ATLAS O Home Page

This 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

Call 9-1-1

Time Marches on in both reality and the toy train world. Electric boxcab locomotives often replaced steam engines, streamlines GG1’s 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 Electric’s 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.

Amtrak’s 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 Motor’s 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 horsepower.

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 mph.

The engine

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 O’s 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 O’s AEM7 is a scale model. At 12 inches long, the shell is a match to the prototype’s 50-foot length. The model’s height in scale also matches the prototype’s 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 we’ve 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 O’s 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 don’t like black version on the Amtrak model, Atlas O will have red rigs available for you.

Decoration is superb – Amtrak’s 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 prototype’s 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 O’s 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 locomotive’s 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 unit’s 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 don’t 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 don’t 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 wasn’t 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 prototype’s 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 engine’s 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 -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 shouldn’t 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 aren’t 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 prototype’s 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 rugged.

The cars have tinted windows, interior decoration and illumination. The lighting wasn’t 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 car’s frame.

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.

What’s 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.

Locomatic control

At first I wasn’t sure that I’d classify Locomatic as a control system in the same sense that Lionel’s 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 I’m 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 AEM7’s remote couplers however, you’ll need to use Locomatic.

To set up Locomatic, you’ll 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 Lionel’s 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. Don’t worry, your AEM7 shouldn’t 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, you’ll need Locomatic to activate the engine’s 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 isn’t 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 Locomatic’s 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 doesn’t 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.

Now Shipping || Locate Dealer || Online Catalog
Contact Atlas O || Forum || Layouts || Product Reviews
Order Catalog
|| Become A Dealer || Atlas O Home Page

All information 1998 Atlas O, LLC