Getting Started with Lego Trains


by Jacob H. McKee

I have a confession to make. There is one small part of my childhood that is constantly returning; every few years it breaks out and I find my apartment covered in small pieces of brightly coloured plastic: Yes, the Lego addiction strikes. One of those recent episodes involved a train set (perhaps I indulged in a few pieces of track and an extra car or two – but that’s all, I swear.

Getting Started with Lego Trains is a fairly good guide to designing and building Lego trains. The writing is a clear, simple style that should be understood by anyone, the layout is clear.

Jacob McKee, the author, is webmaster at Bricks On The Brain, a good site which acts as a portal to build instructions. He also has a section devoted to the book which has three example pages and some links to other sites useful to Lego train builders. Both the book and the site itself promise at least a couple of articles by McKee but these are still “to come.” I hope they come soon as McKee promises (in the book and on the site) an article on using decals and I’d like to know his sources and methods.

The book starts with two chapters that are absolutely basic; most of the information here is included in the Lego documentation you get with the train kits, such as how to hook up the electrical power and the different train and carriage sets available. There are still some useful nuggets such as the ‘Studs Not On Top’ technique for getting bricks pointing away from the vertical and interesting trivia such as a short history of Lego trains. McKee also adds some details that may be hard to glean from the Lego manuals such as how an active passing line can cause a short circuit in your track.

The third chapter is only two pages, which once again detail some fairly obvious information such as the various parts of the train couplings and bogies. From that point on, the book gets interesting. The real core of the book consists of the three chapters that McKee has devoted to three different train models. Instead of just giving you the plans to build the locomotive and two carriages, McKee has shared the design process itself and gives some useful design and building tips before showing you the instructions.

The first model is a glorious model of a GP-38 locomotive (if you want to see the finished models then you can get decent-sized pictures on McKee’s site). It might have been better to have had this model last of the three, as it is the most complex and I found it the hardest to make with my Lego collection – there are more specialized parts in this model and I had to change the design in a couple of spots. Given the great look of the finished model, this isn’t too much of a complaint.

The second example is a refrigerated car (or “reefer car” in train yard slang). I found that I couldn’t build this car in the all-green of the book design but had the parts to build it in red. Since, as McKee points out, these sorts of cars are to be found in dozens of different paint jobs I don’t feel this was a problem. There are considerably fewer specialized parts in this model.

The third example is a container car (with containers), which is the easiest to build and uses few specialized pieces you are unlikely to have if you own a train set already. Once again my only real problem was one of having exactly the same colour as the book — one of my containers has red doors instead of white, for example.

I hope from my descriptions of the chapter you can see why I think the model order is wrong — I’d completely reverse the order of these three chapters.

For an early teen (or older) reader, the strength of this book is the tips and encouragement McKee gives in these three chapters for designing your own locomotives and carriages. There are dozens of little tips and tricks on creating a visually pleasing and playable model design. Younger readers may not appreciate McKee’s excellent advice on creating your own designs as much as older readers, but they will enjoy building the models all the same.

There is a final chapter on building track layouts, including some useful tips on building track inclines, and finally two short appendices, one on where to buy Lego and a glossary (McKee labels it “terminology”).

Originally (before publication, that is), this book was advertised at $24.95. The actual cover price is $19.95, though, and No Starch have dropped the price again. At the new list of $14.95, it becomes much more attractive and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in designing and building their own Lego train locomotives and carriages. The readable, simple style and clear build instructions make it enjoyable for quite young readers and older, more dedicated builders will appreciate the design tips. Lego have train sets that they advise are for 8 years old or older, and I believe the average seven-year-old would have no problem understanding the build instructions in this book.

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