NEB&W Guide to Athearn Steam Locomotive Models

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Around 1962, Irv Athearn came out with three locos, a switcher, a tank loco, and a 4-6-2 based on a B&M prototype. After a short run, the models were discontinued and Athearn produced no steam locos for the next four decades. Athearn and Model Die Casting/Roundhouse are now under one management and you might see "Athearn" as the brandname when they mean "MDC", or vice versa, so also check MDC.

When the new generation of Athearn steam locos came out, we at the club were overjoyed. We got both the Mikes and the Pacifics, but we couldn't keep them running. As of 2013, they are ALL retired.

  • USRA 0-6-0 Switcher - According to the review in the August '62 Model Railroader, the model had a tapered boiler while the actual USRA switcher had a straight boiler.


  • B&M 4-6-2 Pacific - Around 1962, Irv Athearn came out with three locos, a switcher, a tank loco, and a 4-6-2 based on a B&M prototype. I think the B&M prototype was on display in a museum in Boston at the time, although I seem to recall there are attempts to get it into operation since then. Originally Athearn steam locos had a rubber band drive which in the long run proved to be nowhere as good as a geared drive, but shortly thereafter did come out with a geared version. You'd think Athearn would root around in their warehouse and try to find the original dies, but plop it on a modern-day mechanism.
    According to the review in the January '63 Model Railroader, the model is based on the B&M's class P-4b, built by Lima in 1937, nos. 3715-3719. There was also the P-4a class, built a few years earlier in '34, nos. 3710-3714, which had a streamlined shroud along the top to enclose the domes and also had smoke lifters. Otherwise, the two classes were pretty identical. During the War, the streamlining was removed. The Athearn model is based on the un-streamlined version and plans of the P-4a appeared in MR 's Locomotive Cyclopedia, Vol. 1. The prototypes were said to be based on the USRA Pacific (didn't specify heavy or light), although the model was said to be slightly oversized in all three dimensions. The drivers were 80 inches (although the USRA engines were 72, I believe).



  • USRA Light Mikado/Light Pacific - For years, Athearn's steam-era freight cars, particularly their box cars, were considered such a joke among serious modelers, that even the name "Athearn" made us cringe. Then they turn around 180 degrees and come out with these beautiful state-of-the-art models. (Hell must be in the middle of an ice age!)
    Both Athearn engines are underpowered and don't haul as much as they could. They need more weight.


  • USRA Light Mikado - This is an excellent model of one of the most common prototypes of the USRA series. (Over 1/3 of the 1,830 USRA locos produced were of light Mikados.)
There were 625 of these original USRA light 2-8-2's built during WWI and apparently 1,266 total including post-War clones, on over 50 railroads. (But USRA loco clones often look quite different from the original version, even though the boiler and running gear were pretty much the same.)
Max Robin pointed out that these engines' performance is greatly hampered by the stiff wiring coming from the engine to the tender for DCC and the rest of the electronics. He suggested eplacing it with smaller diameter insulation, extremely flexible wire improves their pulling ability noticeably since the wires then stop tending to lift the rear of the engine. And, yes, he agreed they do need additional weight.
Broadway Limited is now offering their own version of this loco, and Trix did a New York Central specific version.



  • USRA Light Pacific - I believe that Athearn took a shortcut here (as has so many when it comes to the USRA Pacifics and Mikados). The USRA light Mikado used the boiler from the heavy Pacific, only it sat lower, so the domes and stack extend up more. (Frankly, this doesn't bother me that much.) There were 81 light Pacifics built during WWI, which went to the ACL, B&O, and L&N. Close copies were later built for these three as well as the GTW and M&O, with the ACL getting the most (70 total of the original and clones), and the B&O a far second (45 total original and clones).


  • 4-6-6-4 Challenger - According to Steam Locomotives dot com, the UP came up with this wheel arrangement in 1936. Railroad officials watching a test run said "that is a challenge for any locomotive" and the next day, a memo went out saying the loco was to be called "Challenger". There were a total of 252 such locos built to this design, of which the UP got 105. Other roads include the Clinchfield (18 total, 12 new, 6 second-hand), D&H (40 locos), D&RGW (21), GN (two second-hand from the SP&S), NP (47), SP&S (two), WM (12), and WP (7). AHM originally produced this model and their model is now available under the Rivarossi line, but of course the Athearn model is state-of-the-art for today. The Athearn model represents the UP prototypes.