review is from Classic Toy Trains, Vol. 12, No. 9, December 1999. Reprinted with
permission of Kalmbach Publishing Company.
Atlas O's AEM-7 electric locomotive
by Bob Keller
Time Marches on in both reality and the toy train
world. Electric boxcab locomotives often replaced steam engines, streamlines GG1s
replaced boxcab, and finally the venerable GG1s fell victim to the passenger of time and
were replaced by the AEM7 electric. AEM7 you say?
In the mid-1970s Amtrak saw the handwriting on the wall. The GG1s
were hitting the 40-year mark General Electrics E60s (the original replaces for the
GG1) were experiencing tracking problems, and the Metroliner fleet, perhaps not old in
years, but in miles of service, was increasingly unreliable.
Amtrak looked overseas to Europe for a possible replacement.
European railway operations, heavily electrified, offered electric motive power sources
unrivaled by domestic American firms.
Amtraks operational criteria for the 7,000-horsepower
locomotive called for cabs on both ends of the engine (to eliminate terminal turnarounds),
rapid acceleration, modern electronics, and regenerative braking (a process during braking
that generates electricity).
In 1976 and 1977 locomotives from Sweden and France faced off along
the Northeast Corridor, and the Rc4, built by the Swedish company ASEA, was the winner. As
for actual manufacturing, General Motors Electro-Motive Division was licensed by
ASEA to construct the mechanical gear and final assembly of the engines. The designation
AEM7 stands for the "A in ASEA, "EM" for EMD, and "7" for 7,000
The first AEM7 went into service for Amtrak in 1979 and some 66 were
delivered to Amtrak, Maryland State Railroad Association (MARC), and Southeast
Pennsylvania Transportation (SEPTA).
EMD ceased production of the AEM7 in 1988, so in 1990, when the New
Jersey Department of Transportation (NJ Transit) went shopping for electric locomotives,
it ordered 15 ALP44s that were assembled by ASEA in Sweden. The most obvious difference
between the AEM7 and the ALP44 is slightly larger vents along the top of the carbody.
Though distinctly foreign in appearance, the boxy little AEM7s were
the success that Amtrak needed and have logged 20 years of service, pulling trains at 125
When Atlas O announced they would build an
AEM7/ALP44, it raised some eyebrows. But why not an AEM7/ALP44, it raised some eyebrows.
But why not an AEM7?
The engine is a success in the prototype world. The commuter
authority road names will appeal to enthusiasts in the Northeast and of course, Amtrak has
a nationwide following. The company also offers the engine undecorated for those
interested in creating their own Union Pacific, Burlington Northern, New York Central, or
other fantasy road names (but be siding just might be more trouble than you think!
Atlas Os entire commuter train set may be the most
prototypical ever developed for the three-rail hobby, offering scale size and detailing,
plus rear-end cab control cars on some versions.
Atlas Os AEM7 is a scale model. At 12 ½ inches long, the
shell is a match to the prototypes 50-foot length. The models height in scale
also matches the prototypes 14-feet 8-inches to the top of the lowered pantographs.
The locomotive itself may pack in more scale detail per inch than any other locomotive
weve seen. It has more grab irons and hand rails than you can shake a stick at
46 to be precise.
The engines also has two full cabs, the one at the "front
" is occupied by a two-man crew. The unit comes equipped with headlights, strobe
lights, and rear marker lights on both ends. It also has details such as four simulated
rear-view mirrors, five chime horns, and lots of rooftop wiring. There are several tiny
placards, which, just as on the prototype, carry warnings of high voltage!
Both of the pantographs look very good. Unlike many that spring up
with a touch, the pantographs are actually secured by two metal prongs that hold the rigs
in place unless intentionally raised. When raised, the pantographs on our sample looked a
bit too tall, but if you run with overhead catenary, the wire keeps them lower.
Atlas Os Jim Weaver notes that Amtrak AEM7s run with red or
black pantographs, and his company will be offering red pantographs on some of the
commuter locomotives, so if you dont like black version on the Amtrak model, Atlas O
will have red rigs available for you.
Decoration is superb Amtraks simple paint scheme is
colorful, and has never looked better. Painted application was terrific and we noted no
defects. In addition to Amtrak, the other road names offered (as an AEM7) are MARC or
SEPTA, or as an ALP44, NJ Transit.
Lighting is directional, headlight in front, three red lights on
trailing end. Change directions, and the lights reverse. There are two strobe lights on
each end that are tried to the bell and horn. Hit the control, the lights flash during the
warning horn or bell, continue to flash for a few more seconds after the tones dies, and
then turn off.
CTT consulted Amtrak engineer Doug Riddell who informed us that the
prototypes red center light only illuminates during emergency braking. Regarding the
strobes, he said that Amtrak never standardized them on some engines they flash
whenever it is moving and on other units they flash only when the horn is activated.
Using Atlas Os Locomatic control box, you can leave the
strobes on continuously or shut them down. (As an aside on lighting, Riddell also noted
that regulations now require AEM7s to be equipped with ditchlights even though there are
no grade crossings on the Northeast Corridor).
The die-cast trucks mirror the prototype and pivoting pilots, with
simulated uncoupling rod and air hoses, add to the realism.
Between both sets of pantographs there is a housing that pops off
with a squeeze. Beneath this are six tiny on/off switches and the volume control for the
engine. Switch one selects start in forward or neutral, two selects normal sequencing or
locks the sequence three selects horn and bell on/off, four selects on/off for forward
coil coupler operation, five selects on on/off for rear coil coupler, and six offers a
selection that would be handy on any train from any manufacturer forward direction
cab be set to the locomotives front or rear.
The sound system is significantly improved over the version Atlas O
fielded with its EMD switcher. This is due, in part, to more space within the units
shell for sound hardware (the AEM7 uses a two-inch speaker), and in part to the quality of
the source, which Atlas O states is a prototype AEM7.
Expectations are important, so dont fire the engine up and
anticipate the sound of rpm surges like a diesel. Electrics may have more horsepower than
a given diesel, but their sound is flatted and more consistent like an electrical
transformer or power generation unit at an industrial facility. You dont really
"hear " a surge of electricity.
The volume range is very good and we noted no distortion at any
level except the very highest. The horn sounds "different," but it is an
attention getter, as is the bell, which also sounds great. Response to the horn button was
good and it allows you to play at developing your own signature tune.
Although the locomotive will operate on O-42 curves, the passenger
car set will, curiously, only function on O-54 or wider radius curves.
The AEM7 weighs a solid 4-pounds, 14-ounces and mounts a single can
motor with drive shafts powering each truck. It was a fun locomotive to operate. The
engine comes factory lubricated to cover the first 10 hours of operation, so you need only
hit the gas and go. The motor is exceptionally quiet and it easily glided though all speed
ranges. The amperage draw is very low, our test range measuring it between .6 and .7 amps
in all speed ranges.
Our low end speed average was 41.6 scale mph. During our high speed
testing, we noted that our 20-foot run up really wasnt long enough to max out the
speed. Even so, we clocked the locomotive at 126-scale mph. An Atlas O representative
informed us that the engine was designed to peak at about 155-scale mph, much higher than
the prototypes 125-mph limit.
The pickup-roller brackets on our advance sample AEM7 though Atlas O
and MTH switches with no trouble. However, we ran into a problem with the engine going
though Lionel tubular track switches and GarGrave switches.
When the locomotive crossed the switches, tabs on the underside of
the brackets holding the pick-roller arms would scrape the widened center rail (or
"frog rail") causing the locomotive to jump but not derail. We contacted Jim
Weaver at Atlas O about the problem. Weaver was able to recreate the switch bumping with
his own equipment. The company immediately redesigned the baseplate for the roller
assembly and is retrofitting all AEM7s prior to shipment to dealers. Atlas O deserves a
big hand for taking quick action to ensure its AEM7s operate correctly.
The engines drawbar pull was 2.2 pounds, equal to more than
120 modern, free-rolling pieces of rolling stock on straight and level track. So,
performance wise, this engine could work just as a freight-hauler as it does a passenger
unit. And yes, it pulled a 20-car train consisting of mixed postwar and modern rolling
stock from a variety of manufactures with ease. Owners of freight-only lines will want to
remember the locomotive is sold undecorated!
The passenger cars
As these cars emerged from the box, one is
struck with the thought that there must be, oh, 18 layouts in the country large enough to
run a train of these babies! Seriously, though, these are whomping big coaches. Each car
is nearly as long as a Lionel Mohawk 4-8-2 and tender, measuring 21 ½-inches long or 86
scale feet (the Mohawk is 27 inches long).
The cars operate on O-54 or wider curves, but on O-54 track there is
a bit of layout-endangering overhang on the inner side of the curves. There is also very
limited coupler swing on O-54 track. On O-72 you may note a bit of overhang, but you
shouldnt need to shave your trackside scenery just to run these around your layout.
As previously noted the locomotive has a minimum radius of O-42.
We did note a quirk that most hobbyists arent likely to
duplicate when running very light freight cars coupled to the detail, because of
the light weight of the freight gear and the limited swing of the passenger car couplers.
Larger, heavier freight cars stayed on the rails.
Atlas O did indeed capture the spirit of the prototype cars.
Unfortunately, Amtrak Horizon cars are, in reality, fairly plain pieces of equipment. They
lack fluted sides, large windows, or areas for copious detail. They are about as close to
a generic passenger car as you can get. The prototypes flashiest feature is the red,
white, and blue Amtrak stripe! That noted, the scale models themselves are great. The cars
have plastic shells and die-cast metal trucks and couplers, and appeared to be very
The cars have tinted windows, interior decoration and illumination.
The lighting wasnt blinding, because Atlas O utilizes a series of smaller bulbs
along the ceiling rather than one or two more powerful floor-mounted bulbs.
Each car has illuminated red marker lights on both ends. No matter
what car is on the rear of the train, the end is protected with two red lights on the
These passenger cars are offered undecorated or in Amtrak, as shown,
and as Comet commuter cars in NJ Transit, MARC, SEPTA, MBTB, and Metro-North commuter
authority road names. The commuter agency cars offer the special addition of a rear
control cab, a first in toy trains.
Whats rear control cab?
Simple, a rear control cab allows you to re-create the push-pull
commuter train experience. Simply hit reverse to run the train in the opposite direction
since you already have an "engineer" on duty at the back of the train. The
control cab unit is sold either as part of a three-car pack or separately and has a horn,
bell, and operating rooftop strobe lights.
In a word, the cars are impressive in size and quality, even if the
real thing is a bit on the plain side.
At first I wasnt sure that Id
classify Locomatic as a control system in the same sense that Lionels Train Master
is, primarily because you are basically dealing with control of a single locomotive, not
more than one simultaneously (with an exception noted below). Now Im not so sure.
Locomatic is a device that allows you more flexibility in the
operation of your Atlas O engine than you might have simply running with an average
transformer. It does this by sending out a radio signal through the tracks to a
Locomatic-equipment engine. Locomatic controls the speed, direction, and turns on and off
features such as sounds, lights and coil couplers.
The bottom line is that your Atlas O engine and passenger cars will
work with virtually any transformer. You will be able to run it, use the sound system, and
access horn and whistle. T o use the AEM7s remote couplers however, youll need
to use Locomatic.
To set up Locomatic, youll need to put the device in-line
between your transformer and the track. It requires its own 120-volt electrical outlet.
Once plugged, it is "off, " and your transformer will function in its usual way.
Once you are ready to run, take your Locomatic-equipment engine and set both switch one
and switch two (beneath the roof housing) to "on."
If you have used Lionels Train Master control system, the next
step will be familiar. Put the AEM7 on the track and set the transformer power level at 18
volts. Dont worry, your AEM7 shouldnt fly off the table. Just depress and hold
FORWARD (or REVERSE) on the Locomatic box and your AEM7 will automatically proceed though
24 steps from lowest to highest speed (or the reverse). Depressing SLOW starts to slows
the engine and ALT/SLOW is an emergency stop. Think of this as a push-button throttle
instead of the conventional dial or lever.
In addition to controlling horn, bell, and light features,
youll need Locomatic to activate the engines remote control couplers. You can
also avoid the forward-neutral-reverse sequencing by hitting REVERSE. The AEM7 simply
slows to a stop and then goes in reverse on its own. This is really neat to watch.
Although speed control isnt exactly tricky, it did take a few
minutes to get a feel of how long to depress the control buttons to raise or lower speed.
For those of you nothing that both Locomatic and Train Master
operate at a constant voltage, the answer is: yes, you can indeed run a Locomatic-equipped
engine with Lionel Command-equipped locomotives simultaneously via Train Master in
the Command mode.
Worth nothing is that Atlas O advises some accessories or other
power devices, (and even rolling stock with sound systems or lights) connected to the
railroad might adversely affect the signals generated by the control box.
The could be best described as the Locomatic sending a signal out
though the track that is being absorbed, if you will, by the power pickup rollers of other
cars or engines. The signal then gets lost or diminished.
Atlas O does have a fix, and suggests isolating accessories by using
alternate power supplies, and for operating gear, installing "chokes" on the
non-Atlas equipment. (Atlas O part no. 62999.)
These chokes are placed between the pickup roller and the motor (or
lights in the case of a passenger car), and prevents the radio signal from being
diminished by other electrical components.
We tested the Atlas O train using a Z-4000 with no other
accessories, illuminated rolling stock, or locomotives on same track. All of the
Locomatics optional features functioned very well.
To confirm the interference problem, we added two postwar
2400-series passenger cars to the train, and just as the Atlas O manual advised, the
signal was lost or degraded enough to keep us from using the horn, bell, and coupler
controls. We removed these cars from the mix, and all as well again.
It doesnt appear that Locomatic interferes with other command
systems or other brands of locomotive or power supplies, it just tends to business with
Atlas O products. And while it is unlikely that Locomatic will sweep the marketplace, it
does enhance the experience of operating Atlas O locomotives.
The Atlas O AEM7/ALP44 is a train for serious modelers of high speed
passenger service. The locomotive is exceptionally well detailed, superbly decorated, and
delivers commendable performance. Though a bit plain (just like the prototype), the
matching car set is solidly designed and its details and lighting are impressive. It looks
like Atlas O has done well with this outfit.