Retro Future Electrics

A page about retro electronics, from the introduction of electricity until 1970-something. We refit old gadgets with new tech, and wonder at the makers who came before us.

Model Trains


This may be more in the land of retro than retro future, but I always liked model trains. I think this is inherited a bit from my father. The family story goes that my grandmother worked a summer picking blueberries (In New Jersey, in the 1950s) to secure money to buy my dad a Lionel train set. When I was around 10 I got a train set for Christmas, and was allowed to use my dad’s tracks and switches, but not the locomotive. A few years later and I had a small 4×8 foot piece of plywood dedicated to a layout, and had moved to HO gauge trains as even in the 1980s the Lionel gear was expensive.  I wish I had some photos of it, but there are none. I was eventually allowed to use my dad’s locomotive and inherited it when he passed away. It sat in boxes for a few years and the Hawaii and Okinawa summers got to the motor. The case was still intact and rust free. Perhaps a statement to the rust proofing of the Lionel corp. I had the motor professionally refurbished in 2015 and ran it during Christmas in 2017. Of course after I had it running in a simple oval with 2 switches (for a dual oval design) I wanted to make it something a little more special.


Overall Goals: 

  • Train speed controlled via computer (Raspberry Pi + Arudino + Triacs)
  • An electronic display (The same pi + Adafruit 2.8” LCD screen, made to look like a billboard)
  • Switches controlled via computer (Raspberry Pi & some relays)


Shopping list:

I had nearly everything on hand for this project, I almost always have an extra Raspberry Pi or two on hand, in this case I used a version 3, both because that was my extra and I wanted near real-time control of the triacs to ensure that the train wouldn’t go crazy.

  • Raspberry Pi version 3 (Any version will do if you use an Arduino for the tight timing)
  • Ardunio “nano”
  • 2.8” LCD screen from Ada Fruit (if you don’t want the ‘billboard’ you can skip this)
  • 2 – Triacs
  • Wires
  • Lionel train set that runs on 18-19VAC voltage (most sets, although some are DC voltage)


Design philosophy:

I like to start out with a goal. Not just “trains, but with electronics!”, but a goal that means the trains + electronics will be something better in the end. I’m no Simone Giertz who likes to build worthless robots, I like my machines to do something actually useful. So how can a computerized train layout improve upon a regular train layout. Due to space constraints I can’t really expand much beyond the dual oval layout. The real electronics bonus here is start up power, my track is old and doesn’t conduct the best, the train is also old, and to make matters worse my voltage in Japan is 100V, ~10% less than the 110V the system was originally designed for. So the biggest problem I have with the straight transformer is starting up. Thus some computer control may help me start up quickly and then ramp down to operating current.


Here is some video from 2017 of the train locomotive going around the track. Notice it’s a little fast? If I went much slower it would get hung up on some track “dead spots”, something else I’d like to fix with a little control, but that’s another project.

Secondarily is the “billboard”, I run the train in a Christmas village style set up, you can watch the little movie below of the locomotive circling the village. It’s a bit noisy and the track isn’t terrible smooth, which is another thing I’d like to improve.

The idea for the billboard is to add a little dynamic content to the display. Most times it will just cycle thru some retro Christmas scenes and ads, but it will also display the train power levels and some other time based announcements. The idea is to make it look like a real 1950’s billboard.

The first thing to do was to refurbish the switches themselves. That’s a separate page here:


The Hardware:



The Software:






I didn’t start from nothing on this project, thanks to every little message board out there dedicated to model train control, I read a lot of triac control articles to refine my ideas. Also of course thanks to the overall Raspberry Pi and Adafruit community, it made putting together the billboard easy.