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With very few exceptions, all Lionel products can be identified by a four-number identifier, printed either right on the side of the car or locomotive, or stamped on the bottom.

Not all Lionel trains are worth large sums of money. A Lionel 1110 Scout locomotive, for instance, typically sells for around US$40 in good condition very close to what it would have sold for in 1949-1952. A rarer and/or more versatile locomotive from the same time period can sell for several hundred dollars, or, occasionally, more than $1,000.

Lionels O gauge tracks actually came in two different radii: O and O27. O scale is supposed to approximate 1/48-1/55 scale and O equipment can accommodate curves of no less than 31 inches (790 mm) in diameter. In practice, O27 cars are shorter than O gauge (but the same width and height) making them better able to handle sharper turns in the track -- as O27 track is 27 inches (690 mm) in diameter for a circle. O track tends to ride slightly higher than O27 track and come in longer sections. The two types are easily identifiable with a ruler: a straight section of O27 track is 7/16 inch high and about 8 3/4 inches long, while a straight section of O track is 11/16 inch high and 10 inches (250 mm) long. A circle of 8 pieces of curved standard O track measures 31 inches (790 mm) in diameter, while 8 pieces of O27 curves make a circle 27 inches (690 mm) in diameter, hence the name O27. Also, remote electrically operated switches were provided only for the O gage track sets.

O27 trains will run without trouble on O track, but longer O locomotives and cars can struggle on the tighter curves of O27 track, coming to a stop or derailing.

The easiest way to identify the vintage of Lionel equipment is to examine the train couplers. Lionel trains made before World War II use toy like couplers that resemble a hook. The cars tend to be made of metal and have colorful paint schemes, somewhat similar to those of a holiday tin. Lionel trains made after World War II use two types of couplers. The less common (and less desirable) couplers, used in Lionels entry level Scout series, are longer and resemble a capital G. Scout couplers do not open. The more common couplers open when you pull a peg on the bottom of the coupler. These couplers are compatible with modern O-scale cars from Lionel and other manufacturers.

There were two types of electrical couplers produced, each type being opened by electrical current applied to a straight decoupling section. The earlier type (early post-war) uses two rail sections between the outer rails and the third rail, forming a five rail track. A contact shoe on each truck makes contact with this rail and operates a solenoid in the coupler when power is applied. A later version uses a single inductive coil in the center of the section - a wide spot in the third rail. A corresponding coil in the truck provides electricity to the coupler. The inductive method addressed a problem with the contact shoe method  these had a tendency to get hung up on switch points, causing a derailment.

Toy trains manufactured by Louis Marx and Company between 1938 and 1978 often resemble Lionel trains and are largely compatible with them, but most Marx locomotives and cars are slightly smaller and have less detail than their Lionel counterparts. Many Marx locomotives had three-number identifiers, which helps distinguish them from Lionel, and many Marx cars had no identifiers at all. Marx couplers also differ from Lionel and are usually more toy like.

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