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4-4-0 Steam Locomotive from Altas

By Steven Otte
Published: December 13, 2013
Atlas 4-4-0
Product: An icon of American history is now available in N scale from Atlas. The old-time American 4-4-0 comes in a variety of road names and is equipped with a straight or flared smokestack, depending on the prototype. The model is designed with a tender-mounted motor and traction tires to give it lots of pulling power.

The axles of the earliest steam locomotives were fitted onto rigid frames in a way that made turnouts and rough trackwork treacherous. If a rail dipped or a drive wheel banged through a switch, it was not uncommon for a locomotive to derail.

Leading wheels added to help distribute the weight of larger locomotives only made the problem worse. The answer was a lead truck that could independently ­pivot and also rock side-to-side, helping the locomotive stay on the rails.

The result was the 4-4-0, known as the “American type” for its development and popularity in North America. This iconic design, rugged and reliable, made possible the explosive growth of the railroads in the latter half of the 19th century.

Atlas modeled its 4-4-0 design on Baldwin eight-wheelers owned by the Virginia & Truckee, a Nevada short line. Three of these engines — named Inyo, Reno and Genoa, for cities in Nevada — are preserved today. They’ve gone through many makeovers through the years, but Atlas’ N-scale model — featuring gold lettering and trim, but lacking any decorative brass filigree — represents the locomotives as they would have appeared in the mid-1870s and 1880s.

The black paint on the ­plastic tender shell, boiler and cab is smoothly and evenly applied, and the gold lettering and pinstriping is crisp and opaque. The cab number on the side of the headlight is legible under magnification.

Details like the tender truck sideframes, separately applied water pump and piping, bell, and individual bars on the cowcatcher are finely molded. However, there was some visible sprue flash on the molded plastic valve gear. If this bothers you, it can be trimmed with a hobby knife.

The locomotive is equipped with an AccuMate knuckle coupler on the tender mounted at the correct height. Depending on the date of manufacture, the prototype would have been delivered with link-and-pin couplers. The Janney knuckle coupler was patented in 1873, so Atlas’ model could represent a locomotive retrofitted with a knuckle coupler sometime after the mid-1870s. There’s no coupler on the front, nor is there any place to attach one.

Performance: The Atlas model’s motor is in the tender, with a plastic ball-and-socket driveshaft connecting it to the gearbox in the boiler that turns the drivers. This assembly doesn’t leave room to install an aftermarket Digital Command Control decoder, though some hobbyists have installed­ a Z-scale motor-only decoder after modifying the tender’s molded-on coal load.

I test-ran the locomotive using a Model Rectifier Corp. Tech 4 power pack. The engine responded at just 1.5 volts but didn’t roll smoothly until I increased the power to 3 volts. After thoroughly cleaning the track, I could run the engine on 2 volts with just a bit of hesitation.

Atlas’ 4-4-0 is a speedy little model, topping 50 scale mph at only 6 volts. At the top voltage of 12 volts, it zipped along the test track at more than 115 scale mph — much faster than the prototype.

The headlight, illuminated by two micro light-emitting diodes, is a solid casting of clear plastic, painted except for the lens part. This shape isn’t the most efficient light tube, resulting in a feeble glow that I could see only when the locomotive was in reverse.

The model was a standout in pulling power. Thanks to the traction tires on its front drivers, the engine registered a drawbar pull of 1.3 ounces on our test bench’s force meter. That’s enough to pull a train of 30 N-scale freight cars on straight and level track, more than would typically be expected of a locomotive of its era.

Though moguls and consolidations would soon come along to push them onto branch lines and yard duty, the ­story of America’s 19th-century railroad boom is the ­story of the 4-4-0. Its sure-footed suspension made the rapid expansion into the American West possible. It was a romantic era, filled with possibilities, one that deserves a closer look from modelers. Perhaps ­Atlas’ new N-scale locomotive will prompt more hobbyists to consider modeling the 1800s.

Marketing: This standout locomotive will appeal to N-scale enthusiasts interested in the Wild West era and who care about the rich history behind each model. Display the 4-4-0 with the Atlas 2-6-0 Mogul steam locomotive, and add a few books that focus on rail in the late 1800s, such as Model Railroader Cyclopedia Vol. 1: Steam Locomotives (Kalmbach Publishing).

Product: 4-4-0 Steam Locomotive
Maker: Atlas
Scale: N
Stock numbers: 40000732-4000735, 40000464, 40000465
MSRP: $115.95

• Fine detail
• Historically significant
• Speedy and powerful