|Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)|
Note from Editor - Soon after I updated this article for 2018, I received an updated Lionel Catalog that indicates that ALL of the Lionel "G gauge" trains shown on this page have been discontinued, replaced by "Ready-to-Play" sets that do not use G gauge track and are therefore incompatible with ANY garden scale trains, including LGB, Bachmann Big Haulers, AristoCraft, USA Trains, HLW, etc. They're even incompatible with Lionel's battery-powered G gauge trains and the track-powered G-gauge trains Lionel made in the 1980s.
"Ready-to-Play" trains use a wider 2" track that - at this time, you can only get from Lionel in chintzy little plastic pieces. So they are useless in the garden. They're useless on most carpet, too, if that's any indicator of how chintzy the track is. I hope to have an article about what they ARE good for eventually, but this is a garden train site so all I can do for now is warn you off of them if you planned to use them in the garden.
That said, hundreds, if not thousands of the original G gauge sets are still in the stores, so I'm leaving this article up. Dozens of used G gauge sets come on the used market every day, too. So I'm adding an RSS "feed" from eBay in the right margin. My apologies for the non-train ads that pop up every fourth ad or so; that's the way eBay is sending the list to me.
If you look at the eBay listings, look specifically for the trains on this page. They may come in different colors, but only three basic types have shown up in this class:
The 2-8-2 and 4-4-0 have now been converted to 2" "Ready-to-Play" versions, so you ALSO have to watch out for that. But the three locomotives above are the only battery-powered locomotives that Lionel has ever made to run on G gauge track. So when you see any other big battery-powered Lionel set, like a diesel engine or Thomas the Tank, you know going in that it won't run on G gauge track.
A few more tips:
Above all, if you buy a used battery-powered set or locomotive, be certain it comes with the remote. THAT's the part that is almost always missing from used sets, and the train won't run without it.
We now return you to your regularly-scheduled article. - Paul
Lionel's® Toy "G" Trains
About 2012, not long after we published the first article on Garden Railroading with Toy Trains, two common sources of toy trains - New Bright and Scientific Toys Ez-Tec - all but disappeared from the shelves of department stores that typically carry toy trains at Christmas. I missed the Scientific Toys Ez-tec trains especially - they were more solid and reliable than the average ~$50 toy train. And, in most cases, they were large enough to see in the garden, not being THAT much smaller than, say, an Aristo starter set.
What displaced them from the shelves? Similar quality toy trains with the brand name Lionel. These are not to be confused with the "Large Scale" Lionel trains made in the 1980s, which ran on metal track and were solid and (in most cases) large enough to use on a "serious" garden railroad.
Update for 2018 - After I wrote the first version of this article, Lionel introduced over a dozen more battery-powered trains that run on G gauge track (45mm, 1.77 inches). That's good for a number of reasons, including giving visiting kids a chance to run trains without endangering your expensive models. However, in late 2017-early 2018, Lionel discontinued all of those trains, replacing some of them with equivalent toys that run on 2" track. Some of the materials initially called them "Fun Scale," but most of the materials now call them "ready-to-play."
Avoid "Ready-to-Play" Sets.
Lionel's "Ready-to-Play" trains will not run on G gauge track. Since no one else is making 2"-gauge track at this time, all they will run on is the insanely chintzy track that they put in the box with the trains. Several of the trains I reviewed for this article have been reissued in 2" gauge, including the Polar Express set, so be very careful what you order, and don't be afraid to return any "Ready-to-Play" sets that were advertised as "G gauge." Buyer beware.
So if you're interested in using a Lionel battery-powered train on the same track as Bachmann Large Scale, AristoCraft, Piko, LGB, USA Trains, HLW, MTH's 1:32, New Bright or Scientific Toys or any other Large Scale train brand, DON'T buy a "Ready to Play" set. Look at the box to make certain it says "G gauge." Many still do, so you're not out of options just yet.
Lionel's strange new offerings aside, I noticed that WalMart is carrying a Scientific Toys battery-powered set this year. It is also a toy and looks more like a toy than the Lionel offerings. But it will run on G gauge (45mm) track, so it may be a better choice for folks who are already running garden trains than the "Ready-to-Play" trains.
Explore the Used Market for Extra Pieces - Since 2012, many thousands of customers have apparently gotten tired of replacing batteries or whatever and have dumped their Lionel battery-powered G gauge trains on the used market, and even thrift shops. I've been able to pick up several pieces in nice condition for very little, including extra Polar Express locomotives and cars, extra Pennsylvania-labeled locomotives, and a few random freight cars. These pieces and fragmentary sets seldom come with the track, but that's not a problem - the track sucks anyway.
The big problem is that used sets dumped on the market almost never come with the remotes. And Lionel does not, apparently, sell the remotes for those separately. One thing is certain - they never answer my e-mails on the subject.
In preparation for a recent open railroad, in which I wanted plenty of trains onhand for kids to run, I bought a used engine I didn't need just because it came with the remote.
Notes on Size and Quality
The Lionel "G gauge" trains are smaller and flimsier than garden trains. They are also battery powered, which has a good and bad side. They can run on inexpensive track, which keeps the cost and perhaps the maintenance down. But you need to keep batteries onhand or buy and use the recommended rechargeable battery and charger.
In terms of scale and quality, I would put them closer to Scientific Toys/Ez-Tec than to New Bright. Like both of those brands (and the original, battery-powered Big Hauler), they run on 45mm plastic track. Like those trains, they also run better on brass track with wide curves, so even folks with "serious" garden trains might consider keeping one of these sets for little visitors to operate. (Just remember that you need to keep batteries onhand, and the fact that they like to derail on turnouts or even uneven track).
The locomotive is roughly patterned after a Pere Marquette 2-8-4 Berkshire-style locomotive, the inspiration for the Polar Express movie locomotive. However, Lionel has removed one pair of wheels and downsized the locomotive in all directions. The photo below shows the Lionel 2-8-2 locomotive next to a scale 2-8-2 locomotive (which is actually a model of a SMALLER locomotive than the Berkshire. The Lionel 2-8-2 is about 2/3 the length, and 3/4 as wide and tall as it "should be" to be considered a "model train." In fact, Lionel labels the train "G gauge," which simply means it runs on track that has the rails 45mm apart, and says nothing about scale whatsoever.
Of course, being way undersized isn't necessarily bad, as long as customers are aware that they are buying a toy train. Probably the main reason I find this disappointing is that that the O gauge version is a much more solid and realistic representation of the original Berkshire.
One of the unnerving things, if you're used to model trains, is how lightweight the locomotive is, even with batteries installed. If nothing else, I'm used to the drivers being made of metal, and the motor weighing something. But in this case, the wheels are all plastic, and lightweight plastic as well.
The photo to the right shows the caboose from the freight set. It's just over 2/3 as wide and tall as it "should be" to be considered a model. (Length isn't as important, since cabooses came in all kinds of lengths.) To save money, the windows are blacked out instead of molded in, but it is reasonably solid for a toy. In fact, I suspect the caboose will outlast the rest of the set.
As is typical in toy trains, the coaches are even more "underscaled" than the rest of the train. The first photo above shows the Lionel coach next to a popular "shorty" scale coach. The next photo shows the Lionel coach next to a heavyweight coach - a 1:29 model of the same class of car that the Lionel coaches are based on. Looking only at the width and height difference, the coach seems to be as close to O scale (1:48) as it is to Large Scale (1:32 and larger).
That said, the overall effect when the train is coupled together is still quite nice. Interestingly enough, the paint job on the Polar Express locomotive is slightly different than the freight engine, but that slight difference helps more than you'd think.
By the way, though it almost looks like the coaches are lit, the windows just contain stickers and a vinyl strip that does a nice job of imitating a lit coach seen at night. As a person who used to get a charge out of running his electric trains in a dark room, this is a bit disappointing, but for running in brightly-lit or medium-lit rooms you wouldn't notice the difference.
CouplersWhile I had both cabooses out, I thought I'd check to see how compatible the couplers were. The Lionel caboose's coupler wasn't nearly as tall as the AristoCraft's coupler. In addition, it doesn't couple and uncouple either, so you have to manually link them up. But it is mounted near the vertical center of the AristoCraft's coupler height, and, when attached manually, DOES hook up. So it is possible that you could pull Large Scale model cars with the toy locomotive or vice versa.
Remote Control and SoundOne nice feature, shared with a few high-end Scientific Toys/Ez-Tec trains, is the remote control. Lionel's controls forward and reverse speed, bell, and whistle.
The locomotives also have a "white-noise" chuffing sound (similar to Bachmann Big Haulers) that turns into a "blow down" sound when the train stops, not a bad feature either. They also have an automatic time-out circuit that shuts the train off if the controls haven't been touched for ten minutes - a nice battery-saving feature.
By the way, the remotes are entirely interchangeable. Since these trains have been discontinued, I have bought partial sets at train shows and thrift shops just to be sure I have enough remotes for any conceivable future use. I've also picked up extra cars, but - spoiler alert - the locomotives don't tend to be happy with two many cars.
The Polar Express control has an extra button that triggers Tom Hanks' voice shouting "All Aboard." On some of the other locomotives, that button triggers other sounds, but on some it has no effect.
Unlike the remote control on the original Bachmann Big Hauler, when the locomotive gets out of range (about 15 feet in my back yard), it stops and goes into "blow-down" mode. So on a big loop of track, you have to walk around with the train. If kids are operating the train, they don't mind walking around with it anyway. (On the original Bachmann Big Hauler, getting out or range meant that the train would speed up and become a "runaway," so this is better.)
Back to the grand-children - with this train, you can set the train on the tracks and let them operate it without ever having to touch it - usually a good thing. You can also set up multiple trains, as long as they're, say, 20-30 feet apart.
When I first opened the first set, I put in the batteries that came in the box. When I turned the train on, nothing happened except that the headlight flashed for a second. So I reloaded the train with batteries I has bought when I bought the train (6 C cells). I didn't reload the AAs in the remote control as they seemed to be working. Now the train ran. But the take-away from this is buy batteries when you buy the train, even if it says it comes with batteries.
I took the freight set outside and put it on my garden railroad's upper loop, about 180' of fairly level track. It ran fine except where the track was very uneven, and it derailed on one of the turnouts (switches) every time. With alkaline batteries, it still ran a bit slower than I expected, even with the "speed" on the remote control set all the way up. On the other hand, it DID keep running even when it hit dirty track, something my track-powered trains don't always do.
One thing to note is that the "pilot" wheels (the first two), come off the track far more often than they should. If you want to use this outside, consider gluing a couple tiny weights on the pilot truck or replacing the pilot wheels with metal wheels. If I was going to try to use it outside often, I might consider weighting the locomotive a bit, too. It doesn't take much for a locomotive that weighs only a pound or so to come off the track.
The photo below should give you an idea of how this train looks next to popular garden train accessories. The station is a 1:24 model once available from AristoCraft. Compared to the station, the Lionel train is a bit small, but it doesn't look outright silly. If you were starting out with things like wooden bird-houses, etc. that are a bit small anyway, this train would look right at home.
Alternatively, if the buildings and accessories sit away from the train a bit, they can look fine on the same railroad. It's worth noting that for most of Lionel train's "golden era" Lionel catalogs surrounded their trains with realistic scenery. There's no reason you can't do the same thing if you start out with one or more of these.
I subsequently put the train on a temporary loop that I usually use for my solid Large Scale Thomas and James during clinics and open houses. It ran fairly smoothly, reflecting the fact that I always have to get this "railroad" quite smooth to run Thomas and James on it for hours without supervision. This does tell me that these trains could be used on a display or temporary garden railroad as long as the track is smooth.
The current (2009-2010) freight sets have some crates that go into the gondola (shown at the right). Several of the other freight trains based on the same 2-8-2 locomotive advertise some accessory that makes those sets "unique," but for the most part they are not that compelling.
On the other hand, the Polar Express set has some "play" features that may appeal to your kids, including a bell (like the one in the movie, but not really silver, and it doesn't actually ring very well), a Boy and Conductor figure, and a hobo figure that pops up when you press down on a "trapdoor" on top of the observation car.
Finding AccessoriesLike the coaches, the figures that come with this set are about 1:38, somewhere betwen Large Scale (1:32 and up) and O scale (1:48). That said, most of the figures and accessories made to go with ceramic Christmas villages are also somewhere between Large Scale and O scale. So if you're going to be running your Lionel "G gauge" train indoors, consider shopping for Dept. 56 and Lemax figures and accessories (especially on sale after Christmas). In fact, whereas traditional Christmas villages used to hover around O scale, several of the newer pieces are large enough to look fine with these trains.
In addition, you can always make your own indoor buildings using our Building Product Ideas articles. Or make old-fashioned buildings and accessories using our Tribute to Tinplate articles. In each case, use O scale or larger plans if they are available.
If you want to create some backgrounds in a hurry and you have a color printer, check out our Building Fronts page for indoor trains. The O scale building fronts should look pretty good with your trains. If you would rather go toward large scales, the Large Scale Building Fronts page has buildings in scales from 1:43 to 1:20.3.
StorageHere's something I didn't expect - based on experience with all kinds and brands of trains. Once you get the train out of the box, it's easy to get back in. (The track is a bit trickier - I might recommend just keeping it in a shoebox-sized storage container or some such.) This is more important than it sounds. Often, model and toy train packaging, meant to keep the trains safe for a bumpy journey across the Pacific ocean, etc., is designed in such a way that you either pull the packaging apart getting the train out, or you pull bits off the train. True, these toys don't have many fragile bits, but they come out and go back into the packaging easily, which means that you can actually use the box for storage, something that is a huge hassle with many other brands, including some other Lionel trains.
If I wanted to use these more than once a week, though, I'd still consider coming up with a couple yards of fine bubble-wrap, and one of those clear 58-quart containers. Cut pieces of the bubble-wrap to wrap the train pieces in before you put them in the container, and the rest will fit nicely.
Because these trains aren't made to be used outside, try to keep them from temperature extremes, especially high temperatures, and be sure to remove the batteries before you put them away for any period of time. Subfreezing temperatures don't seem to bother the trains themselves, as long as the batteries are removed and you let the trains warm up somewhat before you try to run them.
This winter, we have a covered porch, and I HAVE considered leaving a loop of track set up, and storing a train - batteries and all - in something like a footlocker, so if kids drop by unexpectedly, I can just set the trains on the track, rather than schlepping them to the porch. Or maybe make a hinged plywood box that looks like a Christmas package or a building. I'll let you know how that works out. :-)
Other Battery-Powered Lionel G Gauge Offerings
Starting in about 2007, Lionel also marketed an old-timey battery set with a 4-4-0 locomotive that they call the "General" style (because that wheel arrangement vastly dominated the Civil War-era trains). The first version had a red and green locomotive, but another version has been issued with a red locomotive. I picked up one of the red "Holiday Central" locomotives for a song at a train show, and it was perfectly compatible with the Polar Express. The remote from the Polar Express worked fine, though the button that usually plays Tom Hanks shouting "All Aboard" triggers the Holiday Centray locomotive to start playing Christmas carols.
Other General-Style and Berkshire-Inspired Sets - Several other General-style G-gauge sets that used either the 4-4-0 "General-style" or the 2-8-2 Berkshire-inspired locomotives shown above were introduced in the 2013-2014 era. These include Santa Fe and Pennsylvania Flyers, as well as one marked for the Christmas Story movie, a "Frosty the Snowman" set, one called the "Snoopy Express" and so on.
Most of these trains advertise at least one feature not shared by the other trains, and you may prefer the paint jobs, but the trains themselves are very much the same
The G-Gauge versions have all been discontinued; some of them have been replaced by "Ready-to-Play" versions, which is code for "doesn't run on your track." But as of November, 2018, there are still quite a few new and barely used G gauge sets available. Just be certain to get sets that are labeled "G Gauge" and not "Ready-to-Play."
Hogwarts Express - Also discontinued, and very hard to find for a reasonable price is the "Hogwarts Express," based on the Great Western Railways mid-century British train that was repainted for the Harry Potter movies.
I didn't even report on this in the original article, since they were discontinued and hard to find back then. But I just came across one and it is delightful. Last summmer, I found a big vintage Fischer Price castle with some pieces missing (for .29 at a thrift shop), and I can't help thinking it would make a good stand-in for a Large Scale Hogwarts.
ConclusionHere's an irony. I was not predisposed to like these trains. They are, frankly, nowhere near the quality of ANY Lionel O-gauge trains, or any name-brand Large Scale trains.
But as I ran the freight train through its paces on two different outdoor railroads, getting a sense of what it could and couldn't do, I realized that, no matter how "toylike" it was compared to my model trains, it was still fun to run. Both the passenger (Polar Express) and freight sets should look great around a Christmas tree. And for kids, it will have a lot more play value than 90% of the toys they'll be getting this Christmas. Just be sure to stock up on alkaline batteries.
In fact, when we have our open houses, one of the big attractions for children has always been having a train the kids could run. With these trains, I could afford to set up a railroad anywhere flat and give the kids even more opportunities for fun.
If you're thinking about starting a garden railroad, and you're wondering whether these could be used in a pinch, to keep the kids interested while you're making the bigger choices, the answer is that they can, as long as you:
If you have any comments, corrections, additions, or tips about these trains that you would like to share with our readers, please contact us, and we promise to get back to you.
Appendix: Older, Battery-Powered Lionel-Labeled Trains
Lionel first started dabbling in battery-powered "G gauge" trains in the 1990s, by marketing a set that looked like it was made by Scientific Toys. If it was, chances are it's fairly solid for a toy train.
In addition, Lionel briefly marketed a couple battery-powered sets with 4-4-2 locomotives (not to be confused with the relatively nice track-powered 4-4-2 locomotive they made in the 1980s). The locomotive pulled only one car.
I haven't had my hands on one, so I don't know how sturdy it might be, although if it was made by Scientific Toys, it might be relatively sturdy. I'm told the locomotive by itself is about 16" long, so that's not too bad by toy train standards. The boxcar is undersized, even compared to the locomotive, though.
Links to TrainsTo me, each of these trains is worth owning if you can get it for half price after Christmas. That said, I know many readers will want one before Christmas, so I'm putting a few Amazon links below for your convenience.
Note: Family Garden Trains™, Garden Train Store™, Big Christmas Trains™, BIG Indoor Trains™, and BIG Train Store™ are trademarks of Breakthrough Communications (www.btcomm.com). All information, data, text, and illustrations on this web site are Copyright (c) 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 by Paul D. Race. Reuse or republication without prior written permission is specifically
Family Garden Trains is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.
For more information, please contact us