What is Lionel Legacy Control System | Types, Compatibility, and Principles Behind the Lionel Legacy Controls

The Lionel legacy control system is Lionel’s way of improving O scale railroading. It is an upgraded version of the TMCC or the Trainmaster Command Control they introduced in 1994. But what is the Lionel Legacy system? What separates it from the traditional controls, and why do they upgrade TMCC to Legacy? We will discuss these questions in this post.

Lionel Legacy control system is Lionel’s way of upgrading the command control system for the O scale train market. These controls allowed more complex tasks that were only possible for actual trains, such as precise speed controls, quilling whistle volume, and the amount of smoke produced. As a result, the system revolutionized the controls of O scale model trains.

This post will discuss what the Lionel Legacy System is from what it is, its origin, and its compatibility with other trains. We will look at its advantage and what separates it from the older TMCC. I will also share my advice on which type of Legacy system to get.

Lionel Legacy Control CAB-1L
Lionel Legacy Control CAB-1L

What is Lionel legacy system?

The Lionel legacy system is a type of digital command control that uses frequency and tiny chips to allow accurate and complex controls on O scale trains. This is Lionel’s answer to the emerging DCC controls of the HO scale trains. This system made simulating model train operations as realistic as possible.

Before we start, we first need to introduce the two types of controls, and to make it more interesting; I will discuss the topic based on history.

Basically, there are two types of control systems for model trains which as DC and DCC.

DC stands for direct current control, and DCC stands for digital command control.

In the early model railroading days, DC controls are the standard. It is straightforward where the only control you have is how much current you will give the motor to control its speed.

However, DC controls have limitations, such as when controlling more than 2 trains or complex layouts with track switches and crossings.

Controlling these complicated layouts on DC is hard. However, technology made it easier.

The rise of computers allowed more complex tasks to be handled. For example, manufacturers figured out that using computer chips to control the train motor is possible and would make model railroading more fun and realistic.

Computers allowed model trains to whistle or open their lights without running the engines. In addition, it can control switches without any complex tasks for the modeler.

These computer chips lead to digital command control or DCC production.

The computer chips are what DCC users call the decoder, which decodes the instructions of the modeler they entered using their DCC controls.

This flexibility and comfort made DCC a big thing when it was introduced.

Recommended Read: For more information regarding DC vs. DCC, please check this post: DC vs. DCC.

However, Lionel couldn’t use DCC controls for two reasons.

One is that DCC is made for HO scale trains, while 95% of Lionel’s sales came from O scale trains. O scale is bigger than HO and would require more power.

Two is that Lionel trains use a different track than the standard DCC, which only uses two rails. Lionel is famous for its 3-rail tracks, which lessened the occurrence of short circuits in the early model railroading days.

The problem with 3-rail tracks is that the location of the charges is different from the two rails, which is why DCC doesn’t work on their O scale trains.

Image is taken from 2 vs. 3-rail track. Check the post here: 2 vs. 3-rail track?

Notice how the location of the charges is different from the 2-rail and the 3-rail. That’s why the standard DCC doesn’t work on Lionel trains.

These two reasons made it hard for Lionel to adopt DCC controls. This is also one of the reasons why the O scale market has seen a huge dip in popularity.

In context, the currently most popular scale is the HO and the second is the N scale. This is bad news since the O scale is once the most popular scale.

Since Lionel can’t use DCC controls, they made their DCC controls that can be used for their O scale models. That’s when they introduced the TMCC or the Trainmaster Command Control.

In 1994, Lionel introduced the TMCC or the Trainmaster Command Control. This allowed their O scale trains to have DCC controls, and their fans loved it.

Lionel TMCC works by using 24 bits of computer programming to control the train. This program is read by the decoder that is placed inside the train’s motor, which instructs the locomotive based on the modeler’s command.

Since TMCC was a success, Lionel started to improve the TMCC, and in 2006, they introduced the Lionel Legacy Control.

The Lionel Legacy Control also uses 24 bits of computer programming, but they can process more complex commands than TMCC. For example, TMCC could only decode single word commands, while Legacy could interpret single and three word commands.

This is why you can use Legacy controls on TMCC trains, but using TMCC controls on Legacy trains will limit its features.

In short, you can use TMCC controls on Legacy trains, but its features will be limited.

Lionel Legacy Controls can decode more complex commands than TMCC. This allowed more modelers to do more on Legacy controls than TMCC.

For example, Legacy controls could control the train’s speed at 200-speed steps while TMCC can only control 32-speed steps.

However, TMCC works on the Legacy system, and they are compatible with one another.

There are types of Legacy Controls which are the CAB-1, CAB-1L, and CAB-2.

As a general rule, CAB-1 is used for TMCC, while CAB-1L and CAB-2 can be used for both TMCC and Legacy.

The photo at the start of this post is a CAB-1L Legacy control which I prefer since it is simpler and has less delicate materials than CAB-2.

However, CAB-2 allows more features compared to CAB-1L.

There are more features Legacy has that TMCC doesn’t. Other examples are quilling whistles and controlling the amount of smoke train models make.

However, please take note that TMCC ceased production in 2006. This means you can only get TMCC models and controllers in the second-hand market.

Thus, it is advisable to use Legacy controls to make your layout future-proof.

In the next section, we will talk about the compatibility of Lionel Legacy controls to conventional and DCS-controlled trains.

Lionel Legacy’s Compatibility with Conventional Trains and DCS Controls

Now that you have the basics of Lionel Legacy controls let’s talk about its compatibility with other trains and controls.

Can you run conventional trains with the Lionel Legacy control system?

You can’t run conventional trains with the Lionel Legacy control system, but you can run Legacy-controlled trains on conventional controls. This is because Legacy controls use the maximum voltage on the rails, which can harm the train’s motor.

This is a common question, and I see why this is.

We all have conventional trains that we would like to run on whatever layout. However, the sad thing is they shouldn’t be used on the Legacy Control System.

Remember that conventional trains run on DC controls, and the Legacy Control uses a type of DCC control.

What separates them is that DCC uses maximum voltage on the tracks and lets the decoder or the chip inside decide how much voltage to take.

DC or conventional trains don’t have decoders. That’s why running a conventional train on a Lionel Legacy system will put it on maximum speed without any controls to reduce its speed.

You can do that, but it will harm the motor in the long run. That’s why it isn’t advisable to run conventional trains on Legacy controls.

However, Legacy compatible trains can run on conventional controls. This is because Lionel designed their decoders to function as a DC if the Legacy control system isn’t placed.

But what if you have a model train you really love and would want to run it on Legacy controls? Well, it is possible.

How to Convert Conventional Trains to Lionel Legacy Controls

You can convert conventional trains to Lionel legacy controls by adding a computer chip inside the locomotive. These chips convert a traditional train into the Legacy controlled train. Examples of these chips are the TPC 300 and TPC 400.

Remember that the only difference between DC and DCC is the decoder that computerizes the model train.

That’s why converting a conventional DC train to Lionel Legacy is as simple as installing a chip.

Lionel calls this chip TPC 300 or TPC 400, and installing this chip converts a conventional DC train to Legacy compatible.

However, it is advisable to let experienced modelers do this for you since you can break the motor if you don’t know how to install the chip.

Lastly’ let’s talk about the compatibility of Lionel Legacy on MTH or DCS train.

Can Lionel Legacy run MTH or DCS trains?

Lionel Legacy won’t run MTH or DCS trains because they use different frequencies and their decoders aren’t compatible with one another. However, you can use both Lionel and MTH trains on one track, provided that you have a separate controller for each train.

DCS stands for digital command system which is a type of DCC made by MTH trains.

Think of DCS as another type of DCC made by another company. The problem is that they use different frequencies and their decoders aren’t compatible with one another.

You can’t control a Legacy train on DCS controls and vice versa. However, you can run both trains on the same track provided that you have a separate controller.

However, I don’t think this is a good idea considering it is hard to control a layout with lots of controllers.

But you can put these two on the same track, and you can run them provided you use the right controller.

You can also downgrade your controls to DC, and you can run both with the conventional DC controller.

However, since the track is converted to DC controls, the accessories of these trains won’t run.

What’s next? Do you know Hornby trains? While Lionel is famous for the O scale, Hornby is popular for the OO scale. I made a post discussing their manufacturing history and why they decided to put their products in the UK instead of China. Here is the link: Where are Hornby Trains made?

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