The world of LEGO trains can be rather frustrating for the adult hobbyist. Here’s a quick primer for those who are interested in getting into this part of the LEGO hobby. (This is adapted from a comment I made on Facebook in response to someone who was just getting into LEGO trains in 2014.)
LEGO has made a few different train systems over the years:
- 4.5 volt battery trains in the 1960s and 70s used plastic track that you had to build – blue rail pieces connected to 2×8 plates to make the tracks.
- 12 volt powered trains, which I believe were only sold in Europe in the 1970s, which used the same kind of track but with grey rails, and there was also a 2-stud-wide electrical conduit that ran down the middle of the track providing the DC power from a controller. The train motors were specialized bricks with contacts that pull power from the center rails while the plastic wheels rolled on plastic tracks.
- 9 volt powered trains, widely available around the world* from the 1980s until they were discontinued in 2007. This is what most LEGO Train Clubs (LTCs) use, including BayLUG/BayLTC. The track pieces were pre-built in 16-stud lengths (and similar sizes for curves) with metal strips on the rails providing power to the trains. An external controller provided 9V DC power to the rails. The train motor used sprung metal flanges to draw power from the metal tracks, with rubber wheel hubs bearing the weight of the trains. Since discontinuing this system the parts are still available secondhand but can be expensive. It was discontinued because the parts were expensive to produce relative to the prices LEGO could charge for them, and because the toy industry in general has been moving away from products that draw power from AC line voltage for safety reasons. There is also the issue of the Great Color Change – the track having been produced in the old dark grey color, it was briefly updated to the new dark stone grey before they discontinued the 9V trains. Finding 9V track using the old dark grey is challenging these days, especially straight track (every train set featured 8 pieces of curved track, and only a couple of straights, to make an oval).
* footnote: the 9V trains were available in many countries, but at least in the USA, only sold directly by LEGO in most cases. The big box sellers (Walmart, Toys “R” Us, etc.) refused to carry LEGO trains except for each year they would often carry one train set with an oval of track. The extra track, individual rail cars, etc. were only sold direct by LEGO online or in LEGO Brand Retail stores, and so most consumers didn’t even know they existed. At public shows of our train club we would often hear “I never knew LEGO made trains” from the public.
- 9 volt battery powered trains. The track is identical to and compatible with the 9 volt powered track used previously but without metal strips on the rails (the plastic of the track is actually a little different to compensate for the missing metal material, so it’s not the same mold). The first trains in this system had an IR receiver and battery pack built into a custom chassis element, and were awful. This was later replaced with the current Power Functions system. The motor is similar to the 9V motor but with all-plastic wheels, and a wire coming out of the motor which goes to the battery pack.
If you’re just getting into LEGO trains now as a hobby, your easiest bet is to go with the Power Functions IR system, but if you really want trackside wired controllers you can still find the 9V trains parts, though they will be expensive. As mentioned above, the aftermarket rails being produced by ME Models should be available soon which would provide an alternative to authentic LEGO powered track, but you’d still need to get the controllers and train motors made by LEGO as I don’t think any third party companies have started making those.