New Products in the Market

Hobby Shop

Who of us doesn't like to go to a hobby store? In the old days kids thrilled at the sight of orange and blue boxes stacked for what seemed like miles across shelves. They wanted to take home everything they saw for sale there. In the glass cases and on operating display layouts, they could see the operating cars and accessories they dreamed of while studying the pages of the catalogs.

Lionel has produced an accessory that captures that time and feeling with their new No. 500 Hobby Shop. It is a great-looking product, with a lot of detail that is easy to miss at a casual glance. The store seems to be circa 1954, since that's what catalogs are placed on the counter. Along the walls are large poster advertisements also from 1954.

There is a mix of small model trains on shelves and in photographs. Those scrutinizing the shop for any gaffes will notice depictions of the General set (not made until 1959) and the store clerk holding up what looks to be a GE diesel in Santa Fe war bonnet colors. These chronological mistakes certainly don't detract from the accessory's appeal. 

The shop is populated with eleven painted figures. The two model planes, which have to be installed by the operator, are nice ornaments. The giant skylight can be removed to give a better view of the interior. Six low-voltage lamps are used to illuminate the accessory. Three are wired in series to illuminate the interior and three are wired in series to illuminate the front of the shop, including the circle-L logo. They are delicate lamps and when one goes out, the other two on the same circuit go out as well. It isn't much fun to try and see which lamp is the dud as none of them are easy to access. There are also two blinking crossing signals in the back of the store. You have to look through the front of the store to see them in operation.

The grand feature of the shop is the three operating layouts. They are all powered by a single motor and all travel in clock-wise direction. Again, don't look for all the sets to be accurate Lionel product representations from circa 1954, but who cares? The detail of the layouts, especially the scenery was exceptionally well-done. It would have been easy for the designers to be satisfied with flat layouts but both of the larger ones feature mountains that the trains pass through. The ground cover could have been merely spray-painted on but the green areas are applied simulated grass. The overall result of this design is one of the best-looking accessories in the hobby.

The Hobby Shop is also one of the more expensive accessories. The suggested retail price is $400.00. That's too much for a lot of people who would love to have this piece if only for the sheer appearance of it. It would have been nice if a non-operating version could have been made and available for about half the price. There have been reports that many shops had problems with the trains operating. On ours they work fine. The terminal posts are cleverly decorated as fire hydrants. It is imperative that operators wire the shops exactly as the instructions dictate. There are circuit boards involved and the wrong wires hooked to the wrong posts will result in a blown board.

Cantilever Signal Bridge

Lionel's MainLine Accessories added a new slant to their product line. Some of these items were die-cast versions of traditional Lionel accessories, such as the 252 Crossing Gate and 310 Billboard Set. Others were new scale products for those building Hi-rail layouts. These included signals and bridges.

The new Cantilever Signal Bridge is a scale design made of die-cast. It is a lot like the design of the 452 Gantry Signal, but with a lot more detail. Instead of sections of stamped steel this item has simulated rivets amid the cross-truss sections, making it look more realistic. There's a handrail along the catwalk and a good-looking signal assembly mounted on it. The signal includes a post with cone-like finials at each end and two separate signals fixed on it. The signal is very sturdy. The base is big and heavy enough that the accessory can stand firmly upright without the need for an extension or fasteners to keep it from falling over.

The upper signal has three targets and the lower has two. There are only red and green aspects. Again, I will publicly suggest that Lionel develops block signals that include amber aspects. Lamps are used for the signals. I like this better than LEDs, particularly because the green lamps look green and not "lemon-lime" as LEDs tend to look.

By the way, the real railroads are changing their signals from light bulbs to LEDs. You can tell if a crossing signal is using LEDs if there isn't a "fade off" when the targets blink back and forth. Modern crossing signals also feature electronic warning bells and LEDs on the gates.

But back to the Lionel signal. The use of lamps on it raises an interesting issue. Ordinarily when a bulb burns out, an operator can replace it with no problem. But on this signal, the bulbs seem to be firmly connected to the targets and the targets are riveted to the post. The instruction sheet suggests that you call the service department and they can help in case of burned out bulbs. Since Lionel doesn't repair items out of warranty, and warranties last for one year, I have to wonder if these signals with all of their original lamps operating will be a rare find twenty years from now. Better not operate them with the voltage too high.

It comes with the ancient 153C contactor in case some of you out there still set your trains up on a hard wood floor. Modern day permanent layouts will need to look into more reliable activators. The signal assembly is firmly attached to the walkout so one cannot flip it to the other side. This means the signal must always be installed on the left side of the tracks towards an approaching train. 

Chicago Subway Set

The Chicago El, also known as the CTA, is a famous Chicago icon and is as recognized as the red double-decker buses in London. Every movie filmed in Chicago fits a shot in of the El roaring by. MTH has made a fun 4-car set modeled after the modern versions of these trains, which also runs on ground level and in subways throughout the city.

If you're used to running MTH products equipped with Proto-Sounds, you are familiar with cycling through the station announcements using the direction button. This set includes a new sound feature called TAS, which is part of the Proto-Sound package. Instead of using the direction button to activate the station announcements, you need to have a bell activation button on your layout. The new sounds include passenger conversations and subway station noises such as other trains passing by. The TAS feature can also be used to control the operation of the train. The bell button stops the train which then makes a station announcement and station sounds before automatically moving forward again. As much as the Lionel Hobby Shop is fun to look at, this set is just as much fun to listen to.

The cars are made of ABS plastic. The interiors include the detail MTH has been incorporating on all of their passenger cars. Since the windows are so big installing passenger figures would really dress-up the set well. Each car is illuminated by four lights. The powered unit has two motors and directional headlights and tail lights. You may have noticed the different colored simulated lights on the top of the power car. These are paint and not lenses or LEDs. There is a Proto-coupler on the front of the power unit. There isn't much use for it but what-the-hey, it's an extra feature. Each car has a stamped metal frame and diecast trucks, lending to the heaviness of the set.

Finally, you may have also noticed in the main photo that we placed the CTA set on Lionel 3-rail track instead of MTH RailKing track. This was intentional, since the CTA set actually runs on 3-rail track, the third rail not being a "phantom."