When you think of electric trains – even if you aren’t a hobbyist – the name Lionel probably comes to mind. It’s one of the oldest train makers in the world, and they are known for their outstanding quality, true-to-life design, and huge selection of trains and sets that range from real-life rail lines across North America to fantasy lines based on Harry Potter.
A common question about Lionel trains is, “Do Lionel trains run on AC or DC power?” Today, you can find the answer to this question as well as learn more about Lionel’s history, their popularity over the years, the electric train options they offer, and more.
The Founding of Lionel
The Lionel company was founded by a man named Joshua Lionel Cowen, who was born in 1877, which was even before the first electric lightbulb was introduced. Cowen grew up in an exciting time, when the railroads that would facilitate the Industrial Revolution were being built from coast to coast. Virtually every child was fascinated by passenger rail lines like the Peerless Twentieth Century Limited during these times, and they all dreamed of the opportunity to ride one through the scenic countryside themselves.
Cowen founded the Lionel company in the year 1900, and by this time, he was already known for several successful inventions. One of his first patents, in fact, was a tiny device that ignited flash powder in antique cameras, something that changed photography for the better. Later, he used another variation of that invention alongside the US Navy for mine detonation.
His first toy train, the Electric Express, was one of his favorite undertakings, so it comes as no real surprise that much of his focus and his money went toward developing it even further. He built it for the owner of a toy store where he had seen his first wooden toy train on display in the window. Later, the battery used to power the Electric Express was converted to a 100-volt electric transformer, and it was included in all 12 models of the Electric Express that were eventually sold.
The History of Electricity in Lionel Trains
The very first Lionel train, the Electric Express, was battery-powered. However, not long after the first Electric Express went on the market, Lionel began incorporating a 100-volt AC/DC transformer into the model and into all of its subsequent offerings. While today’s Lionel trains make use of a relatively inexpensive DC motor, the trains include electronics that are designed to convert AC power into DC. It’s important to use only modern AC transformers on today’s Lionel trains.
In the 20th Century, most homes had only alternating current, or AC, but there were a few parts of the country that ran primarily on direct current, or DC. At the time that the first electric trains were developed, there were still plenty of homes that didn’t have any electricity at all, and parents would connect their kids’ train sets to car batteries, instead. (This is not recommended today, but for the time, it was very clever.)
By the 1970s and 80s, things had changed a great deal. Most homes ran on AC power, just as they do today, and thanks to new technologies, small, inexpensive DC motors hit the market. This resulted in a huge influx of electric-powered toys, which slowly drowned out electric trains. In order to remain relevant, the Lionel company began incorporating those inexpensive DC motors and powerpacks into some of their own offerings that were directed at what we would call “big box stores” today – places like K-Mart, for example. Unfortunately, those trains weren’t at all compatible with their higher-end offerings running on AC, which caused confusion among hobbyists who wanted to mix and match their sets. As such, Lionel stopped their low-cost offerings in the 1980s and stuck to its higher-end merchandise.
Eventually, technology improved to the point that Lionel could go back to utilizing inexpensive DC motors thanks to electronics that converted AC into DC safely, and this is the case to this day. There are many hobbyists who claim to run their trains on DC power, and while it might be possible, there are significant risks involved. As such, you should only use Lionel AC transformers on their modern products.
The Rise and Fall of Lionel from 1900-1960s
Lionel trains were huge from their invention all the way up through the late 1920s, but the Great Depression caused Lionel some heartbreak as it did many businesses in those days. In fact, in 1931, Lionel experienced its first year in the red, and things only got more difficult for them from there. By 1934, they found themselves in court doing everything they could to stave off bankruptcy. Fortunately, they succeeded, because the company was profitable again the following year – and every year since then! One of the most popular collector trains ever invented, the No. 700E New York Central Hudson, was released that year, and it had picture-perfect details that appealed to adults more than children.
The 1940s introduced a new series of challenges for the popular electric train manufacturer. Though they did enjoy some financial benefit due to defense production, toy train production was put on hold throughout WWII to route materials where they were needed most. Lionel’s Model Builder Magazine became every hobbyist’s pride and joy, so even though they could not buy new train models during this time, families would use the magazine to dream up new configurations.
Production picked up again soon thereafter, and in 1946, Lionel unveiled new products unlike the world had never seen, including locomotives that would puff real smoke, a remote-controlled coupling system, and a true-to-scale water tower that came with a moving spout. America’s love affair with trains was rekindled, and Lionel’s product offerings – many of which were modeled after real rail lines – reflected this.
The 1950s were Lionel’s true Golden Age. They had record profits every year and released some of its most beloved products of all time – some of which continue to trade for thousands of dollars in today’s modern world. In 1959, though, Cowen and his father, Lawrence Cohen, who had owned the company since its inception, sold all of their interest in Lionel to their distant relative, Roy Cohn. Through the 1960s, during America’s social revolution, Lionel lost its footing somewhat, so Cohn attempted to diversify the company with slot cars, science kits, and phonographs. They were not received well, and Lionel Catalogs that were once so beloved were now uninteresting. The Twentieth Century Limited had its last run in 1967, and the company sold off its licensing to General Mills, a cereal manufacturer, in 1969.
The 1970s to Today
By the time 1970 rolled around, there was little left of Lionel other than holdings in toy stores. General Mills bought them out along with numerous other brands, including Kenner, Parker Brothers, and more. Fortunately, General Mills rebranded Lionel as part of its Fundimensions line, which finally took off with new offerings that were just as amazing – if not even better than – the original trains! The Mickey Mouse Express was the highlight of the 1970s for Lionel, and it is still a cherished collectible today. Collectors trade them for thousands of dollars to fix them and display them proudly.
The 1980s brought with them another brush with disaster as General Mills outsourced the production of Lionel trains to Mexico in 1982, but the sheer loss of profits caused them to bring production back into the US just two years later. They also brought out the No. 783 that year, which was a recreation of its most beloved steam locomotive of all time – the No. 773 Hudson. The following year, Lionel became part of Kenner-Parker, and in 1986, the company was purchased by Richard Kughn, who bought the brand and re-established it as a clear winner. They added realistic sounds to its offerings in 1989, and since then, they have become an integral part of collecting for decades.
Richard Kughn sold Lionel in 1995, and its first full-color catalog in decades was sent to the masses in 1996. To commemorate the 21st Century, the company introduced the 700 E J-1E Hudson, complete with 24-karat gold and platinum plating. Their Legacy® and Vision lines were introduced in 2008 and 2009, and those caught the attention of the avid adult collectors.
Today, Lionel Trains is a popular name among avid collectors of all ages, and fathers lovingly pass down their collections – some of which take up entire rooms and include lovingly hand-painted scenery – to their children. Lionel hopes to continue to provide some of the world’s most popular electric trains for many years to come. With more than 120 years of providing quality products, collectors insist that their trains are not toys. They are incredibly realistic replicas of some of America’s most beloved rail lines, and their memories will live on forever.