TL: How did you become interested with Lionel trains?
SF: I have been into toy trains all my life. My father’s father was big into Lionel. He passed before I was born. I was the first grandchild after he passed so I was brain washed from the family. Everything was train related.
TL: How long have you been collecting them?
SF: I’ve been collecting on my own since I was about 18. Before that, I had my grandfather and father’s old trains. My dad also had gotten me a few HO sets to play with at Christmas.
TL: What’re “HO” sets?
SF: HO trains are another scale. It got its name as it is half of O gauge. Because the trains are smaller, they are more to scale than O gauge. Starter sets can be cheaper as well. Like I said, I started with that at Christmas time as a kid. When I got a bit older, the Lionel’s (O scale) came out of the attic and I never went back.
TL: Can you tell us a bit about your set up? You have the two, one in your basement & one in your yard? Do you run the outside one year round & if not how do you protect it from the harsh winters?
SF: My inside layout is a 10 1/2′ X 23′ O scale (1:48) layout. It has two levels and passes through the wall separating the layout room from the laundry room. I have two residential areas, a city, and two mountains with tunnels on both levels. I started working on the layout weeks after I bought the house in 2009. Construction began in early 2011. By late 2013 I had most of the scenery complete. About a year ago I started making a few changes on scenery. Over the summer, I began working on a trolley line and added a new city area. I’m hoping next year to add a 3rd level with a NYC style elevated train.
My outside layout is a 8’X20″ G scale (1:29) layout. The track and trains are all by LGB. The track is made to be outside year round in the elements. I bring the trains in most every night, depending on the weather. The power comes from a transform in side wired to the track outside. I have a handheld controller that I plug into an outlet I installed.
TL: Can you tell us the difference between O & G scale?
SF: O scale and G scale are two different sizes. O scale is 1:48 where G scale is approx 1:29. G scale was developed to run outside. I have seen a few indoor G scale layouts, but the majority are outdoor.
TL: How many trains do you have running at once?
SF: I can run one train on the outside layout and currently 5 trains on the inside layout.
TL: What gauge do you prefer?
SF: I model in O (1:48) and G (1:29) gauges. I also have a standard gauge train that was my grandfathers. It is from 1935. I don’t currently operate it but it is on display in the layout room.
TL: Do you have any old Lionel trains? If so, what is the oldest?
SF: I do have a few old trains. The standard gauge, again, is from 1935 and some of my older O gauge trains are from the later 1940, early 1950’s.
TL: Is it true you’ve been hired to set up people’s sets for them?
SF: Yes and no. Haha. Just after Christmas last year, my old Cub Scout leader got in touch with me. He is on the town’s Shade Tree Commission. They were doing a railroad history project. Dumont at one point had 5 tracks as well as yards and a wye track for turning locomotives around. He asked me to build a layout in O gauge showing how the wye track operated. He also gave me some N scale trains to build a layout with. I made a 2′ X 5′ layout complete with a tunnel, spur track and a river. After he saw how it all came out, he suggested I go into business to help people build their dream layouts.
TL: Can you tell us what the “wye” track is?
SF: A wye track is a means of turning a train or locomotive around. It is made up of three switch tracks that form a Y. It is basically a three point turn for a train, if that makes sense.
TL: How do you help people with their sets?
SF: I can design, build, wire, scenic, or some combination layouts for people. Currently I am working on building a small lake for my neighbor’s train set. Some people don’t know where to start, other don’t know how to make mountains. Whatever help someone needs, I can provide.
TL: It sounds like you need to know some electrical for this?
SF: Basic electrical knowledge helps. It can be as simple as two wires to the tracks and that’s it. It all depends on what you are looking for. On my layout, I have 2 trains operating on 1 track using a series of relays. It gives a more lifelike appearance.
TL: How often do you run your trains?
SF: I run my trains a few times a week. My son is 17 months old and loves going down to the basement or outside and watch the trains run. He can sit and watch for hours. A chip of the old block…haha.
TL: What is the inspiration for your train sets both the indoor & outdoor?
SF: The outdoor layout I wanted because I always found it magical to have model trains outside. It’s relaxing to come home from work, fire up the grill, and run the trains and just sit and relax.
The inside layout went through many designs before I found something I was happy with. I looked at many layouts online and in magazines, and also real life to get ideas of what I wanted. Even with the size layout I have, it was still a challenge to fit everything in.
TL: How do you build them? Are there official Lionel pieces like stores & buildings? Do you build anything from scratch yourself like mountains?
SF: The inside layout is built on 2X4 framework with 1/2″ plywood. The buildings are from Lionel and MTH. The track is from Atlas O. I went with their track because of the look of it. The mountains were scratch built using cardboard strips and plaster cloth. I then made rocks using plastic and foam.
TL: Is “MTH” another train company?
SF: MTH is another model train manufacture.
TL: Are there Lionel conventions & if so do you go to them?
SF: I attend local train shows put on by dealers. The big ones are down in Edison, NJ 3 times a year.
TL: Are you a member of the Lionel Collectors Club of America?
SF: I’m not.
TL: Do you run a Lionel train round your Christmas tree each year?
SF: I do. I run Lionel’s Polar Express.
TL: Do you have a favorite train?
SF: That’s like asking do you have a favorite child. Haha. Currently, the one I enjoy running the most is my Strasburg Railroad set. Strasburg is in the heart of the PA Amish country. I have been vacationing there most of my life and have rode the railroad countless time. When Lionel released #89 I had to get it. MTH had scale passenger cars to match. I’d say that is my favorite. I also have emotional attachment to my dad and granddad’s old trains.
TL: Since you’ve been a Lionel fan how have the trains changed during the years?
SF: When I was born in 1981, Lionel was producing less than stellar products. Lots of plastic and cheap parts. With the formation of MTH, Lionel had to step up to stay in the game. They delivered. With the development of Command Control as well as rail sounds, the trains are back to metal, mostly, and are a quality product.
TL: Is this when Lionel was creating their trains out of the country?
SF: Lionel began sending production overseas in 2000. The trains of the 70’s and 80’s were made here but done so poorly. That is not a knock on American labor. HO and N had become very popular and Lionel’s were for under the Christmas tree. With a low demand, quality unfortunately suffered.
TL: Do you collect Lionel memorabilia like the old Lionel consumer catalogs or the more modern items?
SF: I have a few books and catalogs, but I don’t collect them. I try to give them away when kids visit the layout. The old old ones that were my grandfathers I keep though.
TL: What’s your advice to those who would like to start their own Lionel collection?
SF: Start small. A 4X8 sheet of plywood is a great start. Work on your track planning, wiring, and scenery. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. On more than one occasion, I ripped out a portion of the layout and started over. Most important of all, take your time. Trains are supposed to be fun and relaxing, not stressful.
TL: Steve, thank you for taking the time out to talk with us. We wish you the best in your collecting.
SF: My pleasure.