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This review is from O Gauge Railroading,  December 2001. Reprinted with permission of Myron J. Biggar Group. 


by George Brown

Atlas O has again introduced a benchmark product, this time with their O scale model of the Thrall articulated bi-level auto rack! At a length of 140’ with an excess height of 19’ off the rails, the full-scale two-car articulated set is huge, so it was no surprise to me that the Atlas O cars were gargantuan as I unpacked them. But once assembled and on the rails, Atlas O’s Thrall cars blend into any train of hi-rail or O scale contemporary cars and motive power.

Thrall’s Articulated Auto Racks

Auto racks are specialized railcars for transporting automobiles, sport utility vehicles, vans, and light trucks from their assembly plants to terminals near their delivering dealers. Full-height clamshell doors at the car ends expedite rapid loading and unloading of an entire train of auto racks from a single loading ramp at the end of a stub track.

Perforated side panels, about 6% of a car’s side surface area according to Thrall Railcar Company’s web site advertising, allow light and ventilation inside while protecting the vehicles inside from airborne debris, such a rocks thrown by trackside vandals. And since a driver has to enter or exit each vehicle during loading and unloading, an impact-resistant foam on the inside of the auto racks side panels protects the vehicle’s door edges from impact damage.

Thrall’s 19’ bi-level cars have two floors for their vehicular cargo and vehicles can also straddle the articulated joint on either level. A large flexible and pleated diaphragm between the “A” and “B” provide a rugged seal against weather and intrusion. Like articulated spine and well cars, a string of the recently introduced articulated auto racks are lighter and take less power to move than a comparable length train of the widely-deployed 90’ auto racks, resulting in lower fuel consumption for the locomotives. Plus, with 58’ between the 70-ton truck centers on the articulated racks vs. 66’ between the truck centers on 90-footer’s, the shorter cars can negotiate tighter curves, such as those on team tracks, while producing higher load density per two-car set. In an example train of 5000-plus feet, 36 sets of articulated auto racks will transport more vehicles than 55 of the 90-foot bi-level cars, given identical length vehicles, of course.

Atlas O’s Articulated Auto Racks

With the Thrall articulated car’s ability to negotiate tight curves, they are a great prototype for Atlas O to model for both the 2-rail and 3-rail operator. Each of the two units is a separate assembly with a third assemblage of the drawbar, truck, and diaphragm joining them together. After unpacking these three major assemblies, a number 0 Phillips screwdriver and less than five minutes is all that’s needed to assembly them.

A diecast metal “flat car” floor provides a hefty weight and structural rigidity to the molded plastic body on each unit. Molded-in perforations, rivets, and panel edges give a prototype appearance with little of the visual bulkiness often associated with molded plastic bodies. Although the exposed ends of the corrugated roof, tops of the doors, and steps at each corner are a bit too thick, I for one gladly trade off prototypical thickness for structural strength in these areas.

Inside each unit, both the lower and upper floors have prototypical guide rails for guiding the vehicles wheels as they “drive” through the cars and tire traction grid patterns. The doors at each end open realistically with an operating plastic latch holding them closed. A couple of subtle details that caught my eye soon after unpacking the cars were well-executed wire grab irons and ladder rungs and the characteristic Atlas O air hose on the side of each coupler.

Both cars’ underbellies are as detailed as the visible areas with a molded plastic frame structure and separately applied air-lines and brake equipment. Some of this rigging detail hangs below the car and even though it appears to be quite fragile, it’s surprisingly robust. Still, to keep from damaging the underbelly details, I wouldn’t lift the cars from underneath.

All three diecast metal trucks are the correct 70-ton design, complete with brake shoes and sprung bolsters. End trucks are in the correct location, set-in 12 scale feet from the end sill. On 3-rail cars, the truck-mounted coupler has a long, spring-loaded articulated shank, also made of diecast metal that works well, even on O42 curves. Atlas O’s thumbtack-style metal coupler armature not only holds the coupler knuckle closed, regardless of the load pulling on it, but it also releases the knuckle on demand.

The drawbar between the two units can be set-up in one of three positions, allowing the set to negotiate O42, O54, or O63 and wider curves. A single small Phillips screw inserts through one of three holes on each end of the drawbar, holding the drawbar/center truck/diaphragm assemblage to the underframe and floor. In my only nit for the auto rack set, these screws tend to loosen and require fairly periodic tightening. If a screw drops out, the cars will separate at the drawbar and, although it never happened on the editorial Carpet Central RR, one of the cars will leave the center truck and drop its unsupported end onto the rails.

Atlas’s unique design for the bellows-type diaphragm looks quite realistic and it operates well. Surprisingly, this “bellows” is a rigid plastic molding joined to the center truck rather than a flexible one fastened to one or both body shells. Both body shells fit over the diaphragm and in curves, the two body shells pivot around it and center truck. Setting-up the drawbar for operating on tight curves makes the two units ride further apart than when configured for wide curves. When set for O63 or greater curves, the cars are the correct 140 scale feet between the end sills. And with scale trucks installed, the set is 19’ scale feet tall, but they ride about 1/8” higher on 3-rail trucks.

The satin finish paint and precision graphics are in the finest tradition established by previous Atlas O rolling stock and locomotives – flawless. Although the Norfolk Southern markings on the evaluation Thralls were prototypically austere, they are as crisp and accurate as any I’ve seen. With today’s prototypically correct graphics reproduced in micro printing, you’ll have to breakout your stronger magnifiers to read some of them.

Last but certainly not least, the Atlas O articulated auto racks roll and track as great as they look, even on O42 curves and far-less-than-perfect road-bed. Because of their 1:48 scale size, the auto racks are at home in a train of modern cars, and especially with the tall, excess-height rolling stock that make up vehicle and intermodal trains. One of our favorite contemporary trains includes the Thrall auto racks and a dozen O scale double-stacked Thrall and Gundrson well cars, with a UP SD-60’s ditch lights highlighting the railheads. If you like modern trains, Atlas-O’s articulated auto racks are the latest in railcars, on both ” and full-scale rails—they’re magnificent.

Scale Thrall articulated bi-level auto racks; plastic bodies with diecast metal frame; diecast metal sprung trucks and couplers for 3-rail or 2-rail operation. O42 minimum 3-rail curve. Length 35” in O72 configuration; weight 4 lbs, 14 oz. Available in Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, or TTX marking. Manufacturers suggested retail price:  3-rail $114.95, 2-rail $121.95. Assembled in China for Atlas O LLC, 603 Sweetland Ave, Hillside NJ 07205; phone 908-687-9590, fax 908-687-6282; web address


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