NEB&W Guide to Steam Locomotive Models

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Locos Table of Contents
Stock Table of Contents

There have been radical changes in the hobby since I first wrote this and I have been going through the rest of this to bring it up to date. (Also see the HO model guide on the Steam Locomotive dot Com site.)

What with the growing interest in steam-era freight cars, hopefully the manufacturers will get the idea that these modelers need steam locos. I know a number of modelers who would like to model, say, 1939, but they realize they can't the steam roster they want, so they go for the 1950's, so they can use diesels to flesh out their roster.

Why oh why are the hobby store shelves filling with ever more steam-era freight cars, and yet steam itself is so poorly represented? Why is that the NMRA, which prides itself on promoting standards in the hobby, why didn't the NMRA storm the castle of AHM with torches and pitchforks and boiling oil, when first they imported Rivarossi steam with deep flanges? Why is that the model world accepts that something with big wheels has to run so lousy, when diesels glide along with dinky wheels?

Unfortunately, bad models kill off that portion of the hobby, thus leading to lost interest and less models.

Now some of you might say there is good steam out there - all it takes is a little work. The problem is that you have to be a gifted mechanic, but more importantly you have to have a lot of time. Jeff English had an article on reworking a Hobbytown RS-3 cast metal diesel, but he only built one. We didn't have RS-3's on the layout until the Atlas ones became available. Notice these aren't kits. Most diesels aren't kits in the sense of having to file flash off the frame. The power unit is generally factory assembled.

Also, working with cast metal is really not practical in today's modeling world. These are skills that most modeler's don't gain, as cast-metal rolling stock is a rarity. One of our most talented and prolific members, Al Wood, has been working on converting a Bowser K-11 into a quasi-Rutland Pacific, but I don't think he's gotten the thing to run yet.

First of all, steam is powered by a worm gear to one driver. The other drivers are powered by the rods. I CAN'T THINK OF A WORSE WAY! A worm gear doesn't let the engine coast, but the least of the problems. The rods pull and push on the other drivers with each rotation, thus finding a way to bind, as the axles are being cocked in their bearings forward and back. I believe that N scale engines have a small spur gear between each pair of geared drivers, so the rods are there just along for the ride. Am I missing something here? Is HO too big to do the same?

Max Robin replied "Side rod driven wheels are both prototypical and function very smoothly when assembled carefully and systematically, contrary to some of your club members' experience. Ask Paul Stoving how his father's fleet of NYC steam runs as an example. I could easily supply you with a list well in excess of 250 modelers whose steam engine drives we've reworked. A good example would be Tony Koester. Joe Borick (deceased) and myself redid the drives on all of Tony's steam fleet for the Alleghany Midland. The vast majority of those engines saw more than 10 years of heavy usage with absolutely NO operational or drive train problems of any type."

(To which I would reply that actually side rod driven wheels are NOT prototypical, at least not today. I'm not talking about that HO models are driven by electric motors and I'm not talking about the vastly different physics in place because weight and length don't scale the same. I'm talking about the fact that side-rod locos (of the steam variety) were replaced by gear-driven locos of the diesel type. Of course, that was hardly the reason, but some early electrics used side-rods and clearly not the mainstay. And yes, excellent modelers can make these locos run smoothly, but that means for most, steam locos will never be as smooth running as diesels. (Even the fact that we tend to use diesel models as the "gold standard" says something.)

In my ideal world, there would be a mechanism that would represent the Kato of steam engines. A 8-wheeled 63 inch drivered mechanism would be the most useful to start, for both 2-8-0's and 2-8-2's, and perhaps even a small-drivered Berkshire 2-8-4. The Consolidation was the most common engine during the 20th century. Such a mechanism would even be used under brass. Also, then other manufacturers could offer other superstructures to go on the drive system.

The problem with modeling steam is that a realistic roster is sort of like a pyramid. There might be 25 small 4-6-0's for 6 Pacifics and just four Mountains, so you need a lot more of the tiny stuff. With the smaller engines, the weight is hard to keep centered over the drivers. Thus the engines have almost no traction. (I have one 4-6-0 that can't pull two passenger cars.)

On the D&H, they had no freight engines other than 2-8-0's until the late '30's. They solved the problem of increasing traction by powering one of the tender trucks since they had no trailing truck to put on a bolster engine. Adding a powered truck on a model to supplement the powered drivers, or two tender trucks and let it push the engine is another possibility.

With all small engines, the tender trucks were basically a freight car-type truck, with 33 inch wheels on a 5 ft. 6 in. wheel base. Thus a single model would suffice for just about every application. A manufacturer could the unit separately to add and boost the power of other's engines.

Now NWSL offers a 5 ft. 6 in. wheel based self-powered "spud", but it has 26 inch wheels. They also have 33 inch wheels, but on a bigger wheel base. I wrote to them once and asked if they would ever consider offering the bigger wheels on the small wheel base. They said that they wouldn't, but they would custom re-wheel the 5-1/2 ft. truck. However, this essentially doubled the cost, from about $25 a unit to $50. This put it out of what I was willing to pay.

I do see hope. Rivarossi has apparently split from IHC, and their engines are currently being retooled with "scale flanges" (actually flanges about twice scale but shallow enough so they can be used on scale rail). IHC has just introduced two "new" engines, a 2-8-0 with the Tyco boiler of several years ago, and a 4-4-0, with the superstructure of their 2-6-0, a former Pemco engine. Unfortunately, these still have too deep flanges. (Start boiling the oil!)

(The Tyco engine was based on the USRA 0-8-0, but stretched enough to fit 63 inch drivers instead of the prototype's 51 inch wheels. It was originally powered with a 6-wheel diesel truck in the tender. The middle wheel was left off, but the first set of wheels was made to look like the second pair in the first tender truck, and the rear pair were the first wheels in the second truck. It was essentially a "2-4-2" made to look like a "4-0-4". The tender wound up with a "fuel tank" where the middle of the power truck hung down.)

Bachmann has also been improving some of their steam. However, they insist on using a split frame arrangement for pickup on their older pre-Spectrum, thus making it virtually impossible to add a carrier control receiver. And it doesn't take much a crystal ball to see where the hobby is going with DCC.

In Bachmann's Spectrum line is a Climax model. Could this easily be fitted inside a tender?

Freelancing a Model

When it comes to freight cars, I find it very annoying when a manufacturer blends several prototypes to make a more generic model. It is better to produce a specific prototype (even if the manufacturer is going to letter it for other reasonably close prototypes). Now diesels were built to standard designs and just lettered for whatever road purchased them, so again, specific designs, not a composite, would be best. But steam locos, in my opinion, are different.

Every road had pretty much their own designs and other than say, the USRA designs, few standards existed. And there are so so so few good steam models around. I'm tied of the lame explanation that such-and-such freelance road purchased a whole slew of locos second-hand near the end of steam to justify the "half-Noah" look (one of everything) of their roster.

So what I wish for is that a manufacturer start with a specific prototype and then make it possible to "genericize" it so that modelers could use it for other roads. For instance, once someone offers an accurate and good-running NYC Hudson and NKP Berkshire, I'd love to see them switch the mechanisms (if they fit), to make a sort of NYC-style Berkshire and a NKP-style Hudson. IHC has been doing this with their locos (but unfortunately, in my opinion, are too far below acceptable to be used). In the same vein, I like their semi-streamlined Pacific. No, it isn't perfect, but it might be a stop-gap measure to satify a whole bunch of modelers.

You may not agree, but I'm just trying to explain my philosophy, which will be underlying all the discussion of steam models on this site.