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Fixing the smoke unit

CANFIELD, Ohio -- For 113 years, Lionel has been making some of the most desirable and collectible model trains in the world.

Today, it manufactures the trains in North Carolina and in China. But while local Lionel dealers sometimes fix the trains, especially those made prior to the 1990s, most repairs are done at the company's customer service facility in this small town in northeast Ohio.

One of the most common repairs is fixing the smoke units on Lionel locomotives, which can easily get damaged due to leaking oil.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Pulling apart kits for parts

The repair facility's main sources of the parts that it uses to fix customers' trains are returns and starter kits it buys directly from Lionel's manufacturer. Here, a member of the repair team pulls apart kits for their parts.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Tiny chips

Between 40 percent and 50 percent of all repair work done at the facility is due to some sort of failure by the operators of the trains. Often, owners will demand returns on trains with minor chips, like on the corner of this shell.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Bins and bins and bins

The Canfield repair facility has about 120,000 parts in its inventory, meaning that it can replace almost any part on any Lionel train made from the mid-1990s and later.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Subway car parts

A worker piles up parts he's gotten from tearing down returned subway cars.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Plastic trucks grid

Surprisingly, the Lionel company didn't have a complete register of all the trucks it used in its many sets, leading it to sometimes make brand-new trucks that duplicated ones that already existed.

One of the special projects the Canfield facility has been working on is creating this physical record of every rail truck used on a Lionel train so that the manufacturer can avoid creating new duplicate parts.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Locomotive taken apart

Sitting on a repair technician's desk, this locomotive has been taken apart in order to work on its wiring.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Testing track

When technicians finish a repair, they will usually put the now-fixed product -- be it a locomotive, or a car -- on the testing track and run it around the track for a couple of hours to be sure everything is working properly.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Collecting for refurbs

The repair facility ends up with many locomotive chassis that come from returns. They then hold on to the chassis and use them to build refurbished models, which they sell at a discount.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Shelves of refurb locomotive chassis

Shelves full of locomotive chassis await being put together for refurb models.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Inspecting the coaling tower

A technician in the Canfield repair facility works on fixing a coaling tower. He concluded it had been dropped due to a small separation in the plastic. Often, what could take a customer quite some time to fix -- or be impossible for them to do -- can take a technician just minutes.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Testing the smoke unit

After fixing the smoke unit on a locomotive, a technician watches it go around the testing track to make sure that it's working properly.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Smoke unit up close

A closer look at the locomotive with the repaired smoke unit as it rounds the testing unit.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Shelves of shells

The facility has shelves full of train shells that have been pulled off extensive repairs. The shells are then kept and paired with chassis that need only simple repairs. Often, Lionel can offer someone a shell like this at a much cheaper price than they would pay for a brand-new one.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Shelves of shells up close

A close-up look at some of the shells the facility keeps for future use.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET


Just about any paint color that might be needed is kept on hand at the repair facility.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Tugboat sound board

One of the 120,000 parts in the facility's inventory is this one, a tugboat sound board.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Slow season

Summer is the facility's slow season, since many train enthusiasts are doing other things. If it were high season, these shelves would be full of what are known as "major" projects, which are repairs on high-end, expensive locomotives. Lionel promises that it will take no more than 21 days to complete such repairs, but in practice it usually never takes more than six.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

990 bases

A box of 990 Legacy Command Set bases, which hold Lionel's $400 remote controllers.

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Bins of small parts

Hundreds of small bins hold many of the smaller parts.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET


This bin is full of small bells.

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Another bin holds motors for the locomotives.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET


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