by: Sean Lamb
IntroductionJust before Trainfest, I received three N scale freight cars to review. The timing was perfect because I would be able to test them out on the Capitol City “N”Gineers Ntrak layout at the show to really put the cars through their paces. On the whole, these are good models that run well and look appropriate on layouts set in the 1960s through the mid 1980s.
The three cars I tested are:
• Atlas Trainman N-scale 90-ton hopper; item number 50 002 003, decorated for Chicago & North Western, road number 135209
• Atlas Trainman N-scale 50 foot double door boxcar; item number 50 002 251, decorated for New York Central, road number 43663
• Atlas Trainman N-scale 50 foot double door boxcar; item number 50 002 245, decorated for St. Louis-San Francisco Railroad, road number 7004
The modelAll three cars come in the same style of hard plastic jewel box that Atlas has been using for quite some time (I have boxes just like these with other Atlas cars that I acquired back in the mid-1980s), with a molded plastic insert to hold the car in place and a clear plastic film around the cars to prevent damage to the liveries. These cars all come equipped with truck-mounted plastic Accu-Mate knuckle-style couplers with metal air hose simulants that double as magnetic uncoupling tools; the couplers mate well with other knuckle couplers from every manufacturer that I've tried to mate them with (this included Micro-Trains, Kato, Athearn and Unimate and a few others that I don't have documented). The trucks use press-fit bolster pins to hold them to the body and have low-profile brown plastic wheelsets installed. The trucks and couplers are molded in black plastic. Using the included bolster pins, replacing the trucks is a simple matter.
DetailAs far as I can tell, these cars are not precise models of specific pieces of rolling stock, but are instead close approximations of very similar cars that saw widespread use in North America. All of the details on these cars, except for the brake wheels and boxcar roofwalks, are molded into the car sides. Like most other N scale cars on the market, the stirrup steps at the car ends are molded as part of the body. That means that they are quite large and out of scale in proportion to the other grab irons and ladder steps. On the hopper, all of the end bars are also molded in the same piece as the body, making them appear very thick and out of scale as well.
Paint and letteringThe paint and lettering on these cars is mostly crisp and neat, passing the “it looks good at two feet away” guideline that I often use in model building. All of the lettering is readable with sufficient magnification and these cars all have reporting marks and car numbers applied on the ends as one would expect from prototype practice. The smallest lettering looks a little chunky to me when viewed under magnification, but there does not appear to be any bleed of colors from any of the paint and lettering. The only real problem that I noticed was on the CNW logo on the hopper; the first and last Ns of the “North Western” in the applied herald printed onto the side of the car rib rather than spaced to put it on top of the rib. I was not able to find a prototype photo showing the lettering on the side of the rib. The liveries applied are too early to include stencils of the reporting marks and car numbers on the truck sideframes, but the hopper includes this data along the center sill under the car.
There is no weathering applied to these cars, so out of the box they would look most appropriate on layouts set in the 1960s. Any of a number of weathering techniques can be employed to give them a more prototypical appearance for 1970s and 1980s era layouts.
Literature that Atlas had available at Trainfest included information on the two boxcars but the livery on the hopper car was newer than they had information printed at the time (although this car type has been available and other road names are listed in the catalog that I picked up at the show).
This hopper is listed in the Atlas catalog as a 1st quarter 2016 delivery with road names and numbers including: Kansas City Southern 224006, 224060 and 224088, Burlington Northern 527609, 527665 and 527790, Conrail 490410, 490427 and 490442, Pennsylvania Power & Light (PPLX) 7410, 7414 and 7427 and Santa Fe 81063, 81099 and 81104 as well as undecorated. The CNW sample that I received for review is not listed in the catalog that I picked up at Trainfest. Like the boxcar model, the hopper is designed based on prototypes of 90- and 100-ton cars of the 1960s and the Atlas catalog notes that they are appropriate through the 1980s. Again, looking at the 1984 ORER, these numbers are appropriate for Burlington Northern, Conrail and Santa Fe (although only 81099 was still listed on the roster in 1984). The CNW car I received was part of the 10th run of production for this model (which shipped in July 2015) and has an appropriate road number as it was still listed on the roster in 1984. On Atlas's website (http://atlastrainman.com/NFreight/tmn90ton.htm), we see that this is the 11th release of this body style (with the earliest date listed as that of the 4th release in November 2008), and the car has been made with about 40 other road names with two or three different car numbers each.
Weight and TechnicalsThe hopper model weighs 0.51 ounces. The current NMRA recommended practice for car weights (RP-20.1, as noted online at http://www.nmra.org/sites/default/files/standards/sandrp/pdf/rp-20.1.pdf) suggests that an N scale car should weigh 0.5 ounces plus 0.15 ounces per inch of model car length. The hopper is roughly 3 ˝ inches long. So, following this RP, these three cars are all underweight, the boxcars by about 0.38 ounces and the hopper by about 0.51 ounces. However, the RP overview mentions that lighter cars may work if your track is laid well and your wheels are in proper gauge. The coal load is removable on the hopper model, so adding weight to these cars is a simple matter of opening them and gluing it in place.
PerformanceI mentioned at the start of this review that I had a chance to operate these cars on an Ntrak layout to test them out in a real-world model situation. I set up a train of about 50 other freight cars from various manufacturers that I had run reliably on Ntrak layouts in the past. I coupled these three cars at the front of the train to see how well they would handle under the load. For the most part, the cars performed admirably, as I would expect for recent Atlas releases. The cars all tracked and rolled freely with light effort. However, I found that the couplers on the hopper car were mounted a tiny bit lower than the couplers on the boxcars. This meant that when the train traversed a small bump in the track, such as at the junction points between modules, the hopper would sometimes uncouple from the cars next to it. Also, with the slight variation in coupler height, the coupler trip pin (which simulates the air hose connection), would once in a while snag on track details that were even with the rail height; this included details like grade crossings and guard rails. The simplest solution to this problem is to swap the trucks and couplers for other truck assemblies where the coupler is at the correct height. If the coupler was at the correct height, I could fix the trip pin height easily by bending the pin upward slightly or just cutting it short, like I do with most of my other rolling stock. The variety in the track quality on the Ntrak layout did not appear to affect these cars' abilities to remain on the track, and the only derailments were caused when the hopper's low trip pin snagged on a detail. The boxcars operated for a full day at the front of the test train with no problems. Their couplers were at the correct height and they did not derail at all.
Both the boxcars and the hopper are listed on Atlas's website at MSRP of $19.95 for a painted model and $14.95 for undecorated. Quick searches of various online retailers showed the boxcars available selling for around $15-17, while the hoppers are available for as little as $3, but most retailers selling them around $15-17 as well. These cars should be readily available at your local hobby shop. I've seen used versions of older runs of similar cars at model railroad shows in the $2-5 range, so a little bit of looking around will prove fruitful to find these cars at low prices. These cars are also at a price point where kitbashing is not out of the question, and they are produced in large enough quantity that most modelers will be willing to experiment with them and not feel afraid about accidentally destroying them under the guise of upgrading them.
ConclusionIn the end, I would say that these cars will be fine additions to N scale layouts that are set in the 1960s to the 1980s. Out of the box, they run generally well with only simple modifications needed to make them reliable for the long term. Their price is reasonable enough to make building a fleet of them affordable on smaller budgets, but the road number limitations (in some cases as few as two numbers for a road name) could be a problem for layouts where operations based on car numbers is important. They aren't precise models of specific equipment, but they look good enough to pass the 2-foot rule.
Overall, I would rate these cars at 8 out of 10.