Founded in Ole Kirk Christiansen’s workshop in Billund, Denmark, in 1932, the LEGO company has come a long way. It rose in massive popularity through many decades and cemented its status as one of the world’s toy manufacturers.
Using wood as its primary material in its early years, it was only in the 1940s when the company released its signature, colorful interlocking plastic bricks. These pieces can be snapped together, pulled apart, and reused to make nearly everything you can imagine. Adding the vast range of gears, minifigures, and accessories, its pieces can be assembled in endless ways to create animals, vehicles, aircraft, castles, buildings, robots, and even dragons and dinosaurs.
Yet, one of the most famous products of the company is its LEGO trains. Trains are among Kristiansens’ earliest creations, producing wooden steam locomotives and express trains until the 1950s. A fire ravaged LEGO’s woodworking factory and warehouse in 1960, signaling the company’s complete shift from wood to plastic, but putting the train-making into a hiatus.
In April 1962, the LEGO wheel was created, which served as one of the company’s most outstanding achievements, allowing them to broaden their product range. Four years later, the first movable LEGO locomotive was launched, designed to be pushed along, sans any engine or rail tracks.
Known for their ingenuity, it was long enough for LEGO to launch their first battery-powered train. In 1966, 4.5-volt trains became available on the shelves, but they came and ran on blue rails this time. These models were soon upgraded to 12-volt sets. Later on, electrified railways powered by transformers also became available, marking the advent of fully electric motorized LEGO train sets. What’s remarkable is the push-along trains can be upgraded to 4.5-volt, 12-volt sets and be converted to a complete electronic set.
In 1980, the trains were given their own product line, and along with its launch, 28 new train model sets were also released. In addition, the blue rails were changed to grey. Plus, new types of trains and wagons, ranging from classic to modern design, were also launched as part of the major overhaul.
In 1991, the 9-volt electric system replaced the 4.5-volt and 12-volt systems. The 9-volt system was far more sturdy, answering common problems of the fractured wires and loose connector plugs in the old systems. Models also became more realistic in appearance and added new functionalities and more streamlined controls.
The “LEGO Trains” product line was absorbed by the “LEGO World City” in 2003 and “LEGO City” in 2005. A year after, LEGO launched their “remote-controlled” trains, casting doubts on the continued availability of the 9-volt system. The RC trains came with few perks. Sets became cheaper as they abandoned the metal electrified rails. Meanwhile, the introduction of the infrared remote control gave users the capability to control more than one train at once.
Yet, the RC format’s existence was cut short after LEGO announced its discontinuance along with the 9-volt train set in 2007 in favor of a new system. In 2009, LEGO launched the “Power Functions” system to save costs on producing train sets and standardize the train model sets across different themes. In 2018, the “Powered Up” system was introduced to replace the 2009 product line.
While systems and functionalities may have changed through the years, the bricks, pieces, and track gauge have remained the same. Thus, making them generally compatible with other types of LEGO train model sets, from steam-engine locomotives, city trains, high-speed trains to freight and cargo trains. All are bound to give any modeler or collector a thrilling and rewarding experience. So, if you haven’t jumped on board yet, don’t miss out on the fun and start your trip in the realm of LEGO bricks railway modeling.