Thomas and James Tips

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photo of thomasA few years ago, Lionel released a Thomas the Tank Engine set. Thomas is a British inside cylinder 0-6-0 tank engine that pulls two coaches, Annie and Clarabel. This set was based on the Shining Time Station TV series that is probably still playing on PBS. I would imagine that many large scalers with small children somehow managed to acquire this set.

photo of JamesLater, another set containing James the Red Engine was released. James is an inside cylinder 2-6-0 tender engine of British design that pulls two 4 axle freight wagons.

Neither of these sets is still manufactured but some may still be around. At the end of James' production run when Lionel exited the large scale business, these sets were blown out by a discount store chain, Pic-N-Save, for $49.95 each.


Power Pickup

Both Thomas and James have six driven wheels, but only four pick up power. Considering that the brass wheels get dirty fairly fast, this combination is sure to cause flaky power pickup. If the engine runs fine in the turns and sputters on the straights, suspect dirty wheels more than dirty track.

There is a simple modification that can be done to both engines that materially improves power pickup. The change is to add contacts to the center driver set.

james' new contactThere is no room to add a conventional power pickup to the center drivers, but it is easy to add a wiper contact that bears on the center driver tread. On James, it is straightforward to add a 1/32" thick by 3/32" wide brass contact strip. The strip is simply clamped between the frame and shell castings as shown in the photo. A wire is then soldered to the brass strip and run through a hole drilled in the lower shell and connected directly to the motor.

thomas' new contactI attached the same type of contact to Thomas' frame with plumber's epoxy putty. This particular epoxy is handy because it sets up really fast so that you don't have to hold it in place for more than about five minutes. The epoxy also will not stick to your fingers. I modified Thomas several years ago. After I took this photo recently, I realized that I probably could have clamped the contact on Thomas the same way that I did James.

090524_girr_mtn_div_james_sliders_7109.jpgEven with the center drivers contributing to power pickup, James was still touchy. I took a hint from my own Lionel Handcar Tips page and added a set of sliders. After I got the handcar weighted sufficiently to deal with the drag of the sliders, they really improved it's performance such that it would actually run.

The sliders are simply brass strips soldered to 18 ga copper wire and secured to the bottom cover of the loco. The copper wire makes and adequate spring and is easily adjustable.

090524_girr_mtn_div_james_sliders_7107.jpgOn the inside, the wire is just bent over and secured with some Zap-A-Gap CA. A wire, soldered before the application of the CA, leads back to a brass strip that connects the rear piston contacts.

090524_girr_mtn_div_james_sliders_7110.jpgThe sliders fit right between the center and rear drivers and are not too visually obtrusive. The improvement in power pickup was quite pronounced. James used to have a tendency to fail to pick up power after it was stopped and to stutter on turnouts. These tendencies seem to have gone away.

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Both Thomas and James are fairly easy to get apart for lubrication or modification. There are only a couple of cautions.

The brick covers come off with six screws. The only caution is to be careful of the spring loaded power pickup contacts. If you just lift the lower brick cover, they will pop out and are easy to loose. As you are lifting the cover, place your fingers near each contact and as the contact moves beyond the wheel face, hold it with your finger. You can then gently relieve the pressure on the contacts. Some of them may fall out, but at least the springs won't eject them across the room. Inspect the springs, they should be silver colored. If they are brown, they have been overheated and have lost their strength. Those springs won't work very well and should be replaced.

Thomas's body shell comes off with seven screws. There are three on each side and one in front. Note that the front one is shorter than the others. If you put one of the longer screws back in that spot, you will break off the mounting post when the screw bottoms out. The shell may take a little persuasion to release at the smokebox joint. Just gently lift and wiggle the shell and it will pop off.

James comes apart in much the same fashion except that the screw in front is obscured by the pilot truck which must be removed to gain access to the screw.

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Both Thomas and James use a small vertically mounted can motor that drives the rear axle through a worm gear. Power is transmitted to the other two axles by an external spur gear train similar to that used on many Lionel "O" scale locos. Lubrication of the worm should be done with heavy gear grease or oil. Lubrication of the spur gear train is a little more problematic because lubricants applied there will attract dirt and excessive lubrication will get on the backs of the wheels and interfere with the power contacts. I use a very small amount of LGB 50019 oil on the external gearing as this oil is effective and doesn't seem to foul the electrical contacts.

The mechanism that runs the moving eyes on the smoke box cover can be lubricated, if necessary, with gear grease.

After many years, the grease that Lionel used can dry out and become hard. If some grease hardens in a gear, it can literally plug the gear teeth and result in a repeating bind in the mechanism. This can happen on any gear in the loco. If this happens, the solution is to pick out the hardened grease from all the teeth with a small pick or screwdriver and relubricate the loco.

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James resides at the Geologically Improbable Railroad, Mountain Division and so he needed LGB knuckle couplers. It turned out to be straightforward to mount them in place of the supplied hook and loop couplers.

Thomas runs on my outdoor version of the Geologically Improbable Railroad so he needed Kadee couplers. #831's mount with little difficulty.

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Adding Weight

Both engines are very light. They will pull their assigned two car consist on level track fine, but add a car or hit a moderate grade and both will spin their drivers. I added 12 to 16 oz of lead to the inside of both engines centered above the drivers.

James has a three axle tender that is very light and would derail under almost any kind of a load beyond his two cars. I glued 4 oz of lead under the tender floor and the tender started to behave itself.

Neither of these sets have metal wheels yet. I'm not sure why I haven't changed them.

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Sound Installation in James

Neither Thomas or James come equipped with a sound system, and considering how little these engines are worth, it doesn't seem reasonable to spend the money to add one. However, after I added a Sierra to one of my Shays, its old Bachmann sound board became available. Since it could run off a battery for a long time, it seemed reasonable to install in James which still had plastic wheels.

james' tenderThere is little room in Thomas for a sound board and speaker, but James has a large nearly empty tender that is easily big enough. The tender shell is attached with two screws, one under the rear coupler and the other also secures the drawbar.

james' tender interiorA 3" speaker fits easily on the flat floor. A bunch of holes drilled through the floor lets the sound out. The Bachmann sound board was recovered from a defunct R/C Big Hauler. To make the board fit better in the Shay, it had been literally hacked in half. All the sound circuitry is on the rear third of the board so all that is necessary is to cut a trace leading down each side of the board past the sound circuitry and then to physically cut the rest of the board off. I left some of the motor control circuit behind just because it was easier to cut right through the motor controller IC. The rest of the board is mounted to the back of the speaker magnet with foam mounting tape. The battery is stuck to the side of the speaker with foam mounting tape.

james' sound switchThe sound switch is a reed switch left over from a PH Hobbies sound board installation sometime in the dark distant past. The switch is stuck to an existing bracket in front of the rear axle. Two small high energy magnets are attached to the rear axle with Zap CA.

This cheap and dirty installation didn't cost me a dime out of pocket as all the parts were already available as left overs from previous sound system installations. The sound is typically not great, but then considering the cost, it is acceptable.

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Battery and Radio Control Installation in Thomas

Thomas is a favorite now of the nephews, but it often tended to disappoint them because it just didn't run all that well. Even with the power pickup improvements described above, Thomas was never an outstanding performer on track power. There just aren't enough pickup wheels and the brass wheels tend to get dirty quickly. Just as I have done on several other locos, if they are too small to pick up power well, they get converted to battery power with radio control. Thomas got converted to battery-r/c using the tri-modal wiring that I have described elsewhere. I choose to use a 75 MHz CRE-55491 receiver (because I had one handy) and a 12 cell NiCad pack (because I got it for $12 at a local ham radio swap meet). All the rest of the parts were retrieved from my parts stock.

thomas schematicThis is the schematic of I used to wire Thomas. It is my standard "tri-modal" circuit. It takes just a little more wiring than the dead simple versions, but depending on how the switches are set, it will still run from straight track power, or RC with track power, or RC with the internal battery. The charge jack is arranged to charge properly from a 24 VDC source.

thomas frame topside

Thomas consists of three major parts, the motor brick and sub-frame, the frame and the shell (not shown in this view). The first order of business in any RC installation is to determine where to put all the stuff. This takes some thought. I like to either put everything on the frame or everything in the shell to minimize the number of wires going between the frame and the shell. It was pretty clear that in this installation, most of the stuff would go into the shell. Thomas's eyeball activation mechanism takes up the entire boiler volume so everything would have to go into the saddle tanks or the cab.

shell undersideThe saddle tanks were too small to hold the battery packs that I had, but they would fit nicely crosswise in the cab with the cab interior view block removed. The region inside the tender could hold the receiver. The switches and charge jack were a problem.

topside wiringThomas's coal load is easily removed and the region under it was just right to hold the five items that had to fit there, two power control switches, the code set button, the charge jack and an indicator LED to make programming the receiver from outside the loco practical. The LED is wired as the rear headlight. Thomas doesn't have a front headlight and I choose not to install one.

With the batteries installed as shown, Thomas' weight distribution is wrong. With power abruptly applied, Thomas would do wheelies. I added 4 oz of lead under the front wheel skirts and inside the front of the saddle tanks to help balance the weight of the batteries.

switchesAll this hardware hanging off the back of Thomas isn't particularly attractive, but they were easy to install and access in that location. The back side of the coal load and its mounting posts must be gouged off but this can't seen from the outside and the posts weren't used anyway.

thomas all wired upThe receiver is simply mashed back in the tender. I didn't use the adaptor board because there wasn't room. The shrink tubing over the wires soldered to the pins is sufficient to hold the receiver in place against the battery.

Now Thomas runs quite smoothly and it doesn't care what condition the track or wheels are in. The next time that the nephews visit, they'll have Thomas to run until the battery goes down. Then if they want to run it some more, they can switch it to track power and keep going provided some hesitation doesn't bother them.

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DCC Installation in James

James resides at the GIRR Mountain Division which has recently been converted to DCC. James was the last loco to be converted. I didn't want to spend a lot of money on a decoder so I attempted to use an HO sized decoder, a Digitrax DH123D which costs only $16. I knew that James's stall current was a little high for this decoder but it's running current is well within the DH123's capability. I have used the DH123 successfully in a 2nd generation Big Hauler and a Lionel Handcar.

081215_girr_mtn_james_dcc_before_install_6038.jpgThere is enough room inside James for a small decoder. The cab comes off with just two screws revealing all that is necessary to install a decoder, especially considering that there are no accessory functions used.

081215_girr_mtn_james_dcc_dead_dh123_6039.jpgThe DH123D went in fine and seemed to run ok for awhile. But after just one lap around, James stopped inside a tunnel. When I got to it, it was smoking. James was indeed a little too much for this decoder. It is clearly burned up.

081215_girr_mtn_james_dcc_ad320_installed_6040.jpgI recovered an MRC AD320 decoder from an Aristo Classic Railbus which got a Digitrax DG583S to replace the AD320. The AD320 has just 4 functions and I needed one more so I used the, now surplus, AD320 in James. It just fit next to the motor. As expected, the AD320 makes quite a bit of noise as heard in this H.264 video clip. However it does run.

090808_girr_mtn_dg583s_in_james_7719.jpgEventually, the AD320 burnt up in James. The heat load was apparently too high as the circuit board literally came apart. I put analog voltage on the track for awhile to do some testing on another loco and James was sitting on powered track. It didn't move, but apparently the AD320 couldn't handle it and it burnt. I smelled the burnt smell but I didn't know where it came from. It was months later that I tried to run James again and it just didn't work. I took the decoder out and it was visually obvious that it was toast.

I had a spare Digitrax DG583S so I put it in. It was a simple 4 wire screw terminal installation using the wires that I cut off the failed AD320. This decoder worked fine and now James runs better than it ever did.

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Sound Installation in Thomas

A Bachmann Shay at the GIRR Mountain Division surrendered it's analog sound board when a QSI DCC decoder was installed. The QSI provides excellent sound and the analog board was no longer needed. The Shay also surrendered it's "interface board" which has nothing on it except a bridge rectifier. These parts went in the sound parts box until I elected to install it in Thomas. This particular analog sound board had started life in an RC Big Hauler that I bought from a neighbor kid for parts.

thomas_sound_schematic.jpgThis is the diagram that I used to do the install in Thomas. The previous "tri-modal" battery/track/RC wiring was not changed. The Bachmann analog sound board runs from a 9V battery that will last for years. The board had also been modified with a circuit to stop the continuous chuff when it was in the Shay and that circuit was retained as well.

081220_girr_thomas_sound_install_parts_6073.jpgThese are most of the parts needed for the sound installation. The sound board was later trimmed in size to make if fit better. The speaker was in my parts box, it was the largest that would easily fit. I made an enclosure by cutting off the bottom of a caulking gun tube and hot gluing a piece of cardboard over the end to make a small enclosure. Not shown is the reed switch and magnets that were used to make the chuff switch.

081220_girr_thomas_sound_install_sound_board_bottom_6076.jpgThis is the bottom of the sound board after it was hacked to size. The very last row of solder pads on the right side are not needed, but the board was small enough at this point so I didn't trim any further. The stuff that is gone is all the motor controller circuitry from the RC Big Hauler. The transistor and resistor in the upper left is the chuff cutoff switch. The red and black wires at the lower right are the speaker leads. A diagram of the connection points to this board can be found at my Better Bachmann Sound for Under a Buck page.

081220_girr_thomas_sound_install_chuff_magnets_6077.jpgThere wasn't room to put chuff magnets and a reed switch in or on the brick so I attached them to Thomas's eye movement mechanism instead. This gear is apparently the same size as the one on the rear driver because it turns at the same rate as the driving wheels. I cleaned the side of the gear off with alcohol and attached four small high energy magnets to the side of the gear with Zap-A-Gap CA. The chuff reed switch was recovered from my sound system parts box. I think that it probably came with a PH Hobbies sound system. The switch is mounted with several layers of foam mounting tape.

081220_girr_thomas_sound_install_completed_6079.jpgThe speaker in a home made cardboard enclosure is mounted with foam tape against the traction battery pack. The 9V battery for the sound system is mounted on the inside of the cab, also with foam tape. The Shay interface board is mounted to the inside of a side tank with foam tape. The sound board itself is mounted with hot glue.

For what it cost me, $ out of pocket, this installation worked pretty well.

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DCC Installation in Thomas

thomas_sound_dcc_schematic.jpgThomas was my very last loco that hadn't been converted to DCC. It got the battery conversion because it was unreliable on track power unless the track was reasonably clean. However, with the newer DCC decoders, locos run a little better on DCC than they do on straight up track power, especially ones with variable contact resistance like Thomas has.

There are decoders especially configured to run on backup super capacitors for a few seconds that pretty much eliminate track power problems, Lenz makes the best ones now. However, they are expensive and the super capacitors needed to make it immune to dirty track are still pretty large. There is simply no room left in Thomas for that. I used a DG583S because they work very well.

This conversion is less complicated than the other three battery powered locos to which I have added DCC. Information on these can be found at my LGB 2060 Tips , FA Tips and Center Cab Tips pages.

The loco already had sound of sorts that I didn't have to touch. It also already had the DPDT switches installed. There is no lighting, sound sound triggers or any other need for decoder accessory functions. The decoder is simply inserted into the track power path to the motor. The loco will still operate on straight up DC track power but via the analog conversion capability of the DG583S decoder which analog converts quite well.

Thomas still has four operating modes.

  • Straight up battery/RC
  • Track powered (DC, PWC or DCC) RC
  • Straight up DCC
  • DC track power via analog conversion of the DCC decoder. It will sometimes work with PWC on the track, but the DCC decoders sometimes become confused when they see PWC and can't figure out what to do.

The one mode that I lose is with the power switch set to the battery and the motor switch set to the DCC decoder. This will do nothing except slowly drain the battery. These switch positions used to connect the battery directly to the motor. This mode isn't very useful except as a quick check that the battery has some charge in it and there are other ways to test that.

091008_girr_thomas_dcc_with_decoder_installed_7768.jpgThe DG583S decoder is mounted on the bottom of the battery pack and wired up through an existing hole to the switches on top.

091008_girr_thomas_dcc_rewired_switches_7770.jpgThe only change on the topside was to remove a pair of wires that went from the left switch to the right one. This was the pair that connected the power source switch to the motor selector switch.

The red and black decoder wires were wired to the power source switch and the orange and gray motor wires were wired to the motor selector switch. That was it for the wiring.

The two resistors and a diode that are in this photo and not in the previous one of this same area are the charge current limiting resistors that used to to be in the charger cable. The rewiring was done some time ago so that the loco would charge properly from straight 24 VDC.

I did add a 10K resistor to the sound switch circuit to fully drag the base of the control transistor to ground when no motor drive was present. The switch had a tendency to leak sometimes and the sound board would crackle softly. That is now fixed.

After the mod, Thomas ran right off. There was a bit more dried grease on the drive gear for the eyeball assembly that interacted with the BEMF decoder as a repeating bind. I cleaned the grease from the gear and that went away. While I was testing Thomas on the track, it ran quite smoothly until it started making a horrible racket when running forward. It was quiet in reverse. I knew from experience that Thomas had eaten another drive gear. Sure enough, the plastic gear on the rear axle had a worn spot. It quickly got worse to the point that the gear failed completely.

Lionel is not stocking most parts for obsolete locos. They have sold their inventory of older parts to North Lima Trainworks. They did not have the whole axle assembly though, only the drive wheels with the integrated gear for the gear train to the other driver axles. It turns out that Lionel thought that they did have the axle assemblies for $8.50 each. I ordered two but I got a phone call. They were out of stock and weren't going to get anymore. They did have one used one in good condition. They gave me the part for free but I still had to pay shipping. Anyway, it arrived, it was installed and Thomas lives again.

It ran on track that hadn't been cleaned at all in two or three weeks although it sputtered some and it derailed a many times on ivy leaves and stems. I noticed that when it hit a bad spot and then found power again, it would start up so fast that it would do wheelies and sometimes derail. The weight of the batteries is behind the rear driver which upsets Thomas's balance. I had never noticed this before because the TE RC system has some built in momentum and I never had abrupt power changes. This jerks were going to be hard on the gears and may have contributed to the rapid failure of an already worn out gear. I added a little momentum into the DCC decoder and that was patched. Some more weight added forward inside the shell actually fixed that problem.

Now, on reasonably clean track, Thomas runs fine on DCC and it still has the radio control gear and batteries as well. It ran for hours on end at the November display layout at the South Coast Botanic Gardens, both on it's old batteries (got 2.5 hours of run time) an on DC on the display track. For display layouts, Thomas sucks the little (and big) kids right in.

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© 1998-2009 George Schreyer
Created Jan 31, 1998
Last Updated November 13, 2009