Review by David Otte/photos by the author
Hey, don’t look now, but Santa’s traded in his reindeer and sleigh and is headed your way in true railfan style on an old-time streetcar full of holiday cheer. Returning just in time for the 2016 season, LGB has re-released its G gauge Christmas Streetcar Starter Set to help spruce up all those barren-looking Christmas trees out there that have yet to see a model train running beneath.
Toy trains and the holiday season go hand in hand, way back here in the U.S., to more than 100 years ago. As the story goes, a simple battery-powered trolley circling a ring of metal track (fabricated by inventor Joshua Lionel Cowen in 1900 for use in advertising products in storefront windows) caught a holiday shopper’s eye. The customer wanted a way to animate a home Christmas display, and so the first “train set” was sold to a consumer. The idea caught on quickly, and soon Cowen was manufacturing trains sets for the general public under the Lionel brand name.
While it may be a bit whimsical in appearance with Santa Claus at the helm, the Christmas Streetcar Starter Set by LGB continues this tradition. This offering is a great opportunity to not only decorate your living room or den, but also introduce your young child or grandchild to the world of model railroading, thus hopefully planting the seeds for the next generation of hobbyists. Let’s get the holiday season rolling with a closer look at this set.
The LGB Story
For those of you unfamiliar with LGB or G-gauge trains, in particular, here’s a quick overview. In 1968, Wolfgang and Eberhard Richter of the firm Ernst Paul Lehmann Patentwerk (one of the oldest toy manufacturers in Germany) introduced to the world their Lehmann Gross Bahn — the Big Train or LGB for short. It was in the form of a simple starter set modeled after equipment found on Austrian and other European narrow gauge railways.
A scale of 1:22.5 — twice European O scale and commonly known today as G scale — was chosen after much deliberation with the new trains operating on rails 45 millimeters (1.7717 inches) apart (referred to as G-gauge track). The Richters felt that these small prototypes lent themselves well to the tight radius curves of their new track system, not to mention that their cute, stubby appearance created a certain appeal that would differentiate these models from those already available in the hobby. Not only were the two brothers correct in their assumptions, but they also shaped a new interest in the lesser-known narrow gauge lines, which would later encompass those of North America as well.
The large size of these models and their robust construction made them perfect candidates for use on living room floors or outdoors in a garden setting and especially great as starter trains for little hands. While LGB now resides within the Märklin family — Europe’s oldest model train manufacturer — the Big Train, as envisioned by the Richter brothers, continues to be a popular scale almost 50 years later with several manufacturers having joined in along the way further strengthening its appeal. As such, G gauge appears to have a bright future and is a great choice for the budding model railroader.
Packed inside LGB’s famous big red box are a streetcar, a circle of track, transformer with controller, and a couple of accessories to help get the novice large scale hobbyist off and running trains — indoors or out.
Speaking of outdoors, both the trolley and track ties are manufactured from a weather-resistant plastic, which will stand up to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, dust, and moisture. In most cases, the various components are molded in color with sharp lettering and graphics expertly applied via pad printing. Also qualifying this train for operation in rain, snow, or sunshine is LGB’s use of a sealed motor and gearbox assembly on the streetcar model. Heavy, solid rails extruded from pure brass make up the set’s sectional track.
Regardless of where the hobbyist lays their rails, though, the LGB set boasts a number of attributes all will appreciate. The streetcar before us is based on the turn-of-the-20th Century trolleys that once roamed the rails running down the brick-paved streets of many German cities. Initially, horses pulled these trams, but as the use of electricity became widespread, self-propelled streetcars began operating under electrified overhead wires called catenary. The LGB rendering, with its enclosed end platforms, is similar to prototypes built by German manufacturing firms Allgemeine Elektricitäts- Gesellschaft (AEG) and Siemens well into the 1900s. The model’s tooling was first introduced by LGB back in the late 1970s (along with an open platform version) and has been delighting G-gauge enthusiasts ever since in a variety of colorful paint schemes.
The approximate 14-inch-long trolley features mostly plastic construction with a separate roof, carbody, and chassis. Simulated-wood benches line the interior side walls while factory-installed window sashes with clear glazing (some modeled in opened positions) offer a view of the passenger compartment, as well as end platforms. Control stands are situated at both ends of the car while brass-colored bells and molded black plastic rotating route signs enhance the roof. Finally, a sprung metal trolley pole or “collector” is located in the center of the roof, which can be tilted in either position, and detailed plastic sideframes adorn the fourwheel power truck. Left for consumer installation, snap-in-place platform gates are also included as are some non-functioning lamp fixtures that may be glued to the upper sidewalls at each platform step. Last but not least, we have a hand-painted Santa Claus to position at the controls, the figure of which has been outfitted with a metal plate at its base to stick to the recessed magnets in the floor of both end platforms.
Of course, the festive decoration is what really sets this streetcar off from past trolley car releases. With a carbody and chassis already molded in red and gray plastic, respectively, and the roof painted silver, LGB has added the final touches via pad-printed graphics. Those festive graphics include simulated lengths of pine rope with ornaments draped down the sides, as well as a mural of sorts at the center of the panel beneath the windows depicting a traditional snow-covered landscape complete with evergreen trees, a happy little home, snowman, and sleigh with reindeer.
Furthermore, the manufacturer has added a hint of fresh-fallen snow to the tram as well with a simulated buildup on the lower window sashes, as well as a nice weathering effect applied to the roof. Lastly, the route signs are imprinted with “Christmas 2015,” indicating the first year of release for this set. The signboards can be flipped over, however, and your route name or message could be applied to the blank side if desired.
Finally, there are a couple of operating features of the streetcar to point out as well. Because the trolley is double-ended, it is equipped with directionally controlled LED headlights and rear-facing red marker lights. Their operation, along with motor control, can be manipulated using the four-position slide switch located inside the passenger car compartment and accessed through one of the open side windows. The positions 0, 1, 2, and 3 are labeled with 0, indicating power off, so the trolley may idle on a non-insulated siding, for example, on a multi-train layout.
Choose 1 for normal operation with the headlight on facing the direction of travel and a red lamp shining to the rear; 2 can be used to keep the rear light off. Selecting option 3 allows the trolley to be powered by an overhead wire through the trolley pole when using LGB’s catenary system. Conventional electrical pickup, though, is mostly accomplished through sprung contacts riding against the inside of the drive wheels with additional railhead contact made by means of a pair of sprung pickup slide shoes that are fixed beneath the motor block between the drivers.
Unpack It, Build It, Run It
Unpack it, build it, and run it! With the LGB system, it’s just that simple. I constructed MRN’s sample set on my carpeted family room floor. I begin with assembling the 12 sections of 600-millimeter radius curves (LGB considers this its R-1 curve), which formed a circle about 52 inches in diameter when measured to the outside rail. The track sections are outfitted with sturdy brass rail joiners factory installed, one end of which is actually hooked into the end tie so as not to lose it when the sections are dismantled and stored. LGB also provides 28 plastic track clips that lock the track sections together by fitting in the small notches found in the center of each end tie.
Once completed, I attached the track power cable to a section of track. LGB utilizes a very dependable power terminal that physically clamps to the rails using thumbscrews. The color-coded wires are pre-stripped on the other end of the harness and are inserted into the appropriate spring-loaded terminal on the controller. This device, which provides both throttle and direction control, is then attached to its separate power supply by way of another color-coded two-wire cable. The throttle and transformer are rated for an output of 20 volts direct current and 1 amp — more than adequate for this small set. Please note, however, that the UL listed set controller and power supply are not designed for all-season use outdoors (LGB offers an outdoor throttle for separate sale) and should be kept from the elements, using them only when completely dry outside.
In less than 10 minutes, I was ready to run trains. The streetcar was placed on the rails, which is quite easy in this scale and will be most appreciated by the junior engineers, and the throttle was advanced. With headlight and passenger compartment lights aglow, the cute Christmas trolley moved forward, and the new holiday streetcar line was officially open for business! LGB’s drive system has always had a good reputation for being robust and smooth as silk in operation; this holiday-decorated streetcar didn’t disappoint in the least! It’s an exceptional runner, and with LGB’s standard hook and loop couplers installed on both ends, the streetcar will not have any issues hauling a couple of short flatcars or gondolas as well — each one loaded high with miniature gifts for Santa to deliver. In fact, as an add-on to this set for 2016, LGB is releasing a non-powered trolley (referred to as a “trailer”) for the Christmas streetcar to pull (cataloged as number 32351) with its overall dark blue decor reflecting a Christmas nighttime scene. The trailer is equipped with interior lighting and marker lights as well and comes outfitted with metal wheelsets to assist with electrical pickup.
Growing the Hobby with Holiday Cheer
Years ago, while still in college, I worked part-time at a local hobby shop that specialized in model railroading. During the start of the holiday season, we inevitably would have those typical uninitiated parents and grandparents come in looking for a starter train set as a gift. Our store’s customer policy in this regard was a simple one: always steer such folks to the best quality train set they can afford — the fewer headaches the customer and their recipient has setting up the set and running trains, the more inviting model railroading will be to them as a long-term hobby. LGB starter sets were always on hand for that very reason. The company’s enduring reputation for excellent quality and reliable performance continues today, as is evident in this colorful holiday set. The LGB Christmas Streetcar Starter Set is just the ticket to send a child or an adult on their way to a lifetime of fun.
Christmas Streetcar Starter Set
#72351, MSRP: $329.99
P.O. Box 510559
New Berlin, WI 53151-0559