Christmas tree trains keep on chugging

Published 12:00 pm Saturday, December 13, 2008

Looking for a train to put around the Christmas tree? Here are some tips on how to choose the right one.

Decide whether the train is more for a Christmas decoration or a new hobby. A complete starter set, which can run about $200-$300 and includes everything from the track to the transformer is the easiest way to set up a Christmas decoration.

The most popular Christmas tree train is an O-gauge, an electric train set that plugs into the wall and has cars that are about 10 inches long, according to Lionel, which manufactures electric trains.

There are many types of add-on cars and accessories available for an O-gauge.

Think about how much space you have. With the track included in most sets, most people set up a 40-inch diameter circle around the Christmas tree, according to Lionel.

Train cars should take up no more than one-third of the track, says Duane Miller, owner of Caboose Hobbies in Denver. You don’t want the locomotive chasing the tail of the train, says Neil Besougloff, editor of Model Railroader magazine.

Purchase the train from a reputable dealer, says James Pentifallo, owner and manager of Ridgefield Hobby in Ridgefield, N.J. A reputable dealer sells and services trains all year-round – not only during the holidays.

Buy a reliable name, such as Lionel, MTH Electric Trains or Bachmann Trains, says Pentifallo.

Don’t shop only by price, says Besougloff. Consider the quality. You want to make sure the train runs next year, he says.

Be careful about used trains. You may be buying someone else’s headache that will cost you more to fix than it’s worth, says Pentifallo.

NEW YORK – Chris Forsyth’s best Christmas was when he woke up to a train chugging around the tree, a conductor’s hat and a little pair of overalls.

So he makes sure to put a train around his Christmas tree each year.

“It brings back those good memories,” said Forsyth, 43, of Wheat Ridge, Colo., adding that he is reminded of the excitement of that Christmas morning when he was 6. “It conveys the magic of childhood.”

Memories are what often bring out Christmas tree trains this time of the year, as people purchase new sets or dig out their old ones for repairs.

Electric trains under the Christmas tree date back to at least the early 1900s, according to Paul D. Race, editor of But prior to electric, there were wind-up and push trains.

In the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, a good train set could cost as much as a washing machine, said Race.

“It was the biggest present you could possibly get, and as a result, it was reserved for Christmas,” he said. “Once the presents were opened, usually the only place you could set up the track was around the tree.”

Trains also had a special significance because they brought people home for the holidays, according to Ron Hollander’s “All Aboard!: The Story of Joshua Lionel Cowen & His Lionel Train Company.”

“So for many people, Christmas seemed to involve trains,” said Race.

By 1960, Christmas trains were as ubiquitous as gaming systems are today, said Jerry Calabrese, CEO of Lionel, the leading model train manufacturer.

Even today, when the most-hyped electronics tend to be music players or communication devices, an old-fashioned electric train chugging around the Christmas tree is popular.

Lionel is expecting a 50 percent increase in sales of starter sets, including licensed ones such as a Harry Potter “Hogwarts Express,” over 2007 based on holiday pre-orders from major retailers. Lionel sold 200,000 model train sets in 2007 compared with 80,000 in 2004, and the bulk of those were the ready-to-run sets, according to the company.

Lionel says it has run a marketing campaign to appeal to consumers beyond the hard-core hobbyists, creating new lines of train sets and putting them in places like Target, FAO Schwarz and Toys “R’’ Us, says Calabrese.

When people see them, they think about being a kid and connecting with their fathers, he said.

Mike Wolf, owner of MTH Electric Trains, says that’s what he sees, too. The average age of his manufacturing company’s customer is 52; many are Baby Boomers who want to pass the tradition on to their kids and grandkids.

Some train enthusiasts want the magic of a train but can’t afford the $200 or so for a complete set.

James Pentifallo, owner and manger of Ridgefield Hobby in Ridgefield, N.J., said more people are bringing in their trains for repairs this holiday season compared with previous years. He had 80 to 100 that needed to be fixed one week this month.

For many people, “there is no real money to buy a brand new train set,” he said. “They’ll fix the old stuff up and add a little bit to it.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Caboose Hobbies in Denver reports similar sales numbers to last year, but more people investing more in the higher-end sets, says owner Duane Miller.

For Boomers, a train under the tree can be as much a part of decorating as ornaments and lights, he said.

Lou Failla, 48, of Fair Lawn, N.J., whose trains were featured in O Gauge Railroading magazine, said he and his friends would go to bed and dream about getting Christmas train sets. He got his first one when he was 5.

Failla, a cop, said his trains make him feel like a kid again. He can sit on the floor and watch them, see the lights and hear the sounds.

“What’s nice is to be able to go back to that era, the simplicity of the trains running around the Christmas tree,” he said. “It’s symbolic. It’s almost up there with the Christmas tree and Santa.”