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Lego Trains is a product range and theme of the construction toy Lego, which incorporates buildable train sets. Products in the range have included locomotives, tracks, rolling stock, train stations, signal houses, and other track-side buildings. The theme is popular among adult fans, as well as children, and has spawned international associations and conventions. The train system is sometimes referred to as 'L-gauge' amongst fans, in reference to traditional model railway scales.
The design of Lego trains has developed substantially, with several different systems introduced, with varying degrees of cross-compatibility.
Lego trains were first introduced in 1966 with Lego set number 080. The train sets used blue rails, and the first train sets were simply push-along. Set number 115 introduced 4.5 volt battery operated trains (initially the battery box was handheld, but train sets soon contained a railcar that carried the battery box), and train sets numbered 720 (1969) and up operated on 12 volt electrified rails, introduced in 1969. In 1972, 4.5 volt trains gained a monolithic railcar that carried the batteries and contained both a bottom-mounted stop button to be actuated by signals, as well as a side-mounted lever for manual go/stop/back control and tripping by a track-side pivot. All three kinds (push trains, 4.5 volt battery operated trains and 12 volt electric trains) existed next to each other and even allowed for upgrade. The motors were the same size, the push trains used a motor-shaped dummy block of bricks, and all used the same wheel style. These wheels had the same press-fit metal axles as used in the two larger sizes of rubber-tire Lego wheels, which also meant that both 4.5 volt and 12 volt motors were not restricted to use in trains. A push train could be updated to a battery operated train and a battery operated train could be updated to an electric train. Since 1969 the motor housings for 4.5 volt and 12 volt are equal and can be equipped with either a 4.5 volt or 12 volt Bühler motor unit. These motor units were sold separately as a replacement part until around 1990. In or before 1976, the 4.5 volt motor gained a hole for driving the then white cross-axles of the size not yet known as Technic. Railcars began as spartan constructions of train-specific wheels and couplers attached to car bases made from universal plates and bricks, but these were quickly replaced by black single-piece bases in two lengths that included captive wheels and couplers.
In 1980 the trains theme received a major overhaul. The colour of the tracks was changed from blue to grey, and the 12 volt transformer changed to support utility functions in a more streamlined style with control switches that docked alongside the transformer, following the design style of increasingly streamlined model train controls of the time. The utility functions now included remotely-controlled points, signals, wagon de-couplers and level crossings. The models gained a much more realistic appearance, including some with much longer carriage/wagon bodies and swivel bogies, and there were special windows which simulated having a pull-down glass section. The railcar bases were now again assembled from train-specific wheels and coupler and a greatly increased number of universal pieces.
Battery operated trains were still available. The motor was kept unchanged. Upgrading a battery operated train to a 12 volt electric train required changes to the train to fit the smaller, redesigned 12 volt motor underneath. The fixed wheels of the new 12 volt motor were black, finalizing the color scheme that had developed in the blue-track era, where 12 volt locomotives started to be distinguished by black wheels.
The 1980 train catalog enticed Lego fans with nighttime dioramas featuring lampposts and lights inside the trains. Even though light bricks of the same size were available in both 12 volt and 4.5 volt guise, the train headlight/taillight (using unique prisms and holder bricks) and lamppost sets were normally only available with the expensive 12 volt light bricks included. Making these theoretically universal features available only as 12 volt items served to further elevate the 12 volt system away from the more limited 4.5 volt system.
The 12 volt line was promoted in a 1983 UK television advert featuring a group of adults planning a 'mail train robbery'.
9 volt system
1991 saw again a major overhaul in the train line. Tracks gained a new appearance with power being transmitted directly through metal strips on the two running rails. The new line abandoned the 12 volt power in favor of the 9 volt system to make it compatible to the battery operated elements found in the Lego 'Light & Sound' line of sets. The remote-controlled accessories from the 12 volt system were also abandoned, with only manual point control available and no signaling capabilities. At the same time, the 9 volt train motor was made train-specific by its fixed wheels, while the similarly sized 9 volt universal motor changed from individual metal axles wheel holes to axle holes for Technic axles, for which there were no train wheels available.
Previous 12 volt locomotives were not compatible with the new system without modification, due to the change in voltage and means of powering the motor, although it was possible to retrofit them with 9 volt motors. The gauge did not change, therefore older rolling stock could still be used.
The continuing availability of the train system was thrown into doubt in 2006, with the release of the first 'remote control' train sets, which used battery-powered motors and did not have metal conducting strips in the tracks. For about a year, both systems were available, with the 9 volt system being marketed under a "Hobby Train" brand, available direct from Lego. By the end of 2007, the 9 volt system had been discontinued.
In 2006, Lego introduced a new line of remote control trains. In an effort to reduce the cost of the track, Lego returned to making track entirely made out of plastic (foregoing the metal rails), and introduced a new train motor powered by batteries and controlled via an infrared remote control. To enable the models to be battery powered, the powered vehicles had a specific train base, which was 6 studs wide to accommodate a snap fitting battery pack.
The new battery-powered system had some advantages over the 9 volt trains; it allowed more than one train to be controlled independently at once, and track layouts did not have to worry about matching up the polarity of the rails. However, the infrared remote control introduced problems of range, and the use of batteries required them to be replaced or recharged at regular intervals.
The lower production costs of the plastic track allowed Lego to introduce a new double crossover track piece (first produced in 2007, now discontinued), and the track itself was available at a cheaper price than the 9 volt track.
Power Functions Trains
On October 1, 2007, Lego announced that they would discontinue both the 9 volt and the RC train formats in favour of a new system. The announcement cited a lack of sufficient demand for the 9 volt product line to be profitable, caused partly by the need to replace key machinery and place minimum orders for motors and power regulators. The new range was announced as launching in 2009, and would use the new 'Power Functions' system also used in the Technic line, which would allow the company to "amortize the development and on going cost across multiple themes".
The new system was introduced in the summer of 2009 with the release of a new train called "Emerald Night", modelled on a steam locomotive. This train was sold without a motor as set number 10194, but was also available as a 'collection' along with the necessary parts to power it, which were also sold separately. These included a new rechargeable battery box, a new infrared remote controller, plus a Power Functions motor and infrared receiver.
The track was unchanged from the RC Trains sets, and in 2009 flexible track was introduced.
Lego trains are very popular amongst adult fans of Lego. Various Lego Train clubs exist around the world, who are in turn supported by the worldwide International Lego Train Club Organization (ILTCO), which was founded by Steve Barile & Mike Walsh to promote Lego railroading as model train standard.
A number of these Lego train clubs exhibit large model train layouts at various community functions, train shows, and Lego conventions, such as BrickFest. Some of the largest layouts in the United States have been the result of ILTCO's lead combined efforts by several train clubs at the 2005, 2006, and 2007 National Model Railroad Association national conventions. Lego has also introduced train sets designed by members of the Lego community, for example, Santa Fe set by James Mathis, and the Train Factory set in March 2007.
The community is also supported by a magazine about Lego trains called Railbricks, created by Jeramy Spurgeon and written by Lego train fans from around the world.
A computer program called Track designer was created by Matt Bates to help fans plan track layouts. This program is no longer supported, but was the inspiration for similar programs such as TrackDraw by Cary Clark (no longer supported), and BlueBrick by Alban Nanty.
- Getting Started with Lego Trains. By Jacob H. McKee. No Starch Press, 2004. ISBN 1-59327-006-2.
- Lego Trains on Brickset
- Bill Ward's Brickpile: Track Layout Geometry
- Much over Lego trains & buildings