“I didn’t know LEGO made trains!” That’s something I’ve heard a lot at shows. The LEGO train product line has been around for 40 years, yet so many people have never seen them, as the big box and toy stores (in the US at least) generally didn’t stock the train lines – you had to buy them direct from LEGO. Here’s a brief overview of the different types of trains LEGO has made:
Introduced in 1966, the first LEGO trains were powered by three C cells carried in a special battery box, and ran on plastic tracks. The tracks consisted of individual blue rails that you would snap onto white 2×8 plates. If you ever come across blue 1×16 plates with a sort of ridged rail top, that’s where they came from. The ridges provided extra traction for the motor, which had rubber tires on the wheels. The best example of this is the original trains set, #113 “Motorized Train Set”. The 4.5V sets continued to be produced and sold through the 1970s and 80s.
The next evolution of trains came 3 years later in 1969 with the 12-volt product line, which were powered from the tracks for the first time. However instead of powered rails like most model railroad gauges, there was a pair of metal conductors in the center of the track. The rails were the same as the 4.5V ones, at first in blue, and switching to grey in 1980. A special 2×8 plate was used in later sets to build the tracks for a sturdier connection – it looks like a 2×8 plate but the studs under the rails are replaced with a sort of clip that snaps onto the rail.
Trains were controlled by a trackside connector that took power from the AC mains and connected to the metal contacts on the tracks, providing 0-12V DC power. This system also included a bunch of great accessories, such as level crossing gates, motorized switches, and signage. The 12V line was only sold in Europe, so very few Americans got their hands on them. Examples of this line are #720 “Train with 12V Electric Motor” from 1969 and #7740 “Inter-City Passenger Train Set” from 1980.
Beginning in 1991, LEGO switched standards yet again. The 4.5V and 12V systems were discontinued, and the new 9V system was released. The new tracks featured powered rails for the first time, and the rails and ties (sleepers) were a single track component with end-to-end connections that held them together well and provided electric continuity between track sections. This is the system that my Track Layout Geometry page refers to. Tracks were released in dark grey; the color was changed to the new dark stone grey when LEGO discontinued the old greys, but the 9V line was discontinued soon after that.
The train motor drew power from the rails using metal flanges, but the weight was carried on rubber tires so that the noise was kept to a minimum and traction is pretty good. The motor has four studs with metal contacts on them, so you can connect a wire to power a lamp or other accessories (but at slow speeds, the lamp is dim of course). The trains were controlled by a trackside dial that took power from the AC mains and delivered from 0-9V to the rails via special clips that connected to a piece of track.
One of the first, and most beloved, sets in this line was the classic #4558 “Metroliner”, which was inspired by Amtrak trains – perhaps the first LEGO set based on an American train. Another beloved train from this era was the #10020 “Santa Fe Super Chief” which represented another great American locomotive.
Return to Battery Power
Around 2006, LEGO discontinued the 9V train system. This caused a great deal of consternation among the adult fan of LEGO (AFOL) community, especially since they had just discontinued the classic grey and brown shades in favor of the newer stone (“bluish” some people call it) greys and reddish brown. The tracks lost their metal conductors, but were otherwise the same as the 9V tracks.
Trains carried 6 AA batteries onboard for 9V power, and were controlled by new infrared (IR) remote controllers. These were very unpopular with AFOLs because of their poor pulling power and lack of customizability – the battery pack and IR receiver was built into a train chassis so it was hard to build anything realistic that didn’t look like that chassis. The motor for this era was very similar to the 9V train motor, but with plastic wheels and a wire coming off it with a 9V 2×2 plate connector that would attach to the battery pack chassis. The #7898 “Cargo Train Deluxe” set is a good example of this. Fortunately, this was a short-lived phase in the LEGO train story.
Around the same time that the battery train came out, LEGO introduced the Power Functions line for TECHNIC sets, and a few years later in 2009 they released trains using the same system. Power Functions is also 9 volt, but features a new 2×2 plate connector with 4 contacts and a new IR remote control system. The tracks are the same as the previous battery powered system.
When LEGO came out with the #10194 “Emerald Night” set, the AFOL community was thrilled. In all the years of producing LEGO trains, this was the first realistic steam locomotive they had ever made, featuring new large diameter wheels. To power it, you had to build a power train using the Power Functions XL motor and gears to the wheel axles. It carried its battery box in the tender, and was controlled by the Power Functions IR controller.
They have also produced diesel trains in this line, such as the #10219 “Maersk Train”, another fan favorite. To power the diesel trains, you would use a motor block similar to the ones from the previous battery powered line, but this time with a Power Functions connector on the cable.