I have mid-1990's (and later) Lionel cars with plastic trucks - same design on the coupler parts - but they no longer spring open on their own.

Motors: I'll have to take exception to Norton's comment. Nearly all of my diesel engines have the truck mounted DC can motors with a spur gear. I've had no trouble with them. Very few motor failures, and because this is a common part (with a VERY large and lengthy production run) you can still get the motors. This truck mounted can motor design has been in use since the late 1980's. Not only starter sets, but nearly all of the traditional separate sale diesels used this motor truck, so again, it's a very common part and not difficult to get a replacement. Even if it means buying a used engine to strip for the parts... sometimes that's a better deal money-wise.

Some of the LionChief engines use a much smaller DC motor with a worm gear. These include the Dockside, the Thomas series, the 0-8-0 steamer, the redesigned Lionel Junction steamer and the new Tier 4 diesel. I personally avoid these motors as I've read far too many comments about them burning out along with difficulty in finding replacements. The other LionChief engines use the standard truck mounted motor with spur gear. The Lionel Junction industrial switcher also uses the same motors, which was also used in the previous issues from the mid-1990's. The LionChief PLUS uses a totally different larger vertical mounted DC can motor.

The tech at my now closed Lionel shop said he replaced more motors on the Dockside and 0-8-0 engines than he ever did on the starter set 4-4-2 and the similar 2-4-2.

The plastic frame starter set RS-3 has one single truck mounted motor and thus as is, doesn't have much pulling power. But the motor is the same motor used in the starter set die-cast 4-4-2 steam engine, so you can safely add the same amount of weight over the motor side of the RS-3 frame. Lionel recommends a 10 car limit for the 4-4-2 engine, though it will certainly pull more than that.

As a side note, I adhere my traction tires with double stick carpet tape cut into very thin strips. A single motor diesel, with weight added and tires adhered has no problem pulling 10-12 train cars. Since my current layout is the smallest I've had, and I can no longer run longer trains, I've been stripping some of my dual motored engines down to a single motor truck, adding some weight and I have no trouble pulling 10 cars with any of these single motored engines.

Roadnames: Lionel has gotten better with modern roads on starter sets since LionChief. But even pre-LionChief, there were sets in contemporary roads like Conrail, CSX, Canadian Pacific and Union Pacific. If you hunt around, you can still find either new sealed, or lightly used Lionel starter sets with a transformer instead of the LionChief remote. The reality for starter sets is that steam sets outsell diesel sets and freight outsells passenger sets. Previous CEO's of Lionel said that the 4-4-2 steam starter sets outsold all the other train sets combined, which means outside of maybe track, it was the single best selling item in the Lionel catalog for many years.

Transformer versus LionChief: I prefer transformer sets. Using the right transformer will allow these engines to run SLOWLY with no modifications... I guarantee it. The Lionel 1033 is perfect for running these sorts of engines, using the B-U setting of 0-11 volts to the track.

You read about problems with the LionChief sets, but considering how many they actually sell, the problems I've read about are probably a small number. Still, with all the circuit boards, there is more to potentially go wrong. You can always strips the boards out, a put in an older reverse unit circuit board, thus running them with a transformer. You lose the sounds, and the remote, but if LionChief circuit boards were unavailable, you could still salvage the loco and have it running.

Other brands: Don't over look K-Line and MTH. You can still find sealed sets if you search enough. MTH in their early years had the Dash-8 sets that came in current roads like Norfolk Southern, CSX, Conrail and others. The early Railking sets were transformer controlled. And while parts may become an issue with MTH, buying engines from a starter set are probably a better bet for finding parts because the quantities made were larger. Especially on the early production MTH as at one time early on they had almost 50% of the 0 gauge market in sales.

K-Line had many MP-15 starter sets along with the S-2 switcher. The MP-15 is a more modern diesel than the S-2, but they didn't do many modern road name sets, though there were a few early on like CSX and NS. But Union Pacific and Santa Fe are current enough and they did lots of sets in those roads.

Choices: It's a little confusing, but there are far more options today than ever. Every thing has its' advantages and drawbacks. I prefer 027 tubular track and you can still find train sets with this in them. But FasTrack has it's advantages especially with floor set up train layouts. I prefer transformer sets, but LionChief is designed in part to help reach the younger generation more familiar with remotes.

Even terms like "traditional" and "semi-scale" which were not needed years ago, because that's what Lionel was. Period. Now with the scale line of trains, some clarification is necessary. And while it seems like the scale stuff is taking over, it's not. But as one distributor said to me, the scale stuff sells itself. The buyers come looking for it and purchase year round. But they have to because the quantities made are much smaller, so you run more risk of not getting what you are looking for. The starter set "tradtional" market is a little more seasonal with the winter months. Plus you have decades worth of production on the secondary market, which the new items are also competing with.

Have your pastor friend go to YouTube and search out Lionel train layouts. There's lots of them there and that may give him some idea of what he'd like to do, and therefore the direction he's going to take. Google too: Search for small Lionel train layouts and you'll see photos of layouts that very well may give him some inspiration.

Have him go to some train shows or shops if there are any in his area. Ask questions. You read a lot of comments here on this forum about starter set junk and what not. Sorry, but my personal  experience is completely opposite. I've never had an out of the box defect. Everything has been repairable. Parts are starting to become an issue even for starter sets, but you can always buy a second unit to strip for parts. Again, more of these products are manufactured, so this is an easier task. As I mentioned above, using a transformer like the Lionel 1033, and even the K-Line starter set engines (known for being speed demons) will absolutely run slowly with no alterations.

In 32 years, I've only had to replace 3 DC can motors: Two on different K-Line S-2 switchers (which I run a lot!) and one on a Lionel Industrial Switcher. And I had to replace one smoke unit on a Lionel 4-4-2, which after 17 years, might be expected.



The tech at my now closed Lionel shop said he replaced more motors on the Dockside and 0-8-0 engines than he ever did on the starter set 4-4-2 and the similar 2-4-2.


The small motors in the starter set Lionchief diesels, not truck mounted, are the same motors used in the starter set 0-8-0s and Docksiders. The RS-3s are junk pure and simple, both the Lionchief and Lionchief Plus as they both have the truck mounted motors. The gears and their bearings are made of diecast or some other metal not steel and bronze and wear out causing the gears to cock and the engine locks ups.

If it has the motor on the left then stay away. That includes all the Lionchief Diesels that don't have truck mounted motors. All other Lionchief Plus diesels have the motor(s) on the right save the RS-3.




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Last edited by Norton

For kids ages 4, 2 and 1, it may be a good idea for them to play with the push wooden trains, as Landsteiner mentions above, or get the battery operated like the one below (from Target). I'm sure a lot of us started this way, and as we got older and more interested in trains (if we did), we purchased more expensive and sophisticated items. The set below should be a good starter and isn't too expensive and comes with a remote.


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  • blobid0

Thanks to everyone who posted. The kids have the wood trains already and it might be that  DAD  wants a train, and I'm trying to explain quality to him. Hopefully they go thru with the Temple and Plano train shows where it's easier to check out what they have. I'd like to hear from more folks and I guess I have to learn how to navigate the Lionel, etc. websites.

I highly recommend any set by MTH with the 2-8-0.  I got my son this set when he was a few months old:

They make it in a few road names, and they still make it now.  The locomotive is extremely durable.  When he was a baby, he'd just watch it go around.  When he was 1 he went through a Godzilla phase and I took the train set off his floor.  He's 2 now and well past the Godzilla phase.  He plays with his trains when I'm not even in the room and he does fine (usually just loading and unloading cars rather than running them).  

We never even had any problems with the train set when he was sick seemingly forever after starting day care.  We even had a humidifier running 12 hours a day for months and even the sticky white hard water residue didn't hurt anything, we just had to wipe off the track every few weeks.

Like others have said, he especially likes playing with the loads.  I picked him up a couple of gondolas and gave him my Lionel MPC era 3-level car carrier which holds about a dozen matchbox cars.

The small steam with 4 drivers is easier to rail for small hands and rods/valve components where used are visual attractions, and a physics puzzle for a young mind to ponder.  

Worm gears aren't for kids young enough to want to roll them unpowered.

If the gears worry you; they are cheap to buy. Staple the extra in a tiny ziplock to the box or something. (maybe a retainer, Ive no gear issue, but have cracked two retainer brackets)

A simple kiddie starter might get broken; sure. The replacement might be well cared for. (you know the kids temperament better than us)  We got nearly no new or "great"  trains from Gramps until until loss led to responsibility. Then the good stuff was bought or you got to run something special of his, etc. (Gramps: Oh no, you aren't going to break MY toys, go break more of your own. That's a wake up. Don't give in for a while )

The oldest will likely comondeer the trains so pick out a cool item or two for the others to use while waiting on the throttle.. (the operating news stand with dog peeing on a #90 button for the little one. The humor is ageless.)


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