Simple Train Repairs

I know a guy who once went to York and purchased an engine. When he returned home the engine didn't work. I guess you could say he was very disturbed by that fact.

Before trying to figure out why the engine didn't work he had called the TCA, LCCA, CIA, FBI, IRS, and everyone he could think of to tell them that the guy who had sold it to him was an absolutely stinkin slushy crook. (Whatever that is!)

Well as it turns out the last person he called was a mutual friend. Now my friend who is very knowledgeable in trains told the guy, "Wait a second. You shouldn't have done that. I'll bet you I can have that engine running in five minutes."

So the guy took the engine over to my friends house and sure enough within two minutes he discovered the disconnected wire. Within four minutes he had the wire soldered and the engine was running like a champ.

I don't know why they don't have test tracks at York, because this would solve problems like this from happening. However it is a known rule of thumb that when items are sold there, unless the seller gives you a statement that the item works in writing, you buy at your own risk.

When I used to go to York I took quite a bit of inventory. And when someone asked me if an item worked usually said something like I think it does, but can't guarantee it, mainly because when you have a lot of items for sale, it is impossible to remember each and every one. Although the vast majority of my inventory is checked when we buy collections, sometimes it becomes overwhelming and you just can't remember everything, especially at a show.

Now as my friend showed the guy who enjoyed eating crow for the next couple of weeks, usually if something doesn't work exactly correctly, it is an easy fix. I'd say 7 times out of 10 that is true.

How about the time I was at my first train show in Cleveland, OH. I had just purchased my first American Flyer train collection which I knew nothing about. One of the items I had on my table was a Whistling billboard. At that show they had a test track and someone who was considering buying it tested it and it had this shrill squeak to it. I couldn't explain it. But when the guy offered me half of what I was asking for it I passed. And I was right to do so. Generally if something squeaks it only needs a drop of oil on either the armature pin, or something else that moves.

What moves on an engine? Well the wheels, the gears, the reverse unit, and the armature. Seven times out of ten you will find that one drop of oil on the armature pin will make the engine perform like a champ. Two times out of ten putting a drop of oil where the axles make contact with the chassis will stop that squeak, and one time out of ten the gears need grease. But the gears don't cause a squeak. They only cause a raspy noise.

The armature is the thing-a-ma-jig inside the motor housing that goes around very fast. OK, the armature plate is the plate that holds the brushes which make contact with the armature face. The little pin that sticks out of the armature plate is usually the squeaky guy, so give it one drop of light oil. If that doesn't do it, check the axles.

OK, now that you got that squeak fixed why doesn't the engine run well? It's sluggish at best. Could it be the track is dirty or something like that? (I get asked that question so much!) No of course it isn't the dirty track. Or let's say that would be the last thing I would check for. First get yourself down to your local Radio Shack or electronics store. There is a product there called TV Tuner or something like that. I actually use a product called power shot electric motor cleaner spray. I am sure it is very similar, to the Radio Shack product.

And now that you have your can exposed, spray a generous amount directly onto the armature face. Then take that baby for a spin. Make sure you lower the setting of the transformer because that engine may just fly off the tracks and hit someone in the head.

What? You say that didn't work? Well then you could have a serious problem with the field, or maybe you need to clean the track!

Replace the brushes? Are you nuts? Very rarely does an engine need the brushes replaced, and I know most people replace them taking money and effort. Just clean them by spraying, or you can tear that armature plate off and pull those baby's out and give them a good individual bath by spraying some motor cleaner on a nice clean cloth and rubbing them until they shine. And while you are at it, rub that same cloth over that armature until it shines also.

When brushes get so small that you need a magnifying glass to see them, it's time to change them. OK, not that small, but use common sense here. As long as the brush is making contact with the armature face there shouldn't be a need for a change.

A year or so ago I had the distinct privilege of meeting the dirtiest armature and brushes I had ever met before. You can't imagine the grime and dirt that were in there. I actually gasped once I got that armature cover off. Why they were so dirty you couldn't just spray them. They had to come out. It was like great sex once I got those baby's back in completely clean and that armature beautiful. That engine purred just like a kitten. It did take me a couple of weeks to get my hands clean though!

What do you do when nothing happens when you put an engine on the track? Well, the first thing I do is check to make sure the transformer is actually plugged in and getting juice. You can check that by touching the two track wires coming from the transformer together. You will get a nice little spark. Or if they are connected to the track, take your ring and touch that to the inside and outside of the track. I do that near Halloween when I want my hair to stand up. No.. Just kidding, it's just 16 or so volts. Wouldn't hurt anyone except maybe their pride. Since I don't have any, it doesn't matter to me.

OK, now that you know you have juice and it still doesn't work, check for loose or disconnected wires. On most post war engines there should be a wire going to each brush plate and one in the middle. Now if you can't find a problem with the wires, check to make sure that the pickups are getting juice. Sometimes they rust or corrosion can cause a problem underneath where it is hard to see. You can actually spray some motor spray under the engine up where the wire would connect to the pickups. That's worked for me a couple of times. This happens actually frequently with Lionel Alco engines for some reason.

Another way to check around the pickups is to disconnect the wires from your track clip and touching one to either side of the reverse unit (4-way units). Now this should cause the engine to run and bypasses the pickups underneath.

If your engine still doesn't work, then what I usually do is throw it against the wall and see if that doesn't work. (Just fooling, don't ever do that!)

No actually then you can clean the armature. If it still doesn't work after that, but you know you are getting juice and the motor is trying to work, especially if it is a diesel check for dry grease, which can get very hard after years of sitting. I have found that spraying motor cleaner into the gear box sometimes loosens it up if you are pretty sure that is the problem. Then you can work the wheels free using your fingers.

In the case of a steam engine, this probably isn't the case as most have open gearing. You might want to check the rods to make sure that they are not catching on something. Be careful when you work with rods though. If your fingers are near them and they start turning, well let's just say I know from experience that hurts. (Yelp!!)

Another problem with the rods is the way they are positioned on the driver wheel. This would be a lot easier to explain with a diagram, but here goes. The hole on the driver wheel is off center. You always want the rod pin to face directly over the center of the wheel or as close as the connecting nipples allow you to get them. Otherwise the engine will not run correctly.

If you hear nothing from the e-unit you will want to check to make sure the wiring isn't broken that connects there.

Ok, let's say that the engine does nothing at all, but causes the transformer to make this annoying clicking noise, and there are sparks flying all over the place.

This would indicate to me that either it is the 4th of July, or you have a short in your engine.

I hope it is the first scenario because from experience shorts can be a bear. I've had more bad experiences with shorts until I learned the single biggest cause of shorts in engines wasn't an exposed wire shorting out or something like that.

Now when I find a short the first thing I look at is the e-unit.

The e-unit is actually the reversing unit for the engine. Most post war and many modern engines have one. Some are 4 way and some are 2 way. 4 way have a neutral on either side of reverse or forward.

There is a little screw that holds most e-units. Unscrew that sucker and pull that e-unit out. Now some you won't have to do this. At any rate what you are looking for is the barrel. I think they call it a barrel because it looks like a barrel. (Dah!) There is also a plunger in the e-unit that works with gravity. When the solenoid pulls that plunger up it grabs hold of one of the barrels teeth and changes the polarity of the entire engine. The barrel is held in place inside the e-unit by two nipples. (No, not that kind of nipple...we are talking about trains here. You'll have to go to a different part of the Internet if you want to read about those!) At any rate, the barrel is held in place as those nipples stick through two holes on either side of the unit. When one of those nipples tear off (ouch!), that causes the barrel to short out the entire engine.

Another problem that can come up with the barrel is when one of it's teeth break. Then the plunger has nothing to grab and the polarity can't change. Now if your engine happens to be stuck in forward, that's not terrible, but it is so annoying when it is stuck in neutral or reverse. But that's why nothing happens if it is stuck in neutral.

Also there are these things they call fingers that make electrical contact with the barrel that can get bent or deformed, or pulled away from the barrel. That can cause shorts or the engine not to run at all because electrical contact isn't made.

If you find your barrel is damaged, take the engine to your nearest repair shop unless you are made of steel and up to the challenge. Actually working on the reverse unit is more of a mental challenge than physical skill.

To take the e-unit apart first get some long nose plyers and pry that unit open. It should hang together, and the barrel and maybe plunger and other stuff may fall out. Not a problem. OK, now that you have that brand spanking new shiny, beautiful barrel in your hands, let's make the transfer.

First, notice which way the teeth are positioned before you pull that old barrel out if it hasn't already tumbled out. I've put barrels in more than I want to think where I put them in backwards. And since it is such a fun activity, you tend to swear when you figure out it is in backwards!

OK, so get that barrel in the unit again in the correct position. Then you will see holes on either side of the unit. What you have to do is hold the unit gently with a pair of plyers, and get everything lined up before pressing. Now take your time. Patience is a virtue here, because one wrong move and the thing could explode. (Not!) But you could injure yourself or the unit, so just work very slowly and work down and out. As you get the top finger plate in the hole, you will notice the pressure bar that holds the hole unit together. Line that up, making sure that the plunger is in it's slot. Then get the barrel perfectly aligned, then the lower finger plate. OK, now you have everything aligned, then press those plyers and you'll hear the sweetest click you've ever heard in your life.

There is a special tool that Lionel had made to put these things together, but I've never used it. I think plyers work just as well.

How do I get engines apart? Well some are easy, some are more difficult. But in reality the tough part is getting them back together. A 736 Berkshire has three screws underneath and the shell pulls right off. Same with most F3's and other Diesels. There is more to opening up a 2035 steamer. Here is the general rule: Jot down what you did and make sure you keep all the parts in a container of some kind so you don't loose them. That way when you have to take the engine to the dealer to be put back together, you won't have to spend any extra money for parts :)

Bad gears, broken wheels or axles, bad armature fields, bad armature, modern electronic equipment, things that go bump in the night? Well I recommend that you see your service dealer for those problems because I know I don't want to get involved.

American Flyer S gauge trains are also fixable, however they make Lionel look like a walk in the park. Any kid can fix Marx because it's the easiest of all using basically the same principles as Lionel. Unless you are talking about a Marx reversing unit. Skip that one other than spraying some motor spray in and banging the heck out of it to try to loosen the sucker up.

I hope you learned something from this article. I know I did. It is much more fun fixing trains than writing about them!!!


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Revised 02/15/01
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