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LEGO Train Systems

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4,5V system (blue era), 12V system (grey era) and 9V system

During the last decades LEGO has re-invented his train system on and on. Looking at the rails and the drive by the train motors you'll find many different systems which – more or less – are compatible to each other.

First of all, the gauge of LEGO trains did not change over the years. The gauge is 6 studs (~38 mm or "L-Gauge").

It is not very easy to remain clear-headed …

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4,5V system (blue era), 12V system (blue era), 4,5V system (grey era), 12V system (grey era) and 9V system

The main important eras are:

  • New: Metal Rails by third party manufacturer "ME-Models"
  • PowerFunctions
  • RC – Remote Control
  • 9V system
  • 12V system (grey era)
  • 4,5V system (grey era)
  • 12V system (blue era)
  • 4,5V system (blue era)
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Curve Radius

Curve Radius 

The radius of LEGO train track did not change over the various eras. From the middle of the track the radius is 40 studs. A larger curve radius however can be realised with a trick.

The third party manufacturer www.me-models.com has announced further radii in the sizes 56 studs, 72 studs and 88 studs for Metal Rails.

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Switch/Points Geometry

Switch/Points Geometry

The geometry of LEGO train track switches/points was change with the 9V system. The parallel track is now 8 studs aside the main track. The parallel track at the 4,5V/12V system is directly at the main track without any gap.

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Metal Rails by ME-Models [image by © www.me-models.com]

Metal Rails by ME-Models 

After LEGO has stopped producing current-carrying metal tracks a new market is open for third party manufacturers. On April, 1st 2011 the American manufacturer "ME-Models" has announced it's "Metal Rails". The rails are current-carring and fully compatible to the discontinued 9V system.

These rails are offered in various lengths: 64 studs (Quad), 32 studs (Double), 16 studs and 8 studs (Half). From May 2011 also different wider curve radii are announced.

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Metal Rails by ME-Models [image by © www.me-models.com]

The "Metal Rails" are sold in various package options. They contain either dark bluish-grey or redish-brown sleepers and some special elements to connect "Metal Rails" to your existing 9V tracks.

  1. Read the review on my Metal Rails page!
  2. More at the website (including shopping) www.me-models.com
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Self build Steam engine with PowerFunction drive: Baureihe 23 [more]

PowerFunction Trains

PowerFunctions as standard system to electrify LEGO models found it's way to LEGO trains. PowerFunction trains carry their power on board and they could be used on all rail types. LEGO themselfs offer PowreFunction trains with plastic rails these days.

For any new LEGO train fan who is just starting to build and collect LEGO trains I would recommend complete LEGO sets as LEGO offers them today: Cargo train #7939, Passenger train #7938 or the new 2011 Cargo train #3677.

If you are more experienced in LEGO trains you will love LEGO train sets like Emerald Night #10194 ar Maersk train #10219. You can include your PowerFunction drive or any other electric system yourself.

Use the various PowerFunctions components and the PowerFunction trainmotor #88002 if you build your own train models, especially when it comes to steam engines. Meanwhile also various different train wheels are offered.

Power: PowerFunctions
Type of rails: plastic rails (no metal)
Rails: straight, curved, straight and flex-track
Sets: Cargo train #7939, Passenger train #7938, 2011 Cargo train #3677, Emerald Night #10194, Maersk train #10219
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RC train #7897 [image by © LEGO]

RC Train

The RC (Remote Control) system by LEGO was just an intermediate solution. In 2006 the current-carrying 9V track was out of production and the new PowerFunctions were not yet finished. Similar to the PowerFunctin remote control a remote control was offered to control your RC trains. A bulky train base plate with integrated battery box and receiver was used for the train. This element did not get many fans amoung the real LEGO fans because it is nearly useless while building your own creations. As Motor the #8866 was used … a very weak motor.

With RC trains LEGO also established the plastic rails. They are compatible to the former 9V track but the current-carrying metal is missing.

Power: Baseplate for trains with integrated battery box and receiver, motor #8866
Type of rails: plastic rails (no metal)
Rails: straight, curved, points/switch (right/left), cross-over switch and flex-track
Sets: Passenger train #7897, Cargo train #7898
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9V Train – Hobby Train #10183 [image by © LEGO]

9V Train

From 1991 to 2004 the 9V system was used for LEGO trains. This system is recognisable by the current-carrying tracks and the metal wheels which pick up the power for the train motor. 9V trains run very smoothly on the 9V tracks and the tracks look quite realistic. That is way LEGO fans still like this system the best. This could be observed at the astronomic prices, especially for straight 9V track pieces and 9V train motors.

On 9V track any other train powered by battery can run, e.g. PowerFunction trains or old 4,5V trains.

The available geometries for tracks are limited. But using smooth curves or ME Metal Rails you can expand the possiblities of this kind of track.

Power: 9V Trafo, current-carrying rails, 9V train motor #5300/#10153
Type of rails: current-carrying rails (~9V track)
Rails: straight, curved, points/switch (right/left), crossing
Sets: Santa Fe #10020, Metroliner #4558, Hobby Train #10183 and many others …
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12V train (grey era), my childhood layout from the 80's

12V Train (grey era)

The closest system to real model-railroading was the 12V train system back in the 1980's. The powering of the trains was done by using a heavy speed regulator (trafo) which provided power through the current-carrying middle track elements for the 12V train motor. The fun was even bigger when other remote controlled accessories like points/switches, signals, decoupling unit or a level crossing were used.

The rails were clipped on the sleepers. That made the track relative stable but setting up such a layout took some time.

Some of the 12V trains sets, e.g. the steam engine #7750, are cult objects today and high prices are paid for sets in good condition.

Ben shows in his video Classic 12V LEGO train 7740 running on Power Functions how to run a #7740 12V train with PowerFunctions only with a slight modification on the PowerFunction cable. This shows hov compatible LEGO is, even beyond the system boundaries. Just attach older connectors to the two middle wires of the PowerFunction cable. Then you can plug-in this modified cable into older LEGO motors.

Power: 12V speed regulator, current-carrying middle track element, 12V train motor #7865
Type of rails: current-carrying middle track element (~12V track), dark-grey sleepers with clip
Rails: straight, curved, points/switch (right/left), crossing
Accessories: Remote controlled level crossing #7866, decoupling unit #7862, signal #7860, fpoints/switch #7858/#7859, lighting #7861/#7867
Sets: Steam engine with tender #7750, Inter City #7740 and many others …
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4,5V train (grey era) – points/switch #7852 [image by © LEGO]

4,5V Train (grey era)

The 4,5V train system of the grey era is a further development of the 4,5V system from the blue era. It meant to be a "starter drug" into the 12V system. It was easy to replace the 4,5V motor by a 12V motor and also the rails could be reused by just adding the additional current-carrying middle track element.

Power: 3x 1,5V batteries in the battery car, 4,5V train motor #107 and others
Type of rails: plastic rails (no metal), dark-grey sleepers with clip
Rails: straight, curved, points/switch (right/left), crossing
Sets: Cargo train #7720 and a few others …
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12V train (blue era) – crossing #756 [image by © LEGO]

12V Train (blue era)

At the end of the 1960's LEGO offered the first 12V system in parallel to the 4,5V system. The powering of the trains was done by using a heavy blue speed regulator (trafo) which provided power through the current-carrying middle track elements for the 12V train motor. The accessory assortement wasn't as big as till 12V grey era times but remote controlled points/switchs were available.

Power: 12V speed regulator, current-carrying middle track element, 12V train motor x550a
Type of rails: current-carrying middle track element (~12V track), sleepers without clip (white 2x8 plates)
Rails: straight, curved, points/switch (right/left), crossing
Sets: Cargo train with rails #725 and others …
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4,5V train (blue era) – #182 [image by © LEGO]

4,5V Train (blue era)

The set #182 from 1975 is one of the biggest sets from the blue 4,5V era and it was the first LEGO train set I got as a child.

The 4,5V systems uses batteries to power the train. These batteries are carried on board in a special battery waggon. The signal could stop the train and the direction switch made the train change directions.

The rails were single blue rails and as sleepers standard 2x8 plates were used. This arrangement wasn't very stable at all.

Power: 3x 1,5V batteries in the battery car, 4,5V train motor #107 u.ä.
Type of rails: plastic rails (no metal), sleepers without clip (white 2x8 plates)
Rails: straight, curved, points/switch (right/left), crossing
Sets: Train set with signal #182 and many others …