Help! What kind of Lionel train controller do I get?

The Changing Current of Lionel Model Trains

A Model Train Help Article by Papa

If you are just getting started in the model train hobby, you may be looking at new and pre-owned O Scale Lionel trains for sale, and wondering what kind of control system you’ll need to run your railroad engine. In this article, we’ll take a look at the different kinds of controls available for both new and used Lionel model trains.

The first thing you need to know about operating Lionel O scale train sets, is that there are two basic engine types.  Originally, all Lionel train sets operated using an external variable voltage alternating current (AC) transformer. (Currently available is the Lionel CW-80 80-watt Transformer).  The maximum voltage output of this transformer style control is about 18 volts AC, and is applied to the center (hot) rail of the track.  The two outer rails are the common, or ground, rails. This “transformer method” of control involves applying power to the engine using the transformer speed control.  The engines can go forward and reverse, and has a neutral setting between each direction. In order to change directions of the model train with a transformer controller, you turn the controller to zero, apply power in neutral, turn the controller back to zero again, and then apply power to start moving the train.

The neutral position on the Lionel transformer powers the track to operate motorized accessories while the engine is stopped. Lionel has changed the transformer style over the years and older, no longer-in-production styles can still be found in small hobby shops, or purchased used from model train hobbyists. Modern transformers also have buttons for horn and bell, if your engine has them, and a reversing button that can stop the train and change direction with one touch.  

Lionel introduced multiple engine control with its TrainMaster Command Control (TMCC) system in 1994. TMCC was replaced in 2006 by Cab-2 and the Legacy system. The Legacy system is available today for Lionel’s Premier Line. These are very nice and very expensive train sets for the serious collector.

Then came the digital revolution and its version of remote control.  The success of the Lionel Thomas remote control set in 2012 led to LionChief introduction in 2013.  These systems use 18 volt direct current (DC) and full power is applied to the track as soon as the Lionel LionChief 72W Wall Pack Power Supply is plugged in and turned on.  All controls are in the hand-held remote that allows the user to operate the train and the included sound system. Commands are sent from the controller to the train wirelessly.  These systems allow the train “engineer” to follow their train around the layout. The remote speed control centers at zero volts and allows easy slow downs and direction changes by simply turning the knob in the desired direction at the desired speed.  Each train set has its own controller and own frequency. LionChief Plus became available in 2014. Lionel has introduced the universal controller which can control up to three locomotives, but not all past LionChief sets will be supported.

In 2017 Lionel introduced Bluetooth controls which allow you to control the LionChief train from a smartphone or tablet using the Lionel LionChief App, which is a free download from most app stores.  This is really important since non Bluetooth sets cannot be operated if the controller batteries fail, or worse yet, the controller fails. A failed controller will have to be sent to Lionel for repair.

If you happen upon a transformer set in your local hobby or model railroad shop, you may want to get it because in 2018, Lionel decided to discontinue production of the AC transformer equipped starter sets.

But please note that you cannot connect AC and DC track power supplies to a single layout at the same time.

I recommend that newcomers start with LionChief Plus with Bluetooth.  These sets will come with enough FasTrack to make a oval loop and you are on your way. To take a look at some of Lionel’s O Scale offerings, you can head to their page on Amazon here.

Want more? Check out some of our other lists and reviews below.

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