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How To Save Money On New Toy Trains

Updated on July 2, 2012
You can find "new old stock" at train shows and swap meets
You can find "new old stock" at train shows and swap meets | Source

New toy trains can be expensive. The cost of a new engine, with all the bells and whistles, is 3 to 5 times the cost of many ready-to-run starter sets. Personally, I seldom buy new. Now, admittedly, I collect and operate trains from the pre-war era. But I also have a large modern era O Gauge layout that yearns for the latest and greatest steam and diesel engines. when I am looking for that next great loco to add to my roster, my first stop is eBay.

I was recently looking for a Union Pacific 4-6-6-4 Challenger to add to my fleet. My buying criteria was as follows: 1. Price, 2. Manufacturer, 3. Scale vs. Detailed Semi-Scale. I knew that I could not afford a brand new one. The scale versions new cost upward of $1200, with some models coming close to the $2000 mark. I’m not buying and running a near $2000 engine on a layout that I share with my eight year old. New “detailed semi-scale” or hi-rail versions run between $700 and $900. Better, but I wanted to be in the sub-$500 range, the lower the better.

Vintage American Flyer and Lionel trains in excellent condition have a "new to you" appeal
Vintage American Flyer and Lionel trains in excellent condition have a "new to you" appeal | Source

Since these locos are not produced often, they hold their value. A scale MTH Premier Challenger from 10 years back, with the ProtoSound “1” electronics, and no digital control can still go for nearly $900, close to what it originally sold for. The Lionel Challengers are equally priced. So, this meant that I was going to have to go with a hi-rail version, something that was semi-scale, but had ample detail, so it would not look out of place running on my detailed layout.

Lionel’s best semi-scale, detailed line is called LionMaster. Finding a used LionMaster Challenger was going to be, well, a challenge. The Challenger kicked off the LionMaster line in 2001, and has been cataloged a few times since then, most recently in the 2010 Volume 2 catalog. Gently used, these locos were still getting more than $600 on eBay, and checking other sources such as the TCA Exchange, Classic Toy Trains magazine mail order and classified ads, and Craigslist did not produce better results. I also gave my local trains tore a call, as they frequently purchased collections and may have come across a Challenger – no luck there.

My next step was to look at my second choice of manufacturer, MTH Trains. MTH has cataloged the Challenger more frequently than Lionel, in both the RailKing and Premier lines. The RailKing line can offer some great buys. MTH often catalogs scale sized locos in this bargain priced line, and also has what they call “RailKing Imperial” which is a semi-scale loco with all the details you would expect from a Premier line scale engine. I knew from checking catalogs, the MTH web site, and eBay that the MTH Challengers were plentiful, but I had to watch for early versions to make sure I wasn’t buying a piece with outdated electronics, no bells and whistles, or too much use.

My target would be a RailKing Imperial Challenger with ProtoSound 2.0 and DCS. A quick check of eBay revealed 13 listings, with a price range between $350 for a B&O Challenger up to $1175 for an antiquated version that had outdated electronics and no sound effects, except for an electronic whistle. (The latter clearly being sold by someone who thought they had more than they did.) I knew I wanted my loco to be lettered for the UP, which meant I’d pay more than the $350, but hopefully not too much more. Since my other sources had no options, I was resigned to buying on eBay. I narrowed the Challenger search to UP locos with ProtoSound 2.0 and DCS. This gave me 2 to choose from. Both locos were offered with “Buy It Now” and one also offered the “make an offer” option. The straight “BIN” was priced at $650, the “BIN/BO” was priced at $600. Both locos advertised similar condition, and were good candidates for my roster.

Do You Buy New? Used? Both?

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You can find gently used bargains on eBay and other sites
You can find gently used bargains on eBay and other sites | Source

There are a few things to look for when buying a pre-owned MTH locomotive. You will want to avoid anything with original Proto & QSI electronics. In their day, they were state of the art, and, if the engines have been run frequently, properly maintained, and the rechargeable batteries replaced at least once, or replaced with a battery replacement product, they will still be good. More often though, the batteries were not replaced and the engine not run in a long time, resulting in a dead battery and compromised electronics. Starting up a Proto 1 loco with a dead battery can be devastating to the QSI board and result in a toasted loco that is useless. If they engine was run regularly, then you are buying a very well-used engine. If that well-used engine was not well maintained, you may run in to problems. MTH locos with very early sound, such as an electronic horn or a simple air whistle were not subject to fried electronics, and could be good low end purchases. If you go that route, don’t pay too much (See the Challenger with no features for $1100) and know that you are buying an older loco.

Satisfied that I had done my due diligence, I made an offer on the Challenger listed with the “best offer” option. The eBay-ologists will tell you there is a method to buying for the right price on eBay. I’ll tell you that the seller noted in his listing text that he liked to entertain offers that were at least 75% of the listing price. In this case, it meant making an offer of $450, which was really at the top end of the range for me. I had to be prepared for rejection, and decided in advance that I would not do any additional offers if the $450 was rejected. Lucky for me, the seller said yes.

So what did I end up with? I ended up with a loco that is in excellent condition, better than described. It has its box and papers, as well as all the original packing materials. Little bits that indicate the level of care the original owners gave this engine. There were no scrapes, scratches or dents, no missing parts or bent handrails. The roller pickups were clean, as were the wheels. She was also freshly lubed. I got a great runner that works perfectly.

You won’t always be so lucky, so do your research. Make sure if you are buying on line, sight unseen, you have enough information about the engine, both from the seller and from the manufacturer. Know when it was made and what it should feature, so that the seller is accurate in his description. If something seems out of place, ask questions until you are satisfied. It may cost you the opportunity to buy the item, but it may also save you hours of frustration if the deal turns out to be a bad one.

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