MTH Proto-Sound 1 & Lionel ZW

That would be the new Lionel ZW with two 180 watt power supplies. I can't get an MTH 20-2125-1 C&O F3 AA set to function reliably with this transformer. I tried the Lionel CW-80 transformer also and that's a bust. If I fiddle furiously with the throttle I can sometimes get it running, but then the horn blows continuously.

I took the train to the hobby shop and the tech put it on a layout powered with an old Lionel ZW (275 watts). The train ran perfectly. I even tried it myself a couple of times and had no problem. Then I get home with my new ZW and it's a bust.

I read something on the web about "shark fin waveforms" vs "pure sine waveforms" in power supplies. Apparently the older MTH PS1 units will lockout if powered with a transformer that has a "shark fin waveform" current. I'm no electrician so I'm clueless as to what this means. The article said that MTH did that on purpose since the "shark fin waveform" current could cause bizarre behavior with the sound system (like maybe the horn blowing continuously?)

Does anyone know if the new Lionel ZW's have this "shark fin waveform" current? The MTH Z-4000, according to the specs, has pure sine waveform current. I'm wondering if I should trade in the ZW for a Z-4000.

Dump the ZW in favor of the Z-4000? Or, since MTH fixed the problem in later revisions of the PS1 board, would it better/cheaper to replace the board with a later revision (if I can still get one.)

All pro-Lionel and pro-MTH opinions are welcome. The only qualification is I want this particular train to run. I love Chessie stuff, and I already purchased the powered B unit (which runs great all on it's own.) And I have some Chessie aluminum Madison cars that would look great with the loco (same color scheme.)

I'm a ways off from TMCC or DCS, so I don't know if I will go with Lionel or MTH. But the MTH transformer should still work with Lionel's TMCC, should it? (Provided the voltage is preset.)

Any good size layout can always use more than one transformer anyway, right? I mean if you want to run several trains at once.

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Spender wrote: [...]

The AC current in your power line has a sine-wave shape (which you should recall from your high school math days.) A plain vanilla transformer produces lower voltage current of the same shape. The older Lionel transformers use a slider to cut more or less windings into the circuit, and so produce a variable voltage. Not very safe, actually, because you can fry the windings and cause a fire, but it works very well.

Most modern power packs use solid state circuitry to turn off and on the current 120 time per second. The _average_ voltage is lower or higher, depending on the amount of time the current is off. So the speed of the locomotive is controlled. This chopping produces an instant voltage drop to zero, 120 times per second. If graphed, it looks like a shark fin. Why do it this way? Cost and safety.

There's also the fact that on straight AC you need extra power to control things like the horn.

So you have two issues interfering with your enjoyment of your MTH train: a) power: 180 watts isn't much compared to 275 watts; and b) the wave form of the output current.

I suggest you use an MTH powerpack, which is made to suit the MTH electronics in the locomotive. Or else find and old Lionel ZW.


If you are looking ahead to MTH or Lionel's versions of digital control, you might as well invest in suitable powerpacks now. No point in having to replace them later. AFAIK, the two systems are supposed to be compatible, but I'm always leery of such claims, especially with Lionel and MTH, both of which have a history of not playing nice with the rest of the industry. People with actual experience will advise you on this.

OTOH, for digital control the power source delivers a constant voltage. The MTH controller would just be a power source set at max. voltage, so it should be OK for that use.

If you sue AC or DC, yes. You also have to arrange for electrical blocks so that the current from each controller reaches only the loco(s) it's supposed to control. That can get quite messy and surprisingly expensive, which is the main argument for going with digital control if you are building a new layout.

If you are using digital control, you need a power source that can handle as many locos as you want to run at the same time.


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The MTH transformer will properly power all (maybe) AC engines. It will properly power TMCC or DCS system.

If you want to use both TMCC and DCS the best choice is to buy the DCS system. To add TMCC capabilities you have to buy a TMCC command station. To add DCS capabilities to a TMCC system you need to add a DCS unit and block control.

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Charles Kimbrough

Is that way many (most?) of the old Lionel transformers could not receive UL listing?

120 times per second seems quite fast to my mind. But I guess it knocked the circuitry of this loco for a loop. That might explain why if I furiously fiddled with the throttle I could sometimes get it running. But it still messed with the sound system since the horn would blow continuously.

Cost as in less? I've read that the pure sine wave current transformers are more expensive to produce. Might just be marketing hype, I don't know.

BTW, thanks for this information. I'm inspired now to read up on the basics of electronics.

I read this message right before going to the hobby shop to ask about the various currents. The local hobby guy is great. He had no Z-4000's in stock, but had a used one sitting on the shop's layout. He let me take it home to test it out - no questions, no fee (they have my Lionel SD-40 Chessie in for some minor cosmetic repair, so they know who I am.)

The Z-4000 works like a charm! The first thing I noticed when I powered up the C&O F3 loco was no annoying buzz. With the ZW, the thing had a noticeable buzzing - maybe the voltage regulator was objecting to the current.

The second thing I noticed is that the train runs faultlessly. I must have started and stopped it 20 times. Threw it into neutral several times to hear the crew chatter. Tried out the brake squeal and PFA several times. No problems at all. The Z-4000's max of 22 volts was tempting... but my track has only 42" curves (albeit squared off) so I didn't want to push it and risk a disaster. I could feel the wind of the train passing at 18 volts.

I had first thought I would pull freight with the loco; a long line of die-cast cars, since the B unit is powered also. But with the passenger station sounds available, the train is perfect for the six aluminum Chessie passenger cars I have (Lionel 6-19145/150.) The color scheme matches and it looks great.

That is what I have gathered from what I've read on TMCC. Any power supply will do, with an additional component to connect to the track. Just set the power supply to max voltage and then the TMCC remote will control the voltage for you.

I only have one TMCC loco - a Chessie Berkshire from the Chesapeake Freight Set. But I think I read that MTH's system can control TMCC functions with an additional component. Whether it will in the future... yeah, who knows. Someone should form a standards board for the electronics.

I need to do a lot more reading. I have some rough layouts in mind, but I have no clue what the power implications would be. Or, for that matter, how to prevent trains from colliding at a crossing. I'd like each train to have its own mainline track, but, with some switching, have the ability to cross them over onto each other's tracks for the sake of variety.

I also like the idea of creating a layout that would allow the train to trip the switches as it runs over, causing it to run over every inch of track with no manual switching needed.

I have the RR Track software. I live in an apartment now; still house hunting. But I can at least fire up the software and start doodling.

Anyway, I'll go with the Z-4000 for now. The hobby guy is ordering a new one for me and has offered to do an even trade for the ZW & ZW Voltmeter (bought in January so they are nearly new.)

I still have the Lionel CW-80 for a third track or extra accessory power. Except at Christmas time when it runs the Polar Express under the tree. Which reminds me of another grand dream. A basement layout with a helix that would transport the Polar Express up through the ceiling and have it come out on a circle under the tree.

Wive's don't object to a guy taking a reciprocating saw to the living room floor, do they?

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I tried the Z-4000 with all of my Lionel locos, and little speeders also, and they all work great.

I did like the Bakelite look of the ZW, and the ZW voltmeter looked cool. But the Lionel voltmeter didn't display voltage anywhere near as quickly as the Z-4000 does, and it didn't seem as sensitive to changes in voltage.

Now that I've played with the Z-4000, I love it. And no external power supplies to clutter things up. It has a fan, but it's quiet and you can't hear a fan with the trains running anyway.

I'll have to read up on MTH's system on their site.

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Spender spake thus:

Nothing "fast", or even special, about 120 times per second. It's because the line frequency (the frequency of A.C. power in North America) is 60 cycles per second* (meaning the current reverses direction twice that, or 120 times per second).

  • Yeah, yeah, I know it's now known by that newfangled term, "Hertz". I'm old-school.
Reply to
David Nebenzahl

MTH trains PS-1 & PS-2 prefer a pure sine wave Transformer power.

Lionel Trains run on either a pure sine wave or chopped sine wave power

The old Lionel ZW Transformers have a pure sine wave power with a poor circuit breaker.

The new Lionel power pack ZW Transformers have chopped sine wave power with a good circuit breaker.

The MTH Z-4000 (Best!) has a pure sine wave power with good circuit breaker.

THe Z-4000 MTH Transformer runs ALL 3 rail AC trains very well!

Reply to
Dennis Mayer

I know the electronic meaning of it. I meant fast by normal human terms. Can't blink 120 times per second, certainly wouldn't want your heart beating 120 times per second, etc.

Then again it isn't beyond our perceptual ability. Can't a normal human hear a 60 cycle per second hum?

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I've got a Z-4000 on order after borrowing the hobby shop's spare to test it on my track. I do like the looks of it also. The action on the throttles seems much smoother than my ZW. And no external power packs. I like the whistle, bell, and direction buttons better than the whistle/direction lever on the ZW also. The Z-4000's voltage meters also seem to display faster and are more sensitive than the ZW voltmeter add-on.

The accessory outputs aren't adjustable like they are on the ZW. But big deal. I don't have many accessories at this point anyway, and when I do I can always get a separate accessory power pack.

Not a bad deal either. The guy is giving me a new Z-4000 in trade for my ZW with the add-on voltmeter. I get a transformer that works with everything, and he can still make a profit selling my old one. I'll just consider the small difference to be a rental charge for the ZW I bought last December.

The really cool thing is the Z-4000 goes to 22 volts. I wonder what is the minimum radius curve you'd need to run a train around it at 22 volts. I have 42" curves now (squared off with a 12.2" section) and I'm afraid to go over 18 volts because that thing is really flying.

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Yes, and in fact 60 hz is at the low end of the spectrum humans can hear. If we are talking about audible sound, then 25,000 hz is getting close to high frequency, depending on the range the person can hear.

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That, and the fact that a short circuit at 275 watts can generate a lot of heat in a very short time. Old timers talk of melting wheels...

60 cycle current means from zero --> max plus --> zero --> min minus --> zero 60 times per second. That's two half waves per cycle. Each half wave is chopped by the electronics --> 120 chops per second.

Transformers cost more because there contain a lot of copper and steel. Copper is high now - $3.51/lb USD!. High enough that thieves occasionally take down telephone cables, etc, for the copper in them. OTOH, solid state circuitry is made on large "wafers" which are cut up, so the cost per item is pennies.

You're welcome. I picked all my electrical/electronic knowledge by reading and doing, which expanded on and clarified the rather rudimentary stuff I learned in school. It's not difficult, if you take it one step at a time. I've even built a couple of transistorised controllers. Just follow the diagrams... ;-)

Reply to
Wolf spake thus:

Nit: way too high; more like 13-14 kHz. Certainly less for someone my age ...

Reply to
David Nebenzahl

I looked up some basic stuff on electronics. Like watts = volts * amps. I put it to use to calculate that the ABA set pulling the six Madison cars at

18 volts, 5.5 amps (according to the Z-4000 meters) means that the train is using 99 watts.

I had thought that 180 watts per channel seemed quite high. I didn't realize how many watts a train could use. Now I want to pull out every motorized or lighted car I have and see how high I can get.

Now I'l have to look up why the amps fluctuate somewhat (say 5.2-5.7 amps in the above case, while the voltage remains constant.

I changed an old electrical outlet to a new grounded outlet once. Trying to be a bad ass in front of my girlfriend, I didn't bother turning off the circuit breaker. Nah, I'll just be real, real careful... I got a good jolt part way through. My shoulder was numb for several minutes.

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