Lessons from Uncle John

I’m a member of an informal group who meet up occasionally to operate a couple of layouts. One of these layouts is Davin Heinbuck’s Santa Fe Slaton Subdivision. Set in 1992 Texas, his HO pike offers a chance to operate decent train-length model trains over a mainline in part of the world that I’m not terribly familiar with. But the mixed freight, intermodal, and unit train consists make for some great operation. MRC DCC is used, using either MRC controllers or via the Engine Driver app on one’s mobile phone. The yard at Temple, Texas is the hub of the layout, with yard assignments working both ends of the yard, switching cars and serving local industries.

Sixteen or so of us met up in Davin’s basement yesterday. The first half of the session had my Brother on the railway, VIA Rail locomotive engineer Terry on the east end yard assignment, with Terry running the double set of Santa Fe loco’s and I organising the switching. Terry and I go back a long way to when we worked braking together at VIA in the late 1980’s. I don’t think that I’m that good at switching, but I did faff around on the lead for a number of years as a yard (switch) foreman and helper in Hamilton, Oakville, and London East yards with CN, so maybe I got along okay with the real thing. Switched some cars, had a break, switched some more cars and switched some industries around Temple. Then a dinner break for a nice repast prepared by another VIA engineer and friend, Jordan. As with many home pike operating sessions, Rule G was held in abeyance. Its enforcement would have been a fruitless endeavour anyhow with Davin’s nice supply of craft beers and other bottled liquids….

After dinner, Davin had invited anyone attending to bring their own model loco’s for a run on his layout. I brought a couple of the Midland Railway’s to try out. Both because I’d not had a chance to run them much other than back and forth over a dozen feet of layout and an 18 inch radius loop of test track in my basement, and I also wanted to get some practical experience with what these loco’s could pull. The Campbellford Sub had two doubling grades in steam days. I don’t want every grade to be a doubling grade for my steam loco’s.

First loco that I tried out was an old Broadway Limited USRA Heavy Mikado. Bought cheap a few years back at a local train show, it’s fitted with QSI sound and DCC. It also does not have traction tires, compared with later BLI models. I gave it and the other loco’s couplers a quick glandhandectomy before leaving home, cutting off most of the Kadee coupler gladhands, using sidecutters. Many modellers have gone this route, using a sharpened bamboo skewer to part knuckles on the couplers from above when switching. That large wire gladhand on the Kadee coupler never looked like an air hose anyway.

Broadway Limited USRA Heavy Mikado. I want to play around with this to Canadianise it with all-weather cab. The tender may see some changes, and I’m considering a huge honking Coffin feedwater heater on the smokebox, just to be different. But what can it pull, and how well does it run?

Placed this on the layout in a staging yard, coupled on to a cut of about fifteen autorack vehicle carriers, and started to pull. The last car got out of the yard track as the drivers started to spin wildly. Most of the train was now on a 1.5 to 2% grade. Well, this isn’t going to work. Shoved the cars back into the track, and tried a shorter train of seven cars. Much better. It actually made a couple of loops around the layout over a couple of hundred feet of track with this train. Davin’s trackwork was good for even this loco; the longer fixed wheelbase of steam can demonstrate to modern diesel modellers even newer ways to put wheels on the ground. BLI must have come to the same conclusion that I did. This loco needs some help if it’s to pull better on typical model layouts. BLI’s workaround was to make its later steam loco builds with traction tires on some of the drivers. Not sure if I’m a fan of this. There are a few other solutions that I’ll describe later.

I’d also brought an Atlas S-2.

Atlas S-2 idling in Temple East yard. The frame and drive is Atlas’ China-produced recent production, part of an Erie Lackawanna S-2. The cab and body are from a probably forty-year old Atlas yellow box Roco-made loco that I painted and detailed up for the Midland. Some fitting and fettling still to be made, and glasing added. Weathering would be nice too. These things were often quite filthy from smoke and oil leakage.

Once again, placed this loco on the layout, coupled onto some cars, and found out that seven cars again was the magic number on the 1 and 2% grades of the Slaton sub. I’ve not compared it with the Roco-made Atlas loco’s that I have on hand, but one of them is due for a tug-of-war with this to determine which has better pulling power.

Conclusions. 1) Our group always has a fun time. 2) Some weight on either of these loco’s will materially improve their pulling power on grades. The interesting part is how to add it. There are few places to hide it on the S-2, but the Mikado has a few places to hide more weight. Articulating the tender to the frame of the loco is another trick that was used by a UK club to improve pulling power. But the added weight on the rear needs to be balanced out by weight at the smokebox end. If there was a way of equalising the drivers and lead/trailing trucks to spread loco weight more evenly, tractive effort MAY improve. But the winner will be to keep grades as light as possible on the layout. 3) Many production RTR loco’s don’t have enough weight to produce decent tractive effort. Why running model diesels in MU is so popular on layouts. Or I dig out a few of those Model Power FA/Sharknose drives from the 1970’s, installing DCC and putting them under Proto shells. Those things are excellent pullers, with a huge can motor and a smooth drive. 4) It’s very practical to cut off gladhands on Kadee couplers, relaying on skewers twisted between coupler knuckles from above to uncouple cars. I’ll be removing gladhands as I place rolling stock on the layout in future.

Who is Uncle John? You may have heard or read of Uncle Sam. The Union Pacific Railroad is to this day known as “Uncle Pete”. The Santa Fe Railroad was assigned the moniker “Uncle John Santa Fe” many years ago.

To Davin, Jordan, and everyone in our group, I look forward to our next operating session. With thanks as always for your hosting and arranging this, gentlemen!


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