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Building a Good Locomotive Roster.

May 18, 2008

There are a lot of nicely detailed, beautifully painted and weathered locomotives out there in the market today. With the manufacturer’s focus on prototype fidelity much more focused, we’re practically showered with hundreds of era, prototype, and sometimes even railroad-specific Locomotives.



-With diesel power, consider the type of terrain, curves, track quality, grades, and types of cargo need to be pulled on your railroad.

-Early 6-axels, like the EMD SD9, worked really well on uneaven track, and grades.

-Late 6-axels were built for raw power, effeciency, and excellent tractive effort on grades.

-Early 4 axels, like the EMD GP7’s were good all-round locomotives, good for local switching, medium sized mixed freight, and large industrial applications, like motive power for a large grain elevator.

-4 Axle Switchers are obviously good for swtiching, local freight, and good low-speed tractive effort.

-Late 4 axles, like the EMD GP60’s were made for hotshot fast freight over flat land. Light trains like TOFC’s and early container trains were this unit’s type of assignment, now most are found as extra power in a large consist, as switchers, and also as local power.

-Unusual locomotives aren’t really the best choices for a plausibly convincing freelanced railroad, UNLESS your railroad almost exclusively swears by them, such as the Arkansas and Missouri is still all ALCo, and over time, the large industial companies, like steel mills, or the Trona railway, having either all Baldwin, ALCo or all Fairbanks-Morse locomotives.

– You can easily be an all-EMD railroad, like the what the KCS was until 1996, or if your modeling after 1960, you could have an all GE railroad and still be realistic.



 First, let me say that you’re going to have a somewhat difficult time building a realistic steam locomotive roster if you don’t model the following railroads:

-The Union Pacific

-The Pennsy

-The New York Central

-The Southern Pacific

-The C&O

-The Santa Fe

These railroad companies seemed to inspire more model makers than any other of the railroads of the steam era. Look at the numerous depictions of the UP 4-8-8-4 big boys. They’ve been produced in almost every American scale, and in HO by half a dozen DIFFERENT manufacturers…I think all that time tooling, researching, and producing the world’s largest steam locomotive could better be spent elsewhere working on more obscure prototypes. Of course, a model company is a BUSINESS, so therefore they probably can bet on some Union Pacific nut to buy plenty of these uber expensive models. 

You’re probably pretty happy if you are a Southern Pacific modeler now, with Athearn Releasing their Mt-4 4-8-2 mountain, the recent release by TWO companies of the 1937 AND the 1941 Daylight, and Bachmann’s beautiful revamped GS-4 model with stunningly beautiful, accurate paint schemes. Of course, on the horizon, there’s the promise of the Precision Craft GS-4 with SOUND. Intermountain’s AC-12 Cab-forwards ae a welcome addition, as are BLI’s early AC-5 cab forwards. Don’t forget the old IHC M-4 mogul, which is still an excellent model, and no one will forget the Rivarossi AC-12’s. It’s a great time to model SP.

New York Central has has Bachmann’s Niagra out there for quite a while, but now it comes with DCC, which is a plus. BLI produced the J3 Hudsons a couple of years ago with DCC and SOUND. However, there aren’t too many accurate small steam locomotives out there for the NYC. Rivarossi was kind enough to produce the 20th Century Limited Streamlined J3.

Don’t get me started on the endless offerings for all those Pennsy modelers, Bowser is the place to go. MTH produced a K4, as did Bachmann, so there should be no whining from the PRR nuts.

Union Pacific has had an explosion of new models, produced by BLI, Rivarossi, and Athearn.

The C&O has been lucky enough to get a new steam locomotive model every few years, mostly 2-8-4 Berkshires, thoughtfully re-detailed for the C&O. The absolutely amazing 2-6-6-6 Allegheny is a very welcome edition to their roster.

Santa Fe has been lucky more recently than in the past. Sure, Rivarossi produced the “blue goose” 15 years ago and the Bachmann 4-10-2 and 4-8-4 have been out there for 30 years, but the pleasant increase in ATSF steam with the arrival of 3751- Class 4-8-4’s and 2-10-2’s and 4-10-2’s by BLI is indeed enjoyable.

but outside of those railroads designs….there “ain’t” much…

The USRA Designs 

The Advantage of the USRA designs is that some, like the USRA 2-8-2’s were VERY popular with plently of railroads, and it’s a justified model to produce. The USRA Mikado’s are the closest steam locomotive in widespread, mulit-railroad sales as a popular diesel locomotive.

The Disadvantages are also apparent. Not every railroad chose to purchase USRA locomotives after the war, or the prototype you’re modeling re detailed them so extensively, you much seriously consider if you want to make such an involved modeling project out of it.

The model companies have been a little too trigger happy about releasing USRA designs, and a lot of them are biased towards a specific prototype, like Athearn Genesis USRA 4-6-2’s have a distinct detail feature from the B&O.

The good thing that model companies have been doing reecently is actually releasing models with railroad specific details, like oil tenders, and different headlight, bell, and detail placement.

The Bachmann Spectrum Locomotives

I wrote a more recent article covering each and every Bachmann Spectrum locomotive! I even reveal the prototype for the Bachmann 2-8-0 consolidation:

Visit that article HERE:

If you’re freelancing… are some things to keep in mind:

-If you model a short line in a part of the country with a strong regional flavor, it’s best if you seek out locomotives and rolling stock that could have been owned by  the region’s Class 1’s.

-Most often, some of the larger class 2’s had their own locomotives built to their own specifications, so you can kitbash all you want.

-If your modeling a real class 1, look out across the internet for the list of prototype correct models produced today.

-If you’re freelancing a class 1 (large national railroad) you can either develop a “family” look by having all your steam locomotives have similar or identical placment of the bell, headlight, or even the same type of pilot or boiler design, like the Belpaire (square) fireboxes used by the PRR.

-Consider Driver diameter for the locomotives you’re using to do the job, the smaller the driver diameter, the lower the top speed. The high drivered 4-4-2’s and 4-6-4’s are typically used for fast passenger and mail trains, the low drivered 2-6-0’s and 2-8-0’s were typically used as helpers or local drag freight.

-Also consider the type of FUEL your locomotives need to run. If you’re west of the rockies, it’s cheaper to burn oil than coal, and vise versa in the east. You’re more likely to find oil burning locomotives in California and Texas earlier in history than, say New York, which used the region’s plentiful coal until the end of steam. 

As a side note, most wood burning locomotives were retired by 1920, although places in the south where pulpwood was plentiful, sometimes used wood into the 1940’s and 50’s.

-You’re most likely going to see a wooden cab on locomotives built before 1917.

-Two figures in history had more influence on a “family look” than anybody else: Harriman, who owned the UP, SP, and IC, in addition to a few others, impressed specific locomotive, passenger, bridge, and depot design onto the western scene.

Vanderbilt had the same measure of influence, but mostly in the east. Most of the other railroad baron’s had similar, but less widespread design influence.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Karl permalink
    January 14, 2010 3:31 am

    Helpful post, especially about the steam engines. I’m getting back into the hobby, want to model steam, and am now trying to decide if I should take (one) of the paths of least resistance….

  2. Paul Saunders permalink
    December 3, 2010 9:15 pm

    The one way you can run any steam locomotive is to model a preserved steam railway. You can easily run any type you like, any road. It could be a stand alone model or part of a larger model railway.

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