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Cabarrus Magazine

Lionel Trains: On the Right Track

Nov 01, 2015 08:00AM ● By Jason Huddle

Lionel Trains: Right on Track

Before other modes of transportation took over and today’s trains started hauling stacked cargo containers covered with graffiti, there was a fascination and romance attached to the railroad.

Children craned their necks to see the caboose – often a bright red – knowing it was the last car. They’d put a shiny penny on the tracks in the hopes that a train would flatten it and they’d have a souvenir to take home. And they’d wait for the whistle to blow and the steam to rise at crossings.

Going further back, the fascination with iron horses in the 1800s gave way to the hobby of model railroading. says, “We must recognize model railroading as a reservoir of nostalgia, memories and heritage, (and) also a place of celebration of progress. Thus, many designers like to portray scenes from the past in which they can scale steam locomotives.”

Early European craftsmen often fit tin or lead pieces into wood, but there were no moving parts or track, and no cars; children played with their trains on the floor. And since tin didn’t take paint well, the details were applied to the tin itself.

America eventually got on board at the turn of the 20th century, producing model engines that just about anyone could afford to buy for their children. With the growing popularity came the demand for more: tracks, cars, stations and wagons.

Joshua Lionel Cohen founded Lionel Trains in this era, manufacturing the electric motors that went into electric trains. Post-World War I saw the company producing realistic, powerful, well-made model trains painted in bright colors. They were a hit, and still are.

In fact,

says Lionel holds four out of the top five slots in the 2015 Best. The Pennsylvania Flyer placed no.1 as the Gold Award winner, with the 2-4-2 LionChief (no. 2), Polar Express (no. 3), and Thomas and Friends (no. 5) rounding out the list.

Besides the trains themselves, today’s model train enthusiasts look to create the biggest and “baddest” layouts ever. “Men and boys gather today to set up layouts so elaborate and realistic that viewers are enchanted by these trains in action,” says. “They gather together with their families and friends to rekindle the love of the railroad days and sweet childhood memories.”

For these hobbyists, the reality of Lionel Trains moving its corporate headquarters from New York to Concord is a sweet reward. Having opened its doors in October of 2014 and celebrating its 115th anniversary this year, the location serves as Lionel’s first retail store in the state. The rest of the 90,000 square feet is occupied by offices and a warehouse.

Mike Phillips is vice-president of brand marketing for Lionel. “We have been very pleased with store sales and traffic so far. We surpassed our first-year sales projections, and we anticipate that number will grow significantly during the holidays,” he says. “No Christmas tree is complete without a Lionel train running beneath it, so we definitely see an uptick in business during November and December as folks are looking for just the right train for themselves or a loved one.”

While there are plenty of little girls who enjoy model trains, history shows that boys typically outnumber them. “Most of our hobbyists started playing with trains as young boys,” Phillips shares. “We find many of these folks tend to build their layouts to mimic their hometown growing up and they have a unique story for most items on the platform. Part of the fun of playing with trains is the flexibility to customize your own world and escape into the magic of your layout.

“For most people, the train sparks memories about a special Christmas morning coming down the stairs and seeing a Lionel train under their tree. It kicked off their imagination and created a bond between themselves and their dad as they proceeded to add new items to their model train layout.”

As such, it’s obviously a hobby that can be passed down. Utilizing and building upon skills like carpentry, electronics, mechanics and art, a whole scene is built around the train tracks.

“We have seen a change in the industry where both fathers and grandfathers are going out of their way to share their love of trains with their children and grandchildren. Trains provide great hands-on experiences, allowing them to create new memories with their families while designing a new layout or running big engines,” Phillips adds.

“Having a store at our headquarters this year has been a great way for us to interact not only with families who are looking for ready-to-run train sets, but also with long-time collectors who have a ton of knowledge of and appreciation for the Lionel brand. Our collectors are very attuned to new products that are arriving, and we already have ‘regulars’ who frequently visit the store to see these items for themselves.”

The long-time collectors know what vintage Lionel trains are going for, too. As of this writing, a Smithsonian Brass Dreyfus Hudson was listed as a Buy it Now item for $1,500 on ebay.

“With 115 years of products there is a host of items that rise to the top for collectors,” Phillips says. “Everyone has their own favorite, but one of the most iconic is the Lionel Mickey and Minnie Tinplate handcar. Lionel launched this item in 1934 for $1. The company sold over 250,000 units in the first three months and this was the beginning of what has been a great relationship between Lionel and Disney over the past 85 years.”

This particular car is selling for as much as $800 on ebay.

With collectors seeing dollar signs, Lionel hobbyists see the fun. And with the holidays approaching, there are bound to be some favorites.

“Our line of ready-to-run train sets is the top seller as we move into the holiday season. These sets provide consumers everything they need to set up their train under the Christmas tree or on a layout,” Phillips says. “Our Polar Express train set in O-Gauge or G-Gauge is the most sought after product for the holiday season.”

For those folks who would like to see what the rest of America has or is selling in the way of model trains, the closest the Great Train Show comes to Cabarrus County is Knoxville, TN next March. This traveling expo is a model train lover’s paradise, showcasing a variety of layouts in all scales, and with hundreds of dealers set up to sell. Appraisers are on hand if you’re thinking of selling one of your own trains and free workshops are held for all levels of hobbyists.

Phillips hopes train enthusiasts will share photos of their layouts and stories about how they came about. They can be shared on Lionel’s website at

“We have collectors all over the United States who have dedicated their dining room, bedrooms or basements to their train layouts. The amount of detail, the type of trains and the setting for each is so unique.”

Companies like Lionel – as well as the young and the young at heart – have perpetuated model trains’ popularity, even in today’s high-tech world. It’s all about back to basics.

Written By Kim Cassell

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