The repair yard where Lionel model trains get rolling again

Inside a nondescript building in northeastern Ohio, technicians fix thousands of beloved model trains. CNET's Road Trip 2013 stopped by to see the magic.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read

At the Lionel repair facility in Canfield, Ohio, technicians fix thousands of the famous model trains every year. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

CANFIELD, Ohio -- Lionel is one of the best-known model train makers in the world. It has fans (and customers) just about everywhere, and its products can sell for hundreds of dollars. In the last 113 years, it has established itself as the epitome of quality and class.

Yet until just three years ago, its repair operations were disorganized to the point that fixing customers' trains could take months, and often those repairs did nothing to fix the problem.

How Lionel gets broken trains back on track (pictures)

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But in 2010, Lionel hired a team in this small northeastern Ohio town that had been fixing its trains (and others as well) as a private business. They were so good at the job that just three years later, they've gotten the turnaround time on repairs down to about a week, created a fully-functional automated customer service system, and found a way to keep the company from manufacturing unnecessary duplicate parts.

Last week, I drove to Canfield to check out the repair operation as part of Road Trip 2013 knowing that it could be a treat. After all, who doesn't love seeing model trains ripped open, torn apart, and put back together again?

Tearing model trains apart is a big element of what Hull's team does here. That's because, he told me, the major source of the parts they use to fix the thousands of locomotives, freight and passenger cars, and other products that come in throughout the year is brand-new sets they buy from Lionel's manufacturer, and returns that they strip. All told, the facility stocks about 120,000 different parts, stored in countless bins on site, large and small, and in a big warehouse nearby.

There's no way to list all the different kinds of problems that show up in the mail, but Hull said that among the most common are broken smoke units on locomotives, dysfunctional motors, and burned out light bulbs. Sometimes, customers will go through the trouble of returning their new collectible simply because one of its LED lights isn't working. Those trains come to Canfield, where they're pulled apart like so much carrion.

But while many problems can be easily fixed, some would take too much tinkering time, and it's determined that it's more cost-efficient to simply replace the broken item. That's why the facility has shelves full of mint-condition shells and chassis that can be used to make the problem product like new again.

Tearing down kits
When you walk into the Canfield facility, one of the first thing you see is a large stack of sampler kits. These are what Hull's team buys from Lionel's manufacturers, and it's one technician's job to open the kits, and pull them apart, collecting all the pieces and sorting them for use in future repairs.

Sometimes, they'll encounter a brand-new part, and if so, they photograph it, give it a part number, and add it to their exhaustive database. This is new to Lionel, though it's hard to imagine a company with its reputation not having had such a system in place for years.

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The same goes for customer returns. When someone brings a Lionel train back to their dealer, they get their money back, and the train comes to Canfield, where it meets a technician hungry for its component parts. Walking into one room, I encountered a table covered in a mountain of subway car pieces. And on the shelves in another, I found dozens, if not hundreds of chassis, all waiting to make their way into complete Lionel products.

In some cases, they'll be used in refurbished trains, which Lionel sells at a discount. Other times, they'll be used in repaired models. The goal is to avoid waste by finding a use for almost any part of any train that comes through the doors. And before any repaired or refurbished trains go back out through those doors, they're first tested for several hours on a large oval track. "If it's going to break," Hull said, "we want to have it do it on our watch."

Although Lionel has been in the model train business for 113 years, the Canfield facility only works on trains made from the 1990s on. That's when the products started having complex electronics, requiring more sophisticated repair techniques. For older models, though, Lionel has developed a network of hundreds of local dealers who, in addition to selling Lionel, can also fix its more simple trains from earlier decades.

But fixing trains from the 1990s on is a team effort, thanks to a rigorous training process. And that training applies not just to the technicians, but also to the team of customer service reps who answer the phones and who have learned to diagnose most problems over the phone. By the time a train arrives in Canfield, the technician who handles it will already be able to tell a great deal about what's wrong with it, what parts are broken, and what might be needed to fix it, all thanks to the diagnostic skill of the people who answer the phones. For Lionel, that too is new.

For Hull, running the repair facility is both a grind, given the long hours he works every day, and a treat. After all, he spends his days around model trains, and is constantly doing his best to help Lionel's customers get back up and running. And that's the best part of all, he said, getting "to hear customers be happy that (their) hobby, (their) joy, is fixed."