Lionel 113 Station AF 4689 Lionel Trolley Ives 1764

Tinplate Times


Commentary Mailbag Links Archives About This Site Contact Us

Modern European Outline 0 Gauge Trains: What's Happening Today?

by Bryant Booth

ACE Trains Stanier tank Locomotive

(photo courtesy of ACE Trains)

“THE BRITISH ARE COMING ! THE BRITISH ARE COMING! “ blared the headline of the April 15th, 2008 newsletter e-mailed from Mike’s Train House (MTH). Although the headline would not have the same instant recognition factor as the patriotic Paul Revere alarm, the headline more appropriately could have read “THE EUROPEANS ARE COMING! THE EUROPEANS ARE COMING!” as these last twelve months have seen dramatic changes in the availability of modern 3-rail 0 gauge European outline trains. Whether one’s interest is tinplate, die-cast, brass, coarse scale, or fine scale, steam, diesel, or electric outline, powered by an electric motor or live steam, for those interested in modern, European, 3-rail, 0 gauge trains, there’s something new for you. A year ago who would have thought:

- MTH would produce a near fine scale, 3-rail, non-1:48 model of a French locomotive targeted to European enthusiasts
- Lionel would produce a 1:43.5 model of a well known Great Western Railway Hall class 4-6-0 locomotive
- devoted fans of ACE Trains, widely credited with revitalizing the 0 gauge 3-rail market in the UK, would be rocked by a small earthquake in the production of these beautiful trains
- the 3-rail operator/collector could soon be able to create, with ready-to-run tinplate locomotives and coaches, the famous deluxe passenger rains of the 30s, even the exotic Taurus Express that ran from Istanbul to Baghdad!

The purpose of this article is to review recent developments in the world of modern 0 gauge, 3-rail, ready-to-run, European toy trains. I acknowledge that this review is not comprehensive. I do not collect, for example, the modern, good looking, Bassett-Lowke locomotives and wagons being produced by Corgi today and do not address these trains, nor others, in this article. Instead I have focused on those trains I actively pursue to provide up-to-date information on what has been happening in this community and to hopefully interest others in further exploring these colorful trains of Europe.

This article addresses the European outline 3-rail train efforts of ACE Trains, 3rd Rail, Lionel, MTH, and Darstaed. A second article, reviewing what is happening at a couple additional producers of 3-rail trains such as Elettren and ETS (Electric Train Systems), is being considered.

ACE Trains

Since their introduction in 1996, ACE Trains ( has been in the forefront of the resurgence in the popularity of 0 gauge 3 rail trains in Britain. Their die-cast, steam outline locomotives are beautiful and ACE Trains has produced several thousand British outline tinplate passenger coaches in multiple series.

ACE Trains were created by Alan Levy and Andries Grabowsky. Alan Levy is a renowned, international expert on toy trains. He was a co-founder of the London Toy and Model Museum, the author of the classic A Century of Model Trains, he created the publishing firm New Cavendish Books, which published information rich books on toy trains such as the distinctive coffee table book The Trains on Avenue De Rumine, and the comprehensive The Hornby Gauge O System.

Alan’s partner/cohort was Andries Grabowsky of the Netherlands who has been involved in the production of toy trains since the early 90s. Together they developed the initial ACE products, such as the first tinplate E/1 series of 4-4-4 tank locomotives, essentially a reproduction of one the earliest Hornby locomotives powered by an electric vice clockwork motor, produced both in British and French liveries along with a series of compatible tinplate passenger coaches. Their intent was to develop trains that would have been a logical extension of the Hornby line had Hornby continued to produce 0 gauge tinplate trains into the 21st Century.

In a business arrangement ACE Electric Train Company Ltd of London bought and distributed under the ACE name 100% of the trains produced by Adries Grabowsky and his ACE Far East Company in Thailand. This proved to be highly successful. In the first ten years of operation they produced fourteen series of British styled tinplate coaches, three series of tinplate locomotives, and three series of beautiful die cast locomotives:

- the Class A4 streamlined 4-6-2 locomotive, designed by Sir Nigel Gresley in 1935 for the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER). One of this locomotive class, named “Mallard“, still holds the record as the fastest steam locomotive in the world.

- the A3 Pacific Flying Scotsman of the LNER.

- the Great Western Railway (GWR) Castle Class 4-6-0

All three are hefty, detailed, beautiful models of their prototypes. ACE has the ability to produce their locomotives in a wide variety of liveries and engine names. For example, the Class A4 streamlined Pacific was available in at least seven colors and with at least thirty different engine names!!

The author’s ACE A4 Pacific and A3 Flying Scotsman locomotives.

Their most recent tinplate locomotive is a family of 0-6-0 tender locomotives in such versions as the Q-Class Southern Railways/British Rail locomotive, the J 19 LNER, and the Fowler 4F locomotive of the LMS Railway.

As for freight wagons, ACE has produced multiple colorful, petrol and milk tank wagons, a brake van, and will soon release goods wagons as well. All the trains are compatible with the colorful Hornby trains of the 1930s.

The author’s ACE Celebration Class 4-4-0 tinplate locomotive

pulls ACE tank wagons to the nearby port.

The creation and growth of this company and how they ended up manufacturing toy trains in Thailand is fascinatingly described in Allen Levy’s book Brilliantly Old Fashioned, The Story of ACE 0 Gauge Trains.

Brilliantly Old Fashioned, The Story of ACE O Gauge Trains,

...a must read book for if you are interested in European 0 gauge trains.

ACE now has a solid base of dedicated fans and a new club, the Ace Train Owner’s Club- - which provides an on-line forum for ACE topics. Members operate ACE trains at venues in the UK along with their Hornby Railway Collectors Association (HRCA) counterparts.

A small earthquake rumbled through the ACE community last July 31st when Allen Levy announced that he and Andries Grabowsky were parting ways. The partners had evidently evolved different ideas as to where ACE Trains should go. As announced, Allen Levy would continue with the ACE trains and Andries Grabowsky would launch his reproduction of the famous Darstaed tinplate passenger coaches (see Darstaed below). There was concern among ACE enthusiasts as to whether ACE Trains would survive.

But ACE bounced right back, seems to be on track, and has announced their next locomotives. Although they target the same British 0 gauge train market, ACE Trains (Levy) and Vintage Trains (Grabowsky) have recently agreed that the tooling for new 35 cm coaches will remain in Bangkok, Thailand to be freely used by both companies. A complete range of French “PLM”(PARIS LYON Mediterranee) tinplate coaches will be produced and sold by both ACE Trains and Vintage Trains.

So what is coming from ACE Trains in 2009? ACE is currently taking orders for a tinplate Stanier Tank Locomotive in LMS and British Rail liveries. The prototype locomotive was designed by Sir William Stanier, Chief Mechanical Engineer for the LMS Railway. In the late 1930’s, the British company Bassett-Lowke sold a small number of Stanier type tank locomotives with bodies that were made by Märklin. Today they are very hard to come by. ACE’s Stanier tank locomotive looks very similar to the original Bassett-Lowke model but the ACE locomotive will be able to operate on both 2 rail and 3 rail layouts. (Of note, a Christie’s auction catalogue photograph of one of these rare tinplate locomotives is evidently quite a popular 29” x 23” poster today. Google “a Märklin-bodied Bassett-Lowke LMS” and note the number of entries from on-line poster and art dealers that sell this neat looking poster.)

The new Stanier Tank Locomotive from ACE Trains.

(photo courtesy of ACE Trains)

Next ACE will produce the Bulleid light Pacific (called the Spamcan for its boxy appearance) in the liveries of the Southern Railway and British Rail. Designed by Oliver Bullied, the C. M. E. (Chief Mechanical Engineer) of the Southern Railway, and intended for express passenger service, these 4-6-2 locomotives pulled the “Golden Arrow” Pullman train from London to Dover on the English Channel after World War II.

A preserved Bulleid Light Pacific of the Southern Railway.

Interestingly ACE intends to produce the Brighton Belle which will include two Motor/Brake units, a 3rd. Class Parlour Car, a 1st. Kitchen ‘Doris’ and 1st. Kitchen ‘Hazel'. If you read the Darstaed section below you’ll note that Vintage Trains is also planning to produce the Brighton Belle. ACE will also introduce their LMS 40 cm coaches in 2009.

Finally, ACE Trains is working on a 0 gauge, live steam locomotive using their A4 Pacific as the model. Imagine an 0 gauge garden railway with a live steam A4 Pacific in the LNER garter blue paint charging down the rails. The high pressure engine will be sold under the name ACE/Shawe by the ACE Live Steam Locomotive Company LTD, in association with ACE Trains.

I tend to focus on the steam outline locomotives being produced today and do not give the beautiful passenger coaches produced by ACE their due. So I encourage you to visit the ACE web site ( to not only review the company’s current locomotives, coaches, goods wagons, and accessories but to also look through the archive of their past ACE locomotives and coaches. ACE Trains produces neat trains.

3rd Rail

The first US firm to produce an 0 gauge 3-rail European locomotive as well as 2 rail models was 3rd Rail ( of Sunset Models in California, noted for their highly detailed, brass locomotive models. 3rd Rail aimed its locomotives at the British, French, and German train enthusiasts.

In 2004 3rd Rail announced their brass model of the famous British locomotive, the LNER A3 Flying Scotsman 4-6-2 which was produced in both 3-rail (with licensed Lionel TMCC and Railsounds) and 2-rail as well. Three versions of the locomotive were available, representing three stages in the locomotives operational history, including as preserved today. Back in 1969 the Flying Scotsman was ferried across the Atlantic for a promotional tour of the United States. An optional US touring pilot and bell were available for those interested in modeling this stage of the Flying Scotsman’s career.

The 3rd Rail fine scale Flying Scotsman.

3rd Rail is now taking reservations for their model of the British express streamlined A-4 Mallard (a 4-6-2) which will be available in both 2 and 3 rail with the names Mallard, Silver Fox, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. However, only 30 models are to be made in 3-rail.

It’s beyond the scope of this article to address 2-rail fine scale models but it is worth noting that 3rd Rail has continued to produce fine scale brass models of European locomotives including:

- Great Western King Class King George V #6000 4-6-0. The original locomotive participated in the Centenary celebrations of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1927.
- a SNCF 141R Liberation Mikado in 2 rail DC: The French State Railways 2-8-2 Mikado was called the Liberation because 1200 such locomotives were built in the US and shipped to France immediately after WWII.
- a two piece Diesel motor coach (Fliegender Hamburger) - Flying Hamburg in 1:43.5 0 scale but the project was cancelled due to lack of orders.

The SNCF 141R Liberator Mikado displayed at York was an exceptionally attractive locomotive. One wishes 3rd Rail would re-issue it in a 3-rail version. 3rd Rail expects to continue providing European trains. At York, last October 2008, I was told that they are considering making a French SNCF 140, i.e. a 2-8-0 Consolidation. Hopefully they will consider a 3-rail version.

3rd Rail’s sleek SNCF Mikado.


Lionel ( introduced, in 2007, a reasonably scale model of a British locomotive in a rather round-about fashion. To leverage the huge popularity of the Harry Potter series of books and movies into an interest in toy trains, as it had with the very popular Polar Express set, Lionel produced and delivered the Hogwarts Express Train set just before Christmas, 2007.

Lionel’s model of the GWR Olton Hall locomotive, painted red, for its ready-to-run Hogwarts Express Train set.

In two of the Harry Potter movies Warner Brothers employed a Great Western Railways locomotive, the Olton Hall, painted red, in the train action sequences. Lionel originally advertised the train set as a Traditional 0 Gauge train. But Lionel found that its vender had produced a pretty good, die-cast, 1:43.5 0 scale model of the Great Western Railway’s Hall class 4-6-0 locomotive. And the price of the locomotive, sold by itself, was a bargain for a detailed die cast locomotive. You can find one today on eBay for around $100.00. The plastic coaches, however, are unremarkable.

In the UK, the locomotive was so popular that ACE Trains rapidly produced a new scale metal tender to substitute for the Lionel version that was somewhat oversized due to the need to stuff electronics into its shell. The only problem was that model steam engine was painted Red vice Green. Many of us bought the 4-6-0 locomotive with the intention of having the engine repainted and re-lettered in a GWR green livery. When repainted, we expected to have a reasonably scale die cast 1:43.5 model of a very well known class of Great Western locomotives at a very low cost. But that repainting/re-lettering cost (in the order of £300 to £400) proved to be considerably more than most of us had anticipated and I expect many of these projects are currently on pause.

Since they had the die cast molds and all the tooling, Lionel is about to re-issue this locomotive as the Great Western Railway 4-6-0 Hall class No. 4936 Kinlet Hall, originally built in 1929 at Swindon Works. In 2007 the Kinlet Hall powered the Shakespeare Express dinner train from Birmingham to Stratford-upon-Avon and the Lionel set will be named the Shakespeare Express. Lionel displayed and operated the model at the October 2008 TCA Eastern Division train meet in York, Pa. The green livery, on the displayed model seemed, in my view, to be too light in color but then again I’ve only seen Jpegs of the real Kinlet Hall.

The preserved prototype GWR Kinlet Hall at the Crew locomotive works.

My short conversations with Lionel staff at York indicate that Lionel has no immediate plans to produce another European locomotive but is very open to ideas.


Each spring and fall I make the trek to York, Pennsylvania to attend the TCA Eastern Division’s Train Show. I routinely visit the large MTH ( display to observe the latest state-of-the-art in locomotive detailing and digital electronics for toy trains. Given the opportunity, I would normally ask Mike Wolf, the CEO of MTH, if he had any plans to develop a 3-rail locomotive of an European prototype. He always had a simple, to-the-point, answer - “No” - and then he would move on to the next MTH fan vying for his attention.

However, at the Fall 07 York show, Mike Wolf’s response was very different. Directing me to the new MTH 2008 Volume 1 catalog, he pointed to the page displaying a French steam locomotive, the famous Chapelon Pacific (I.e. 4-6-2) locomotive, or as the French would name it - the 231E. This locomotive, in its various road names and liveries, was known for pulling express passenger trains such as the Orient Express to Eastern Europe and the Fleche D’ Or from Paris’s Gare du Nord station to the Calais Maritime Station to meet a ferry bound for the English coast. Wow! Not bad for a first step into a new arena.

Shortly thereafter, MTH announced that they would also produce the British A-3 Pacific locomotive Flying Scotsman. But shortly after, MTH decided to delay production given feedback they received from British dealers and customers. This feedback probably noted that there were already at least three versions of an 0 gauge, 3-rail, Flying Scotsman coming on the market: the ACE die cast locomotive, the Bassett-Lowke brass, course scale engine, and the near fine scale model produced by 3rd Rail.

MTH instead introduced another 4-6-2 type locomotive, the Princess Coronation class Pacific employed on the LMS (London, Midland and Scottish) Railway for speedy passenger travel between Scotland and London. To be available in five LMS and British Rail liveries, the locomotive was first displayed in the MTH 2008 Volume 2 catalog along with:

- a five car Orient Express Passenger set to be used with the French 231E cars with interior detailing and lighting. It should also be noted that in a separate web-based brochure about this locomotive, M.T.H. states that in an upcoming catalog, this steam engine will be joined by Fleche D’Or passenger cars with interior details, passengers, and lighting.

- a classic General Motors diesel engine, the AA16 AFB/NOHAB in liveries for Denmark, Hungary, Norway, Belgium, Luxemburg, and a NOHAB GM demonstrator paint scheme.

- a modern TRAXX/ALP-46 Electric locomotive in four bright, flashy paint schemes. These actual locomotives were specifically designed for operational service, both passenger and freight, across Europe.

All the models are to be available with either Hi-rail or scale wheels and will have digital sound systems.

The MTH Princess Coronation City of London in the red British Rail livery. The model operates with sounds recorded from the prototype Duchess of Sutherland.

The MTH French Chapelon Pacific is available in three liveries, the chocolate brown of the NORD Railway, SNCF black, and SNCF green with the Fleche D’Or emblem on the smoke box. The chocolate brown NORD and SNCF green where displayed at the fall 08 York meet. Basically a die cast locomotive, MTH added many separate add-on parts to the boiler and tender and this pre-production prototype was also displayed at York. The two painted 231Es at York were both intricate in detail and quite beautiful overall and drew considerable attention from the visitors to the MTH display. I can’t wait to get mine!

The 231E pre-production prototype displayed at the York October 2008 TCA meet.

The 231E in the chocolate brown NORD livery.

The die-cast but detailed 231E in the SNCF green livery.

Three steam locomotives, a diesel, an electric, and a set of Orient Express passenger coaches presents quite an impressive first foray into the world of European trains for MTH. So what is coming next? At last October’s York meet I again asked Mike Wolf what his plans were for future European trains? “None” he said as he turned to answer another fan’s question.


The newest name in the modern 0 gauge, 3-rail train world is DARSTAED; actually it is a name with an acclaimed heritage. In the mid-1930’s Märklin pushed tinplate train construction to its zenith with their 0 gauge, #1941 series of passenger cars commonly referred to as the 40 cm coaches. Märklin produced nine different passenger, baggage, and postal wagons in their #1941 series in Deutsche Reichsbahn (DR) green, Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL) blue, and MITROPA burgundy-red liveries. Five cars with Swiss SBB markings were also produced. Features on these cars included doors that opened and optional detailed interior fittings and lights were available. Today these Märklin wagons are highly sought after and draw steep prices in auctions.

A Märklin catalog page displaying the detailed, tinplate 40 cm passenger coaches.

Marcel Darphin of Zug, Switzerland is a famous name in 0 gauge (1:43.5) model train operations as well as the producer of fine scale 0 gauge model train wagons in very limited quantities. His firm Darstaed also produced replica, Märklin 40 cm tinplate coaches and he expanded the range of coaches available. The Darstaed web site, , displays the 31 types of passenger, baggage, and postal wagons produced from the late 60’s until 1987. Going to the web site (click on “products”, then “tinplate”) you will note that the expanded range includes Rheingold, Swiss SBB, French SNCF, KPEV (Prussian State Railways) and early CIWL teak-sided cars. They were all very attractive train wagons. But only 6000 of these cars were produced and now Darstaed wagons are highly sought after and also bring high price tags to the prospective buyer.

A Darstaed CIWL Baggage car.

The author’s Darstaed Passenger coach and a Teak CIWL Baggage car are being pulled to the station.

Enter Andries Grabowsky, of the Netherlands. In 1993 Andries bought the Darstaed Tinplate line of products including the tooling and brand name from Marcel Darphin . His dream has been to again produce and expand the Darstaed tinplate coaches. But until August of 2008, Andries was the creator of all those beautiful ACE trains being produced in Thailand and that success evidently delayed the start of his reproduction of Darstaed coaches.

With the breakup of the arrangement with Allen Levy and ACE Trains, Andries returned to his original company name, Vintage Trains, and still in Bangkok is already manufacturing trains. A couple clicks into the new (note the “dot com” vs. “dot ch“) web site and you’ll quickly understand what fascinates Andries and what he intends to produce. For example, click on the Gallery and you will discover fifteen 1930’s era, “pop-up”, art deco poster advertisements of the world's famous and exotic trains such as the Orient Express, the Daylight Limited, the Blue Train, and the Fleche D’Or; names that take us back to the age of steam locomotives, luxury travel, and even international intrigue. Click on Trains De Luxe and you will find comprehensive histories of these famous trains.

Using the tooling of the Darstaed 40 cm coaches as the basis of his works, Andries Grabowsky intends to both reproduce the original Darstaed line and to expand the line to model famous trains of the past such as the Fleche d’Or and the Rheinpfeil. Says Grabowsky “… as train making is a progressive science we will take up where the war left us retaining the beauty and magic …” of the tinplate trains of the past.

Beginning in 2009 Vintage Trains will produce a series of 35 cm British Pullmans including the Southern Railway's electric powered luxury train the Brighton Belle which ran from Victoria Station, London to Brighton on the Sussex coast. Darstaed already is taking orders for a limited number of 35 cm 1st Class Parlour Pullmans to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Hornby Railway Collectors Association, HRCA.

Of importance to a steam locomotive fan like myself is the fact that Grabowski intends to also produce an array of tinplate locomotives in the coming years. Currently he is selling an 0-6-0 Tender engine, the LNER (London North Eastern Railway) J-Class 0-6-0 in five different LNER and British Rail liveries. These locomotives are probably a derivative of the ACE 0-6-0 tender locomotive manufactured for ACE by Grabowsky in Thailand.

A Vintage Trains J-Class British Rail 0-6-0 Tender Engine.

For his first tinplate locomotives under the Darstaed name there will be a range of tinplate 2-6-2 tank locomotives in a wide variety of British, French, Australian, New Zealander, Dutch and German liveries.

Darstaed’s new tinplate 2-6-2 Tank Locomotive in Deutsche Reichsbahn-Gesellschaft (DRG) livery.

In my email correspondence with Andries Grabowsky over the last couple years he’s mentioned several exciting locomotive possibilities such as the German BR 01, P8, and even the classic Royal Bavarian State Railways S 3/6 locomotive (later the Deutsche Reichsbahn’s class BR 18). Can you imagine what a beauty this locomotive, in modern tinplate construction, would be?

The Royal Bavarian State Railways S 3/6 locomotive preserved at the Deutches Museum in Munich.

Andries does not expect to manufacture a locomotive that has already been produced, such as the MTH French Chapelon Pacific. And although the Darstaed locomotives will be prepared to accept a DCC system, don't look for a Darstaed locomotive to have steam coming from the cylinders and chuffing sounds as the engine lumbers out of the station. Andries intends to focus his talents on recreating the magic of the original tinplate trains. I am looking forward to his introduction of new European continental (i.e. German, Swiss, etc) steam outline locomotives to the 3-rail community.

A Short Summary and Acknowledgements:

So this has been quite a year for the fan of European 3-rail trains. Certainly those interested in British trains should be pleased with the range of British oriented 3-rail trains to be produced. The 3-rail Francophile now has MTH and Darstaed models of French trains to add to those produced by ACE Trains. And hopefully the German railways fans and Märklin enthusiasts will soon find Darstaed constructed tinplate locomotives and continental passenger coaches to expand their collections or layouts. The next several months are going to be very interesting for all of us.

I want to thank Scott Mann of 3rd Rail, Mike Wolf of MTH, Allen Levy of ACE Trains and Andries Grabowsky of Darstaed for the use of images of their products from their web sites and the additional photos they provided. And a second set of thank yous to Misters Levy and Grabowsky for their willingness, over the last several years, to readily respond to my many questions on their products and the state of the 3-rail, ready-to-run, community. Thanks also to my friend Robert Schreyer, for letting me tap into his extensive knowledge base of European trains and railroads of today and yesterday and the model trains that represent them.

Do you collect and/or operate European 3-rail trains? If so, I'd like to hear about your interest. Write me at

Would you like to comment on this article? Click here to Email TINPLATE TIMES

© 2008 Tinplate Times - All rights reserved.