Thursday, May 11, 2017

Lessons from York: What We Saw (Part 2) - Powering Up

Dad and I recently returned from our semi-annual trip to the Train Collectors Association (TCA) Eastern Division toy train meet in York, PA. This is the largest such show in the United States and provides an interesting snapshot of the state of the hobby.

It can also hint at the current state of collecting in general. As is our tradition, we spent a lot of time discussing what we saw a lot of (and what we didn't) -- and more importantly, the reasons behind them.

In Part 1 I outlined the reasons for what I see as a major shift in the hobby. Basically, younger collectors seem more interested in operating their trains rather than simply displaying them. And that, I think, explains what we say this time at York -- the results of upgrading.

If you have more than a 4' x 8' train layout
in the 1950s, you needed a Z transformer.

Power base

Most Lionel train sets of the 1950s and 60s came with small 35-watt transformer power packs. For the small oval or figure eight, the supplied track could make, that was enough power to keep the train moving.

When the owner of one of those sets built something bigger and more elaborate on a tabletop, though, 35 watts didn't cut it.

Bigger layout, bigger power demands

In order to overcome power drops in longer loops,  a 75-watt or higher-powered transformer was required. If one had two trains running, then a transformer with dual controls was a must. So the Z transformers (250 watts) and ZW transformers (275) became increasingly desirable. Lionel stopped making these powerhouses in 1969.

As more collectors turned to operating layouts, the demand for these transformers increased, as did their price. And they became scarce. Because once they were installed on a layout, they were out of circulation.

 The Lionel ZW transformer. At one time, this was the
ultimate power source for a large 0-gauge layout.

Power shift

This show we saw vintage Z and ZW transformers at virtually every table. Why?

I think the older transformers no longer cut it. Beginning in the late 90s, manufacturers installed printed circuits in their locomotives.

Some were for sound effects, which became increasingly realistic as digital sound technology advanced. Other circuits allowed for sophisticated remote control. The older transformers limited some of those functions.

So Lionel, MTH and other current manufacturers built new transformers for the new generation of trains. The MTH Z-4000, for example, provides 400 watts of power, and connectivity for newer remote control functions that didn't exist in the 1960s.

I think operators are trading up, and when they replace their Z or ZW with a Z-4000, the vintage transformer goes up for sale. There were many at this show, and prices were lower than I've ever seen them.

If you wanted to create a strictly vintage  layout, you were in luck. But most just passed them by without a glance.

The MTH Z-4000 transformer. While its form gives a nod to the vintage ZW, its electronics and functionality
is strictly 21st Century. 

Next: 6464 no more?

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