How Can You Tell How Old a Lionel Model Train is?

A Lionel™ train is not just any model train. It is a breathtaking and iconic collector’s item with a rich and colorful history that is over 100 years old.

You can tell how old a Lionel train is by finding the plate on the side or bottom of the train. If you have no luck, you can always check the manual. The next step is to search a Greenburg’s Guide, which should tell you the year your train was made and how much it is worth. 

You may have a valuable train that you can either boast as a collector or cash in on. If you want to know how you can tell how old a Lionel model train is, hop aboard this article and find out!

What Are Lionel Trains?

Lionel trains are cherished model trains that are collector’s items. The company has been making model trains and accessories since 1900. Lionel trains make O gauge rail products, and some of their specialties include:

  • Engines
  • Freight cars
  • Passenger cars
  • Cabooses
  • Buildings
  • Scale models (trains)

Lionel model trains include toy trains and model railroads created meticulously by the company to match the real thing in a smaller size. These models can be very valuable, depending on the year they were made and the model’s rarity.  

Most Lionel collectors received their first model train when they were a child, and their love of the trains grew into a hobby that carried over into adulthood. The quality of the model depends on the style and era when they were made, so knowing the manufacturing year is the key to judging the value of the train.

The trains can sell anywhere between twenty dollars to a few thousand dollars. The average Lionel model train will sell for a few hundred dollars, but how well it sells predominantly depends on how well it is made and the year, it was manufactured.

o scale train

How To Find Out How Old the Model Train is

Knowing the age of your model train can help you in many ways. Understanding your model train’s age makes it easier to determine how much it is worth. Some people like to know how old their model train is because it adds to the enjoyment of owning something so priceless. You have bragging rights if you have a classic model train worth something.

Knowing when your train was manufactured can determine how much money you stand to make if you choose to sell. Other collectors may be clamoring for the exact model you have. It would benefit you to know how old your model trains are for this reason. The following are different ways you can find out:

Look Closely at the Model

You do not need to take apart the train to determine its age. If you can read it, you may be able to locate a small metal inscription on the side or the bottom of the train. There may also be information on the model itself in an area that you may not think to look at. If you absolutely cannot find the number, take it apart just to be sure.

Make Sure No Pieces Are Missing

You want to ensure that you have all the pieces accompanying your train. If any parts are missing, it can be detrimental to your whole collection. You may want to try checking the following for the number:

  • Locomotive
  • Wheels
  • Tender
  • Motor
  • The original box in which the train came

Make sure you have sufficient light when taking the train apart to see what you are doing. You do not want to risk breaking any delicate parts or being unable to put it back together correctly.

Check the Manual 

Check the user manual of your railroad kit. If you cannot locate it, you may be able to find it online. If that does not work, you can get in touch with the company and see if you can get some information. They can provide a manual for you to find the corresponding number that should be on the train.

Go to the Manufacturer Directly

Do not go to a pawn shop dealer because they tend to lie about the value and rip people off. Trust the manufacturer only when it comes to your model train, as they have nothing to gain by lying to you. The company who made the trains will have records and documentation of the information you need and will be able to help you better.

Search a Greenburg’s Guide

A Greenburg’s Guide will give you helpful information. You can order one online from Amazon for a reasonable price. They have different years and eras from when the trains were made, and there are many volumes to choose from. If it turns out that you happen to have an original Lionel piece from the late 1950s, and it is in good condition, you can expect to make a pretty penny from it.

Go to a Professional Collector or Hobby Store Owner

You may just want to leave the job up to the professionals. They may be better able to help you figure out when the train was made and how much it is worth. They do this sort of thing for a living, and they may know some tricks to find out that you, as a collector, are not privy to. There may also be trustworthy places online that you can take a gander at.

Visit the Library

Not only does the library most likely have a Greenburg’s Guide, but it may also have a price guide for pre-war Lionel equipment. Make sure you carefully read the section on grading. If your trains are not in mint condition, they will not be worth much, regardless of age or rarity. You may also be able to find out from the National Toy Train Library. They will be happy to answer any questions you might have.

The Identification Guide for Lionel Electric Trains

This website for Identifying Lionel Electric Trains covers Post-War era trains only. If you think you may have a Post-War train, you can go to the website, and they can help you identify your train, which will get you closer to the year it was made. It will be somewhere between 1945 to 1969.


When you know the provenance, you can prove the lineage of something. The technical definition of provenance, according to Merriam-Webster, is “the history of ownership of a valued object.”  Many people who collect Lionel trains inherited them.

For example, let’s say that your grandfather gave you a set of vintage Lionel trains, and with that set, he gave you a letter that states that he got these trains from his father when he was eight. If you know when your grandfather was born, you can deduce how old the trains are and figure out how much they are worth.

Proof of Purchase (Proof of Provenance)

Part of proving provenance is verifying the sale with a receipt. Even better than a simple letter is a receipt that shows the date on which the train set was purchased. A certificate of authenticity is another excellent way to demonstrate provenance.

Anniversary Editions

If you have an anniversary edition train set, you will know the age of the train. For example, there is a special 115th-anniversary edition called Anniversary Berkshire. Only 250 pieces were made, and each numbered locomotive includes a certificate of authenticity. It is a collector’s dream come true!

What is the Difference Between Pre-War and Post-War Trains?

Pre-War and Post-War trains have different values. Pre-War refers to the period before World War II, and Post-War is the period directly after it. The following explains the difference between Pre and Post-War trains.

 Pre-War Lionel Trains

The Pre-War era is from the years 1901 to 1942. Wet-cell batteries powered the first Lionel electric trains. The trains were hazardous for this reason. A 110-volt transformer later replaced the batteries. The following are notable events throughout the years:

  • 1915 introduced Lionel O gauge trains
  • 1920s business declined due to Great Depression
  • 1939 saw the discontinuation of Lionel Standard Gauge

Pre-War trains sell, on average, for only a few hundred dollars per lot. It can sell for a few thousand dollars if it is an outstanding or unusual piece in mint condition.

Post-War Lionel Trains

The Post-War era is after World War II between 1945 and 1969. Toy manufacturers during this time were interested in helping the war effort. The company stopped producing model trains to create compasses for the United States Army. Production resumed in 1945. Lionel O gauge model railroad sets were very popular and made many memorable Christmases for young children all over the country. They also developed:

  • Magnetic knuckle couplers
  • Remote uncoupling
  • Diesel engines
  • Realistic railroads

New designs and colors were created to appeal to the masses. Lionel train sales skyrocketed in the 1950s, but with the advent of television, model trains hit a significant slump in sales. The rights to Lionel trains were eventually sold to General Mills™. The Post-War era is still a viable period for collectors. You can make a lot of money depending on the particular piece.

old lionel trains

The General Mills Era

The era from 1969 to 1995 was the Fundimensions Era. During this era, cheap materials were utilized to make the trains. This era is a total dud, as nothing memorable or unique was created. The only item worth mentioning is the Mickey Mouse train set produced in 1977.

Lionel LLC Trains

This era sought the improvement of the model train products. As technology changes, Lionel Trains implements new technologies in its trains. In 2004, the Polar Express model train set was a heavy seller, restoring the company’s reputation.

What Are the Most Prized Lionel Trains?

Lionel trains hold a special place in many collectors’ hearts, and they will often pay good money to have the most unique, nostalgic, and valuable trains in their collection. Again, it all depends on the era when the train was made and the condition. The subsequent includes some of the most valuable Lionel trains ever made:

The Sears Christmas Set

On countless Christmas mornings, the Sears Christmas set brought pure delight to many children. It is from the year 1959. It comes with:

  • Baggage
  • Coach
  • Animals
  • Buildings
  • Windmill
  • Red, Black, or Gold locomotive

It was the train set that many kids would include at the top of their list for Santa! A voice dispatcher recording also accompanies the Christmas set to show authenticity. It is valued somewhere between $300 and $500.

Lionel Trains 100th Anniversary 24K Gold

This train set came out in 2000 when Lionel trains celebrated its 100th anniversary. The train is truly a state-of-the-art experience. It comes with:

  • Operating smoke
  • Rail sounds
  • Wireless tether
  • Train Master Control

The train was praised for its realistic qualities. It brought back many fond memories for older folks, and newer generations got their first taste of Lionel trains. It is valued somewhere between $650 to $850.

Lionel No. 2169 Freight Set

This Lionel train set has the most exemplary engine of its generation. It moves on an O-gauge rail track. The train comes with:

  • Valley hopper
  • Lumbar flatcar
  • Caboose
  • Auto Dump Car

This train set is from the year 1950, and it also includes a remote control system. It is valued somewhere between $1,500 to $2,500.

Halloween General Set

The train set was created to be a limited edition set of 7,300 designs. It boasts classic Halloween colors of orange and black locomotives. The passenger cars are blue. It has a small transformer, and the track comes in the shape of figure 8. It came out in 1960 and is valued between $299 to $399.

Lionel Girls Train Set

Who says trains are just for boys? This limited-edition train set comes in gorgeous soft pastel colors for girls. These included:

  • Petal pink
  • Baby blue
  • Buttercup yellow
  • Lavender

This model is one of the most valuable train sets ever made. It was created in 1955, and its value is between $10,000 and $15,000.

Lionel Standard Gauge

This version was the first significant Lionel train ever sold. It is a Lionel Standard Gauge train set made in 1934. In 2016, this train set, complete with locomotive and traveler cars, sold at an auction for $250,000. It is valued somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000. It shows you that if you have the correct item with the excellent year, you can get a lot of money for your Lionel train!


There are many ways you can find out the age of your Lionel train. Whether you are an avid collector or looking to make a few extra bucks (or a thousand!), it would be worth it to find out the age and worth of your model train.


Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

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