When it comes to O-scale trains, there are two choices: Lionel or MTH. Yeah, there
are a few smaller manufacturers like K-Line, but they either are, or soon will be,
part of the others. In my opinion, I think Lionel will be bought out by MTH when
all is said and done. Heck, MTH already manufactures the tinplate models for
Lionel. That's like Ford making Chevrolets, amazing, but we'll see.
So which is better? I'm going to present my
opinion, and that's MTH, hands down. Don't get me wrong, I loved Lionel. Lionel
was a local company in Michigan, making trains for many decades. My dad had Lionel,
still does. I love the history, the legacy and the quality of the engines they
used to make. I even have Lionel cars & memorabilia, and always will desire to
As it stands, however, Lionel, for the same reason most companies did, moved all their manufacturing out of the U.S. At that point, their quality started falling short. MTH does, and always has, manufactured abroad, so I put both companies on even ground for that. For the record, I think both are doing this country a disservice by doing so, but the alternative is for me not to enjoy model railroading like I do, so I guess I have to suck it up. As for quality, I have never been as impressed by a modern Lionel engine as I have by an MTH engine. I'm not talking about the cheap ones, because those tend to be about the same no matter the manufacturer. I'm referring to the good ones, the higher ends such as MTH premier and Imperial Railking models. The look, the feel, the detail, the features, MTH just wins for me every time. Not by a landslide, mind you, as Lionel does make some damn fine engines.
MTH Premier vs MTH Railking
Here's a quick aside. I've already explained elsewhere what features the Railking Imperial models have over the basic Railkings, but I need to talk a moment about MTH Premier. In a nutshell, the differences are this:
Overall, Railkings are designed for people who want to have nice trains with nice features and a decent price. If scale is important to you, or if you have money to burn (and room to run them), by all means, go for the Premiers, because they are as good as it gets.
Imerial Railking engines are a good compromise though, because their price point is in the middle between basic Railking and Premier models, but they end up closer to the Premier side of the scale as far as overall features go.
So, back to why I said "hands down" up there. Sure the engines (and the cars, and the accessories) are a bit better for the above reasons, but when you throw in DCS, it's game over. DCS (and by extension, Proto Sound 2.0) by MTH is by far the best digital train operating system on the market today - for any scale (MTH makes engines for HO scale also, that also run off DCS). I'm going to start sounding like a commercial here, but I believe MTH deserves it. Their R&D department hit a home run here. I'll give you the basics. You can run up to 99 PS2 engines on the same track - the same track, all running different speeds, all doing different things. The voltage on the rails is constant, which means that headlights and car interior lights remain fully on all the time. The system uses signals across the rails to tell each engine what to do.
And the engines, beyond simply adjusting the speed, a PS2 engine has hundreds of things you can modify or report upon. Light configurations, max speeds, odometer, horn, whistle, volume. It's all there right at your fingertips.
To make a PS2 engine run at its full potential, you can't use the crappy little controllers that come with the train sets. The main DCS system does not come with any engine or set. You need to buy two things (at least) to make it work well.
The first is the DCS controller, which is a handheld remote that sends commands via radio frequencies (no silly infrared). They sell a stationary model as well, but I won't discuss it here because I would never, ever go back from a remote. The second piece is the Track Interface Unit (TIU). Once you hook both these up with a transformer and track, you're good to go. So yeah, there's the rub, together these items cost about $300. It's not cheap, but when you consider what you get, and how it effectively upgrades every single PS2 engine you have, I think it's worth it.
There is also an Accessory Interface Unit (AIU) that you can use to control everything from switches to operating track sections and all sorts of other accessories. I have not yet picked this up because I don't have enough accessories to warrant it, yet.
IS DCS perfect? No. Some of the features such as talking through the mike just doesn't work for squat, and the scale MPH on some engines seems to be off by 1 or 2 (i.e. two engines running at "30mph" will tend to separate or join after a bit of time). But it still stands that it's a solid and reliable system that easily controls all the engines you'll ever need.